If It Looks Like Skit And Smells Like Skit…
I was watching Jim Gaffigan's Beyond The Pale last week, and found myself laughing at everything except the opening skit. He goes through this four-minute prelude whereby he pretends to "train" before the show (in Chicago), by slurping down raw eggs, berating himself in front of a mirror, and lifting weights. I guess it's intended as a parody of the training montages in inspirational sports movies, or something, but it's not funny at all. It dawned on me that it's been a long time since I've seen a televised stand-up special that didn't begin with a skit or some sort of opening sequence, and 95 percent of them aren't funny. How long has this been going on, and why do comedians feel the need to start things out this way? I can remember that, as far back as the early 1980s, a Richard Pryor special started with people (presumably in the audience) talking about how great he is, and a mid-1980s Robin Williams HBO special begins with him talking in a childish voice and "leading" the TV viewer into the auditorium where his show is to take place. Chris Rock starts out Bring The Pain in his dressing room, and we follow him, handheld-camera-style, as he walks from dressing room to stage. Etc., etc., etc.
(Incidentally, the only really funny version of this is Larry David's original one-hour special Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is basically an hourlong lead-in to his stand-up special—done as a mockumentary—which he decides not to do at the last possible minute, leaving HBO executives scrambling for something to fill the time slot with.)
So why is the opening skit/intro so common now, when it seems like a comedian would want to start with the funny stuff, and not make us wade through five minutes of canned bullshit? Has it always been common? Is this some secret comedian's joke—like "The Aristocrats"—that I'm not hip to? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks,
Nathan Rabin is here to let you in on the joke:
Pre-show skits on many stand-up specials serve multiple purposes. They help break up the visual monotony of watching a man or women talk into a microphone, possibly while pacing, for an extended period of time. Ideally, they also help create a sense of excitement and spectacle around what is, again, essentially a person onstage telling jokes to a group of strangers.
But the pre-show skit is ultimately an ego trip, pure and simple, an opportunity for comedians beaten down by an endless gauntlet of crappy food, second-rate motels, and half-empty comedy clubs with names like "Señor Chuckles" and "Bigsby's Laughatorium" to indulge their inner rock star. Inside almost every comedian lies a wannabe star, and bits like this—think Eddie Murphy in his red leather suit, or Chris Rock stalking to the stage with the coiled intensity of a heavyweight boxer—play into their fantasies of being the center of everyone's attention, the star of the show, the main event.
Pre-show skits or fawning fan testimonials implicitly convey that what audiences are about to watch is a show put on by a seasoned entertainer, not just jokes delivered by a comedian. Many comedians struggle for years, if not decades, in the trenches before getting their own stand-up special or film, so they understandably want to make their solo showcase as big a deal as possible.
Why do comedians subject audiences to these labored bits? Well, why do comedians do anything? Because they think they're funny. It's an opportunity for joke-peddlers to flex a different set of comic muscles by branching out into sketch comedy or short filmmaking.
You're certainly not alone in finding these bits unfunny and self-indulgent. They've been a staple of stand-up specials since at least the '80s, and they aren't going away anytime soon. Lots of comedians grew up watching Eddie Murphy's star turn in Eddie Murphy Raw—at the time, far and away the most popular stand-up movie of all time—and dreaming about the day they, too, would begin a stand-up showcase with a five-minute tribute to their ego.
The pre-show bit is a tradition at this point. Oddly enough, so is the cheeky parody of the pre-show bit. For a very funny example, check out the "Two Minute Special" on Chappelle's Show where Chappelle spends almost the entire time coolly strutting to the stage to a swaggering instrumental of Dead Prez's "Hip Hop," and looking cool. It's the pre-show bit in a nutshell: all attitude, swagger, and self-love, minus the jokes and punchlines that only drag stand-up comedy down.
Pour Your Misery Down
I remember watching a children's television program in the early '70s on PBS. I am going to guess it was Sesame Street, but I am not totally convinced of that. In this program, there was a short song and film that described the path that a piece of garbage takes once it is thrown away. As the lyrics describe the trip, the film is showing the scene in a rather gritty '70s-era NYC all the way to the landfill. The song itself was sung by one man (in a James Taylor kind of way) along with a single acoustic-guitar accompaniment. I am asking you to find out what this song/artist/film is because the refrain has been repeating in my head for all of my adult life. "It's garbage, garbage, garbage garbage. It's garbage, garbage garbage, garbage." Which seems to fit most every situation in which I find myself.
