Tag Archives: comedy

Comic Release: D.C. Comedy Scene is Gaining Steam, But Can it Rival NYC And L.A.?


The basement of the Big Hunt is nicknamed Hell’s Kitchen, thanks to its devilish decor, claustrophobic ambience, and red-light glow. The name was especially fitting on a recent Friday night.

A capacity crowd was there for an alt-comedy show, but the mood was tense, as if the people assembled didn’t sign up for an evening of absurd, surreal, and awkward bits about parental sex and nuclear winter. For some, it was comedy nirvana; for others, comedy hell.

“It felt like a lot of first dates were going bad in there,” says comedian Jamel Johnson, who performed that night. “Generally there are two kinds of audience member: one that wants to laugh and another that challenges you to make them laugh. You see the latter more often at local shows. Fools just act different when they’ve never heard of you.”

The audience might not have heard of Johnson before, but that will probably change soon. The six-year veteran is on his way to Los Angeles, where he’ll be one of a number of growing fish who have fled the District’s small-pond comedy scene for better opportunities in L.A. or New York.
For decades, the District has been a proving ground for comics on their way to bigger and better things. Mike Birbiglia, Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Patton Oswalt, Rory Scovel, and Wanda Sykes are just a few of the comedians who have started their careers here. In recent years, rising talents Aparna Nancherla, Seaton Smith, and Brandon Wardell have followed.

That tradition was the focus of the 202 Comedy Festival, held in April. “We wanted to have a festival to celebrate all the great comics who have developed in D.C. over the years and to get everyone back in one place,” says Sean Joyce, the comedian and promoter who co-produced the festival, which featured more than 100 comics across 18 shows on four days of programming.

But while the festival had a decidedly local bent—about three-quarters of the festival’s talent was based in the D.C. area—its opening and closing shows were headlined by some of D.C.’s most successful recent exports. That comics have to leave D.C. before they become a headliner at a local festival says something about the state of comedy in the District, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the local scene.

The 202 Comedy Festival was the culmination of Joyce’s groundwork: Under his Underground Comedy banner, he produces stand-up shows every night of the week and has built a new infrastructure for D.C. comedy. With shows held primarily at the Big Hunt and Bier Baron, his mini-empire provides local comics with much-needed stage time at places besides the D.C. area’s establishment comedy venues (the D.C. Improv and Arlington Drafthouse).

“Thanks to Sean Joyce, there’s this whole level of comics that can get up every single night and really try to do unique and interesting stuff,” says Brandon Wetherbee, the host of the You, Me, Them, Everybody podcast and managing editor of Brightest Young Things.

Nancherla left D.C. for L.A. in 2010, and recently returned to headline 202’s closing show. The District’s comedy landscape now looks different from when she left it, she says, but the spirit remains the same. The McLean native, who has written for Late Night with Seth Meyers and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, says that D.C.’s DIY attitude is what makes its comedy scene great. “Whoever is active in the scene helps structure which shows are going on,” she says. “A lot of the stage time would be people putting on their own shows.” But eventually, playing the same circuit felt “stagnant,” and Nancherla felt the itch to move.

“When I started here, there were a lot of people that I felt were upperclassmen to look up to,” she says, “but when you feel like you’re the upperclassman, then it’s time to leave.”

Johnson is the next D.C. “upperclassman” whose time has come. He has earned a reputation as one of the best comics in D.C., whether by himself or as part of his “avant-garde musical comedy band and variety show” Romane & Lettuce.

“Jamel Johnson is the funniest stand-up comic in Washington, D.C., in terms of consistency and quality output,” says Wetherbee. “Even when he’s performing stuff I’ve seen a dozen times, I still enjoy watching him.” He adds that Johnson’s intangibles—his ability to read a crowd and play any type of room—have made him the “litmus test” for D.C. comics.

Johnson, a 28-year-old Woodbridge native, works relentlessly, performing at eight or nine shows a week. Not only was he on four bills during the festival, but Johnson was coming off a major week: He opened for Louis C.K. at the Lincoln Theatre and was part of a show Kevin Hart filmed in D.C.—a new Comedy Central stand-up showcase called Hart of the City.

“The Kevin Hart thing was very unexpected,” Johnson says. As part of the show, he filmed both a stand-up set at the Big Hunt and a conversation with Hart at Ben’s Chili Bowl. “I didn’t get a lot of one-on-one time with the man, but he was very chill and definitely about his paper.” (That’s an understatement: In 2015, Forbes calculated Hart’s one-year earnings at $28.5 million.)

