This year the In Memoriam section of the Oscars is going to be longer than the award ceremony.
I’m writing this shortly after hearing about Carrie Fisher dying. Yeah, I’m a Star Wars fanatic, so of course I dig Carrie Fisher. But to me, she was something more. When I found out that she was a script doctor and wrote screenplays, that was the first time I really considered screenwriting as a cool endeavor. She was sharp and funny.
So that’s why I’m here in Hollywood. I want to write. I want to be like Carrie Fisher and be known for both my writing and my personality. She was amazing, guys. Yeah, she was also bat shit crazy, but aren’t we all?
Here is a more in depth look at my favorite films of 2016. I’ll steer clear of spoilers.
Starting with a cheat…
Tied for #10: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Both are super funny comedies, but the two couldn’t be more different. Wilderpeople is Taika Waititi’s follow up to What We Do In the Shadows (possibly the funniest movie of 2014). I think a lot of the New Zealand specific jokes go over our heads in America, but Wilderpeople is still a really touching and funny movie that’s essentially an odd couple road film…a very tried and true formula. Popstar is a modern day Spinal Tap from the Lonely Island guys. Their reign on SNL is a blind spot for me, so I really find their absurdly silly songs fresh and new. This is one that I saw in a screening very early on in the year (Judd Apatow was there) so I don’t know what’s different from the version I saw versus the final release. I’m guessing they trimmed down the final release, but the DVD/Blu-Ray features a lot of deleted material. Like Spinal Tap, the sheer number of jokes is mind blowing.
#9: Don’t Breathe. Again this is another one that I saw an advance screening. From what I understand, a few minutes of the Blind Man explaining his motivations were cut from the final release, but are on the DVD/Blu-Ray as well as a little bit of maybe a redemption moment for Jane Levy’s character. Jane Levy is becoming one hell of a scream queen. She’s great in this and writer/director Fede Alvarez’s previous Evil Dead reimagining. Don’t Breathe features a pretty realistic look at many of the vacant neighborhoods of Detroit too.
#8: 10 Cloverfield Lane. I missed a screening for this when it was still called Valencia. I think maybe the Cloverfield tie in hurt it at the box office. Did enough people see the original Cloverfield to warrant a kind of/not really sequel? The cast of this is phenomenal. I love stories that could work well as plays too. I’d love to see a stage adaptation of this. It’s really a master class in writing plot twists. I’m trying to piece together who is probably ultimately responsible for the great screenplay since there are three writers credited. Since the first two also have “story by” credits, I’m guessing Damian Chazelle, who will pop up again on this list later, is largely responsible.
#7: Sing Street. I’m probably the perfect age to really love this love story/80s musical. I’m the same age as writer/director John Carney. Like Carrie Fisher, Carney is very vocal about his opinions. Unlike Carrie Fisher, his opinions kind of made him sound like a dick. He took down Keira Knightley after making Begin Again with her. I loved Begin Again, as well as his debut Once. Sing Street, like those two films, is also the story about a boy who loves a girl and making art with that girl.
#6. Midnight Special. This is a phenomenal sci-fi allegory about parenthood. Jeff Nichols is just a master story teller. I’m really bummed that I wasn’t able to see his second movie this year, Loving. Midnight Special is wonderfully acted too. Michael Shannon and Adam Driver both play against type. Shannon is the protective dad and Driver, fresh off of The Force Awakens, is the socially awkward and clumsy NSA agent tracking Shannon and his son, played by Jaeden Leiberher, who held his own opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in the sweet St. Vincent.
#5. Other People. Nobody has been talking about this movie that has my favorite performance of the year. It opened on 12 screens in September, but is now available to stream on Netflix. This was written by Chris Kelly, who was one of the head writers at Saturday Night Live as well as almost every other funny sketch thing. I’m guessing this is a semi-autobiographic story because it’s about a struggling comedy writer, played by Jesse Plemons, who has to go back home to take care of his dying mom played by Molly Shannon. Molly Shannon is nothing short of amazing in this. The fact that she isn’t even being considered for an Oscar nomination is a real shame and says a lot about the politics of show business. She is by far my best performer of the year. Like films along the lines of Skeleton Twins, Other People is a perfect balance of super funny in one moment and then heart wrenching in the next.
#4. Arrival. I love a movie that makes me look at life differently after seeing it. Arrival did that. I ended up going for a walk before I went to my car just so I could process what I watched. I think time jumps are really difficult to write. Arrival does that in a way that, without spoiling anything, is simultaneously clear and ambiguous at the same time. I can’t think of another film that expertly doles out information as precisely as Arrival. I’m bummed that it was based on a short story, because this is a film that I wish I could visit a more thorough version of in prose.
#3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Yes, I’m biased. I’ve loved Star Wars my entire life. I’m not only a prequel apologist, but I’ll argue the merits of Jar Jar Binks. With that being said, Rogue One is the prequel we deserved. The last ten minutes of this film, the ten minutes where you know what’s going to happen, still end up being ten of the most edge-of-your-seat tense minutes of the year. I’ve been worried that Disney was going to do to Star Wars what they’ve done to Marvel and just drown us in content both good and so-so. I was cautiously optimistic about a Star Wars movie without the core characters, but Rogue One calmed any reservations I may have had.
#2. Green Room. This was, by far, the scariest movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Mostly because I’ve been in situations that could have easily broken as bad for me as it does for the band in this film. I worked in a punk/metal club that sometimes featured Nazi bands, which drew Nazi crowds. We locked ourselves inside when fights between Nazis and SHARPS (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) spilled outside and become near riots that attracted the Detroit Police. And in my later years, comedy has taken me to some really shitty dives in the middle of nowhere. Green Room, like Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film Blue Ruin is an uncomfortably grounded story about real people stuck in unreal situations.
