Thursday, June 23, 2011

Talking Funny [television review]

* Premiered in April on HBO and HBO Canada
In Talking Funny, comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., and Ricky Gervais discuss the art of stand-up comedy and what it takes to perform it. If that description sounds like a recipe for boredom for those of you not aspiring to take the stage at the local Yuk Yuk's, then you'd be mistaken. Talking Funny is a fascinating insight into the craft of an occupation of which Seinfeld says, "No one is more judged in civilized society than a stand-up comedian. Every 12 seconds you're rated". There may be a just a tad of hyperbole in that statement, but no doubt, it requires a unique skill set level, something that three of the four of these top tier stand-ups possess (Gervais is still relatively new to it and, as funny as he is, just isn't in their class yet).
In the field of stand-up comedy, Seinfeld and Rock need no introduction. C.K. is lesser known, but has over 20 years of stand-up experience, along with a couple of starring roles (as well as writing and producing credits) in sitcoms you likely missed: Lucky Louie, one of my favourite sitcoms ever, ran on HBO for one and a half seasons, and Louie is returning for its second season starting tonight on the FX network. What the shows lack in creative titling they make up for in edgy, clever humour. Gervais, of course, is best known for his television shows The Office and Extras, as well as an oddly forgettable (in comparison to his superlative TV work) burgeoning film career. He's at his funniest, however, while hosting his extensive series of podcasts and audiobooks with partners Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington.
Gervais, who executive produces, acts as an informal moderator, loosely steering the conversation to certain subjects that reveal the inner workings of the art form from the comedians' perspectives. Each comedian has their own distinct style, and while there's an obvious mutual respect for each other's talent, there's an engrossing level of civilized disagreement between the foursome on stand-up philosophies and methods. Seinfeld only adds about 10% of new material to his latest act and C.K. and Rock like to come up with a whole new show every year, which prompts Seinfeld, with mock disdain, to respond to with, "Alright, fine...can we get some real comedians in here?". Everyone but Seinfeld works "filthy", as C.K. describes it (Seinfeld is notorious for his clean act). C.K. discusses challenging himself by taking his strongest bit, which he used to close his shows with, and then deciding to open some of his subsequent shows with the same bit, a philosophy that Seinfeld marvels at. Seinfeld has never performed a sound check, while Rock always does one, just to get the feel and scope of the venue he's playing. Another area of disagreement focuses on whether a stand-up with lesser talent, who still manages to achieve a high level of success, can sustain that over the course of a lengthy career (the name "Dane Cook" seems to be implied during the discussion, but his name is never used).
Although these are comedians discussing the best way to tell jokes, there's a consistently high level of thoughtful and intellectual discourse occurring during the show. Seinfeld reveals that Rock's old bit on the differences between "white porn" and "black porn" were an enlightening insight into the differences between the two races. There's also some clever metaphors and analogies delivered: Rock likens a stand-up's ongoing relationship with their audience to that of a romantic relationship ("Your woman is with you because you assumes she loves you because she's there every day, but you still have to work on her liking you for this to work."), Seinfeld compares C.K. being able to get away with a rape joke to "tap dancing over six laser beams", and C.K. describes why he likes to refresh his act regularly ("There's a weird, almost fruit-like cycle to it, because it gets ripe and then starts rotting a little bit for me.").
With Talking Funny, HBO takes a simple concept that certainly isn't wholly original (The Green Room With Paul Provenza has a similar format and let's not forget Jon Favreau's sorely missed Dinner For Five series), but succeeds in being the most entertaining 50 minutes I've watched on the flat screen this year. In fact, that's my only gripe, that this one-off special wasn't longer. More, please.
Rating: ★★★★

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