The bookings were the most recent in a string of shows that have put Johnson on the path to L.A. He started performing there back in 2014, an experience he compares to “seven people talking about what award show they wrote for, and your boy.” But despite his outsider status, he was able to get on shows like The Meltdown, the popular stand-up showcase hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray that has spawned a Comedy Central show of the same name. After gigs like that, Johnson knew a change in location would soon be in the cards.

“When I went to L.A. and had success getting on shows, I was like, ‘fuck, I’m gonna do this here now,’” he says. “It wasn’t because of the ceiling [in D.C.]—the reason was because the money aspect. I feel like six months in L.A., if you’re really grinding, who knows.”

Johnson says he has “no goal and no plans,” but has “never been this busy before in [his] life.” And while the move will mean leaving his hometown, he seems excited for a new set of challenges in a place that appreciates the novelty of a “new guy” on the scene.

Even as D.C. prepares to graduate one of its best, the city has no shortage of underclassmen ready to fill the void. A handful of “the city’s brightest 20’s-ish comedians” were the focus of It’s Lit, a show hosted by Shelley Kim (she originally wanted to call the show Fuckboys and Poets, but decided to go with the more marketable name). The 23-year-old started doing comedy during college, and even though she’s not seasoned enough to make a move yet, Kim sees one in her future. “I think it’s possible to have a comedy career outside of L.A. or New York, but those cities just have more opportunities to do comedy full-time.”

Apparently, no matter how long you’ve been a comic in D.C., the twin sirens of the coastal capitals are irresistible. But that doesn’t mean D.C. must suffer as a second-class comedy city. In fact, the District’s status as a feeder system for the big leagues keeps the scene from stagnating, offers audiences a wide variety of styles, and lets comics find their voices away from the eyes and ears of industry professionals.

Plus, there are more opportunities to perform and watch comedy in D.C. than in recent years. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s, if there was one open-mic location a night, that was a lot,” says D.C. Improv owner and manager Allyson Jaffe, who has seen the D.C. scene grow during her nearly two decades at the Improv. “Now there are multiple places running open mics every night of the week.” The club is still the preeminent venue in D.C. for national headliners, many of whom now bring their own opening acts. That’s led Jaffe and her team to get creative with their programming, booking local comics for weekend showcases in the lounge and mid-week shows in the main room.

Bars like Wonderland Ballroom feature long-running shows, theaters like the Howard and Lincoln nab marquee names, and venues like the Black Cat and 9:30 Club are booking more comedy shows than ever. In April, Arlington Drafthouse opened a downtown D.C. location modeled after the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. And while the 202 Comedy Festival offered a hyper-local approach to booking, Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball has given national comics a reason to visit every fall, with about a score of slots reserved for local comics each year.

“People don’t necessarily think about D.C. as a comedy town, but the audiences are really smart, passionate about the world, and well-informed, and they make for good comedy audiences,” says Nancherla. “The scene has been active in various forms for so long that it just sustains itself in different iterations.”

Many of those generations were on display across the 202 Comedy Festival’s four days, often in the same show. Johnson opened for D.C. success stories like Nancherla and Smith at the Black Cat, and relative newcomers like Kim opened for new successes like Wardell in the Big Hunt basement. It was a winning formula, with several shows selling out and packed houses every night of the festival.

“It was more than we could have asked for,” Joyce writes. “We would be crazy not to have another festival next year.” And if history is any guide, some of the names will be familiar—even if they had to leave D.C. to get that way.

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

How two midseason replacements portray female friendship

Ah, midseason. That not-quite-magical time in a TV network’s year when shows passed over in the fall get jammed and squeezed into the schedule like so many square pegs. As is often the case, The Simpsons — itself a midseason replacement due to production issues — said it best:

Announcer: The start of television’s second most exciting season – midseason – is just two hundred exciting seconds away!
Lisa: Isn’t midseason just a dumping ground for second-rate shows that weren’t good enough for the fall schedule?
Homer: You’re thinking of all the other years.

This month, NBC and ABC will debut two sitcoms that continue TV’s Year of the Woman: Best Friends Forever and the regrettably redacted Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. While the two shows have different comedic voices, they also have drastically different views on the concept of female friendship.

Best Friends Forever is the brainchild of real-life BFF’s Lennon Parham
and Jessica St. Clair, who along with writing the show, play fictional versions of themselves. The show’s inciting incident occurs as Jessica unexpectedly receives divorce papers. Distraught and unable to deal, she decides to move back to New York to live with her old roommate, Lennon. Complicating matters is Lennon’s live-in boyfriend, Joe (Luka Jones), who while generally supportive, isn’t looking forward to having a squatter in their apartment.