#1. La La Land. I’m a sucker for a musical. I’m a sucker for a Hollywood story. I’m a sucker for a love story. I’m a sucker for a bittersweet story. I’m a sucker for a story about pursuing your dreams. I feels like Damian Chazelle made La La Land specifically for me. This, like Rogue One, ties a perfect bow on a really stellar piece of art in those final moments. The music is so good. I just saw this yesterday, otherwise I’d have already overdosed Allyson (my fiancé) with the soundtrack. I think I caught all of the “hidden” edits in Birdman. If there are hidden edits in the opening number of La La Land, then I didn’t find them…although, as soon as I finish writing this, I am going to dive deep into all the information I can find about how this was made. The cinematography was just amazing. Simply amazing. Linus Sandgren takes places I see every day and shoots them so beautifully.
So that’s the list. I haven’t seen Silence yet, but I really want to. I love stories about people whose faith is pushed to the limit. That’s why Calvary was my favorite film in 2014. I didn’t get to see Edge of Seventeen or the aforementioned Loving either. I think I’ll really like them both when I do catch up with them. One film I did see this year that will definitely make my 2017 list is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I saw a preview screening and if it came out this year, it would have easily been in my top three. I think it screened at Sundance or South by Southwest, so I guess technically I could have included it, but we’ll hold off until everyone gets to see it.
Here’s my set from a recent Cobra Juice show at the Steve Allen Theatre. Kyle Shire brings me out and we talk about the first time we played Dungeons and Dragons together. Then I talk about how being homophobic phobic put me in a pretty gay situation. I wrap up with a recap of Catcon.
I hope you enjoy!
Here’s what’s going on…all in one convenient place!
Tonight! Super fun show. I was there last month with DJ dangler when he was in town. Plus look at this line up! A whole lot of funny!
Tomorrow! It’s insane that I’m on this show. Joshy Fadem is bizarre and wonderful. I’m really honored to be part of it.
My buddy Casey Moran let me put together the line up for this show. A bunch of my favorite people all in one place. It’ll be material that’s not on any of my albums or on Youtube.
And then you can find me almost every Sunday at the Comedy Store in the Belly Room with my West Coast comedy family at Candy!
I write best with a partner. I’ve tried a few different ones over the years before finding one who I really click with. And I found him completely by accident.
The hardest thing I found about writing with a partner is that one person is always going to be more motivated than the other. Some days you may be the motivated one, while other days it may be them. No relationship is truly 50/50 all the time.
Whenever I write something, I send it out to a bunch of people to get feedback. Very few people actually ever get back to me. DJ Dangler always does. And when he does, he’s thorough. The first thing I remember critiquing was a spec script I wrote for Bob’s Burgers. We went through it line by line picking apart dialogue that didn’t feel true to characters and moments that didn’t feel like the show. It was incredibly helpful.
The thing that he and I just pitched was originally written as a live action show. As it developed, it became clear that changing it to an animated show would open up a universe of opportunities.
DJ is a few years younger than I am, and those few years make a big difference. I went through most of teen years without a cartoon aimed for my age group. The Simpsons were just bumpers during the Tracey Ullman Show for most of the time I was in high school. And the Beavis and Butt-Head “Frog Baseball” short didn’t even debut until after I graduated. In order for me to get into an animated show, I really have to get over the fact that it’s animated first. DJ is different. He’s always had cartoons in his life.
Having someone with experiences and strengths different than yours is great to have in a creative partner. DJ’s brain works in ways mine simply doesn’t. We’re both pretty opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m more of a classical story teller, tuned into the mechanics of script writing, while DJ’s brain works without restraint. We pull each other to the center.
I romanticize things and thought that he and I never say “no” to each other and that we always went down paths together until we hit a mutually agreed upon dead end. He pointed out that I’m definitely seeing our relationship through rose tinted glasses and we argue a lot! And he’s right. I can remember a few nights where I was shooting down every idea he had and then we agreed that we got about as much work done that day as we were going to do. Because we lived within walking distance of each other, I’d sometimes walk him half way home and we’d decompress. My memory is that we never ended a writing session angry with one another. Frustrated, definitely.
Writing with a partner is about compromise. I’m stubborn and spoiled. My parents not only gave me everything I ever needed, but they gave me everything I ever wanted. I get crabby if I don’t get my way. I’m a child. When DJ and I would work on a script, it was very hard for me to accept the fact that DJ has his own timeline. That’s my biggest hurdle with writing. I wrote a screenplay with a single mom in Michigan and was constantly grouchy about the fact that she had other responsibilities beyond our story. It’s easy for me to take ownership of my issue while I’m not currently collaborating with anyone.
There are a lot of advantages in writing with someone. Dialogue is going to sound more natural when you have a person to actually speak it to out loud. You’re going to be able to catch spelling and grammatical errors quicker because you’re proof reading one another. With this article, I’m going to have to wait until Kent Tucker texts me. And I’m going to be so mad at myself if I transposed to and too again. You’re going to generate content you couldn’t have come up with on your own. DJ and I wrote a screenplay and in it there’s a joke that DJ wrote. I don’t completely get the joke. I understand it enough from context, but I didn’t know the reference. I like that. It makes the story feel more “real” for me because there’s plenty in the world that I don’t know. Your characters will also have distinctive voices because a lot of times you’ll find you and your partner start taking ownership of certain characters.
