Epic Boondoggle Case File #32: Jamie Kennedy’s “First Night 2013” New Year’s Eve broadcast
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s twice-monthly survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were a financial flops, critical failures, and lack a substantial cult following.
The rules are different on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Eve, binge drinking isn’t just accepted, but actively encouraged. Hell, in some places it isn’t just actively encouraged; it’s angrily demanded. Sobriety, caution, and self-restraint suddenly become the exclusive province of fuddy-duddies, killjoys, and teetotalers out to destroy everyone’s buzz with their L-7 lameness. On New Year’s Eve, everyone of drinking age is expected to get wasted and exercise terrible judgment, quite possibly with the stranger they’re expected to sloppily exchange saliva with as the clock strikes midnight, lest they be considered a hopeless wallflower or dateless wonder by their friends. For one night at least, we all forget to be puritans and indulge our libertine tendencies as we say goodbye to one cursed annum and cringe in trepidation at the encroaching horror that is the new year.
This loosening of morals and standards extends to the New Year’s Eve ball-drop broadcasts that are such a staple of the year-end institution. These broadcasts resurrect the loosey-goosey party vibe of those ’70s panel game shows that worked hard to create the impression that the entire cast and crew were soused, good pals, and probably fucking each other during the commercial breaks. In that respect, it’s remarkable that New Year’s Eve broadcasts don’t constantly devolve into boozy incoherence.
I suspect that part of the reason we hold the sainted Dick Clark in such high esteem (and this was truly a year in which Clark was deified across the pop-culture spectrum, especially on Ryan Seacrest’s broadcast) is because, year in and year out, he confronted a thousand crazy, potentially explosive or disastrous variables—many involving the always-questionable sobriety, dependability, and professionalism of young pop stars—en route to delivering a slick, professional broadcast.
As the unquestioned king of New Year’s Eve, Clark transformed chaos into order. He was an adult everyone respected, a ringmaster who transformed a carnival of craziness into an orderly production. It’s a testament to how ruthlessly efficient Clark’s broadcast was that it often felt downright boring in its predictability. On a live New Year’s Eve broadcast, anything could happen, but things almost invariably proceeded as General Clark and his minions meticulously planned them.
The same cannot be said of a New Year’s Eve broadcast known as “First Night 2013,” which Jamie Kennedy hosted for Los Angeles’ CW affiliate KDOC. Less than two weeks into 2013, it has already become the stuff of pop-culture infamy, thanks in no small part to the evangelizing of one Patton Oswalt—whose Spidey senses are always unusually attuned to fascinating trainwrecks—who tweeted a YouTube link to the special after comedian Shaun Broyls began alerting Twitter, and by extension the world, to the special’s almost inconceivable awfulness/awesomeness (awfulsomeness).
The Jamie Kennedy Falling Apart At The Seams New Year’s Eve 2013 Spectacular, as I have decided to call it, is the antithesis of the Dick Clark New Year’s Eve special. If Clark was the trusted authority figure who made sure everything went swimmingly, Kennedy is more like the creepy uncle whose idea of discipline and order is making the 15-year-olds he hangs out with promise they’ll get good and drunk before playing with the illegal fireworks he’s bought them. Where Clark made sure the trains ran on time, Kennedy takes great delight in smashing his toy trains together and cackling delightedly at the wreck that ensues.
In an interview with The New York Times, Kennedy defended the broadcast as intentionally dreadful, a genius piece of anti-comedy that set out to parody and subvert the New Year’s Eve special, not merely offer the most surreally incompetent version of it known to man.
When asked by The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff if the special turned out the way he planned, Kennedy responded:
“It was totally supposed to be like that. We wanted to make almost an anti-New Year’s Eve show, and the recipe calls for unexpected. We had an open bar for our guests, we were unrehearsed. It was not glamorous. We shot at the apex of craziness on Hollywood Boulevard on New Year’s Eve, in front of one of the most highly visible places, the Chinese Theater, and it was more like a block party type of feel.”