Jessica, meanwhile, is immature and miserable to be around in a way usually reserved for guys in sitcoms (does that count as breaking a gender barrier?). For most of the episode, Jessica is a self-centered pain in the ass, a grenade thrown into Lennon and Joe’s relationship – which seemed to be working pretty well. Plans are broken, tears are shed, but fear not – everyone ends up in a group hug. The needy co-dependence on display is like a more unhealthy version of the threesome on Up All Night.

While the characters in Best Friends Forever start that way, the title of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 portends differently. Wide-eyed and right off the bus, June (Dreama Walker) can’t wait to start her new job and live in her company-owned apartment with a view. Unfortunately, her firm implodes on her first day, leaving her both jobless and homeless. Her roommate search yields Chloe (Krysten Ritter), who is literally too good to be true. The titular bitch, Chloe cons new New Yorkers into first, last and deposit before her antics (rudeness, public nudity, fourways in the living room, theft, etc.) drive them from the apartment.

June’s Indiana farm girl personality belies the fact that she’s an equally smooth operator. When she figures out Chloe’s MO, she turns the table on her, earning her respect and a détente. But it’s only after Chloe exposes June’s fiance as a cheater does a friendship actually take root.

An earlier conversation between Chloe and best friend James Van Der Beek (hysterically playing himself) revealed some humanity beneath the horror, even if the show plays the moment ironically:

James: Do you think maybe this is why you don’t have any female friends?
Chloe: Whatever, I don’t want any, girls are too mean.

By the end of the pilot, June is a barista (with a slightly-sociopathic roommate and without a fiance), Chloe has a female friend, and they both seem fine. Created by American Dad writer Nahnatchka Khan, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 is not only funnier and sharper than Best Friends Forever, but it also presents a healthier, more relatable portrait of friendship. Trust me.

"Cougar Town" deserves a better title – and your time

First things first: Cougar Town doesn’t have anything to do with cougars, those mid-forties pursuers of younger men who dominated the mid-aughts. Granted, that’s how things started. As Bill Lawrence recalled on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF, the idea of a sitcom about Courteney Cox chasing young guys was an in-jest-pitch about what gets TV networks salivating. At some point, the joke became an actual pitch, and Bill Lawrence, the showrunner behind Spin City and Scrubs, had a new show on ABC. The show went according to plan for the first few episodes, but it wasn’t a good fit for anyone involved. Unfortunately, Cougar Town had been heavily promoted as such, and the show was stuck with the name, a flashy title that Lawrence calls his “giant mistake.”

A more fitting title? The pilot came pretty close with a joke about “Wine and Scrabble without the Scrabble.” Once it dropped the clichés, Cougar Town became a show about a group of roughly middle aged friends who hang out, drink wine, play games, and pass the time. There’s something refreshing about the simplicity of a show about friends that has moved past a contrived premise to offer a realistic – if zany and comical – look at every day life. In that way, it’s reminiscent of network-mate Happy Endings; Cougar Town is the Happy Endings crew after a few more years and a move to the suburbs.

The Cul-de-sac Gang, like most friends, is brought together by proximity and history. Jules (Cox) is a real estate agent and the gang’s “leader.” She is overprotective of son Travis (Dan Byrd), with whom she shares an unhealthily close relationship, reminiscent of the mother-daughter combo of Gilmore Girls. Both Jules and Travis are on good terms with her ex / his dad Bobby (Brian Van Holt), a semi-retired golf pro who lives on a house boat, as in a boat he has docked in a parking lot. Jules’ best friend is Ellie, played by Lawrence’s wife Christa Miller, who basically reprises her role from Scrubs. Ellie is mismatched with husband Andy (TV veteran Ian Gomez). The gang is rounded out with Jules’ beau Grayson (Josh Hopkins) and wacky, white trash friend Laurie (Freaks and GeeksBusy Philipps).

The comedy of Cougar Town is equal parts off-beat and off-color, like latter year Scrubs. And while there aren’t as many dream sequences, there’s the same kind of “Everyone Learns a Lesson” story dynamics. It’s easy to jump into, if the title has kept you away until now. At the start of the third season, all you need to know is that Travis is returning home after running off to Hawaii due to a failed marriage proposal and Jules is finally on the same page with Grayson about another marriage and more kids (they want both). Plus, all the episodes are named after Tom Petty songs, and the show has traded cameos with Community. With the promo clip for tonight’s episode, it looks like the cast and crew of Cougar Town have finally come to terms with the title (and their precarious place on ABC, considering this season’s delayed start). You should, too.

Cougar Town airs on Tuesdays at 9 on ABC.

What's next for "Community?"

If Seinfeld was the show about nothing, Community is the show about sitcoms. Since its first episode, it has been a meta commentary on the very concept of “meta.” It deconstructs the tropes that decades of television have established, and it does it with a fantastic ensemble cast and some of the funniest writing on TV. Community challenges the audience’s expectations about what a sitcom is and can be.