My favorite thing about writing with someone is that you have a teammate who can pick you up while you’re down. Living in LA is brutal. Everything is so expensive. Nothing moves quickly enough. The traffic is a great metaphor for show business. Nothing is moving and there’s no explanation why. Once you get to the end of a jam, things go smooth, until they stop again without rhyme or reason. Hollywood is dirty and smells like urine. The soundscape is a constant barrage of sirens, helicopters and car horns. There were so many times where I thought this was all hopeless until DJ would say or do something that made it better. And I hope I did the same for him.
My advice to other writers is try writing with a partner and see how it goes. If you have someone who gives you good feedback on your solo stuff, then maybe that means they like what you do enough to want to team up. Steer clear of people who don’t give you feedback. If they can’t find the time to do that, then they’re probably going to struggle to find the time to write too. Find someone who brings out the best in you, who you like spending time with. You can’t have DJ though. He’s mine!
I’ve been fortunate over the past year to shadow an established television writer as he works on various pitches for his own shows. He works predominately in procedurals and political dramas, while I’m mainly a comedy guy. But I knew the fundamentals I was learning were universal.
He always starts with a brief, but catchy biography about himself and why that makes him the best person to write what he’s pitching. His origin story has become like folklore. He was a Washington DC speech writer, but some of the details change a little bit here and there. Most importantly, the drama amps up in a way that always hooks you right out of the gate.
From there he goes into the teaser for his show. If you don’t know, that’s basically the thing you see before the first commercial that, if done right, keeps you from changing the channel for the next thirty or sixty minutes. My mentor is great a teasers. Political drama and procedurals are pretty much at the bottom of the list of things I like to watch, but more often than not, his teasers grab me.
Then he talks about the pilot episode while giving pertinent information about all of the key characters. He gives you enough of their backstories to get you to really know who they are as people. Sometimes if the teaser doesn’t grab me, his ability to create interesting characters does. His characters are always flawed. They feel real. Most importantly, they’re interesting. We always know what their needs are and why they need it.
After he gives a pretty detailed beat by beat run down of the pilot episode, he goes over story beats for the entire first season of his show up to the cliffhanger ending. He wraps up by touching on the themes of further seasons so that whoever he’s pitching to knows he’s thought through this entire world.
Off the top of my head, I’ve sat through seven very detailed pitches in the past year from him. He’s a work horse. In addition to learning how to pitch, I learned how to manage time and projects. I’ll write more about that in the future.
So that brings me to our pitch.
Along with comedian DJ Dangler and artist Axel Ortiz, I created an animated show. My friend Joe Apel has been working in animation for the past ten years and directed me to someone at a network who might be looking for something maybe along the lines of what we created. I sent an email and a meeting was set up pretty quickly.
DJ spends most of his time on the road making his living off of stand up, while I’m currently choosing to take a little break from the road and focus my attention on California right now. When the meeting was set, DJ decided to fly back to not only be there for the meeting, but to make sure we were prepared.
Axel is just as much of a work horse as the aforementioned television writer. He’s a veteran of the pitch meeting, but pointed out earlier that if we had a star attached to our show, that would give us an advantage. Over the past six months, I’ve been working on getting the biggest name I know attached to it. The week before our pitch, we got him. He looked at what we were going in with and said that he was happy to be part of it and if it lands, we can hammer out the details then.
I researched the person we were pitching to. She was a guest on a comedy podcast and spent an entire hour talking about the pitching process. In that interview, I also found out that she, like DJ, is from Indiana and her wife, like me, is from Michigan. She and I both nerd out over character actors too. So I knew we had a conversation opener and I wasn’t going to have to overly explain things like if I said, “Oh this character is a little bit like Miller from the movie Repo Man, played by Tracey Walter”, she was going to know who Tracey Walter is. For the record, many of the scripts I’ve written have characters that I imagine Tracey Walter playing. I know why Jonathan Demme puts him in every movie, because Tracey Walter is a national treasure! I once told DJ that I would be more excited about meeting Tracey Walter than I would be about meeting George Lucas or Harrison Ford. I think Tracey Walter lives within a mile of me too. And if you think every time my girlfriend and I walk around the neighborhood, I’m not on a constant look out for Tracey Walter watering his plants, then you’re wrong!
Axel went in to pitch on another show three weeks prior to our meeting and told us what the executive asked from them. DJ and I wanted to make sure we were over prepared. We had a pilot script. We had ideas for story beats for our first season and I knew what I wanted to happen in the final episode of the entire series. But DJ and I detailed out episode by episode the entire first season of our show. We knew the story beats and what themes each episode would explore. A friend of mine who works in printing made us a really nice pitch packet too.
The idea of writing stories with an overall point of view or theme is something that I would accidentally sometimes hit, but other times missed completely. DJ and I have a mutual friend in comedian turned television writer Nick Anthony who really hammered into us the idea that we sometimes missed that. So when DJ and I started the conversation about each episode of our show, we started with what was the theme for that episode. It really helped us figure out where the other characters were going to be in their individual arcs.
The night before our pitch, DJ and I walked home around five miles from West Hollywood to the far eastern side of Hollywood really exploring every character we created. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their desires, their backgrounds, and their secrets.
So going into our pitch I knew we created something cool, timely, we have a big name attached and we were prepared.
The meeting was great. I told her that I enjoyed the podcast she was on and we found out her dad and sister both went to Purdue, same as DJ. Her wife and my girlfriend are from the same small suburb of Detroit. She asked how DJ, Axel and I knew each other. DJ and I have a fun origin story where we both showed up early at Nick Anthony’s home to go do a show in San Diego. Nick wasn’t there yet. I was parked on the street waiting. A guy pulled up on the other side of the street, got out of his car, put a large pizza on the roof and just ate the entire thing in front of me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. He was so full of unadulterated and gluttonous joy. From that moment I wish I could be that guy’s friend. That guy turned out to be DJ. We hit it off that night and have been friends ever since. Axel and I met at San Diego Comic Con last year and our origin story gave me a chance to really talk about how much I love his work and why he was the perfect person to design our show.