If Kennedy set out to make anti-comedy, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. His monologue has all the hallmarks of anti-comedy: He treats his audience with open contempt; they repay the favor with alternating blasts of stony silence and active dismay. The material in Kennedy’s opening monologue is so unbelievably awful, it begs to be read less as failed humor than as meta-commentary on comedy.
When Kennedy quips about popular Korean pop star Psy, “Now when you hear the word ‘Asian rapper,’ you won’t just think of a little plastic bag that holds your fortune cookie,” he could be channeling the sad-sack, Willy Loman-esque spirit of the great anti-comedian Neil Hamburger. When he sneeringly tells a visibly unimpressed crowd, “Percentages had a big year this year. The 99 percent taking on the 1 percent, Mitt Romney not caring about the 47 percent, and then there’s the 8 percent, which was the Rotten Tomatoes score of my last movie,” it’s unclear whether Kennedy is deliberately trying to punish the crowd with the worst material he can imagine, or genuinely just dying with awful jokes.
From the very beginning, the crowd is completely out of it. Kennedy heckles the crowd before it has a chance to heckle him, making mean-spirited jokes at a drunk girl’s expense as a way of setting up an appropriately prickly, confrontational vibe between a host who broadcasts his contempt for his audience and surroundings and a texting, booing, drinking, sometimes loud and annoyed crowd that all seem to have ended up there because they either lost a bet or ran out of preferable options.
Dick Clark was a wiz at creating the sense that wherever he was, that was the white-hot epicenter of the entertainment universe. Everyone on Jamie Kennedy’s Falling Apart At The Seams New Year’s 2013 seems as if they would rather be anywhere but where they are, doing anything but what they are presently doing.
Kennedy has defended “First Night 2013” as a parody, and, indeed, there are moments throughout when the special feels more like a lost episode-length SCTV sketch: Let’s call it “Melonville Rings In The New Year.” One of the underlying jokes of SCTV was its conception of show business as one massive circle jerk of public validation and affirmation involving phonies who gush about each other’s genius in smarmy, hilariously hyperbolic terms, because deep down they suspect that everyone is just as sad and broken as themselves.
In the first interview segment of the night, Kennedy’s Lilliputian sidekick Stu Stone (who, in a good indication of the special’s gleefully offensive sensibility, refers to himself as “Stu The Jew” before asking an interview subject a question about money) and Shannon Elizabeth channel SCTV’s hilariously sycophantic Sammy Maudlin and mindlessly self-promoting (and just plain mindless) starlet Lola Heatherton. When Stone asks Elizabeth her plans for the new year, she replies with a manic, “I’m so excited 2013’s here! I’m going to be directing my first film! And I have my jewelry line, Shansen Jewelry, that I’m doing with my cousin! And I’m writing and producing and all this good stuff right now!” Stone counters with an even more wonderfully insincere, Regis-like, “She’s doing everything! She’s writing! She’s producing! She’s working harder than James Brown!” That is true, in the sense that James Brown’s famously voluminous workload slowed down considerably following his 2006 death. If the show’s writers had deliberately written the phoniest glad-handing banter they could imagine, they couldn’t have done a better job.
On “First Night 2013” Jamie Kennedy cuts a decidedly angry, dysfunctional, self-loathing figure that is more Rupert Pupkin or Tony Clifton than Ryan Seacrest or Carson Daly. And the wall-to-wall technical glitches provide a strange window into Kennedy’s fractured soul. At the beginning of Stone’s interview with Elizabeth, for instance, the camera lingers on Kennedy for a good 20 seconds after it was supposed to switch to Stone and Elizabeth, and the audience is treated to a strangely intimate, voyeuristic glimpse of Kennedy standing around somehow looking sad, confused, frustrated, drunk, empty, defeated, and broken all at the same time. It’s as if we’re looking at his true self, lost and defeated before the party has even begun.
