This Week on Dear Television
The Real Nice Guys of Reality (Life)
By Jane Hu
January 29, 2014
KROLL SHOW is the most uncanny half-hour comedy — scratch that, half-hour anything — currently on TV. It’s probably uncannier than hour-long reality shows that ask viewers to soak in the rarified lives of those who are, in some ways, just like us! As Annie and others have pointed out, Kroll’s sketch-comedy show takes primarily from reality shows (themselves already plenty uncanny!) and re-estranges them in order to emphasize their absurdity. There’s a way that, after that dip into the uncanny valley, Kroll’s show slides right back up to being more hyper-canny than un-canny — so real and so on point — that I begin to question its difference from reality as such. Are you still with me? Kroll Show is quick in every sense of the word. It’s a manic ride, full of wonderful generic, rhetorical, logical (and so comedic) turns. And if you’re not watching it already, is it because you don’t like things that are both funny and smart?
Nick Kroll is so smart. El Chupacabra is like a real person to me.
Once, on a train ride from Santa Barbara back up to San Francisco, I listened to every Comedy Bang Bang episode featuring Kroll. The man sitting next to me had to watch me contort my face in endlessly hideous ways to keep from cracking up. I will just come out and say that Kroll is not only one of the most intelligent American comedians of his cohort, but one of the weirdest. Only Maria Bamford compares. Statement of the year, I know.
In podcasts, Kroll repeatedly acknowledges that he grew up in the wealthy enclave of Rye, NY. Kroll’s awareness of privilege isn’t just awareness — it’s a form of meta-awareness. Which sounds like a douchey thing to say, but to watch Kroll demonstrate this meta-awareness is quite the opposite. Being self-conscious about privilege doesn’t work as a joke for Kroll. Instead, the joke lies in thinking that being self-conscious about privilege were in itself enough to be funny, or enough to brush off the unhip “baggage” of privilege. Kroll is more creative and, dare I say, more sensitive than that.
“Rich Dicks” is a recurring sketch on Kroll Show starring Kroll as Aspen Bruckheimer and Jon Daly as Wendy Shawn IV. It’s a clear riff on Kroll’s monied background and, while ridiculous, it’s also not the funniest of Kroll’s characters. There is only so much humor one can derive from making fun of rich white people, even if at the sake of deriding them. “Rich Dicks” also taps into bawdy or gross-out humor more than any of the other sketches. They shit on everything. The message is clear: these dicks are physically gross and literally beyond recall.
But back to sensitivity. There are also a few sensitive dicks on Kroll Show and, almost as if inversing “Rich Dicks,” this sensitivity is partly dependent on class. C-Czar is kind of a sweetheart (especially on his skating date with Jenny Slate’s Liz). He’s scary on the outside but sweet on the inside. Like a croissant. And this is sort of how I feel about Kroll Show more generally. It might be a little unnerving to look at initially, but it’s got a lot of character.
Annie has already pointed out the show’s hardcore formalism:
if you were just watching the visuals, that’s what it’d look like: a pitch perfect reproduction of the aesthetics that govern low-budget, cable-filler reality: slow-mos, filler replays, hashtags, cheap digital interview backgrounds, stagey font choices, 7th-grade-style use of filters, musical montages, and gag sound effects abound.
It’s this use of familiar television codes that signal to viewers the genres to expect from Kroll Show. These codes also help upset and, in a way, finally clarify viewers’ very definition of the specific genres used, and (more ambitiously!) the concept of genre more generally. To recognize the logo from The Real Housewives franchise or The Twilight Zone (uncannyyyyyy) might prompt a kind of feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the-back fuzziness. (Aside from the odd film, they are almost always televisual references; though did you see the inclusion of Spring Breakers title-font for Season 2?) Oh, you’re so clever! You’re so cultured. But to recognize them is also damning. Among these television logos, there is also a Snickers bar, or the familiar branding of a Heineken or Absolut bottle. To recognize televisual codes easily slides into calling oneself a smug capitalist dick. That’s what the rapid-fire title sequence does — its explosive speed announces that you’re, in a way, buying into the conglomerate franchise of capitalist and easy-to-consume American culture. Even if you acknowledge it, even if you acknowledge its meta-ness, you’re still complicit.
