VHYES (2020)

I’m frequently surprised by how little respect sketch comedy anthology movies get in general, but something about VHYES‘s muted reception feels especially egregious. Structurally, the film harkens back to the channel-surfing absurdism of 1970s cult classics like The Groove Tube & Kentucky Fried Movie, tying together a collection of unrelated, retro-styled comedy sketches by mimicking the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape”. Combining spoofs of assorted late-80s cable access garbage with a fictional home movie wraparound, the film is on its surface a shameless indulgence in retro VHS-era nostalgia. The individual gags are solid, though, and are elevated by the participation of LA comedy scene goofballs like Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenni, Charlyne Yi, John Gemberling, and Mark Proksch. What really distinguishes VHYES, however, is how it uses its wraparound structure to give those sketches a surreal, menacing sense of purpose. As a whole, the film evokes the eerie delirium of flipping channels past midnight, blurring the border between what’s onscreen and what’s an oncoming dream. It’s a loose collection of varyingly successful sketches the way most anthology comedies are, but the unexpected sincerity & deft of its wraparound story breaks through that classic structure to uncover something freshly exciting & praiseworthy that’s rarely achieved in the genre.

Filmed entirely on actual VHS & Betamax deadstock, the comedy sketches that comprise most of VHYES are a collection of parodies of late-80s ephemera: Bob Ross painting tutorials, violently paranoid Security System commercials, QVC shopping showcases, Cinemaxxx era softcore, etc. The wraparound story initially exists as an excuse for all these vintage spoofs to commingle. On Christmas Day, 1987, a child is gifted a VHS camcorder and unknowingly begins recording experiments with the format over his parents’ wedding tape. Amazed that he can record live television to watch later at his convenience, the boy sets out to make the ultimate VHS mixtape, creating a Burroughs-style cut-up montage by surfing channels late into the night, filming sub-America’s Funniest Home Videos pranks with his buddy, and unknowingly leaving blank space for his parents’ wedding to interrupt his D.I.Y. art project. The bizarre rhythm of these images alternating in a believable, disorienting cycle is outright hypnotic. And once the movie has you in a state of late-night channel-surfing delirium, it crashes all three levels of its taped reality (the “found footage” sketches, the pranks, and the wedding) into one subliminally horrifying nightmare. Early in the film, one of the sketches warns that the VHS camcorder’s ubiquity in the home will inspire a newfound, wide-scale techno-narcissism that will incite the fall of mankind. By the end, I was nearly convinced that was true and that we’re just now reaching Phase 2 of that downfall.

VHYES is post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest: lean, strange, and menacingly absurd. Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes watching a Tim & Eric or PFFR project will be familiar with the kind of delirious, weaponized nostalgia on display here. If it were just a loose collection of gross-out, retro-styled sketches I wouldn’t be praising it so emphatically. (Okay, if Kuso is any indication, maybe I would be.) I really do feel like the unconventional wraparound narrative of this film transcends the conventions of its channel-surfing sketch comedy genre, if not only for feeling more sincere & purposeful than what’s typically pursued in these anarchic goof-arounds. I don’t expect that it’s enough of a revolutionary paradigm shift to warm skeptics up to the sketch comedy film as a genre, but if you do tend to skip over these films because they appear to be aimless freewheeling frivolities, this one might be worth a closer look.

-Brandon Ledet

Putney Swope (1969)

I first heard of Putney Swope when the post-Dissolve podcast The Next Picture Show covered it last year as a point of comparison for Sorry to Bother You, a film I enjoyed a great deal. It was an incredibly apt selection with plenty of thematic overlap between the two pictures, despite Boots Riley’s admission that he had never seen Putney Swope himself before writing his debut screenplay. Both films are absurdist workplace satires that traffic in broad comedic tones but are also potently weaponized against the horrors of corporate culture & Capitalism at large. More distinctly, they also both feature white actors overdubbing the vocal performances of their black stars as a means delivering that social & economic commentary. The major difference there is that Sorry to Bother You’s purpose for that vocal dub was pointed & purposeful, whereas Putney Swope’s use of the same device is much more wildly irresponsible.

