The Critic: “L.A. Jay”
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The Critic: “L.A. Jay”

“L.A Jay” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 06/22/1994)

There is a long, rich and distinguished history of film critics branching out into screenwriting. The legendary James Agee wrote African Queen and Night Of The Hunter in between gigs as a poet, author, alcoholic and film critic for The Nation. The Cahiers Du Cinema gang revolutionized film by combining the deep reverence for cinema of critics/historians with the fearlessness, genius and innovation of creative revolutionaries.

Newsweek critic Paul D. Zimmerman wrote The King Of Comedy for Martin Scorsese. More germane to the purposes of this TV Club classic post, the great Roger Ebert ventured out to Hollywood at the behest of his bosom buddy Russ Meyer to write the cult classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls . That film’s co-producer and co-star? A tough-talking, rugged young mass of muscles named Charles Napier, who would one day go on to become both the voice and soul of The Critic’s own Duke Philips.

So there is all manner of historical precedent for Jay Sherman to play both sides of the field and try his luck as a screenwriter of a deeply personal film that garners raves from such heretofore-unknown members of Jay’s inner circle as Barney the Butcher (who raves “it has heart!”), Jazzman Joe (who gushes “it has soul”) and, to a much lesser extent, Hasidic Harry (who allows, “It could have been worse.”)

Jay concerns about potential conflicts of interest are shot down by Duke, who coldly volunteers that when it comes to morally dubious enterprises, Jay has nothing on him: Duke owns a baseball team and bets against them, owns a cigarette company and a plant that manufactures nicotine patches and, despite being a proud American, is a citizen of the Dutch Antilles for tax purposes.

Ah, but before Jay can go Hollywood, we first get one of my favorite film parodies in the show’s history: a dead-on spoof of Scent Of A Woman that completely eviscerates the film’s smug self-satisfaction, contrived quirkiness and excessive “Hoo Hahs!” in something like twenty-seven seconds. When it came to film parodies, The Critic was a big believer in the old maxim that brevity is the soul of wit. The Critic had so much richly merited contempt for the woefully overrated Al Pacino vehicle that it returned to the well once more with the similarly hilarious Scent Of A Jackass.  

The scathing digs at Hollywood begin well before Jay even touches down at LAX. When Jeremy marvels that what is condescendingly known as “flyover country” represents the bulk of the audience for his films, we cut to a farmer telling his son that the folks in the airplane flying overhead are responsible for blockbusters, asinine sitcoms and, most witheringly and accurately, “awards shows where awards shows win awards” before taking a bold stance against the evils of Hollywood by trying to shoot down the plane.

Jay enters Hollywood full of ego and big plans but it doesn’t take long for the town to disabuse him of his illusions. When he meets with a big-talking Hollywood executive voiced by Billy Crystal, he discovers that his screenplay is simply “too good” to be filmed and is tossed in a pile along with a lesbian romance and a biography “of some clown named Galileo.” No, Jay hasn’t been brought to Hollywood to commit art: he’s been summoned by the dark forces of the film industry to whore himself out writing Ghost Chasers 3, a film he later describes as a “sequel to a sequel to a film I didn’t think should have been made in the first place!”

“L.A Jay” isn’t averse to going after low-hanging fruit. There are dated jokes about Andrew “Dice” Clay, Vanilla Ice and Conan O’Brien’s abysmal early ratings but there are also a lot of killer jokes taken directly from real life. On the audio commentary, the writer-producers note that a gag about Jay’s office being turned into a bathroom for Tom Cruise was inspired by writer friends who had their office turned into a bathroom for, of all people, Billy Crystal (who apparently never noticed the gag was directed at him).

When Crystal’s empty-head mogul guilelessly enthuses, “And they said an illiterate ex-gigolo couldn’t run a movie studio!” it’s a pointed jab at Jon Peters, who made a remarkable transition from Barbra Streisand’s boy-toy/hairdresser to producer, mogul and eventually all-powerful studio executive (Peters and partner Peter Guber’s disastrous turn running/ruining Sony pictures is documented in the fine, juicy inside-Hollywood book Hit And Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood) 

Ah, but before Jay’s filmmaking dreams are shattered, he affords himself a daydream about winning an Oscar that qualifies as maybe one of my five favorite jokes in all of The Critic. In this clip,Jay fantasizes about winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay so he can agitate nakedly for what apparently is his pet cause: “Independence for Quebec.” It’s an inspired riff on filmmakers like Tim Robbins and Michael Moore using the Oscar podium as a sandbox for their political beliefs taken to its ridiculous, surreal extreme.

First Jay is simply hailed as a hero by beer-swilling Quebecois nationalists, who chant “Viva Le Jay Sherman, Viva Le Quebec!” before a sentient representation of French-Canadian pride—a hockey goalie astride a moose—unfurls a flag depicting a hideous half-beaver, half Jay Sherman creature as the new mascot for a free and independent Quebec.

Even after Crystal’s slimy executive dashes away in a car to avoid telling Jay what he really thought of his script for Ghost Chasers 3, the aspiring screenwriter holds on tight to his delusions. When Crystal’s agitated exec describes Jay’s screenplay as, “a bilious piece of work that made we want to cry out in pain!” an unjustifiably proud Jay replies sunnily, “Did you say it’s a brilliant piece of work and you want to fly me out to Spain, where we’ll meet King Juan Carlos and drink Sangria all night?”

Our intrepid hero finally gets the message and returns to New York and his old job with his tale between his legs. In a conflict of interest even Duke Philips might find problematic, Jay doesn’t just trash the film he co-wrote, he also urges L.A street gangs to stop killing each other and begin killing studio executives who live mere miles away from them. Even for The Critic, that’s an awfully dark joke (it also echoes Sista Souljah’s notorious comments about how black-on-black crime should cease for a week so that black folks could enjoy a week killing white people.)

“L.A Jay” begins with Jay full of hopes and dreams and ends with Satan personally shepherding Ghost Chasers 3 to completion (alas, there’s nothing even he can do about getting Wings renewed for yet another season) and Jay enjoying a cozy little date night with his new prison boyfriend.

What can I say? That’s Hollywood for you.

Stray observations:

  • I love Rod Steiger’s 10-second voice cameo
  • “You’re gonna miss my blind driving, my tangoing, my “Hoo Hah!” 
  • “We’re not making I, Claudius here, well, we are, but we’re calling it Claudia Schiffer’s Toga Party”
  • “Tell them there are limits to even my power”
  • “Attention L.A street gangs! Why kill each other when there are more deserving movie executives mere miles away! Their addresses are:”
  • “Join me in 30 days for my review of our overcrowded penal system!”
  • I like how the Spike Lee character pays off at the end with the police ignoring Jay and the executive’s high-speed car chase through the L.A Basin (serving L.A’s car chase needs since 1902!) in favor of pursuing the Lee caricature, “A black man in a Mercedes obeying the speed limit”
  • “Look! They’re washing Bo Derek like a horse!” Not the timeliest reference, but funny all the same.

—The voice artist impersonating Jay Leno? That would be a very young Judd Apatow

Filed Under: TV, The Critic

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