Hudson Valley Girl

(Copyright Apatow Productions)

I recently¬†finished viewing season one of “Girls”, the lightning-rod show of the moment. Viewers, non-viewers, everyone seems to have an opinion about the brainchild of wunderkind Lena Dunham. I’m not here to discuss the show’s strengths and flaws; there’s plenty of (digital and traditional) ink addressing that topic. I’ll just say I’m a fan, and especially because of one performance: Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna.

Zosia has the smallest role of the quartet making up “Girls”, but in watching her, you recognize her. Everyone at this age has met a Shoshanna: the rapid-fire can’t-pause-for-breath chatter, regardless of discussion topic, place, or company. This girl couldn’t code-switch if she tried. Throughout the season, and with not a lot of expository background or dialogue, Mamet conveys the desperate push-pull of longing to be worldly and sophisticated against crushing naivete and sheltered privilege. The viewer sees Shoshanna’s childlike need to keep up with her circle of friends, as part of a larger process of discovering who she is (and will be). It’s a maturity-in-process performance.

Mamet is the rare performer who accurately conveys the underlying nerves that accompany the early adulthood period, when so many “firsts” are experienced. Excitement, anxiety, ambition — these are the many layers detected in Mamet’s performance. It’s not that Shoshanna is shallow, not exactly. It’s that she just hasn’t yet experienced the world — this girl hasn’t ever gotten her heart broken, lost a loved one, not been able to make rent. The audience knows this because of what Dunham has Shoshanna worry about — the unspoken hierarchy within class members at kickboxing, which “Sex and the City” characters correspond with those in her real-life immediate circle — in other words, the concerns of the blissfully young and untroubled.

I find this performance so celebratory, as well, when viewed in direct contrast to Mamet’s recurring “Mad Men” role as Joyce Ramsay, a worldly and cool lesbian who introduces Peggy to the counterculture movement of the mid-1960s. In that show, just before Mamet’s big break on “Girls”, the audience sees an actress capable of going small, with a character that’s nuanced and effortlessly confident. Joyce is as different from Shoshanna as two personalities can be — a smoky clarinet compared to a flighty piccolo. It’s a testament to Mamet that she carries off both roles with ease.

The above two scenes take place during my favorite episode of “Girls”: “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident” (Episode 7, Season One). The first shows Shoshanna sober, preoccupied with an upcoming blind date from an online matchmaking site. The second shows Shoshanna high, and on crack, no less. Dunham writes Shoshanna’s traits in even starker relief under the influence, and Mamet’s performance is crazily game. In a season of very funny and witty writing, in my opinion, this episode stands out as the best — primarily because of Mamet’s go-for-broke commitment.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

Reconstruction

(Video copyright 3 Arts Entertainment, Pig Newton Inc., FX Productions)

To be blunt, the holidays are a stressful time. I was thinking the other day that December, as a month, as a time of year, gets completely overshadowed by holiday prep. What is December without the commercial rush-rush-rush? Something completely foreign, that’s what. Does December even have a “feel”, an identity of its own, without the holidays? If it does, it’s been lost to closing that year-end sale, getting out of the red and into the black.

That’s why I dearly love the opening sequence to “Louie”‘s final episode of its third season. In just under four minutes, he takes the viewer to places of extreme frustration, and pushes the envelope in showing the extreme lengths a parent will go to in order to create his kid’s happy Christmas memory. The fact that the parent won’t even get the credit for this undertaking is an unspoken, additional grievance — despite all of Louie’s efforts, at this Christmas, it’ll be Santa who gets the glory. So many Hollywood productions would present the frustration in a more genteel way, replete with a final thought that addressed a moral lesson or saccharine sentimentality: If the traditional script conventions are to be believed, despite the Herculean feats, despite all the aggravation along the way, the appreciative kid will make the whole ordeal worthwhile.

Not so with Louie. Look at his face at the 10-second mark, and again at the close of the clip. His kid loves the doll he’s deconstructed and restored, but at this point, it hardly matters. He’s exhausted. The commercial holiday has chewed him up and spat him out. He’s done the role required of him, as a father, as a consumer. He’s got nothing left. He can barely muster up a smile.

Also, may I say that I truly love the deranged humor in this scene. Once in awhile a performer puts himself out there, going to a dark place and then taking the viewer even further into the shadows. The fact that the audience laughs while Louie takes them there–and through the twists and turns of an otherwise seemingly mundane sequence of trying to save a broken gift–is a testament to CK’s brilliant writing and fearless comedic performance.

