The ’90s were golden years for Nickelodeon. The children’s cable television network was home to now cult-classic shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1991-2000), Clarissa Explains It All (1991-’94), The Secret Life of Alex Mack (1994-’98), and Salute Your Shorts (1991-’92)—arguably heretofore unmatched in their clever, un-condescending approach to entertaining young people. Nick News with Linda Ellerbee launched in 1992, and remains to this day one of the only shows on-air devoted to frank, engaging discussions of teen issues and opinions.
But perhaps the program that best embodied the values of Nick in those years was All That, a sketch-comedy show that premiered 20 years ago today. Created by Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin, All That ran for an impressive 10 seasons before it was canceled in 2005. The prolific franchise spawned a number of spin-offs (Good Burger, Kenan & Kel, The Amanda Show) and launched the careers of several comedy mainstays: Kenan Thompson, Amanda Bynes, Nick Cannon, and Taran Killam.
Like Saturday Night Live (which would later hire Thompson and Killam), All That was a communal pop-cultural touchstone. The parents of ’90s kids had the Church Lady, “more cowbell,” and Roseanne Roseannadanna; the kids themselves, though, had Pierre Escargot, “Vital Information,” and Repairman Man Man Man, and we recited their catch-phrases to one another in the cafeteria and on the playground. Although All That was clearly designed as a SNL, Jr., of sorts, it wasn’t merely starter sketch comedy—it was an admittedly daring venture for a children’s network to embark on.
In its own right, All That was a weirdly subversive little show. It never explicitly crossed the line into “mature” territory, but it constantly flirted with the limits of FCC-approved family-friendliness. Take, for instance, the “Ask Ashley” sketch. A barely tween-aged Amanda Bynes (Seasons Three to Six), played an adorably wide-eyed video advice-columnist. Ashley (“That’s me!”) would read painfully dimwitted letters from fans with clearly solvable problems. (Example: “Dear Ashley, I live in a two-story house and my room is upstairs. Every morning, when it’s time to go to school, I jump out the window. So far I’ve broken my leg 17 times. Do you have any helpful suggestions for me?”) She would wait a beat, smile sweetly into the camera, then fly into a manic rage; emitting a stream of G-rated curses, always tantalizingly on the verge of spitting a true obscenity into the mix.
Read more. [Image: Nickelodeon]
Fox News has astronomically high ratings. Rush Limbaugh rules talk radio. But liberals dominate political comedy. The few attempts to create a conservative satire show have either not found mainstream success (News Busted, a YouTube series with views typically in the low 30,000s), aired far outside of prime time (Red Eye, filling Fox’s 3 a.m. slot), or been promptly cancelled (Half Hour News Hour, with 13 episodes on Fox). Are right-leaning satires doomed to failure?
The creators of Flipside don’t think so. Their once-a-week program, in the vein of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report but with a generally conservative tilt, hosted by comedian Michael Loftus, will premiere this fall. Can it work?
Read more. [Image: Michael Loftus; Fox News; Comedy Central]
New research shows that the best humor is both a little bit wrong and a little bit right. Is there something about comedians that makes them better at subversion?
Read more. [Image: Camera on autopilot/Flickr]
A meeting between the two rivals would make a fitting farewell to a comedy era—and might remind people that there’s more to Leno than his successful-but-stale Tonight routine.
Read more. [Image: Kevork Djanseszian; Bob Galbraith / AP]
It came out of nowhere, slipping into the conversation between dinner and dessert. “That’s what she said!” your friend blurted out, before sitting back, satisfied.
At first you didn’t get the joke, which he’d recently poached from NBC’s sitcom The Office. (This was around 2006, or, if your friend was slow on the uptake, around 2010.) So he explained by example for the rest of the meal. When the waitress asked if you wanted sauce on that, he whispered seductively: “That’s what she said,” as if her question was saucily scandalous. Then he giggled like a 12-year-old.