Unfortunately, audiences don’t want to be challenged, at least not by sitcoms (premium cable dramas are a different story). Community is in rarefied air; the show closest to its intellectual exercise is 30 Rock. Before that, there was Arrested Development, and we all know how that turned out.

With this in mind, the news of Community’s absence from NBC’s midseason schedule should not surprise anyone. Even as the show has gotten better, moving further down the rabbit hole and certifying show creator Dan Harmon as an evil genius, ratings have declined. It averaged 5 million viewers in the first season, down to 4.48 million the next, and finally 3.68 million this season. Those are extremely low numbers, even for NBC, the fourth place network. Ironically, NBC’s across-the-board struggles may be keeping the show alive.

This year, the Thursday night comedy block has consisted of The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, and the incongruous throwback Whitney. With 30 Rock’s midseason return and Up All Night’s promotion from Wednesday to Thursday, NBC was left with six shows for four slots. The network continues to stand by its heavily promoted Whitney, shifting it to Wednesday with the similarly-schlocky Are You There, Chelsea? leaving Community as the obvious choice for the bench.

NBC could have avoided this, if they had stuck with an old idea instead of scrambling for something new. At midseason last year, NBC tried a three-hour comedy bloc, featuring Community, Perfect Couples, The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Outsourced. The experiment failed because Perfect Couples and Outsourced were weak offerings, but Up All Night and (the already cancelled) Free Agents would have been perfect fits for a three-hour powerhouse of comedy. Instead, we’re left with this. C’est la TV.

As of now, Community hasn’t been cancelled, and production hasn’t stopped (as it has for fellow benchwarmer Prime Suspect). So is there any hope? Some, thanks to the financial windfall that is syndication. Traditionally, shows needed to cross the 100 episode barrier before being sold to syndicators; these days, 88 episodes will do the trick. Community is about a season and a half away from making Sony Pictures Television a lot of cash, giving the production company an incentive to lower its price for NBC (possibly by cutting production and cast costs).

Could NBC decide to ax Community, only to see it show up on Netflix or Hulu? Community is an established property, but clearly without the audience share that its fervent fan base would suggest. Netflix seems like a better fit, if only because of their willingness to spend and their desire to bring Reno 911 back from the dead. To this point, however, streaming revivals have all been hypothetical, and don’t count on Community to break that trend.

Six seasons and a movie seems unlikely at this point, but fans should find solace in the fact that Community made it this far. Challenging audiences isn’t easy, yet Harmon and company continue to raise the stakes, week after week. And if cancellation is imminent, just imagine how meta things will get. If the final season of Arrested Development is any indication, impending doom is a great motivator for television excellence.

Update: With this weekend’s news that Netflix will bring back Arrested Development, the chances of Community joining the video giant certainly uptick – contingent on how well the experiment does.

Originally posted at The Couch Sessions.

Decoding NTSF:SD:SUV

The title of Adult Swim’s newest comedy, NTSF:SD:SUV, makes the target of its satire plainly obvious: the high-octane crime procedural. With its shakey-cam action sequences, melodramatic dialogue, and cash-in/spin-off model of programming, the genre is rife for parody. Appropriately, NTSF began as a fake promo on its Adult Swim neighbor, the hospital-drama parody Childrens Hospital. Like Childrens, it’s creator-lead actor (Paul Scheer) has surrounded himself with a hilarious cast. Here’s a breakdown of the NTSF team.

Character: Trent Hauser, lead agent
A combination of: The no-holds-barred techniques of 24‘s Jack Bauer and the snappy one-liners of CSI: Miami‘s Horatio Cane
Played by: Paul Scheer
Seen before as: Douchebag, MD Andre on The League, one third of sketch troupe Human Giant.

Character: Kove, head of NTSF
Inspiration: Nick Fury’s eye patch
Played by: Kate Mulgrew
Seen before as: Kathryn Janeway, captain of the USS:Voyager on the mediocre Star Trek series of the same name

Character: Jessie Nichols, lab tech
Trope parodied: The “ugly” girl who just needs to lose the glasses
Played by: Rebecca Romijn
Seen before as: Mystique in the X-Men films, Alexis Meade on Ugly Betty

Character: Alphonse, Trent’s partner
One-line bio: Field agent with an irrational fear of science
Played by: Brandon Johnson
Seen before as: Background characters in your favorite comedies

Character: Piper, Trent’s other partner
Major malfunction: Trigger-happy with something to prove
Played by: June Diane Raphael
Also known as: Scheer’s life partner and Casey Wilson’s (Happy Endings) comedy partner.