The name Putney Swope belongs to a character played by Arnold Johnson, a fictional black man who becomes the head of a major advertising firm when its white figurehead dies in the middle of a boardroom meeting. This unexpected career advancement gives Swope the opportunity to shake up the very structure of American culture; he fires all of the white board members from the company, replacing them with politically radical black comrades who create a disruptive new wave of TV ad spots that subvert American ideals & economics on a fundamental level. The rise of the Truth & Soul ad agency is a brilliant wraparound narrative that allows the movie to basically function as a sketch comedy show, rolling full-length “ads” for products like airlines, breakfast cereal, and acne cream with Rejected-like premises that could never fly in real life. The sketches themselves (the only parts of the movie shot in color) are consistently funny and standout as clear highlights, with characters delivering lines like “I have a malignancy in my prostate, but when you’re in my arms it’s benign” as if it’s naturally the kind of thing you hear in TV commercials all the time. It’s the wraparound story that’s hit-or-miss as a successful satire, not least of all because Johnson’s vocal performance was overdubbed entirely by the film’s white director, Robert Downey, Sr.

According to Downey, the reason Johnson’s performance had to be overdubbed was because the inexperienced actor kept flubbing his lines. Why it had to be dubbed by a white man doing an exaggerated, deep voice that strays so uncomfortably close to vocal minstrelsy is another question entirely, a choice that undermines the film’s admirably radical leftist politics at every turn. The one element of Putney Swope that helps counterbalance Downey’s distancing-at-best vocal dub is that Swope is not the only black character in the film. The entire advertising agency being swapped out with black usurpers means that Swope’s status as The Black Man in the company doesn’t carry as much weight in its representation politics as the film initially suggest. You could even forgivingly frame the choice as unintended commentary on what it means for a white filmmaker to be writing dialogue for black characters to deliver onscreen, especially since Swope & his employees at Truth & Soul exist more as mouthpieces for leftist political statements then they do as real, fleshed out people. That interpretation would be meeting Downey more than halfway, however, as he really should have known better than to overdub Johnson himself in the first place without having a pointed satirical reason for doing so.

Holding this half-a-century-old comedic satire up to current political standards is a fool’s errand, for sure, but it ultimately can’t be helped. Stray political oversights like Putney’s white voice, casting little people as sight gags, and sidelining the women of Truth & Soul as sex objects are only frustrating because so much of the film’s incendiary political commentary isn’t outdated at all. Its swipes at the industry of War, the corrupting force of Capitalism, and the institutional perpetuation of racism in America still ring as true as anything you’ll see in Sorry to Bother You, but you have to strain to hear that echo over Downey’s booming vocal dub. As a low-budget D.I.Y. sketch comedy show, Putney Swope holds up remarkably well fifty years later; its commercials for Ethereal Cereal, a Ms. Redneck New Jersey beauty pageant, and the children’s game Cops & Demonstrators clear the way for other major satirical sketch comedy touchstones to follow, like The Groove Tube, Kentucky Fried Movie, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live. It even directly inspired one of my favorite movie scenes of all time—the tense firecracker house party gag from Boogie Nights—which until now I had no idea was an homage. The only thing Putney Swope seeming didn’t inspire was Sorry to Bother You, a film that catches a lot of flak for being “messy“ but at least feels more generally considerate & purposeful in its satire than this ancient predecessor.

That’s how it feels now, anyway. Maybe in 50 years some major aspects of Sorry to Bother You will stand out as just as glaring of a misstep as Downey’s voice does here. It’s highly likely that its punching-up institutional satire will remain evergreen either way, unfortunately, considering that the power dynamics subverted by Putney Swope in its own time haven’t changed a lick since despite the other ways it may have soured.

-Brandon Ledet

Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone (2017)

Knowing the director duo Daniels from their work on projects like Swiss Army Man and the “Turn Down for What” music video, it’s immediately apparent why they would be interested in signing on as producers for Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. Not only does the movie feature comedic actor Sunita Mari, who also features heavily in their work on “Turn Down for What,” it also plays directly into the post-Adult Swim visual excess & juvenile fart humor absurdity that’s quickly come to define their work. Later in the film, a cameo from digital era prankster Reggie Watts sets in stone the exact visual & comedic vibe the film is aiming for. What’s important about Snowy Bing Bongs, though, is not the continued joy of revisiting its more recognizable contributors, but rather the way the film works as an introduction to new talents. These newcomers arrive in the form of the Cocoon Central Dance Team: Eleanore Piente, Tallie Medel, and Sunita Mani (who has already had a great year on the screen, thanks to eye-catching turns on both GLOW & The Good Place, probably my two favorite new television comedies). The film is essentially a mid-length showcase for their various comedic styles, so your reaction to it as an overall piece will rely heavily on how much they can make you laugh.

