But It's Always Good to See Brian Posehn Getting Work
by Mark T.R. Donohue
Do I lose my standing as a feminist because I found the Girls Gone Wild advertisements airing during the late night rerun of "The Sarah Silverman Program" I just watched to be better-written, better-produced, and on the whole more entertaining (not to mention way funnier) than the show itself? I've never understood the public's fascination with Silverman, although to be fair my exposure has been less to her standup and more to her supporting roles in films, which invariably cast her in stock harridan girlfriend roles. I suppose there is a certain artistry to the anti-versatility which allowed the actress to repeat the precise same performance in the otherwise dissimilar School of Rock and "Futurama." Her sitcom however is a tone-deaf stream of unpleasant potty language.
I mean, hey, swears are great. I love Clerks; I love Goodfellas. But they're not an end in and of themselves. Comedy Central ought to know better; they aired the great "South Park" episode "It Hits the Fan." In that show, you may remember, Trey Parker and Matt Stone drew attention to the incredibly fleeting shelf life of shock value by repeating the same obscenity over and over so many times (complete with counter!) that it lost all meaning. They also skewered TV shows trying to draw in viewers with bare butts and naughty words through the device of a network constantly trying to outdo itself and keep viewers tuned in first with one s-word, then two s-words, then an entire night of programming in which every actor simply said the s-word over and over again. That was satire, though. "The Sarah Silverman Program," bless its smutty, unfunny little heart, is just senseless, contextless vulgarity from start to finish. However it will likely expand your vocabulary. Many of the words I heard in this my first episode I was honestly not familiar enough with to be shocked by. Maybe I'm less jaded than I thought I was! That's a cheering thought.
Comedy Central has had tremendous difficulty developing new shows since Dave Chappelle flew the coop. "South Park" has recently rallied after a long lull caused by its creators stretching themselves too thin; after ten seasons it's arguably as strong as it's ever been. (This surge in quality is helped along, no doubt, by the fact that the real world has grown so ever-increasingly bizarre in the last decade that finding subject matter must be a relative breeze.) Trying to keep track of the number of "promising" new shows Comedy Central has tried to launch in the slot after "South Park," however, is a chore. "Drawn Together": not funny. "Freak Show": amazingly, given the talents of the usually unconscious David Cross and H. Jon Benjamin, not funny. The new "Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show," despite featuring the demonstrably hilarious Dave "Gruber" Allen ("Freaks and Geeks") and David Koechner from Anchorman: nope, sorry. The network's second-most successful scripted show is probably "Mind of Mencia," a depressingly bigoted steaming pile that makes one pine for the relatively enlightened "Man Show." (And who decided this untalented loudmouth was worthy of a Super Bowl commercial? Seriously!)
Amazingly, the one truly original show coughed up by Comedy Central in the post-Chappelle era, "Stella," was mishandled from the start and never had much of a chance of getting out of its commendable first season, thankfully now on DVD. The not-quite-a-sketch-show, not-quite-a-sitcom featuring David Wain, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black of the old MTV sketch series "The State" and the underappreciated movie Wet Hot American Summer had some serious screwball inspiration behind it, and what's more unlike most Comedy Central original productions it didn't look like it was shot on a regional cable soundstage by a bunch of stoned high school kids with a Handicam.
Speaking of Michael Showalter, I recently saw his film The Baxter for the first time and I was surprised by how sweetly old-fashioned it was. While the dialogue is just off-center enough to be ever so slightly surreal in the way "Stella" is, The Baxter lays off on the more over-the-top sight and continuity gags of Wet Hot (directed by Wain, written by Wain and Showalter) to tell a predictable but nonetheless effective story. You know that guy in movies who's perfectly nice and everything, but through no fault of his own is ultimately a device to keep the leading man and the leading lady from their perfect curtain-fall kiss for an hour and a half? Reviews I've read of the film by older critics mention other roles, but for my generation the ultimate example has got to be Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. Showalter calls that guy a baxter, and (obviously), he plays one in his movie. Elizabeth Banks is the girl he's all wrong for, and an almost nauseatingly lovable Michelle Williams plays another classic archetype, the gal pal who's really the hero's unrealized true love. (The ultimate example of this is a gimme: Jennifer Love Hewitt in Trojan War.)
The Baxter rides close in there on that fine line between thumbs-up and thumbs-down, or two and a half stars as compared to three, if you prefer. The fact that the plot is completely mimeographed is sort of the point. Still, the waits between the delicately comedic bits are longer than they need be. Showalter's commitment as a director to make sure that every scene of the typical Ryan/Roberts rom-com is acted out in full, even if long stretches aren't at all funny, is typical of the old "State" tendency to discomfit its audience even as it extracted laughs. I don't know if most people will like it as much as I did -- the reviews were mixed -- but there are worse films you can fish out of the previously viewed bin at Hollywood Video for six bucks. The existence of The Baxter (he wrote as a framing device) almost begs for a parallel film to be made about an equally overused and disrespected female type from movies of this genre. I'm talking about the Sarah Silverman character from School of Rock and "Futurama." And Way of the Gun. And "Aqua Teen." When does the screechy, disapproving, PMS-bomb soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend character get to find true love?
According to Silverman's IMDb mini-bio, the answer is in 2002, with Jimmy Kimmel. Jimmy Kimmel? Forget it, I wouldn't see that movie if you paid me.