CK’s creative control over his show has been well documented, and I couldn’t help but think that this arrangement is the only reason this scene saw the light of day. I can’t imagine a producer or third-party manager giving the OK to this episode. Christmas and negativity? Innocent dolls and handsaws and power drills? Sacrilege! So while the performance in itself deserves kudos, I also want to call out CK’s foresight in demanding artistic control for his work, for this episode in particular. More than most, this episode comes across as a singular vision, of a testament to what an artist willing to take a risk can do. In just witnessing the seamlessness of this sequence, and in laughing at its flawless presentation, the audience knows Louie’s risk has paid off.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

Ode to Joy

(Video copyright Grub Street Productions, Paramount Network Television)

The trope of mistaken identity (and ensuing miscommunications) is a go-to for sitcom writers, easily played for laughs by appealing to the audience’s egos. The audience, always one step ahead of the actors, is always aware of the true identity (and what’s at stake), while the characters get clued in to the joke one by one. If it works, hilarity should ensue. If it doesn’t, the entire episode can come across as stale.

The “Frasier” episode above (season 2, episode 3) works, and primarily because of the terrific ensemble. Among the cast, though, one performer stands out: John Mahoney as Martin Crane. The setup: Frasier has invited his new boss, Tom, over to dinner as a potential suitor for Daphne, his father’s live-in physical therapist/housekeeper. Tom, as it turns out, is gay, and thinks he’s there on a date with Frasier. No one at the get-together knows this until Tom clues in Niles, Frasier’s brother, and thus the miscommunications get set straight (pun fully intended).

I have such affection for this episode, and it’s primarily because of Mahoney. The character of Martin has always been written as the average Joe in this ensemble — a working-class blue-collar retiree contrasted against his silver spoon sons, a beer-swilling guy-next-door among port-sipping prima donnas. The character could have been played as irascible, grumpy, mean-spirited — more than a few of his lines over the show’s run could have been delivered with a harsher tone, a gruffer interpretation. Mahoney, though, makes Martin not just likeable, but loveable — a grin always threatens to overtake his face, a bemused “can you believe these guys” gleam is ever-present in his eyes. His line delivery is often just a breath away from good-natured laughter. Despite Martin’s nature, he enjoys his sons, the push-and-pull dynamic of their opposite personalities, forced to coexist. And when Mahoney gets to put Martin’s true nature on display, it’s nearly always jubilant.

Mahoney was nominated for an Emmy just twice for his work on “Frasier”, and both times went home empty handed. While the Emmys are regularly bemoaned for getting it wrong, this oversight (and lack of subsequent nominations) seems particularly egregious. (Out of 11 seasons, the awards committee couldn’t find one year Mahoney deserved to win?!?)

But I digress. If you have time, watch the whole excerpt of the episode to see Mahoney’s glee build and build. If you don’t have 20+ minutes to spare, start the clock at the 15:30 mark and wrap up at 17:00. Mahoney’s burst of laughter is undeniably contagious, and the camera’s perspective of outside-looking-in makes the viewer want to run in and join him. I dare you to watch that scene and keep a straight face.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

All the Rage

(Video copyright Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions, Warner Bros. Television)

For my money, no one does yuppie urban angst for laughs better than David Schwimmer. And he does it particularly well in the the post-Thanksgiving episode of “Friends”, “The One With Ross’s Sandwich” (season 5, episode 9).

A recurring thread of this season was Ross’s rage problem, a cumulative result of the character’s ongoing romantic and professional frustrations. In this scene, the switch gets flipped, and out comes the anger. The (seemingly minor) catalyst? A colleague at the office has eaten Ross’s lunch, a sandwich (made from Thanksgiving leftovers) he had been looking forward to eating all morning.

I love how Schwimmer accents the word “my” throughout this scene, how his colleague’s seemingly innocuous mistake takes on the full weight of the personal. We’ve all been there, just trying to slog through the work day, the little thing we’re anticipating (be it a sandwich, a cookie, a cup of coffee) the one bright spot in a otherwise dull day, or the one moment of relief and indulgence in an otherwise stressful day. That sandwich represents a moment of individuality in a city where you’re one among millions, in a corporation where you’re one among hundreds. That 3 p.m. snack–a handful of M&Ms, perhaps–evokes the many afternoons, so many years ago, when school let out and that sweet taste signified that the rest of the day was blissfully yours. Discovering the vending machine is out of M&Ms, or that a coworker has emptied the candy jar, is akin to waking from a pleasant dream, one that promised to rejuvenate and fuel the coming day, and instead finding yourself jolted, frazzled, and grumpy.

Which is why Schwimmer’s outburst is so hilariously relatable. We’re all just trying to keep it together, day in and day out, and most of us never get to have our own individual meltdown. We have jobs to keep, bills to pay, responsibilities to uphold, and so we bottle up our reactions. But for a moment, Schwimmer lets us live vicariously through Ross, and goes for the primal yell. His release–and our corresponding belly laugh–may be as effective, and therapeutic, as if we were able to react so honestly. The performer evokes our own authentic reaction–however inappropriate and juvenile, however over-the-top–and we laugh as we recognize ourselves.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.