The comically over-the-top sycophancy continues when co-host Jessi Cruickshank, who (hopefully) none of you will recognize from her stint co-hosting the extreme musical chairs game show Oh Sit! with Jamie Kennedy, addresses a gentleman she repeatedly refers to as a “nine-time Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award winner,” Drake Bell. She delivers this honorific with such over-the-top awe you’d imagine she was addressing the first man to win the Nobel, the Tony, the Emmy, the Grammy, the Oscar, and the ESPY all in the same year, not a kid who won nine awards from the network that ran his show. In the false equivalency of “First Night 2013,” winning nine Kids’ Choice Awards is somehow an accomplishment on par with winning an Olympic medal.
Speaking of gold medalists, Cruickshank next returns to ask gold-medal winner Dawn Harper if she has any New Year’s resolutions. “A lot of people make resolutions to get in shape. But you’re probably the most in shape person I’ve ever seen. Is your resolution to get fat?” Cruickshank asks Harper while mugging for the camera in what is clearly a set up for a plug for Carl’s Jr., one of the ubiquitous sponsors of the special. For fuck’s sake, Cruickshank and Harper are literally standing in front of a wall festooned with Carl Jr.’s smiling-star mascot.
So, of course, Harper replies, “Actually, I do plan on getting me a nice, sorry, Five Guys burger, licking every finger and making it scrumdiddlyicious.” When Cruickshank helpfully points out that there is a Carl’s Jr. food truck on the premises doling out burgers, Harper replies, “Yes, and in Illinois, we call it Hardee’s, so this Carl’s Jr. thing is so funny to me. So that’s fine.” I also am from Chicago and can vouch that there is little in the world less funny than the fact that Carl’s Jr. is called Hardee’s here.
By a blessed coincidence, Carl’s Jr. also figures prominently in Idiocracy, so I like to think of “First Night 2013” as a prequel to Mike Judge’s devastating satire of cultural de-evolution, an early indication of where we as a civilization are headed. But forget about the fall of civilization for a moment: We have Carl’s Jr.’s turkey burgers to think about!
This gallery of horrors next reveals the surgically enhanced form of The Girls Next Door star Bridget Marquardt, who is introduced at a glitzy nightclub called Supperclub gushing about how she’s going to run over to the legendary Carl’s Jr. burger truck and join Cruickshank to eat a delicious Turkey Jalapeno burger. This, friends, is where things start to get a little weird.
“Are you ready to get down on national television?” Cruickshank asks Marquardt, leeringly referring to the greasy fist of meat and peppers she’s about to obscenely masticate on television. In a bit of banter that would embarrass the average Girls Gone Wild host, Cruickshank tells the audience, “Carl’s Jr. is famous for very sexy ladies eating sexy burgers. This is a very sexy burger. You’re a very sexy lady. Let’s see just how sexy Bridget can eat this burger.”
As one of the Girls Next Door, Marquardt had to pretend to be sexually attracted to the withering husk of Hugh Hefner for years, but even she seems more than a little weirded out to be asked to transform the frankly gross act of eating a messy, sloppy fast-food hamburger into a peerless erotic experience on par with Diahann Carroll’s dance for Itchy in The Star Wars Holiday Special (callback!).
Cruickshank finds herself in the utterly surreal position of being ordered to eroticize a fucking hamburger, to create the impression that while she’s bi-curious about Marquardt, she’d really, really love to fuck that Carl’s Jr. jalapeno turkey burger. Here’s one of the many surreal details that make this the The Room of New Year’s Eve specials: Cruickshank is a goddamned vegetarian! So she’s probably more than a little repulsed by the slab of ground-up dead turkey Marquardt is awkwardly and uncomfortably trying to eat sexily.
“Oh, okay, that’s… I mean, that’s, this is really impressive, if you can maybe drip something, just a little more tongue, you worked it out.” Cruickshank coos lasciviously while Marquardt tries to tongue-fuck the turkey jalapeno burger and eye-fuck the camera simultaneously before crowing, “I’m a vegetarian, and I’m aroused.”
But “First Night 2013” isn’t just about sexy ladies sexily eating sexy burgers. It’s also, for some inexplicable reason, about energy conservation and efficiency, which would be admirable under most circumstances, but plays out as a bizarre, surreal joke here.