Character: Sam, head of communications
Not to be confused with: S.A.M., his robotic nemesis
Played by: Martin Starr
Cult TV roles: The lovable Bill Haverchuck on Freaks and Geeks and the loathable Roman on Party Down

While that covers the NTSF crew, the cast doesn’t stop there. Guest stars include, among others, Adam Scott, Jerry O’Connell, JK Simmons, Rob Riggle, John Cho, and even the bad guy from The Karate Kid.

“If you’re a terrorist planning on attacking San Diego, you better think again… twice.” NTSF:SD:SUV airs Thursdays at 12:15am on Adult Swim.

My latest obsession: WTF with Marc Maron

I will admit, I’m a bit late to the podcast game; it’s probably a by-product of my old anti-Mac attitude. For what it’s worth, I now work on an iMac, write on a MacBook Pro, and play with an iPod Nano and an iPad. With my new found fondness for the Jobs product line comes an appreciation of a medium made possible by it: the podcast, and chiefly WTF with Marc Maron.

Unless you’re a comedy devotee or Air America’s only fan, you probably don’t know who Marc Maron is. The 47-year old came up in the alternative comedy world, first as a doorman at the famed Comedy Store before a stint as a member of Sam Kinison’s cocaine-fueled crew. He later shared stages (and apartments) with comedians like David Cross, Dave Attell, Louis C.K., and Sarah Silverman (pictured below with the latter three in a 1995 New York Magazine feature about a comedy Renaissance). But while his contemporaries received TV shows, headlining tours and film specials, Maron got… angrier, battling drug and alcohol abuse until getting sober at the end of the 90s.

In 2004, Maron joined the progressive radio station Air America, the Little Station That Could. After two stints (and as many firings) as a political pundit, Maron started WTF, surreptitiously recording the first few in the Air America studios. Ditching his political diatribes, he focused inward, ranting about his disappointments, from his two failed marriages to his bitterness about the success of his friends (and ex-friends). The title, and theme of the show, attempts to answer that everlasting question: “What the fuck?” – in all forms – from “righteous indignation” to “why not live a little?”

Every Monday and Thursday, from the comfort of his home in Highland Park, CA (aka “the cat ranch”), Maron publishes WTF. The show mixes a monologue and interviews, all with Maron’s vitriolic, self-obsessed-yet-self-loathing style. His subjects are comedians, writers and like-minded performers. He usually has a checkered past with the ones he knows, mostly due to his aforementioned anger and bitterness, leading interviews to take the form of public group therapy; “Are we okay?” becomes a frequent rejoinder. But through it all comes honest portrayals of comedians as complex, often damaged people. For true fans of comedy, WTF has become required listening.

Maron has done 185 episodes of WTF, so where is a newcomer to begin? Here are a few of the better podcasts available for free, as well as notes on a couple that are behind a very affordable pay wall ($9 a year).

Free For All

Henry Rollins (143) – Rollins’ evolution from punk standard-bearer to spoken word artist is one of the most interesting journeys in pop culture. Rollins speaks with Marc about the murder of Joe Cole and working with Charles Manson.

Dave Foley (146) – From Kids in the Hall to Newsradio, Dave Foley was at the center of TV comedy in the 90s. Wonder how he ended up hosting poker games on basic cable? Foley delves deep into his divorce and its life-altering aftereffects.

Michael Showalter (162) – After two decades on TV, as a member of The State and Stella, Michael Showalter is taking a break from the LA game and teaching at NYU’s Graduate Film School. The Brown University grad and Maron have the funniest conversation about semiotics you will ever hear.

Garry Shandling (177) – Another recent obsession of mine is the ahead-of-its-time The Larry Sanders Show. Shandling is a charming subject, whose self-deprecation is only matched by Maron’s.

Gallagher (145) – Yes, that Gallagher. The watermelon smasher has recently revealed a homophobic, racist streak which Maron aims right at – causing the first walk-out on WTF. So fuck Gallagher.

Worth the Money

Louis C.K. (111, 112) – Former best friends, Maron and CK get to the bottom of their falling-out and find a way forward. It is a shockingly personal and honest interview, as funny (Maron wonders why Louis named his show “Fuck you, Marc Maron”) as it is heartbreaking (Louis chokes up describing the birth of his daughter). For fans of either it’s worth the cost of admission.

Robin Williams (67) – The legend sits down with Maron for a very un-Williams hour: Williams avoids the pre-written jokes and the frenetic need to please that he usually displays in interviews. His honesty about everything from life and death to accusations of plagiarism is a breath of fresh air.

Carlos Mencia, et al (75, 76) – After a favorable interview wherein Maron doesn’t challenge Mencia’s self-serving push back about joke thievery, he speaks with former friends and brings Mencia back to get the record straight. The pair of interviews paints a portrait of a deeply disturbed man.