No matter how alienating, distorted, or exaggerated the content of Kroll’s sketches, his rigorous formalism locks us into the fact that we could not be enjoying (or critiquing) what we’re seeing without the privilege of first being familiar with what the show might be attempting to take apart. So don’t just be another rich dick, or be one, whatever, you might not be able to help it. The dethroning of the unfairly entitled can easily become a facile or futile exercise, and this certainly holds for TV comedies. What comes through, I think, more emphatically in Kroll Show is what it’s trying to build rather than deconstruct. There is a kind of uncanny perspective that is more than just self-effacing or shameful. And the tenderness Kroll affords to characters like C-Czar and Bobby Bottleservice (I mean, these characters try, they really try in a ways more admirable than laughable) that opens to what I consider the heart of Kroll’s comedy. Lili once told me she loved Maria Bamford because one could tell that Bamford possessed a fundamental kindness that was undeniable no matter where she took her characters. The same goes for Kroll. It’s also what makes character work work.
Heroes in a half-shell, brah,
Kroll Show: Blowing the Bully Out of the Water
By Anne Helen Petersen
January 28, 2014
IN AN INTERVIEW with NPR earlier this year, Nick Kroll articulated what he loved about his sketch comedy show, Kroll Show, now in its second season on Comedy Central. “Being able to play a bunch of different characters has given me a break from just playing this one character,” he explained, “and I’m very lucky that I get to do that.”
Kroll is talking about playing a character onscreen, but he could also be talking about his life — or anyone’s life — and the performance of self the accompanies it. We all play a character, with attendant standards of masculinity, femininity, social class, race, nationality, sexuality, the list goes on — and that performance not only becomes monotonous, but exhausting.
Reality television takes that exhausting life performance and manages to simultaneously amplify and flatten it — to make it as legible and, by extension, as commodifiable as possible. A person becomes a character; a week becomes a 22-minute show; a life becomes a performance. And the individual comes to represent the general: this is what everyone who is working class and from New Jersey is from; this is how every wealthy housewife in Atlanta behaves. Through editing and choice production decisions, a person’s life becomes a stereotype. If our media reflects our ideologies, then reality television is its most potent exponent.
Which is precisely what makes Kroll Show so squeamish and progressive: it takes television’s potent ideological form and amplifies it to its breaking point. I watch each sketch certain that it will collapse in on the blackhole of self-referentiality and performativity, but it never happens. The ideas it’s working with (almost always, riffs on what it’s like to be a man in American/Canadian society today) are just too strong to implode entirely. But more than SNL and maybe as much as Key & Peele, Kroll Show comes close.
Kroll Show masques itself as a dude show — its star, after all, is most famous for his turn on the dudetastic The League, and Comedy Central is nothing if not a dude’s club, with certain cool girls (Sarah Silverman, Amy Sedaris, Amy Schumer and, now, the cast of Broad City) allowed if they can play along.
What’s magnificent, then, is the way that Kroll Show manages to skewer not only dudes like the host of the ultimate in horrible dude shows, Daniel Tosh, but dudes who like Tosh, and even the other shows that dudes who like Tosh watch. It’s like a full-frontal assault on dude culture and the ideologies that support it, but in dickfest drag.
In fact, Kroll is one masculine drag show after another, each fitted into the bounds of a popular reality show genre, “docudrama,” music videos, or teenage melodrama. In all but the teenage melodrama, characters “play” themselves, which provides the first level of performance: Bobby Bottleservice is a “real” guy, but he plays the role of Bobby Bottleservice for various reality programs (Ghost Bouncers, Very Much Reluctant Gigolos), sitting for interviews with the camera, amping up interactions with his “friends”/co-stars, and participating in the staging of artificial drama to provide a form of narrative structure.