In the special’s most hilariously misguided eco-move, Stone asks Ana Rosales, a statuesque woman in a tight red dress that makes her look more like a beauty contestant crushing the evening wear competition than an environmental spokeswoman, what measures people can take to conserve energy. Stone is about 8 inches shorter than Rosales, which means that it takes a heroic level of effort for him not to spend the entire interview just staring at Rosales’ breasts when she responds with a halting, “Hi Stu. It is a pleasure to meet you. And California home owners could do different types of energy-efficient projects to their homes, anything like changing out their windows from single pane to double pane, insulating their home, improving their heating and AC systems, and many more. And now, we actually have a state-wide program, Energy Upgrade California, that will give you incentives do those kinds of projects in your home.” Forget Marquardt and that turkey burger she was fucking: Now that is sexy, especially with the microphone constantly cutting out as she continues her anxious, stiffly delivered lecture.
Carl’s Jr. and Mother Earth aren’t the only gods “First Night 2013” serves. It’s also not so covertly one big ad for the Commerce Casino and Hotel, a tourist trap that hosts a big poker tournament that’s constantly being pimped on the broadcast. To help with promotion, Kennedy made a series of short films for the wonderfully named casino, the most jaw-dropping of which features Kennedy in a cartoon Native American headdress as a Mayan chief (complete with painted-on fake abs and a tomahawk) who decides to win back the Mayans’ lost fortune by entering the poker championship at the Commerce Casino. The sketch isn’t funny, but at least it’s racist in its grotesque minstrelsy of Native American culture.
Ah, but it would not be a New Year’s Eve party without a little music, and First Night 2013 has Macy Gray slurring and forgetting her way through a quick, semi-coherent spin of her biggest hits. Let’s just say Gray really sells the lines, “I get high a lot, ain’t got much to do / I’m always in a daze” on “Do Something.” Judging by her shambling yet strangely majestic performance, it appears that Gray began pre-gaming “First Night 2013” sometime late in 2011. It isn’t just her own songs that are mysteries to Gray. She seems awfully fuzzy on the time and the year (at 11:50 she seems to think it’s 11:15) and proposes that everyone just celebrate New Year’s Eve 10 minutes early.
“You sure are quiet for a whole bunch of sexy people,” Gray slurs, then launches into her signature hit “I Try” before finally giving up the struggle a song later and letting her backup singer croon a number before closing with a medley. In this context, the question “Was Macy Gray drunk?” is less germane than “Was anyone involved in this broadcast even vaguely sober?”
In keeping with the broadcast’s fumbling comedy of errors, “First Night 2013” even manages to screw up the most sacrosanct element of a New Year’s Eve broadcast: the fucking countdown. Kennedy can’t find the clock. “We forgot our clock guy,” he jokes nervously. Sure enough, when midnight strikes, the deluded revelers onstage are still counting down, missing the real start of the year by a good 10 seconds, though the production more than makes up for the gaffe by immediately zooming in on a tight close-up of the Carl’s Jr. star, as if it were the star of the nativity and not a mere corporate spokes-creature.
The broadcast continues to spiral out of control following the countdown. While surveying the rambunctious crowd, Stone shoves his microphone in the face of a deeply inebriated young man, who indelicately throws a “motherfucker” into his name while introducing himself. Then Bone Thugs-n-Harmony perform, “1st Of Tha Month” in honor of the new year.
The performance proceeds smoothly enough, but for the next number, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony chooses “Notorious Thugs,” a collaboration with The Notorious B.I.G. that the group could never satisfactorily perform unless there’s some manner of zombie apocalypse that resurrects the Bones’ collaborator from the grave. The performance of “Notorious Thugs” would be a muddy, dispiriting dirge even if the music for it weren’t provided, not by a live band or a DJ, but by some bored-looking middle-aged man in front of a laptop. Nothing is less hip-hop than some guy pressing a button on a computer to make the beat drop.