Zach Galifianakis (20) – Fresh off The Hangover, Zach talks with Maron on the set of Due Date. Probably one of the last interviews where Galifiankis pulls back the curtain as he did in The Comedians of Comedy.

Judd Apatow (103, 104) – Maron does a two-parter with the architect of the last decade’s comedy landscape. Clips of a teenaged Apatow interviewing Jerry Seinfeld are a great find.

First thoughts: "Jon Benjamin Has a Van"

Comedian Jon Benjamin is the voice behind such classic characters as Coach McGuirk on Home Movies and Ben on Dr. Katz. Currently, he’s pulling double-duty as the titular characters on Archer and Bob’s Burgers. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s now starring as a fictional version of himself on Comedy Central’s Jon Benjamin Has a Van.

Jon Benjamin Has a Van (airing Wednesdays at 10:30) lampoons news magazines with a combination of sketch comedy and real-life pranks. Tearing down news mags has been done before, no doubt; for most of its history, The Daily Show featured such parodies, but none were anchored by a deadpan as vicious as Jon Benjamin’s. And none had a news van as creepy, either.

In the first two episodes, Jon’s interview subjects have been riffs on the “heroes” usually featured in such programs. In one, sketch comedy veteran Jay Johnston (Mr. Show, The Sarah Silverman Program) played a reporter who bravely interviewed a man disfigured by a grain thresher. In another, Jon’s contempt for a man wounded in basic training, played by Delocated‘s Jon Glaser, is plainly visible: “That helicopter sound must not remind you of war, ’cause you were never there.”

Jon Benjamin Has a Van Weds 10:30/9:30c
Injured Veteran
Comedy Central TV Shows Comedy Videos

The centerpiece of each episode is a long-form or recurring sketch, whether crossing the border with UCB alum Matt Walsh or investigating a battle between Little Italy and Little Little Italy (think Lilliputians). In the latter, Jon gets caught in a mafia war and romances the tiny boss’s daughter. A fun genre parody, but the image of Jon Benjamin writhing in ecstasy is now burned into my brain.

Nino: …I trusted you with my little girl… and you slept with her!
Jon: With all due respect, sir, she’s a full grown woman. She can make her own decisions.
Nino: She’s 15, you sick fuck!
Jon: What?… I couldn’t tell, the scale was off, she’s so small.

The pranks find Jon in the role of the man-on-the-street talent, ad-libbing with the same acerbic wit of his written material. Asking real people for their opinion of gay marriage at inopportune times is funnier than it should be; even when the bit falls apart, like when a man in a movie theater actually engages him, it’s still effective. A highlight of the pranks is a parody of Cash Cab called Cash Stall that nearly gets his ass kicked.

Jon Benjamin Has a Van Weds 10:30/9:30c
Cash Stall
Comedy Central TV Shows Comedy Videos

Not everything works. “You Can’t Shoot Here!” is a one-gag bit, and ridiculing how the elderly use the Internet is too easy. So far, there have been as many gun battles as there have been episodes; the violent conclusions will either become redundant or one of the show’s trademarks, it’s still too early to tell. But with a talent like Jon Benjamin at the helm, the show hits more than it misses. Here’s hoping Comedy Central doesn’t take his keys away any time soon.

Catching up on "Delocated"

I’m not sure how Delocated flew below my radar for so long. Like Childrens Hospital, it is a live-action series with comedy veterans at its core: Delocated stars writer-creator Jon Glaser, who has written for Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Human Giant, among others. But instead of parodying the medical show genre like Childrens Hospital, Delocated takes the reality show to its logical – and extreme – conclusion.

Delocated is a mock-reality series that revolves around “Jon” (Glaser) and his family, who entered the Witness Protection Program after Jon testified against a Russian crime family. With the aid of ski masks and voice modulators, Jon and his family try to start over in New York City, but things quickly go awry. Their no-frills studio apartment is far from the luxury loft promised by network executives. “Why else would I put my family on camera and risk them being murdered if I wasn’t in a sweet loft? That’s what makes it worth it!” Jon asks, exasperated. With this revelation, Jon’s wife Susan takes their son David to a hotel; soon, the two remove their ski masks and their modulators (the latter, surgically). Jon is left to carry the reality show, his exploits and adventures its sole focus.

Jon is brash, irritating, and self-obsessed: the perfect reality TV star. After separating from Susan, his relationship with her and David is rocky, at best. He melts down at David’s ska-themed Bar Mitzvah and on the set of the TV movie based on their lives (Susan sold the rights). With his family mostly out of the picture, Jon is free to pursue fame and fortune with a series of half-baked ideas, which are typically disposed after each episode, never to be mentioned again. One of these is the Rage Cage, a business that specializes in relaxation through destruction. He meets Kim at the Cage, who soon becomes his girlfriend and the target of his emotional abuse.