Most stills & advertisements for Snowy Bing Bongs emphasize the look of its central tableau: a snow-covered planet where three women dressed only in bear skin rugs awkwardly dance with beach ball props. The weirdo dance sequences set on this cotton candy planet only make up a fraction of the film’s runtime as a kind of all-purpose wraparound. The majority of the film functions as a sketch comedy revue, with each member of the Cocoon Central Dance Team being afforded their own series of non sequitur vignettes in which to steal the spotlight. Weirdo characters who can’t pronounce their own names, refer to applause as “hand-slappies,” and discover that they have more internal organs than they initially suspected take turns branching off into their own sketches before the film’s rotary dial returns to the cotton candy snow planet wraparound. The whole thing feels like an extended episode of an Adult Swim sketch comedy show, only functioning like a proper movie in the tableau dance routine & moments of meta commentary on cinema, like the question, “Why do we make movies?” or a sketch that’s essentially a built-in post-screening Q&A. The movie can be very funny from gag to gag, but it’s very rare that it actually feels cinematic.

The heart of Snowy Bing Bongs definitely lies in that cotton candy snow planet, which is explained to be under attack by beach ball asteroids. There’s a slight narrative shift within that wraparound, starting with a rival planet of over-heated bikini babes whose beach balls invade the snow planet and are eventually defeated. More importantly, though, the aggressively ungraceful “choreography” of the dance routines outshines much of the traditional comedy sketches they interrupt, a point that’s driven home in the film’s best vignette: a horrifyingly amateurish pop music performance on a fictional early 2000s TRL-style variety show. Snowy Bing Bongs might have been a better film if it had stuck to a single storyline set on the icy planet of bear skin rug-wearing alien women, but I’m not even sure what that would look like. Instead, we get a mid-length introduction to a new crop of sketch comedy performers & writers that incorporates its fractured structure into their aggressively amateurish Tim & Eric aesthetic. That’s its own kind of pleasure for sure and by the end I was far more surprised than I was disappointed by the form it chose to take.

-Brandon Ledet

The Groove Tube (1974)

The sketch comedy movie is an often derided & dismissed genre with rare exceptions like Kentucky Fried Movie breaking through to land significant cultural impact. Loosely connected sketches strung together for a full-length feature have a minute-to-minute “hit or miss” reputation with general audiences, who seem happily willing to brush them off as empty frivolity. I probably should not have been surprised, then, that the 1974 sketch comedy The Grove Tube has been largely forgotten by mainstream culture and, according to indicators like its pitifully low score on Letterboxd, dismissed even by those who have a patience for low budget experiments in independent cinema. I was still a little taken aback, though, since the film is so much funnier & more substantial than its reputation suggests. According to Wikipedia, “The film was originally produced to be shown at the Channel One Theater on East 60th St. in New York, a venue that featured R-rated video recordings shown on three television sets, which was a novelty to audiences at the time.” You can feel that artsy, confrontationally low-fi aesthetic in the film’s comedic tone, which aims more to amuse the post-hippie counterculture types of NYC than to reach as wide of an audience as possible. Shades of future counterculture comedy outlets like Wonder Showzen, UCB, UHF, and early SNL are detectable throughout. Absurdism, non sequitors, chaos disguised as order: The Groove Tube is surprisingly experimental & forward-thinking for a sketch comedy feature. Better yet, its individual sketches pay off with a much higher success rate than they typically do in these sprawling, stoner-minded comedies. It’s consistently funny.

The film opens with a fairly straightforward parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a small community of apes are confronted with the mystery of a television set instead of the Kubrick film’s monilith. When the television flips on, a druggy montage of nuclear families watching TV over inverted outer space imagery read the title credits: The Groove Tube. This is clearly a film where early 70s counterculture laughs in the face of mainstream consumerism & family values, poking holes in and making fun of the sanitized version of America that’s broadcast on television. An early sketch even parodies hitchhiking & free love nudism to establish that it’s trading in Laugh-In‘s hippie California sunshine for a much more authentic New York City grime. Period-specific Barbie commercials & “Let your fingers do the walking” phone ads are parodied, but for the most part its satirical targets are relatively timeless: corporate empires, sexual norms, hippies, news media, cops, etc. In the film’s most typifying sketch, a Bozo the Clown stand-in appears to be harmless children’s entertainment on the surface, but devolves into purient readings of erotic De Sade-type literature once parents are asked to leave the room. In another, a nonsensical cooking show recipe devolves into a kind of madness distinctly reminiscent of a modern YouTube gimmick. Originally released with an “X” rating, the film features just as much male nudity as it does female and somehow avoids ever being outright sexist despite the general grossness of its era, even as it obsesses over explicit sexuality. In a perfect world, The Groove Tube would have been exalted just as high as Kentucky Fried Movie for the way it managed to elevate the sketch comedy feature to something more than just comedians dicking around with no sense of purpose or direction.