Then she wanted to know about our characters. DJ and I were able to speak passionately and deeply about each of them. I like writing female characters. This show features two really strong female characters. The main character is, in some ways, man boy with arrested development not completely unlike DJ or myself. One of the women in the show is his daughter, the other is basically his boss. Both are strong. Neither of them are bitchy. Both of them are just as cool and quick as he is. They’re strong women, but they’re perfect. They’re deep and rich characters. I can see how it would be an easy trap for a guy writing a woman to over compensate by trying to make her too perfect. Ours aren’t at all. They both have real human foibles. Also, I’m hoping I just used the word “foibles” correctly.
At the end of our meeting she asked us what our roles would be if the show were picked up. I explained that when Garth Ennis created the comic book Preacher he gave artist Steve Dillon co-creator credit because he felt the look of it was just as important as the story. I believe in that. When I asked Axel to draw the characters, I told him very little. And aside from changing the hair color on one of them, I didn’t have any changed. I love his art. DJ and I are great at writing jokes and character, but we still struggle with story and conflict. An analogy a script reader gave us of a screenplay that we wrote was that there’s “a lot of icing, but not much cake”. That’s fair. So I said DJ and I care a lot about our characters, but if the show were picked up, it would probably be best if we were teamed with a producer who was better at breaking stories. So I think that showed that we were flexible and going to be easy to work with.
There’s another show, which I can’t name, where the creators were fired because they were way too difficult and had very unrealistic expectations of what they were entitled to. Hollywood is a city built on collaborative art. Nothing here is a single vision. You have to be willing to trust others to help you create the best product possible.
According to the podcast our executive was on, because she sees so many people, her pitch meetings rarely go more than thirty minutes. Ours went 45. She laughed a lot and seemed engaged. There’s nothing I would have done differently about our meeting. We gave her our book with the character art and descriptions as well as additional information about the show. We’ll know more in a couple weeks.
Yes, at this stage a hundred things would have to happen for this to be a show any of us would ever get to see. We’re going to move forward and continue pitching to other places too. But on the flipside of this meeting, I thought it would be nice to share some of the tips that I learned.
- Know as much about the person you’re pitching as you can. As they say, “knowledge is power”.
- Be prepared to explain why what you’re pitching is important to you personally and why you’re the best person to write it.
- Television is a medium based on characters. Make sure you have interesting ones and you can talk about them.
- As with any speech writing, pepper in a joke or two if it suits the mood. I don’t think I’d try to make anyone laugh if I were pitching Schindler’s List: The Series.
- Keep it pithy, punk. Metallica songs are like three hours long and feel like they include every idea that everyone in the band had. In the time it takes to listen to two Metallica songs, you could listen to seventeen Ramones songs. Be a Ramone. Leave them wanting more.
- Don’t just talk. Listen. We were prepared to talk nonstop for 15-20 minutes, but were totally able to let our exec lead the pitch in a much more conversational and informal manner.
- Television is a flexible art. We didn’t get any notes in this first meeting, but my mentor has. He digests them all and if he has complaints, he does it later to his manager, not in the room.
- Know what you’re talking about inside and out. DJ and I know every in and out of our show where it stands right now. And if you had a question for us that we didn’t know the answer to, we’d make something up. We have an alien character who is the last of his kind. What planet is he from? Zaphodbrock. He’s a Zaphoid from the planet Zaphodbrock. I just made that up. It’s one part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and one part late singer of Gwar. If you wanted me to talk about Zaphodbrock, I could. And DJ could jump in and we’d piggy back on each other’s ideas. Executives want to feel safe. The words, “I don’t know”, has never instilled security in anyone.
- If you can’t come up with ten items, don’t just make stuff up to fill time or space. See #5.
So there you go. I’m far from an expert, but I know a week or two ago I’d love to have this information compiled in one place. I hope this helps or at least makes for some interesting reading.
After the release of the Rogue One: A Star Wars trailer last week, I posted on Facebook five IMDB message board thread titles that I felt really showed the best/worst reaction.
The fanboys aren’t happy.
Later in the day, I had a talk with a gay Asian coworker about the reason behind the backlash. He didn’t get it. That’s when I realized what it might be. He’s had a lifetime of not seeing himself onscreen in genre films. Most fanboys haven’t.
Straight, white males are used to seeing themselves represented in nerd culture. From Ant-Man to Zartan, comic books and sci-fi are riddled with straight, white male characters. I grew up in a pretty white suburb. When we played Star Wars on the playground, everyone wanted to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. No one was calling dibs on being Princess Leia or Lando Calrissian.
If a movie hero isn’t a white male, for the longest time, that movie was a mainstream flop. Granted, Steel and Blankman are arguably terrible movies. But Spawn were decent enough. And Hancock was actually good. The Crow was a cult hit and maybe that’s because Brandon Lee was only half Asian.
To the best of my memory, Val Kilmer in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the first time I even remember seeing a gay action hero on screen.
It’s been said that video games are the future of entertainment. They don’t have a much better track record, although I always liked to believe that Pitfall Harry was a nickname for Pitfall Harriet, and she was running across the jungle, not in an exercise of futility, but for Civil Rights.
Video games, for the most part, have straight, white male protagonists, unless it’s a game where you can create your own character. When those games offer a possibility where your male avatar can romance another man or your female avatar can romance another woman, it becomes a newsworthy and there’s backlash.