Donna Bowman isn't as trashy as you:
This may not be your film, Matthew. But the "follow trash to the landfill" film that I know is "Goodbye Garbage," a snappy 90 seconds that traces a banana peel from the kitchen table to the barge that's taking it out to Fresh Kills.
Although it fits the theme and the '70s NYC ambiance, the refrain and the acoustic-guitar details aren't right, so there may be another garbage film out there (likely from Canada, with our track record) that you're thinking of. But this one is pretty sweet, isn't it, with that cool masher in the truck chewing it all up, and all the random debris pouring out of the front-loader? Plus, the song is composed and sung by Peter Schickele, known to classical-music geeks everywhere as P.D.Q. Bach! Personally, I can't listen to him trilling "Good-bye, gaaar-bage" without hearing the Hoople agricultural report, but maybe I'm giving away too much information about my "lost years" of 1979-83, largely spent in my high school's music library with big audiophile headphones on, listening to comedy LPs when I was supposed to be working.
Anatomy Of A Plaything
When I was but a wee lad (sometime in the late '70s) I recall owning a 12-inch action figure of a white-haired, muscular gentleman in a track suit whose chest consisted of clear plastic, enabling one to view his lungs aspirating and his blood coursing through his veins merely by pressing the button located on his back. I have no idea what this action figure was called, and have not been able to locate the identity using the Internets, so I turn to you. Does anyone know what the hell I'm talking about?
Noel Murray rummages through his toy box:
This would be "Pulsar: The Ultimate Action Figure," a post-G.I. Joe, post-Six Million Dollar Man doll-for-boys that Mattel released in 1976. It wasn't based on any show, movie, or cartoon—toy manufacturers hadn't yet started convincing TV networks or syndication companies to create series to sell their new lines—but in retrospect, it feels like it was. From the track suit to the silver hair to the "see-through skin" bit, Pulsar seemed like a well-thought-out character, even though he was actually just a rip-off of the dozens of science-fiction/action TV shows and movies that clogged up the mid-'70s.
Alas, as the website Retroland points out, Pulsar had the misfortune of entering the market roughly a year before Star Wars toys changed the action-figure game, shrinking the size of the toys and the kind of play. Unless kids wanted to pit Greedo against a hulking humanoid giant with a visible respiratory and circulatory system, there wasn't much they could do with poor Pulsar.
It's Mime Time
I was born in 1973, and watched Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Zoom, and 3-2-1 Contact pretty regularly. In one of these shows, I believe, or maybe simply on PBS, there was a "short," possibly to introduce young viewers to "culture." The one I recall but cannot identify included a dance troupe whose costumes resembled geometric shapes and sometimes blobs. Any ideas? Thanks.
Jamie A. Caligure
Tasha Robinson responds:
This question really threw me for a loop, Jamie—not because I didn't know what you were talking about, but because figuring out how to spell a Swiss word from my childhood that I'm not sure I'd ever seen in print proved fairly challenging. But a bunch of aggressive Googling in circles around the problem eventually got me the name that I knew was out there somewhere.
Odds are excellent that you're thinking of Mummenschanz, a "visual theater group" formed in 1972 by two Swiss performers, Bernie Schürch and Andres Bossard. Pitched somewhere between dance, puppeteering, and mime, Mummenschanz skits specialized in eerie, creative physical performance pieces. Some involved strange geometric-object costumes that completely concealed the human body inside, making it all the more startling when those objects suddenly moved in inhuman ways. Others involved performers in simple black leotards, with masks that fit together, changed shape, or could be modified by the performers to express reactions to what was going on onstage.
Not surprisingly, the troupe caught the attention of Jim Henson, another performance pioneer trying to figure out innovative things the human body could do inside clever fabric costumes. Mummenschanz appeared on The Muppet Show in 1976, in a series of performances you can find on YouTube. Here's my favorite, one of their mask pieces rather than one of their geometric-shape pieces:
I haven't been able to find any proof that they were on Sesame Street or any of the other shows you mention, though given their stellar reputation in the '70s—on a par with Blue Man Group today, and for many of the same reasons, given their innovation and sense of weirdo spectacle—and given the Henson connection, it wouldn't be surprising. Also, I watched those same shows in the early '70s, and I remember seeing other Mummenschanz sequences not included in that Muppet Show collection, notably the one with the performer inside a giant collection of springs. You can see that bit, and several more, at the troupe's website. Bossard died in 1992, but the group he helped found is still around and still active.
Next week: Film credit sequences, a chipper commercial tune, a lost video, and more. Send your questions to email@example.com.