Jon might have a new girlfriend and a series of gigs, but the Russian mob is still trying to kill him. Tasked with the assassination is Yvgeny Mirminsky (played by Eugene Mirman), son of the boss and Yakov Smirnoff-esque comedian. Yvgeny is hapless at both, whether accidentally killing Paul Rudd or delivering yet another vodka-based punchline; hanging out with Todd Barry (playing himself) doesn’t seem to help with either. It’s only when Yvgeny’s sociopathic brother Sergei takes over that things get serious: like a lion picking off the weak from the herd, Sergei starts to torture and murder everyone close to Jon.

While Delocated is a parody of the genre, its also a larger satire of the television industry. Jon’s contact at the network, Mighty Joe Jon the Black Blonde (the hilarious Jerry Minor), has also given a reality show to the Mirminsky clan. Mighty Joe Jon: the Black Blonde – always referred to by his whole moniker – is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the fight for ratings.

The comedy of Delocated is served dark and dry. Jon’s lack of self awareness is played for laughs at every turn, even as he literally loses everything and everyone around him. After two seasons and nineteen episodes, the show was renewed for a third season which is filming now. The first two seasons will be released on DVD this fall, so for now, catch a few episodes over at Adult Swim.

Network upfronts: Comedy edition

It’s upfront season, when each TV network presents a grand vision for their fall schedule. New shows are hyped up and old shows are given the boot, all with masturbatory excitement: “this is our year!” What used to be an insider, industry-only process is now – like everything – subject to the Internet’s buzz cycle.

As someone who consumes TV exclusively time-shifted, upfronts are a reminder that things like time slots are still the bread-and-butter issues of the industry. A strong lead-in or a well constructed block of programming can make or break a show. With that in mind, what new shows do the networks have in store, and which look worthwhile? Let’s take a look at new comedies.

NBC: Buzzworthy picks and the Year of the Woman

The hype for Up All Night looks to be well-deserved. Starring Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph, and created by writer Emily Spivey (SNL, Parks & Recreation), the parenthood-workplace hybrid has the pedigree of a comedy hit. One red flag is NBC’s decision to have it start off Wednesday nights instead of slotting it into the Thursday night block, with similarly-minded sitcoms.

Paired with Up All Night is Free Agents, an adaptation of a British series of the same name. The brilliant Hank Azaria returns to TV (after the short-lived Huff) as Alex, a PR exec coming out of a messy divorce and simultaneously carrying on a complicated relationship with co-worker Helen (Kathryn Hahn). Anthony Head (of Buffy fame) reprises his role from the UK version as Alex’s sex-crazed boss. Supporting are Joe Lo Truglio, Natasha Leggero and Al Madrigal, all veterans of underground comedy. Free Agents is being written by John Enborn (Party Down, Veronica Mars) and original series creator Chris Neil.

Building on the success of female-driven comedies like 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, NBC returns to the well with several shows created, written, and starring women. First, the Peacock is getting back in on the multi-camera game: unfortunately, both Whitney (the vehicle for fast-rising comedian Whitney Cummings) and Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea (the adaptation of Chelsea Handler’s book of the same unwieldy name) look pretty staid, especially since both Cummings and Handler will need to tone down their comedic stylings considerably for network TV. Whitney will have the advantage of taking the coveted post-Office time slot.

Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair co-created and co-star in Best Friends Forever, a single camera relationship comedy, and while the clips didn’t catch me, the show could be a sleeper. BFF could play out like new favorite Happy Endings; coincidentally, Happy Endings‘ Adam Palley appears in the BFF pilot but will be recast, due to the former’s renewal. Rounding out the line-up is Bent, starring Amanda Peet, with a limited premise that is more suited to film: high-strung lawyer meets slacker contractor, love/hate relationship ensues. At least the cast includes Jeffrey Tambor. Vodka, BFF and Bent are being held until mid-season.

ABC: Men behaving badly (mostly)

Most of the premises for ABC’s new comedies are groan-inducing takes on modern masculinity. Tim Allen returns to TV in Last Man Standing, under siege from his wife and daughter. The succinctly-titled ensemble comedy Man Up features married men who only wear the pants in their online game worlds. Worst of all is the men-in-drag (!) sitcom Work It. ABC skips the subtlety in their naked appeals to the lucrative “manly man” demographic, so feel free to skip these.