I’ve got news for the conservative parents who insist that Mass Effect made their son, playing a male Shepard, romance that hot male soldier. The game was impartial. Your son banged that dude because your son wanted to bang that dude. And believe me, he had to really work for it, just like I had to work to have my female Shepard bed down with Liara, the blue alien lady.
I like this new era of seeing diversity in our heroes. Any time I’ve played a video game where I could create my own character, I’d create a badass lady hero. And it’s not that I’m such an emotionally advanced and progressive dude. It’s just that if I’m going to stare at the back of someone running for 100 hours of game play, I want them to have a pretty butt. And that’s the same as my coworker who said that any time he can create his own character, he’d create a super hot guy.
The backlash with female heroes seems to be a pretty American thing. Luc Besson almost exclusively heads up his films with strong ladies. Mad Max: Fury Road is a technically an Australian film. And even more so, should have been titled Imperator Furiosa: Fury Road. American genre films, especially Star Wars seems to be the core of sexism and racism in nerd culture.
Was Mad Max any more groundbreaking than Star Wars: The Force Unleashed? Both movies are female lead requels of existing franchises with full realized worlds and cutting edge special effects. Star Wars was woefully snubbed at the Oscars. How many black people are in the entire Mad Max franchise? One. Tina Turner. Star Wars has Finn in a starring role and I really hope that it’s dropped casually and matter of factly that Poe is gay. Star Wars also has a much deeper plot then, let’s drive towards the left side of the screen for an hour, then turn around and drive to the right side.
The Force Awakens was dismissed by many as being a retread of A New Hope. I couldn’t disagree more. They’re similar only in that both stories are about people discovering their calling. Isn’t that kind of the case of all origin stories? A New Hope is basically just Luke’s story to blow up the Death Star. The Force Awakens is mostly about the quest to find Luke Skywalker. It isn’t just about Rey’s journey from survivor to hero. It’s about Finn going against his literal programming to be a hero. It’s about parents trying to fix their part in not being their for their son. It’s a much deeper film than Mad Max and A New Hope.
One of my biggest hopes was that if I ever had a daughter, I’d have a son first, so he could be the protective big brother. But in this age, especially in this Star Wars age, of having role models like Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones and hopefully a better used Gwendoline Christie, I realize I don’t have to revert to ancient beliefs and hokey old fashioned thinking. If I ever have a daughter, she’ll get to live in a new era of Disney Princesses who don’t need rescuing. She’ll get to live in an era where Disney Princesses wield lightsabers and steal Death Star plans.
Inspired by DJ Dangler ranking all 41 Marvel superhero movies after he and I saw Avengers 2, I decided to rank my top 20 non-superhero comic book movies. It’s not nearly as ambitious as DJ’s list, which can be found here, but I hope you enjoy it just the same.
I’ve noticed a theme in the following movies. I tend to really like stories that feature women kicking a lot of ass. At least 13 of the following 20 films have really strong and notable female leads. Thinking about the stuff I’ve written, I feel better knowing now that I’m not writing those parts out of some weird male guilt. I’m apparently writing those parts because they’re characters that have always appealed to me.
- Losers (2010): Just look at this cast! You’ve got Captain America, Gamora, Heimdall, and the Comedian. This movie, based on a Vertigo comic, out A-Teams the A-Team movie.
- Art School Confidential (2006): This is another one with a great cast. I think if I revisited this, it would probably rank much higher for me. My memory is that at least the A story is about how all the talent in the world doesn’t matter because art is subjective and it’s almost arbitrary who gets to sit at the cool kid’s table. Just looking at the cast list is blowing me away. I will revisit this soon.
- Persepolis (2007): This animated film is a pretty straight forward adaptation of the comic about the Islamic Revolution. I suppose it I was more in touch with world events, I’d probably have this one ranked much higher. I recognize that it’s an important film. It was nominated for every big award.
- V for Vendetta (2006): I begrudgingly like Alan Moore work. He’s such a curmudgeon though, that he makes it hard. Plus, he’s on record not liking film adaptations of his work. I only recently saw V. It’s long. It’s good. I know I’d probably appreciate it more if I read the comic, but Alan Moore comics can be quite laborsome.
- The Crow (1994): I don’t know if this was a thing unique to Detroit, but during my childhood Devil’s Night was the night before Halloween and it was the night that people burned the city to ground. At least that’s what the news reports led me to believe in the safety of my suburban home. Crow creator James O’Barr is from Detroit and maybe the same things scared him that scared me. So he created this Detroit vigilante. Yeah, this movie spawned a handful of sequels that I don’t remember being all that great, but this one is something good. Indie movie superstar Michael Wincott makes a great bad guy!
- Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014): Living in Los Angeles means I get to go to a lot of test screenings. This was one of them. I knew nothing about it going in. There were no credits. I had no idea it was based on a Mark Millar comic. Millar’s comics have been hit or miss when it comes to being adapted to the screen. Wanted bears almost no resemblance to its source material, while KickAss is pretty faithful. I’ve never read The Secret Service comic, but this movie was great! It could very easily be James Bond for this new generation. Taron Edgerton makes his big screen debut and handily carries the movie. Colin Firth is delightful as always, but also kicks a shit ton of ass.
- American Splendor (2003): It seems to be tough to make a non-formulaic biopic. American Splendor manages to do that successfully by breaking the fourth wall and having the real life Harvey Pekar comment on the film about his life during the film about his life. I’m a sucker for meta and for Paul Giamatti. This movie has both. Another thing this movie has is proof that, in addition to being one of our more unique stand up comedians today, Judah Friedlander is a phenomenal actor who can disappear in a role. I saw this well after I was familiar with Friedlander, but had no idea he was even in this film.
