Londonderry Air

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Derry-Girls-Ep-2-2054-1068x623In honor of the wearin’ o’ the green and all things Irish today, St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to recommend a hilarious Netflix comedy called Derry Girls. The comedy series was not on my radar until my very Irish friend Maura recommended it on Facebook. In no time at all, I had binge-watched my way through the trials and tribulations of four teenage girls and one male English cousin living in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the 1990s.

The featured teens in Derry Girls have a delightful mixture of innocence and bravado as they navigate the social scene in their Irish Catholic enclave. They don’t realize how economically disadvantaged they are until they try to sign up for a school trip to France and find out that none of them has a trust fund, and in fact they are all quite poor.

But their economic and social limitations do nothing to cramp their irrepressible style, and each episode features new shenanigans and repercussions from their parents and their school. The girls (and cousin) attend an all girls Catholic high school presided over by a scene-stealing nun, whose dry wit and jaded attitude make her the perfect foil for both troublemaker and goody two shoes alike.  When the girls fall for a dreamy young priest, Sister’s facial expressions alone are priceless.

It seems unlikely to find humor in a show about a divided country that pitted Protestants against Catholics and in which car bombings and assassinations were commonplace. Indeed, toward the end of Season 1, things take a darker turn and only deepen the viewer’s appreciation for the life-affirming and youthful spirit of these young people.

So grab a pint of Guinness, put your feet up, and enjoy an episode or three of the fabulous Derry Girls. Your Irish eyes won’t be the only things smiling!

 

The Nature of Comedy

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2000px-Emojione_1F602.svgI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes something funny. In a previous post, I extolled the comic genius of John Mulaney, a stand-up comic and former writer at Saturday Night Live, whose shows have had me in stitches. But when I shared one of Mulaney’s comedy specials with my husband, he barely laughed. Clearly, he and I have different ideas about what makes something – or someone – funny.

Then the other day, I decided to read the comics in my local newspaper. As a child, I liked to check out the “Peanuts” comic strip and “Family Circus.” I also spent my hard-earned allowance money on “Archie” comic books. But I find that the humor in comic strips is more understated. In my recent perusal of the “funnies,” I didn’t laugh or even chuckle once reading the likes of “Dilbert,” “Peanuts,” or “Baby Blues.” Comic strips are more wry social commentary than entertainment designed to make you laugh out loud.

The comedy I love most is the kind that revolves around family life. Whether it’s the zany and unpredictable relationship between Lorelai and Rory on The Gilmore Girls, the antics of the Pritchett clan on Modern Family, or the challenges of being an upper middle class family that’s only Black-ish, the everyday ups and downs of family life make me laugh with rueful recognition.

That is the secret of my favorite comedians as well. Both Mulaney and Jerry Seinfeld mine their childhoods as well as their current relationships for laughs. Ditto with Chris Rock, whose short-lived but hilarious series Everybody Hates Chris detailed the daily humiliations and deprivations of Rock’s childhood.

I often wonder what comedians’ families think about their using their intimate relationships to get laughs. In the wonderful new series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the main character achieves success in stand-up through her no-holds-barred description of everything that is happening to her in her personal life. When her horrified husband, an aspiring comic himself, catches her stand-up act, it’s clear that there will be no “happy ever after” for this couple.

I admire comedians, comic actors, and humor writers. They don’t get a lot of respect as artists. For instance, what full-blown comedy has ever won a Best Picture Oscar? Yet comedy, which is fraught with political incorrectness and subject to the variable tastes of audiences, can be much edgier and make more pointed social commentary than many other genres. There’s something more palatable about biting criticism when it goes down with a hearty laugh.

I think what makes something funny is that embarrassed recognition of our own human insecurities, prejudices, and foibles in the words and actions of someone who is not afraid to “go there.” It’s a way of laughing at ourselves but not at our own expense. I don’t envy the life of a comic. It’s a tall order to follow the dictate of Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!”

 

 

Gen X Comic Gets the Laughs

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My stomach still hurts. Last night I watched two stand-up comedy specials on Netflix featuring the up and comer John Mulaney. Full disclosure here: I know John’s parents. So it was with a certain knowing glee that I listened to his loving but biting anecdotes about being raised by his stern, devoutly Catholic parents.

