Recommendation Dump September 2017

Oh, Hello On Broadway — Oh, Hello is a comedy act created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney—two comedians who are terrific on their own, and dynamite together. Kroll plays the child-like Gil Faizon, and Mulaney plays the near-psychotic George St. Geegland—two seventy-something New Yorkers who are tantalizingly delusional, pretentious, and mean-spirited. The two have a terrific dynamic that doesn’t smack of the usual straight-man funny-man schtick, since they’re both ludicrous caricatures of elderly Upper West Side residents. Mulaney and Kroll have been refining these characters for over a decade, on Kroll Show, on podcasts, at live shows, and countless other places. Don’t take my word for it—you can watch them on youtube here here here and here, and actually a bunch more places if you like, but those are just a primer.

So, the show itself. The show is part stand-up routine, part parody, and part variety show. The conceit is that Gil and George are performing one of the many plays that George has written, though there is constant fourth-wall breaking throughout, including a long opening segment in which the two introduce themselves, and send-up various Broadway tropes. The play within the play is essentially autobiographical for George and Gil, although the characters in it are much more successful versions of themselves. In the middle of the show is a segment where, embedded as a prank show within the play-within-the-play, the two interview some celebrity—during the run of the show, it was a different person each night, but for the Netflix special it’s Steve Martin. It’s a nice little breather in the middle of the non-stop barrage of jokes and gaffes, where Kroll and Mulaney get to exercise their (practiced) improv chops, and the audience gets to see a different person making jokes on stage.

With such a precise, fine-tuned set of characters delivering such a focused brand of comedy, I can’t guarantee that this show is for everyone. If you like what you see in the clips I linked, and/or if you like when theatre makes fun of itself, then this special should be a knock-out success for you. It was for me, and I ended up re-watching it the night after I first saw it.

The Adventure Zone – TAZ is a D&D podcasts DMed by Griffin McElroy, of My Brother, My Brother and Me. The players are his and brother and his brother, and their dad—Travis and Justin, and Clint McElroy respectively. Naturally, they all have great chemistry, which is part of what makes the podcast. You could probably drop these guys into any D&D campaign and get an entertaining result. It’s also great that there’s no air of snark or self-referentiality or hahaha-isn’t-D&D-stupid about the podcast. It’s still hilarious, but there’s a sincerity underneath it all which really attracted me.

The thing that is stand-out-fantastic about this podcast is the strength of Griffin’s DMing. For the first few episodes, the quest that our heroes are on is straight out of a D&D book, but pretty quickly Griffin spins off and starts doing his own thing. The campaign is divided up into multiple arcs, each of which involves the adventurers retrieving an artifact, and each of these arcs takes some genre or trope and executes it to a tee—one is an Agatha-Christie-style cozy, another is a Mad Max/Fast and Furious kind of mash-up. Again, there’s a lot of fun to be had here, but underneath the jokes the genres are approached with sincerity, and a clear understanding on Griffin and the players’ parts of what makes them so fun.

Also, the podcast just finished the first campaign, so if you’re a maniac like me you can go through and listen to it in its entirety—or you can wait for whatever campaign they start next, and follow that one from the beginning. Whatever they do, like I said, these four are terrific, so I’m sure it’ll be great.

100 Demon Dialogues by Lucy Bellwood – This is a series of 100 single-panel comics that Lucy Bellwood made during the 100 day project. They portray dialogues between her and the nagging, over-critical, pessimistic voice in her head, personified as a little demon. She’s currently producing a print edition of all the drawings, but you can also read all of them free online here.

I’m honestly having trouble organizing my thoughts because there’s so much great stuff that this series does. Let’s start from here: I talk to myself a lot. I argue with myself about everything from my writing to my productivity to politics to food. So I often find that, when writers—or any kind of artists—talk about their internal critic, the discourse seems over-simplistic. The idea is usually that the internal critic is going to make your art worse by rounding off all the sharp corners that make it unique, or by inventing problems that aren’t even there. The idea is normally that the internal critic is something that needs to be shut-up. The same goes for a more general internal critic, which tells you you’re no good as a person.

But where do you draw the line? Being able to recognize areas of weakness, and pushing to improve, is massively important to becoming a better artist—or a better person. Being able to push yourself to work even when you don’t want to is equally important—though it becomes dangerous when you start to conflate taking a break from work with being a failure as a person, or when you start to have unreasonable expectations of output. In 100 Demon Dialogues, Bellwood frequently explores this muddy middle area.

So what I love so much about this series is that it doesn’t treat the demon like an enemy that needs to be exterminated. Maybe that’s what rubs me the wrong way about the typical discussion of self-doubt—the idea that that voice is foreign, that it’s somehow not you, and that it needs to be removed. That line of thinking almost supposes that people who appear more confident are people who have conquered those voices, rather than people who have learned how to deal with them. It supposes that there’s some truer happier version of ourselves that needs to be uncovered, but really, the demon is us, and we need to live with it.

So what I love so much about this series (second time I’ve used that phrase) is that it is about Lucy just dealing with the demon, in a sweeping variety of ways—often with a sarcastic quip, sometimes by just ignoring it, sometimes giving in to it, sometimes by commiserating with it, sometimes by telling it she loves it. Likewise, the demon doesn’t only nag about her artwork—it worries about not working enough, about working too much, about the state of the world, about being ungrateful, about not being a real artist, about being too vulnerable—and sometimes, it’s worries seem like legitimately rational concerns (albeit delivered a bit acerbically.)

Also, the art is really terrific and expressive, and adds comedic punch to the dialogues. Going hand-in-hand with this expressivity is how specific the dialogues are. Rather than just saying, “You’re not a real artist,” the demon will say, “A real artist never runs out of ideas,” or “They’re all so amazing. There’s no way we belong here.” And Bellwood depicts some fears that don’t fall into the more commonly discussed feelings of inadequacy, like the fear that she has to do everything herself if she wants to get a good result, or the fear of not being able to accept criticism. This specificity is what makes these comics so relatable, and why this one has become so etched into my mind recently. Honestly, I could write another paragraph about why I love that panel so much, but it’d be a lot of me talking about myself, and I’ve done that enough already. The point is, that comic really spoke to me, and some issues I’m wrestling with, because of how specific and honest it is, and with a hundred panels that are treated with that same level of precision and openness, I’m sure anyone who reads it will have a dialogue that especially speaks to them.

So go and read it! It’s really freaking good! (If you don’t read it you’re a failure.) JK JK. But seriously, they’re fantastic.

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