- Sin City (2005): Sin City is a really stylized comic that I would have thought would have been nearly impossible to bring to the screen. Robert Rodriguez not only accomplished the impossible, but he did it incredibly faithfully, using the source material as story boards. Sin City is the blackest noir. It has a pretty stellar ensemble cast full of heavy hitters. And while The Wrestler is often cited as Mickey Rourke’s big comeback, it’s really Sin City.
- Ghost World (2001): I don’t know why this movie about two girls facing life after graduating high school speaks to me so much, but it does. I have a reputation among my friends to be into exactly this kind of thing, but honestly, I either don’t remember reading the comic or don’t remember liking the comic. I can get behind character studies in film, but I have a hard time doing the same in print. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson play the aforementioned girls. Steve Buscemi is really understated and great in this.
- 30 Days of Night (2007): I loved the movie. It’s such a great concept. Vampires in Alaska where you get 30 Days of Night. How terrifying is that? I enjoyed the movie so much, that I tried to read the comics, but I just couldn’t get into the art style. It’s very abstract if my memory is correct. Ben Foster plays a small, but pivotal role in this. He may be one of the best actors of our time.
- Stardust (2007): This may be a little bit of a cheat. If my memory is right, Stardust isn’t so much a comic as much as it’s an illustrated novel by Sandman creator Neil Gaiman. This movie is a lot of fun. I don’t think Robert De Niro does comedy very well. He always seems uncomfortable to me when he tries. But here, he really cuts loose and plays a comedic character who is kind of layered. I had to think about it for a second and ponder if his character (a gay pirate) is a gross stereotype, but my gut tells me it isn’t offensive. Coincidentally, I had an audition today where the casting director wanted me to play my character as gay. What does that even mean? He kept asking me to make it more over the top (i.e. swishy I guess). I wouldn’t and couldn’t. I have plenty of gay friends (too many if you ask me!) and not one of them nances around like a clown. It’s also really fun listening to a casting director try to find the least offensive way of asking you to do something pretty offensive.
- Heavy Metal (1981): This is a gem. When I was a kid, one mall theater played Rocky Horror as their midnight movie and the other played Heavy Metal. This animated movie is a collection of short stories, much like the magazine it’s based on. Each section is pretty different than the last. My favorite stories are the sci-fi noir about a cabbie, who I’m sure inspired Luc Besson considerably when creating Bruce Willis’ role in Fifth Element. There’s also the story about the white haired woman who can control dragons, who kind of reminds me a little of Game of Thrones all of a sudden. John Candy voices a nerdy kid who gets mutated into a Vin Deisel-like ass kicking machine. There’s even a horror short about war, which I believe is set to some Black Sabbath music. A lot of the old National Lampoon guys like Harold Ramis do voices in this. It’s really worth seeing.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): I’m not sure how a comic book that I remember disliking so much that it made me angry managed to become a movie that would crack my top ten comic book films. The music is good. The acting is good. The story is fine. Edgar Wright is the real star here. He managed to make a movie that is stylistically genius. Seeing how well he did this makes me sad that he bailed out on Ant Man. I think I’m going to have a hard time watching Ant Man and not thinking about how much better it would be with Edgar Wright at the helm.
- The Watchmen (2009): Okay, I wrote earlier about how Alan Moore can be tedious. With that in mind, The Watchmen is one of two things he’s written that I managed to finish. Both of those things (Top Ten is the other) are things I’ve read repeatedly. I get it. The reward for making it through Alan Moore’s work is worth it. The Watchmen is about as dense as it gets when it comes to comics. It may only be second to The Sandman series. The movie does its best to get everything in there, but it would really have to be about a four or five hour film to do that. I do own the complete edition on Blu-Ray that clocks in at a little more than 3 ½ hours. Honestly, I haven’t watched the version yet. One day I will. The opening credit sequence of this movie has never been topped in my opinion.
- Barbarella (1968): This movie is everything I imagine 1968 to be, but set in a sci-fi world. You get classic lines like “An Angel doesn’t make love. An Angel is love.” Jane Fonda “floats” around during the opening titles stripping off her space suit until she’s just in her birthday suit. There’s some pretty neat stuff here. There’s a sequence with creepy dolls with razor sharp teeth who bite away at Barbarella leotard. I think this movie is responsible for a good majority of my perversions! About a dozen years ago it was rumored that Drew Barrymore was going to star in a remake. I’m kind of bummed that didn’t happen because beneath a heavy dose of 60s hippy cheese, there’s kind of a cool thing here. Unfortunately it almost feels like the film makers ran out of money at the end because the finale really happens quickly and awkwardly. Really, nostalgia is the only reason I’m ranking this so highly.
- Dredd (2012): Sometimes we love the things we love because we were at a good point in our lives when we discovered them. I saw this movie in the Mall of America while doing a run of comedy shows with Jeff Scheen. Jeff was my favorite person to take out on the road because he could make me laugh until I cried both on stage and off. I’ve never laughed harder than I have with that weirdo. So all of that may account for why I love Dredd so much. It’s not a great movie. It’s really basically a video game pretending to be a movie. Here’s the thing though, it’s a fun movie! The story is really simple. Dredd and a rookie have to make it to the top level of a building to have a boss fight. It’s basically Kung Fu on the original Nintendo. Karl Urban made a great Dredd. He got the mouth down perfect…which is all you need to see of Dredd. This isn’t the Stallone helmetless version. Lena Headey makes a great villain as the drug lord Ma-Ma as well.