John Mulaney has some serious comedy cred. He was a writer for Saturday Night Live for many years and had a short-lived TV series cleverly named Mulaney. And nowadays, he can fill the Chicago Theatre and Radio City Music Hall for his hilarious observations about modern life as well as his reminiscences from the distant Eighties.

I think the secret to Mulaney’s success, besides some clever voice impersonations and a certain controlled mania, is his ability to straddle the generations in appeal. Mulaney, 35, is still young, and he is clearly immersed in the present. For instance, he makes an off-hand joke about how in college, everything is just your own opinion, a knowing mockery of today’s coddled university student. And he even wades into politics in his Radio City Music Hall special “Kid Gorgeous” with a hilarious and extended comparison of Donald Trump in the White House to a horse in a hospital.

But for my money, his funniest and most endearing stories involve his childhood, which seem to echo my own years as a young Baby Boomer with Depression-era, hard-line parents. He describes sitting on a sofa with his mother and eating Triscuits in dead silence. And he horrifies the youngsters in the audience by describing how his cold-hearted dad could go through a McDonalds drive-thru and pick up only a coffee for himself. (The irony in his jabs at his father are that, physically, John is a Chip off the old block.)

The helpless and trapped nature of childhood are a theme in Mulaney’s comedy, including the description of a “stranger danger” assembly that served to scar a generation of young kids for life. Or the adult size XXL t-shirt he was forced to wear as a nightshirt.

Many of Mulaney’s references speak directly to the generation known as Gen X. He riffs on the plots of such movies as  The Fugitive and Back to the Future. He references his Aladdin wallet. And most memorably, he reminisces about meeting the future president Bill Clinton in 1992.

I’m sure the Yale-educated lawyers who raised John Mulaney are bemused by his choice of careers. But I would say that those of us seeking some comic relief in these troubled times are lucky to have Mulaney’s irreverent, witty, and hilarious take on life to make us laugh.

My stomach still hurts.

Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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As New York City mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at a slain police officer’s funeral recently, police officers outside the church turned their backs on him. Most commentators decried the disrespect shown by the officers toward the mayor. On the other side of the divide, members of the NYPD have felt that de Blasio’s previous remarks were disrespectful to police officers. It seems clear that respect is a deeply felt need of all human beings.

If you had to choose, which would you pick: love or respect? That’s a trick question. Without respect, it’s hard to feel loved. When a husband tells his wife, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” he is questioning her intelligence. He may love her dearly, but she will not feel it. Likewise, when a woman berates her husband, or parents berate their children, calling them “stupid” or belittling their feelings, the lack of respect overshadows any love present in the relationship.

The inherent dignity of the human person demands that we respect each other. So why is it so difficult?

People love sarcasm and mockery. From a young age, kids learn to jockey for power and status by mastering the art of the put-down. Variations on “Yo mama . . .” have been around since time immemorial. In fact, a whole musical genre, the rap face-off, consists of verbal insult flinging. Some of America’s favorite comedians have relied almost completely on sarcasm and insults for their humor. Don Rickles comes to mind for the older set and possibly Daniel Tosh or Chelsea Handler for the millennials.

Name-calling is another problem in our culture. If I disagree with you on a political issue, for example, then you must be an idiot or a Nazi. People can’t seem to resist hitting below the belt when they argue. It may be human nature to put others down, but disrespect breaks down the foundations of our civilization.

Disrespect is dehumanizing. If I think of homeless people as hobos or bag ladies, I reduce them to pathetic losers. I don’t have to ponder the fact that they have nowhere to rest their heads on a cold winter’s night. If I use a racial slur, I reduce people to stereotypes, and I’m not forced to reach out and try for tolerance or understanding.

Aretha Franklin certainly said it all in her rousing classic “Respect.” Find out what it means to those around you, and then practice it every day.

The A-B-Cs of Comedy

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Disclaimer: I have no personal, professional or financial connection with ABC-TV.

Every week I look forward to the comedic television lineup of The Middle, Modern Family, and Blackish. Somehow ABC has produced a trifecta of engaging, side-splitting half-hour sitcoms, all of which center on family dynamics and dysfunctions.

The Middle is the unsung sibling of the mega-hit Modern Family. While both shows depict the ups and downs of family life, The Middle focuses on the vicissitudes of one family trying to make ends meet in Middle America. The Heck family is so easy to relate to because they are far from perfect. For instance, mom Frankie yells, “I made dinner!” and plops bags of fast food on the kitchen table. In another episode, I found myself completely relating to the parents, who decide to “take back the house” and do nothing special for their children. They inevitably cave, and things go back to normal, which is to say that the kids rule. Yes, that’s my family life. Yet the Hecks have a connection that makes each episode heartwarming. As much as I am laughing at the Hecks, I am also smiling at their obvious affection for each other.