But that’s just the first layer — a level of performativity to which we’ve gradually grown accustomed. The second layer is Kroll’s performance of a reality star’s performance of “real self.” Here’s where the show could easily descend into the valley of toothless, SNL-style pastiche, reproducing, but not commenting, on the original performances of masculinity. And if you were just watching the visuals, that’s what it’d look like: a pitch perfect reproduction of the aesthetics that govern low-budget, cable-filler reality: slow-mos, filler replays, hashtags, cheap digital interview backgrounds, stagey font choices, 7th-grade-style use of filters, musical montages, and gag sound effects abound.
What elevates Kroll from precise pastiche, however, is alienating content. Take the Season One commercial for “Screws,” which starts out like a shot-for-shot reproduction of a Home Depot ad until, suddenly, the helpful employee suggests that what the middle-class white couple really wants, in terms of home improvement, is advice on how to make a secret room….where they can hide captives.
On another show, the joke might end there — it’s 30 seconds in, after all, which would make it a perfect commercial length. But the commercial keeps pushing: this couple wants to use the secret room to hide their molestation victims, and the reason the employee is so skilled at offering advice is because he, himself, was molested as a child; eventually, the couple lock him up and, when he tries to yell for help at commercial’s end, the husband figure, played by Kroll, breaks into a demonic, child-molester yell.
Written out, this all sounds in very poor taste. But the best satire often is: as Jerry Lewis famously explained, “if the comic can berate and finally blow the bully out of the water, he has hitched himself to an identifiable human purpose.” What the “Screws” sketch does, then, isn’t just to make us giggle at the mundane set-up of a bourgeois home improvement commercial, but show the performativity of good American capitalist citizenship.
In the store, these two look like the most average white Americans possible — which is another way of saying that they look like the people we see in commercials — but that’s a performance. If Kroll showed them buying materials and going home to watch football and let them moulder in the garage, okay, that’s a nice NPR-style joke, but it doesn’t make the performance outrageous and visible enough. Through dark, twisted means, “Screws” makes the ideology that underpins and naturalizes this type of commercial legible. It’s “too much,” but if you’re not slightly uncomfortable by what a piece of satire is doing, then either it’s doing it wrong or you’re watching it wrong.
The same concept applies to nearly every Kroll sketch. The Bryan LaCroix “Enter Me” music video promotions highlight the dissonance between the strains of innocence and sexually predation that underpin the image of the teen idol (and, in this case, Justin Bieber in particular); “Beats and Rice” takes the practice of finding raw, politically-engaged artists on the internet, throwing money at them, and sanitizing / lobotimizing their sound in order to appeal to corporate interests. “Ref Jeff” forces the average and unremarkable viewer to identify with the referee’s desperate attempts at familiarity, essentially ventriloquizing the fan’s performance of intimacy with the stars he follows, while “Drones” shows just how impotent the American soldier, operating in the age of fully-mechanized drone warfare, has become.
These skits are all funny, but it’s the reality spoofs I find most lacerating. In a recent Splitsider piece, Eric Voss claims that Kroll’s reality satire “demonstrates how low the bar has sunk, and how easily we embrace obnoxious personalities with no discernible talents as celebrities, thanks to flashy editing and contrived scenarios.” Kroll’s pastiche does, indeed, lampoon the facile narrative devices employed by reality television, but Voss misses the true target of the satire: it’s not us, as viewers, or even the reality stars themselves, so much as the producers of this type of television, and the way it alternates between castrating malice, misogynistic leering, and a callous, condescending form of race and class tourism.
On the surface, “PubLIZity” seems to be reproducing the contemporary dude-claim that girls-are-crazy-bitches. Both Lizes — one played by Kroll, the other by the magnificent Jenny Slate — are vapid, skilless, and obsessed with appearance, no matter the effect on substance. “PubLIZity” is edited in a way that both appear to fill their lives with arguing with each other, insulting each other face-to-face, and complaining about each other behind closed doors. Men are useless and treat them like shit; other women are competitors, including the Lizes themselves.