The only shows with promise on ABC are Suburgatory and Apartment 23. Suburgatory works well-worn territory – the suburbs suck! – but Jeremy Sisto and Cheryl Hines are talented comedic actors. Apartment 23 (formerly Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23) was created by Nahnatchka Khan (American Dad) and Dave Heminson (How I Met Your Mother, Just Shoot Me) and stars Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad, Veronica Mars) as a roommate from Hell. Similar to Episodes, the show features James Van Der Beek as a fictionalized version of himself, but also like Episodes, I’m not sure how many Dawson’s Creek and Varsity Blues jokes they can manage.

FOX: It’s okay, these will be canceled soon!

Fox offers four comedies (two live action, two animated) and only one, The New Girl, shows much promise. Zooey Deschanel stars, combining her usual “manic pixie dream girl” fare with a touch of Liz Lemon and a My Boys-esque plot. Fempire member Liz Meriwether created the show, which (like BFF) will need to re-cast an actor (Damon Wayans Jr.) because of Happy Endings‘ renewal.

I doubt that the multi-camera I Hate My Teenage Daughter, uber-timely Napoleon Dynamite cartoon, or animated Jonah Hill vehicle Allen Gregory will be around next fall. If I had to choose one to succeed, I’d put my money on Allen Gregory, with Hill writing and voicing a precocious seven year old.

CBS: Procedurals pay the bills

It always surprises me that CBS is a dominant network, since I never watch it (with the exception of How I Met Your Mother). But they clearly know what 18-49 year olds want (myself excluded). CBS gave Whitney Cummings her second pilot of the year, 2 Broke Girls, which she co-created with Michael Patrick King (who wrote both Sex and the City movies, shudder). I have higher hopes for How to Be a Gentleman, written and directed by David Hornsby (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) with comedy veterans Kevin Dillon (Entourage), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24, Mr. Show) and Dave Foley (Newsradio). (CBS was the last to present, so no show previews are available to hoi polloi as of yet.)

Check back tomorrow as I examine this fall’s network dramas.

The surprisingly funny "Happy Endings"

Every year, the networks try to recapture the “magic” of Friends with a flaccid sitcom about a handful of twenty/thirty-somethings and their romantic hijinks. There have been a rash of these lately, a phenomenon reduced to chart form by Vulture. The results are, as expected, uninspiring; the shows last for a few episodes before being thrown on the trash heap, with good reason. Do you remember Romantically Challenged? Do you miss the recently-cancelled Perfect Couples? Didn’t think so.

At first glance, it’s easy to add Happy Endings to that list, with it’s mix of six zany friends and a premise right out of the Friends pilot. I almost made the same mistake, before another Vulture post persuaded me to reconsider the show.

Happy Endings opens at the wedding of Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (24‘s Elisha Cuthbert). After a not-quite-The Graduate-interruption, Alex leaves Dave at the altar, sending him into depression and their social circle into chaos.

Said social circle includes married couple Jane (the very funny Eliza Coupe, last seen as the brutish Denish on the final season of Scrubs) and Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.), painfully single Penny (SNL vet Casey Wilson) and “chubby gay guy” Max (Adam Palley). By the end of the pilot, Alex and Dave have patched things up enough to be civil, thus saving the group from going outside of their comfort zone.

In just four episodes since then, the single-camera show has established its tone and style, placing it somewhere between Cougar Town and Scrubs. Flashback jokes have been perfectly timed and not over-leveraged (a la Family Guy). Like Cougar Town, the characters live in their own world, coining phrases (“the peter out,” “chicksand”) and crafting dance routines. The dialogue is quick, and one-liners have been just dark enough to give the sunny sitcom a subversive edge. A couple of early favorites:

  • You know what sounds like more fun? Being in wet clothes and watching Schindler’s List.
  • I knew it! I’m parent heroin. They have got a Jane addiction, and it’s bad. I’m talking ‘shaking at a bus stop, willing to do downstairs stuff for a nickel bag of me’ bad.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and quirky. In a post-Glee TV world, Max is a realistic “straight dude who likes dudes” who refuses to be a stereotype. Damon Wayans, Jr. lives up to his family name and makes beta male Brad the perfect compliment to the overbearing Jane (if I had to make a Friends comparison, she’d be Monica).

At times, the plots have been very sitcom-y: Dave dates a clingy girl, Alex gets a roommate, Brad and Jane look for couple-friends. For each of those tropes, though, there has been a “Penny dates Doug Hitler” or “there’s a painter living in the attic” story. There have been sweet moments, too: Max struggles with coming out to his parents (using Jane and Alex as beards), and Brad works on his relationship with his straight-laced father (played by his namesake).

Far from a Friends rip-off, Happy Endings is definitely on to something: it has been gaining a following and ABC is doubling-up on new episodes to strike while the iron is hot. Check out a full hour of Happy Endings at 10pm on Wednesdays for the next three weeks (and catch up on Hulu).