There is one unfortunate blemish on the film that hasn’t aged well at all in the four decades since its release: a brief sketch in which a young Richard Belzer plays a black female prostitute. It’s an offensively dated, bone headed moment that certainly leaves a bad taste in its wake, but like most sketches doesn’t last long enough to make too big of an impact on the film’s otherwise impeccable runtime. The Groove Tube mimics the feeling of being up too late in a drugged out haze, flipping channels without aim, and trying to make sense out of modern culture through that window. Most sketches, then, last only for seconds at a time, with the one minutes-long exception falling down a strange rabbit hole that begins with drug trafficking & public heavy-petting and ends with psychedelic animation & sincere expressions of homosexual desire. The prostitution sketch is only a blip in the larger gestalt, with most of Belzer’s work holding up fairly well as New York City alt-comedy counterculture, a snapshot of the city’s proto-punk grit & sleaze. He’s joined in most sketches by director Ken Shapiro and a young Chevy Chase (making his first feature film appearance), who would later carry a lot of the film’s sardonic, druggy, nose-thumbing comedy to his breakout role on SNL. Besides boasting all this youthful rebellious energy and politically-minded absurdism, The Groove Tube is also bookended by the Curtis Mayfield classic “Move On Up,” which helps solidify its tone as a fun, funky slice of political anger & cultural discontent. I doubt the sketch comedy feature will ever get its due respect as a vibrant & viable film genre, but if it ever does, I’d love to see The Groove Tube included as one of its more surprisingly rewarding specimens.

-Brandon Ledet

Saturday Night (2010)

EPSON MFP image

three star

One of my all-time favorite pop culture documents is Live From New York, the oral history of Saturday Night Live. It’s an impressively thorough work that traces the grueling writer’s room structure of the sketch comedy institution back to the coked-out shenanigans of the 1970s. The absurdly late hours & rapid-fire turnaround that give the show’s more gloriously inane moments their loopy, “Why would someone even write that?” absurdity seem like a very peculiar business practice, but make total sense when considered in the context of their 1970s origins. Over the three decades of SNL covered in the book, not much changes institutionally. The show is like a river that only gradually shifts its course as a constant supply of fresh faces flow through it.

In case you are interested in how SNL functions, but can’t be bothered with the ~700 page task of Live From New York, James Franco has your back. His 2010 documentary Saturday Night was seven years behind the definitive oral history, but is much more easily digestible and covers much of the same territory. The premise is simple: Franco films the one-week cycle of the production a single SNL episode. On the starting Monday, the writers & cast cram into Lorne Michaels’ office to pitch seeds of ideas for sketches that could possibly be developed that week. As the days roll on the crew develops around 50 sketches that get torn down & rebuilt through a series of table readings, producers’ meetings and live rehearsals. They frantically grasp at sketch comedy straws & avoid sleep like the plague with only the faint promise that something they develop makes the live broadcast. After a single day of rest it’s Monday again and they’re pitching sketch ideas for the next SNL host. It’s a punishing/fascinating creative process that may be a hangover of the 70s party scene when rampant drug use could get you through the ordeal, but it’s one that pays off with some of the more bizarre realized ideas on broadcast television for four decades running.

Saturday Night starts with its most amusing moments. It’s genuinely delightful to watch the wheels turn in writers’ & performers’ heads when they’re excited about getting to work on an infant sketch idea. The fun fades a bit as the work gets more difficult, the frustration involved with the detailed logistics of developing a sketch on full display for the camera. Franco’s choice to film a week John Malkovich hosted pays dividends, as his subject is an endlessly fascinating personality even when just standing around idling as the SNL machine swirls around him. Cast members like Bill Hader & Will Forte also carry the film a long way, especially early in the creative process when they’re frantically riffing or selecting fart noises from a sound board. There are a few moments when Franco’s personality becomes intrusive, like a frustratingly useless scene involving Hader’s dressing room mirror & the intentionally conspicuous absence of Amy Poehler, but for the most part he pulls the film off with a calm, low-key tone that benefits the laborious process he documents. Saturday Night is a great companion piece to the more definitive Live From New York book. There are less mind-blowing anecdotes & juicy gossip than in the whopping oral history, but the film brings the day-to-day logistics of the pop culture institution’s unfathomable workload into vivid focus.

Saturday Night is currently streaming on Hulu.

-Brandon Ledet