It’s a horrible way of thinking of women. It’s also the way that 95% of reality television presents its characters. The women featured in these shows are the paragons of postfeminism, demonstrating what happens when you sacrifice the politics of feminism for the promise of consumption. If the various (real) shows that exploit these women subconsciously hint at the dystopic undercurrents of that lifestyle, then “PubLIZity” shoves them in your face: the tolerance of porn-like sexual treatment, the blase attitude towards eating disorders as a means to a desirable end, image-obsession that leads to arranging plastic surgery for your dog — it’s horrifying, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration of any episode of the Real Housewives franchise.
Both Lizes are ridiculous, but I’d argue that the implicit message of “Publizity,” like “Armond of the House,” “Dad Academy,” “Very Much Reluctant Gigolo,” and the dozens of other reality satires is that something -- the reality television apparatus, specifically, and our participation therein, broadly — made them this way. The postfeminist woman, the castrated man, the fetishized ethnicity, the pathologized affectation, they’re not the problem, but the victims. We watch them in horror, but as Kroll suggests, we should be much more terrified by the various apparatuses, industrial and ideological, that made them that way.
With satire, there’s always a risk that people won’t be sharp enough to catch the joke and, as a result, wield the satire in a manner counter to the comedian’s aims. Anti-Semites singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” for example, or white frat dudes misappropriating lines from Chappelle Show. There’s a real possibility that people will use Kroll’s performance of Liz as a misogynistic weapon, or dress up as C-Czar for a white trash party.
But the farther Kroll pushes these skits, the more difficult it is to mistake them as endorsing the industry’s treatment of these characters, or what reality television, in general, has wrought of the raw material of so many people’s lives. In these reality shows, the subjects are the joke: and that’s not political or progressive; it’s mean, classist and a means of implicitly disciplining bodies and lifestyles that are marked as “other.” And that mode of entertainment, more than anything else, is what Kroll busies itself with blowing out of the water.
By the power of this vest on me,
Broad City: Sketchy Comedy
By Phillip Maciak
January 27, 2014
“I am hoping we can move away from the soapy relationship-y stuff and into bigger, fast-paced, self-contained escapades.”
- Abed, Community
SO, WE’RE TALKING about Broad City and Comedy Central this week. The network’s new sketchy sketch comedy is about two twentysomething women having sex, running around, getting into trouble, and doing some drugs in New York City. I am going to make one Girls comparison, and I am going to make it right away, and then I am going to move on, because I don’t want to be that guy. We’ve recently been bellyaching that Girls — our first, dearest, and truest love as a blog — has been weighting itself down with plot. The show’s concern with its central entanglements has been producing what we’ve all separately called a kind of crisis of tone. Girls is good with scene work, and it’s good with self-contained episodes, but the pastichey nature of its more plot-driven episodes feels lumpy, inconsistent, or, as Lili says, “syncopated to a fault.” And as I think back over these seasons, my favorite episodes, the ones that have routinely convinced me that this show has a unique artistic perspective and a singular aesthetic, have been the episodes that are not only self-contained, but that are adventurously so. The Bushwick dance party, the two-day stand with Patrick Wilson, the overnight train ride from Jessa’s wedding, the visit home to Michigan, this season’s road trip to the rehab facility, bigger fast-paced self-contained escapades! — Girls works best when its characters are on a lark, on their own, or, frankly, on drugs. The mantra of the first season was, “all adventurous women do,” and the best Girls episodes embody that sense of adventure.
Broad City, written by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, may be off to a somewhat stuttery start, but it definitely has a sense of adventure. In the pilot alone we get a spontaneous Skype three-way, an office supply heist, a busking war, and an hour of semi-nude house-cleaning for a wealthy old creep who acts like an infant baby (Fred Armisen). Some of these jaunts are funnier and sharper than others. (I suspect as we grow to know this charming pair more over the course of the season, we’ll find their jokes getting a little bit funnier, find ourselves a little more on the inside.) The busking war in particular — in which Ilana and Abbi start drumming in a park only to have a talented woman start break-dancing to the beat, stealing all their tips in the process — is both a funny set-piece and satire with a light touch. The scene goes on just long enough for us to notice the layered assumptions about privilege, class, and race that constitute and enable the situation. Nobody has to look stupid, nobody needs to get brutally skewered for it to make a resonant, funny point about Ilana and Abbi’s entitlement. It’s great to see a show nailing this social comment function so easily and with so little fanfare from the jump.