As it lurches drunkenly to a close, “First Night 2013” goes from dodgy to surreal. As the end approaches, Kennedy ropes in a pair of garishly clad black “lovely ladies from Hollywood Boulevard” and asks them what their New Year’s resolution is. “Just to get rid of all my haters!” cries the more talkative one before Kennedy quips to the other woman that while the old saying holds that once you go black you don’t go back, he counters with, “You should try white, because it will keep your vagina very tight,” before crying out for his zaniness to be bleeped out.
At this point, “First Night 2013” feels like a lucid fever dream hundreds of thousands of people on the West Coast shared, and sometimes even live-tweeted about. This feeling is only strengthened when Kennedy is joined by a series of profane puppets for a late segment where a nerdy puppet asks him whether the “rape scene in Scream” was his idea, leading to the kind of rape-based humor no New Year’s Eve broadcast is complete without. The puppet who asks about the rape scene, for example, is given the new nickname “Rapey.”
Through this insanity, Kennedy wears a look of sublime befuddlement and disbelief, as if he, understandably, cannot quite wrap his brain around the madness that is unfolding, even before a tigress puppet sexually propositions him and another puppet asks him what Courteney Cox and Claire Danes’ “boobies” look and feel like.
“First Night 2013” ends the only way it can: with a fight breaking out onstage as the hosts awkwardly say goodbye. “There’s a fight. It’s ending with a fight. Guys, God bless you. Get out. Go to a cartoon,” Kennedy quips at the end before credits reveal that the special was executive-produced by Elie Samaha, who also produced Battlefield Earth, appropriately enough. Since nothing in the broadcast has gone as planned, there’s a satisfying symmetry in the fuck-ups lasting until the bitter end.
New Year’s Eve broadcasts are by definition ephemeral, gaudy little contraptions that while away the hours until midnight and then are forgotten, their incredibly limited shelf life having already expired. But “First Night 2013” secretly cries out for posterity, for immortality, to ricochet through the ages as one of the most audacious mind-fucks in the history of television. It begs to be remembered and cringed about long after smoother, slicker, more accomplished productions have been forgotten. In its own deranged fashion, “First Night 2013” is a work of art. True, it may be closer to “outsider art” than a Dick Clark production, but as an exercise in anti-comedy, it’s consistently brilliant.
“First Night 2013” is what every New Year’s Eve broadcast should be but isn’t: It’s wild, outrageous, profane, leering, unpredictable, and populated almost exclusively by people who don’t seem to know or care what they’re doing. I watched the broadcast in a coffee shop in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood and engendered lots of dirty looks for my regular bursts of guilty laughter. I enjoyed the hell out of “First Night 2013.” It is at once the least professional and most entertaining New Year’s Eve broadcast I have ever seen.
The special is easily the best thing’s Kennedy has ever done. It’s his Freddy Got Fingered. Preeminent anti-comedian Neil Hamburger hosts his fake version of a cheesy, shameless West Coast New Year’s Eve broadcast on his podcast “New Year’s Eve With Neil Hamburger,” but it’s a tribute to the beguiling weirdness of Kennedy’s special that his real New Year’s Eve broadcast is actually much more surreal and insane than Hamburger’s fake version.
By claiming that everything went as planned, is Kennedy Tommy Wiseau-ing this apparent disaster? Is he trying to transform a tragic glimpse into the ugliness of the human soul (and the ultimate madness of the human urge to entertain in the face of the infinite bleakness of existence) into intentional comedy, a purposeful trainwreck? I don’t know, but I do know that the bizarre magic contained here will be hard to re-create.
The legend of “First Night 2013” is growing. According to Kennedy, he’s already been invited back by the good folks over at the Commerce Casino to host next year’s event as well. Kennedy claims Marilyn Manson is eager to perform and that he’s trying to get Wu-Tang Clan. But I’d have mixed feelings about this becoming an annual tradition. I don’t want big names in subsequent installments of “First Night” for the same reason I wouldn’t want Brad Pitt to star in a remake of The Room: It’s wrong to mess with something that, in its own batshit-crazy, frothing-at-the-mouth way, is actually kind of perfect.
Failure, fiasco or secret success: Secret success.