Modern Family is bigger and brasher than The Middle. The extended Pritchett family have unique family makeups, such as the gay couple raising an adopted Vietnamese daughter and the patriarch and his much younger, voluptuous Colombian wife and her son. The dialogue and timing in Modern Family make it a comic masterpiece. In one scene, Jay Pritchett feels underdressed when his gorgeous wife Gloria comes down the stairs dressed to the nines for a parent-teacher conference. He asks her, “Why do you look like that when I look like this?” Without missing a beat, her son Manny responds, “My friends say it’s because of your money.”

There are tears-inducing moments in Modern Family too, but overall the show is just one giant laugh fest. I think what makes these sitcoms so effective is the strength of their casts. The Middle boasts comedy veterans Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond fame and Neil Flynn from ScrubsModern Family, on the other hand, took a cast of virtual unknowns (with the exception of Married: With Children’s Ed O’Neill) and turned them into stars.

The excellent cast is also one of the factors that makes ABC’s new sitcom Blackish so enjoyable. I was leery of a show whose premise rests with humor centered primarily on race. Yet the show avoids the cringe-worthy offensiveness I found in the ill-fated Michael J. Fox Show, which took cheap shots at Parkinson’s disease without any real sense of humor in evidence.

In Blackish, Andre Johnson, a black ad exec, presides over his upper middle class family, including doctor-wife Rainbow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of the singer Diana Ross) and four precocious kids. The kids really elevate the show to something special. Although they are wise beyond their years in the style common to sitcoms, they are not obnoxious, but extremely likable.

What really impresses me about Blackish is that race is addressed in a very open way without being trite or offensive – rather, hilarious. In a recent episode, Andre wants to be his office’s first black Santa, but when the role is given to a Hispanic woman, he protests, “There’s supposed to be a Black Santa before a Mexican Santa.” His mom agrees, “Mexicans can’t be jumping the line. It’s bad enough they started taking Black people’s jobs with sneaky tricks like working hard for less pay.”

What could come off as offensive simply comes off with a laugh. Blackish, with its sharp, humorous focus on a racial minority, gives me hope for another ABC sitcom set to air in 2015 – an Asian-American comedy titled Fresh Off the Boat.

There’s something about humor that helps expand our horizons in a non-threatening way. A lovable gay couple on Modern Family helps normalize the idea of gays for its audience. Likewise, Blackish gives us a glimpse of how blacks see racial stereotypes without making us feel defensive.

As I get older, I have noticed the inevitable lines that are starting to appear on my face. And since I’d rather live with laugh lines than frown lines, I plan to enjoy my favorite comedies as much as possible.

Tears of a Clown

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My brother-in-law Dave Rudolf is a funny guy. Since he is a professional entertainer, this quality is a definite asset. One of the biggest compliments I ever gave Dave was that he reminded me of Robin Williams. Both performers had that zany, stream-of-consciousness style that never quit.

Like many fans, I was saddened by the news that Robin Williams had died of an apparent suicide. Like many fans, I have been spending time reading accounts of his life and watching his brilliance on You Tube clips from many of his stand up performances and talk show appearances.

I am a little puzzled, however, by people’s shock that such a funny comedian would take his own life. First of all, the performer is not the person. The personas Williams created were acts of the imagination and had little connection with his personal life. Secondly, there have been many troubled comedians over the years – John Belushi, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce, to name a few.

I would even venture to guess that many performers seek out the role of comedian because of a darkness in their own hearts. When you think about it, the source of most humor is dark. We laugh at human weaknesses and foibles, embarrassments and misfortunes. Rodney Dangerfield recites a litany of examples of how he “gets no respect.” Steve Martin makes us laugh by getting kneed in the testicles. Many comedians make their livings mocking politicians and celebrities. Williams himself was a master at accents and used them to paint various ethnic groups with humorous yet stereotypical strokes.

Whatever personal demons led Robin Williams to his death, I feel sorrow for a life cut short, for family and friends who will feel his loss for the rest of their lives. But I hope they can take solace in the fact that he gave so much enjoyment and did so much for others in his short life.