- Mystery Men (1999): The fact that the director Kinka Usher never directed another motion picture made a lot of conspiracy people think that maybe Tim Burton was really behind this film. I’m pretty sure Usher is a real person. He’s an award winning commercial director…or maybe that’s how Burton makes extra money so he can keep buying silly costumes for Johnny Depp! Mystery Men is based on a really obscure comic called The Flaming Carrot. The Carrot was one of the Mystery Men. Somehow, someone, I’m going to guess someone in Gwar (name drop) turned me on to some really cool comics like The Flaming Carrot and Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman. Mystery Men is another movie with a really great ensemble cast. You’ve got Eddie Izzard and Geoffrey Rush as the villains. And the Mystery Men are Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, William H. Macy(!), and Kel Mitchell. Tom Waits plays a Tom Waits type weirdo scientist who makes non-lethal weapons and has a taste for the much older ladies. He’s also the one responsible for saying that Tim Burton made this movie. I think the reason that rumor had any legs is because this movie looks huge! It’s a fully realized world that certainly has a bit of Burton and even a little Ridley Scott in it.
- Conan the Barbarian (1982): Arnold Schwarzenegger will always be Conan to me. And even though James Earl Jones voiced Darth Vader, whenever I hear his name, I always picture his Conan villain Thulsa Doom first. I think the first time I ever saw sex on screen was in this movie. After freeing himself from slavery, Conan stumbles on a hut in the desert. He has sex with the lady inside who turns out to be some sort of she-beast. If you think that didn’t cause psychological issues later in life for me, you’re wrong! So once you get close to a lady, she’s get weird and try to ruin your day? Got it! Lesson learned! While the comic relief of my all time favorite character actor Tracey Walter fits the spirit of the 1984 sequel perfectly, I kind of wish he was in this film too. This movie is much grittier than the PG or PG-13 sequel. I don’t think Conan works unless he’s rated R. The Basil Poledouris soundtrack is right up there with anything John Williams or Ennio Morricone have ever composed. This film is great from top to bottom. I think maybe my dad told me once that Conan in the comics and novels isn’t as dumb as Arnold plays him here, but in all fairness, the Oliver Stone/John Milius script doesn’t ask him to do much beyond spouting off macho declarations.
- Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006): I often get in conversations with friends about things like: Who are the best actors of our time? We always cover the big name people, but forget chameleons like Shea Whigham who costars here as a basically Eugene Hutz from the band Gogol Bordello. Wristcutters is basically a road trip movie through a bleak purgatory. Purgatory is described in this movie as basically the same as things here only shittier. Patrick Fugit is really great as the star, and honestly it surprises me that with this as a win, along with Almost Famous, why he hasn’t been given the chance to carry more films. Granted, Almost Famous is really an ensemble. Anyway, back to this film, based in part on a comic called Kamikaze Pizzeria. Shannyn Sossamon, another really terrific and underused actor, rounds out the starring roles. The rest of the film is filled with really great character actors playing quirky, but grounded in the strange reality of this world, roles. You’ve got Nick Offerman, Tom Waits, Abraham Benrubi, Mark Boone Junior, John Hawkes and Mary Pat Gleason. This is a really sweet movie, with a great soundtrack, about love and suicide.
- Tank Girl (1995): I love Tank Girl to the point where you should be surprised that I don’t have a Tank Girl tattoo. Why don’t I have a Tank Girl tattoo? That’s a huge oversight on my part. I read the comics way before this movie was even a thing. That’s not entirely true. I probably read the comics a couple years before this movie was a thing. I remember getting excited about the casting news, even before the internet made it super easy to get excited over such silly things. Part of me is still kind of bummed that Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton didn’t get the role. I think there’s something about the way the role is written in the comics that makes the character British. I still can’t imagine movie Tank Girl to be anyone other than Lori Petty. This movie is a good 70% of the reason I have a Lori Petty crush. Prey For Rock ‘n’ Roll, A Leauge of Their Own and Point Break each get an equal 10% of the credit. Petty makes Tank Girl her own. Director Rachel Talalay really managed to shape a really anarchic comic and shape it into a cohesive story and makes the Tank Girl character more likable through making her more three dimensional. In print, she’s all explosions and shagging. She’s all Id. But in the film, she’s on a mission. Talalay lost a bit of the film in editing to the studio, but she includes all the deleted stuff on her website. Tank Girl is unfortunately a DVD without a lot of extras. It’s a real shame that it looks like Talalay only got three chances at filmmaking and has done television ever since, because all three of her films manage to do something pretty ambitious only what I can only imagine were fairly limited budgets and I’m guessing a lot of sexism in Hollywood giving a female director a chance to do two sci-fi movies and a horror film. For a person who started as a production assistant for John Waters, she has a great body of work. I love stories about tough as nails women, and Tank Girl is definitely one of those stories both in front of and behind the camera.
In 2014 I made a huge leap of faith from my long time home in Michigan to the great unknown in California. It was and continues to be scary.
This is a place that’s much more open to helping you when you’re a visitor than it is when you’re a resident. When I would visit, I got on the best shows in town because I knew a handful of people and could say, “Hey, I’m going to be in LA the second week in June, can you put me on?” Now that I’m here, there’s no urgency. I’m just another mouse trying to get a piece of the cheese. As far as comedy goes, honestly, I’ve done more here as a visitor than I have as a resident.
For free entertainment, I managed to get myself on the list to get free movie screening passes. Recently, this has gotten me into a couple of super advance screenings of movies that aren’t due out for months and months. Contractually, I’m not allowed to say anything about the movies, but there wasn’t anything in the confidentiality agreement about talking about the screening process. So let’s cover those in the broadest terms.
After the movies everyone in the audience gets questionnaires. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Every opinion is the same. My opinion doesn’t matter any more or less than the guy in the American flag shirt with the cut off sleeves…and yeah, that guy really exists. My opinion doesn’t matter any more or less than woman who kept misplacing her child because she was doing something else. My opinion also doesn’t matter any more or less than that child, who also gets a questionnaire! Technically, my opinion matters less than all the aforementioned people because I’m too old.