Comedy Central, in addition to its late night anchors, has recently been pretty successful at building a bit of a sketch comedy fiefdom. The same way that HBO and FX have made a principle of finding distinct sensibilities and letting them build series from scratch — see Lena Dunham, Mike White, David Milch, Andrew Haigh, Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Ryan Murphy, etc — Comedy Central has done well by green-lighting half-hour sketch series on this model. It hasn’t always worked — Sarah Silverman and Anthony Jeselnik have struggled — but Kroll Show, Inside Amy Schumer, and especially the juggernaut Key and Peele have all built audiences and given voices to comic talents that were, for whatever reason, outside the mainstream. Comedy Central’s aggressive push to squeeze viral videos out of these series have then in turn made huge cultural forces out of pretty small shows.
Broad City joins even this diverse crew as a kind of odd-duck. Kroll Show and Key and Peele are notable for their post-Digital Short, post-Chappelle aesthetic of highly produced, quick-cut comedy, constructed as much in an editing bay as in front of the camera, and for their deep bench of characters. Schumer, for her part, has transferred her stand-up bits into surreal sitcom-style shorts. Broad City was born in improv theaters and on the internet. It’s got a gritty hand-held feel, an associative style, and it relies less on a set of characters or observations than it does on a kind of madcap, accretive sensibility. In other words, these episodes simply turn Abbi and Ilana loose in the city and see what happens. The bits are staged, of course, but there’s a spontaneity to the whole exercise that is unique on Comedy Central right now.
Whether the show has the viral potential of Comedy Central’s other stalwarts, it’s too soon to tell, but Broad City has the advantage of an appealing central pair that it’s hard to look away from. The series begins on the premise that these two are best of friends, and, like many best friends, they fight, bully, and manipulate each other all the time. It’s not grating so much as it feels like a show that’s begun in medias res. There are no introductions, no expository talking heads, just a couple of gals doing their weird thing.
I mentioned above that I think the show will get funnier the more we’re around these two, and I think that’s one of the show’s particular strengths. By the end of the first episode, even if I wasn’t laughing out loud at the jokes, I was enjoying being in the company. I liked especially a scene in which Ilana and Abbi, having robbed Fred Armisen’s character, sit on a stoop, covered in furs, drinking preposterous expensive liquor, talking nonsense, understanding each other’s drunken shorthand. I couldn’t repeat one of the jokes from that scene if you asked me to, but it might have been my favorite. Nobody’s going to be quoting catch phrases from Broad City on Facebook (“I’m Rick James, bitch!”), but they might remember the feel of a scene, the sound Ilana makes while barking approval at Abbi’s mutterings, or the disgusted, depressed look on Abbi’s face as she watches her boss believe a lie so cheaply calculated and shoddily composed she was embarrassed to tell it.
There are a handful of comedy series now on the air that get by on the audience’s relationship to the characters. On a show like Community or Parks and Recreation — starring Broad City’s producer, Amy Poehler — the jokes are funny, but they’re funnier, more textured if you as the viewer have an attachment to the character. I want to hear whatever Abed or Andy Dwyer has to say no matter what. Even better if it’s funny. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how a show like The Office is structured around offhand moments you only really recognize if you know the characters well enough. You don’t need to know Key or Peele to think that Obama’s Anger Translator is hilarious, nor do you need to have a soft spot for Nick Kroll to laugh at PubLIZity. But Broad City is sketch comedy built around the off-hand, and, as such, it needs us to be friends with Abbi and Ilana or at least be enamored by their exploits. (Willa Paskin’s review of the show gives a great argument for why we should be.) For now, I’m pretty excited to hang out with this pair for a few more weeks, watching them run around the city getting into scrapes, like all adventurous women do.
I’m so close to finishing Season One of Damages,