That’s what she said, hereafter referred to as TWSS, was the best bad joke of the late 2000s. It forced almost any sentence into unintentional sexual meanings, even when you were just “trying to get in” to the highway’s fast lane, or “didn’t think it would take so long” in the supermarket line. TWSS was like a bully who stole your lunch money to buy cigarettes. It seized your innocent words and contorted them into indecency.
Read more. [Image: NBC]
As his HBO show Real Talk begins its twelfth season with higher ratings than ever—4.1 million viewers, high for a premium-cable talk show—the iconoclastic comedian and political commentator Bill Maher spoke to The Atlantic about why he likes doing comedy shows in red states, how his show is different from Jon Stewart’s, why the God of the Old Testament is “the most psychopathic character in fiction,” and why he believes most opposition to President Obama is racist.
Read more. [Image: Phil McCarten/Reuters]
It’s hard to make health insurance funny. Even with Amy Poehler involved.
Read more. [Image: Covered California]
“The funniest man in America”—those were the words Columbia Pictures used in TV spots promoting Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, its 1982 concert film. The claim wasn’t far off. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a comic making the kind of cultural impact today that Pryor did back then. Pryor’s stand-up fit with the tumult of the Vietnam War and Watergate eras. His guest spots on Saturday Night Live made the NBC series a brand name. His records—That Nigger’s Crazy, … Is It Something I Said?, and Bicentennial Nigger won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album three years in a row. By the end of the 1970s, after the box office success of such pictures as Silver Streak and Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, he was becoming a force in the motion-picture industry, too.
People born after 1980 might only remember Pryor as a comedian who starred in The Toy, Superman III, Harlem Nights, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But those pictures feature only a remnant of the comic he once was. When he was at his best on stage, he exposed the truths that rarely went mentioned in America.
David and Joe Henry chronicle those days and the force that was Pryor in their new book, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. They’re brothers who set out to write a film about Pryor, who died in 2005. Joe is a songwriter and music producer (and Madonna’s brother-in-law). David is a screenwriter. For now, they’ve ended up with a book that’s garnering critical acclaim and working its way up bestseller lists. We spoke with them at the Palihouse in West Hollywood, within a few blocks of the Troubadour, the Comedy Store, and other clubs where Pryor performed.
Read more. [Image: Lennox McLendon]
This week, Andy Kaufman made headlines when his brother claimed he was still alive. At this year’s Andy Kaufman Awards at Gotham Comedy Club, he introduced Andy’s supposed daughter, 24—who explained that the late comedian/performance artist faked his death 27 years ago.
No one with a passing familiarity with Kaufman could have been surprised that the news of his reincarnation turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Or to be more precise, fabricated: The Smoking Gun revealed that the woman introduced as daughter Kaufman was actually an actress named Alexandra Tatarsky (whose theater bio states that her work is inspired by “Russian absurdism”). Kaufman’s brother now says he’d been duped.
The stunt evoked a Kaufman-esque mixture of confusion, skepticism, and credulity. But Kaufman himself would have probably done it better. He remains in the public imagination as a hoaxter, but for those born after his death, it might be difficult to understand just how effectively he messed with people’s minds.
The Muslims Are Coming!, out this week on video on demand, is a documentary in which Muslim comedians tour the American south and west to combat Islamophobia. Based on that description, I had a lot of ambivalence going in. On the one hand, I think people should not hate Muslims. On the other hand, I think they should hate stand-up comics.
Overall, the film justified my prejudices. The comics are not especially funny. Their stand-up routines never flirt with flights of absurdity or conceptual humor a la Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman—rather, the material all falls resolutely in the “anecdote, anecdote, wry observation about current events/ethnic stereotypes/everyday life, ain’t that funny” formula that seems designed to make TV sitcoms seem innovative and weighty. Co-director and co-star Negin Farsad’s routine about her Jewish boyfriend is typical, starting with jokes about being drunk, moving into jokes comparing Jewish-Muslim relationships to the Palestine-Israeli peace process, and throwing in a joke or two about the terror induced when the bar lights come on and you have to see what the guy you’ve been flirting with looks like. It’s like watching someone go up on stage and fill out a checklist.
Read more. [Image: The Muslims Are Coming!]