Inspired by an article on Hip in Detroit about how to be a good music fan, I decided to write about what it takes to be a good comedy audience.
1. Research the comedian you’re going to see. There are a crazy number of a varieties of comedy. It’s like ice cream. Baskin Robbins sells 31 flavors because not everybody likes chocolate or vanilla. Some people love Superman…and if you’re one of those people, you’re wrong! Comedy is the same way. Maybe you like the nimble wordplay of a Myq Kaplan or the introspection of a Marc Maron or maybe you just like an angry hippy to smash a watermelon on stage. Those are just three examples of the many, many kinds of comedy out there. All are valid. Comedy clubs generally only serve one kind of ice cream each week. I love Moose Tracks. I’d hate to go to a comedy club expecting Moose Tracks and find out that week they were only serving Raspberry Sherbet. I hate Rasperries! So research your entertainment options. Most comedy clubs have a website where they list the performers. And most performers have clips of their act available online. I wouldn’t walk into a movie house and just plan on seeing “movie”. No, I’d know exactly what movie I wanted to see because I researched the product first. I should have stuck with the ice cream analogy. I’m hungry. Read the rest of this entry
Maybe it’s nerves or the adrenaline rush of doing what we’ve waited all day long to do, but many comedians tend to talk a bit too fast on stage. Comedian and owner of the Komedy Korner, Leo DuFour once suggested when I got off stage that I slow down and enjoy my time like I would a delicious meal. Maybe that was a health tip and I’m forgetting that I was scarfing down a Poutine platter at the time….it was Canada after all. Let me find another example.
One of my best friends asked me after a show why I don’t speak on stage like I speak normally off stage. He was right. I didn’t believe in my material at the time so on stage I would yell and ram my jokes down the throats of the audience as quickly as I could.
Last week I was at one of my favorite clubs, The Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin. I absolutely love this place. Gus and Mary who own it are two of the nicest people I’ve ever had the good fortune of meeting. Their daughters Eve and Anna are beautiful inside and out. Joe, the room manager runs are super tight ship and is an hell of a guy too. The waitstaff is stunning. The bartenders all handsome. Both on the surface and beneath it, everything about this place is fantastic.
Originally I was supposed to be doing this week as a split week where I would headline Thursday and then Eddie Brill who used to book Letterman would come in on Friday and Saturday. Eddie got into a little trouble earlier this year for being misquoted or having his words taken out of context about female comics. So he canceled the gig. Instead I was working with Ian Edwards. Read the rest of this entry
I’m in Appleton, Wisconsin right now. Appleton is probably best known as the first American home of Harry Houdini. I went to the Houdini Museum today and it struck me how much I could take from Houdini’s life and apply it to comedy.
Erik Weisz was constantly reinventing himself. His earliest performing was as a trapeze artist. When he moved on to magic, he took the name Harry Houdini. For some comedians it’s easy to find your groove and stay in it. I think sometimes there’s little difference between a groove and a rut. I doubt anyone today would remember Houdini the trapeze artist, or Ehrich The Prince of the Air as he was calling himself at the time. I don’t know how many of us would even remember Houdini the magician. It’s that third reinvention as an escape artist that brought Houdini his fame. Read the rest of this entry
This past weekend I was at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase with my friend Nate Fridson. I’ve only seen Nate once since he moved to New York about a year or so ago. He churned out a ton of new material. It was really nice watching him. I was nervous going into the weekend since it had been a good month since I did more than 15 minutes of time in one set. Maybe stand up is like riding a bike. I haven’t ridden a bike in years and I’m worried how my first attempt would be.
The shows ended up going pretty well. With the exception of about four or five minutes on being an uncle, I’m not doing any material from my CD that I released just about a year ago. I have a pretty good track record at the Showcase so I took advantage of that trust to try out some new pieces. Most of them worked.
This week marks the start of two months of road work. The boredom I feel from doing the same jokes over and over again tends to go away when I’m in new cities. I know everything will be brand new to them. This week I’ll be at the Skyline Comedy Cafe in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s a great club and I’m really looking forward to it.
Earlier in the week I did a live episode of WTF with Marc Maron. That was pretty awesome. I know Marc has his reputation, but he’s been super cool to me. I was nervous for the interview, but it went fairly well. We dug a little more into my personal life than I would have wanted, but that’s the nature of the show. After that I went over to the UCB Theatre and did a set on Comedy Bang Bang. Zach Galifianakis closed that show. Backstage he seemed like a genuinely good guy. That made me happy. Eric Andre was there too. He was just super nice and charming. It really does seem like the only dicks you encounter in this business are the people at the bottom who are bitter being stuck there. The higher up you go, the nicer people seem to be.
I closed out my LA trip with a set on The Meltdown and Meltdown Comics. That show was simply amazing. It’s a small room, packed full of comedy super fans. The line up is always great. I was so honored that my Jonah Ray let me be part of it. Through my years I’ve met a lot of people who I don’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like. Jonah is one of those guys. He’s another guy who in addition to being a really good comedian, is also a hell of a nice person.
Sean Patton from New Orleans closed the Meltdown show and was simply amazing. I worked with Sean here in Michigan and thought he was great. Earlier this week though, that greatness was on a whole new level. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, another super awesome person too. Hopefully Sean and I will be able to do some shows together in 2013. He’s going to be on Maron’s television show for IFC next year. I have a feeling that’s about the time that he’s going to blow up and become a household name at least with comedy nerds.
From start to finish, last week was a blast! Enjoy some clips from Nate, Jonah and Sean.