“The Deuce” Dives Even Deeper Into the Roots of the American Pornscape

In the second season premiere of The Deuce, airing on HBO next Sunday, sex worker–turned–porn director Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) shows a cut of her latest film to her collaborator, Harvey (David Krumholtz). The film shows a man penetrating a woman, who lies on her back, her eyes closed in ecstasy. There’s a quick cut to a ceiling fan; then, the face of a different man; then back to the woman. The cuts come faster and faster — in between the sex itself, there are shots of wild animals sprinting across plains, a pot boiling over, a hand squeezing the juice from an orange. “It’s the road to an orgasm,” Eileen explains to a baffled Harvey; this is what it feels like from a woman’s perspective. But Harvey reminds Eileen that they’re making porn, not art, and they’re making it for men: “They don’t want to be in a woman’s head.”

The first season of The Deuce, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, was set among the world of pimps and prostitutes, massage parlors and peep shows, in Times Square at the dawn of the 1970s. The second, which jumps forward to 1977, explores the burgeoning pornographic film industry. Like Netflix’s GLOW, about a 1980s cable wrestling show, The Deuce is, at its best, about women creating art in a system that requires endless compromise — juicing what they can from an industry that sees them as means to an often sticky end.

Again, Gyllenhaal is the main draw here, turning in a career-best performance, though the emphasis on film makes The Deuce’s sophomore season more self-reflexive, and more focused, than the first. For some, the idea of directing fuck films might not inspire awe. But for Eileen, a/k/a Candy, her nom de porn, it means calling the shots. For once, she gets to dictate the terms of desire. It’s not a tawdry exercise in debasement; it’s a glimpse into a whole new world, and acceptance into a new kind of community. “Who would have thought the most boring part is the fucking?” she muses.

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This season, we learn how the, ahem, sausage is made. For a woman who used to walk the streets, the show suggests, making these films might even be better than sex: In the season premiere, the camera cuts between bar owner Vincent (James Franco) and his activist girlfriend, Abby (Margarita Levieva), having sex in bed, and Eileen watching a new cut of her latest film. When the couple is finished, Vincent reaches for a cigarette; when Eileen’s movie is done, she does the same.

Simon created The Wire and co-created Treme and Show Me a Hero, shows about the Baltimore drug trade, post-Katrina New Orleans, and a public-housing crisis in Yonkers.The Deuce, too, makes a study of a sprawling system — how it functions (or doesn’t), who benefits, and who is exploited. In the second season, some of these power dynamics begin to shift. Sex workers like Lori (Emily Meade) have more clout on film than on the streets, and her growing celebrity threatens the authority of her domineering pimp, C.C. (Gary Carr). Darlene (Dominique Fishback) also finds a measure of independence in her film work, even as this new scene gives her more common ground with her pimp, Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), who decides he wants to be in pictures, too. When she tells Larry the white girls on set make more money than she does, he confronts the director — who informs Larry that there’s simply less demand for black performers in porn. “It’s not racism,” the director claims, with a fairy-tale excuse that the non-porn industry has also been using basically up until Black Panther took a sledgehammer to it. “It’s economics.”

As porn seeps closer to mainstream society, it becomes a bigger problem for the police. Luke Kirby plays Gene Goldman, an official from Mayor-elect Ed Koch’s office attempting to work with the NYPD to clean up the Deuce, the seedy strip of 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. Officer Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) views Gene’s quest with skepticism — half the cops on the beat are taking a cut from the mob, which owns most of the bars and massage parlors in Times Square — but Alston’s boss, Captain McDonagh (Ed Moran), explains that the administration has reason to be serious about the crackdown: Koch wants to eradicate all those cash businesses that don’t report their income. “It’s not morals,” McDonagh says, echoing the porn director. “It’s money.”

Still, The Deuce’s writers and directors aren’t just interested in pornography’s economic effects. The new season tracks the mounting pornification of everything — a process spurred by the relaxing, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, of state and federal obscenity laws — not least of all, the mind. When Officer Alston picks up his nurse girlfriend from work, he admits he just wanted the chance to see her in uniform. She asks if he’s been reading Penthouse, but he admits that what did it for him was the hospital scene in Foxy Brown. Eileen tells Harvey she’s not “doing any more daddy-knows-best scenes,” to which Harvey replies, “It’s someone’s fantasy.” Later, she decides to make a feature-length sex film based on “Little Red Riding Hood” — an adult, “urban” version of the fairy tale, set in New York City. When Larry shows up on set to observe one of Darlene’s film shoots, he assumes “D.P.” refers to the director of photography, until an actor corrects him: It means double penetration. “So you fuck her twice?” Larry asks, confused. Porn is going places even a pimp can’t picture.

The Deuce carefully walks the line between condoning and condemning much of what it depicts; its writers are less interested in preaching than in creating believable characters and showing viewers what it feels like to live in their world. Some of those characters, like a stripper who comes to Abby for help with a labor dispute issue, find liberation in the blatant expression of their sexuality; others find only violence and denigration. And of course, the people who really profit off this brave new world are white men in suits.

Like GLOW — and Mad Men The Deuce is a show about how things used to be, but it’s also, inadvertently, a show about how little things have changed. The number of women directors working in Hollywood today compared to men continues to be dismal; exploiting or harassing women at work continues to yield few consequences for men. (Including James Franco, an executive producer of The Deuce, whom five women accused of “inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times back in January.)

And, like those other series, The Deuce suggests that systemic barriers keeping women from achieving their full potential at work are relics of the past. The show’s writers are not totally blind to this irony; in one scene, at a porn awards ceremony in L.A., the camera catches a woman describing a film to her companion: “It’s a parody of Westworld, but instead of cowboys and Indians, it’s sex robots.” She’s referring to the 1973 movie Westworld, but this porn version suggests the series you can catch on Sunday nights on HBO. It’s fitting that just a couple of weeks before The Deuce’s new season is set to premiere, HBO has gutted its late-night division, home to softcore porn docuseries like Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions. “There hasn’t been a strong demand for this kind of adult programming,” an HBO rep told IndieWire, “perhaps because it’s easily available elsewhere.” The Deuce immerses us in the question of how we got here.

The Deuce premieres Sunday, September 9, at 9 p.m. on HBO.



Too Big for Satire: Sacha Baron Cohen and Sarah Silverman Miss America

Showtime was surely being facetious when, in the run-up to the July premiere of its Sacha Baron Cohen prank show Who Is America?, the network promoted the series as “perhaps the most dangerous show in the history of television.” But in the wake of last night’s stinker of a finale, even a generously ironic reading of that claim is laughable. Showtime engineered a buzzy start to the series, keeping its existence under wraps until just a couple of weeks before the premiere, and screening the first two episodes — which boasted the strongest sketches of the season — in-person only, for critics who had signed nondisclosure agreements. The message we were meant to absorb was clear: Cohen’s daring new program was not going to pull any punches.

If we’d been sharper, we might have realized that the secrecy was an admission of the show’s delicacy, its dependence upon surprise — that it wasn’t that big a deal on its own and had to be puffed up into one. Time after time, when confronted with the opportunity to hold his unwitting scene partners’ feet to the fire, Cohen went for a light singe instead of a sick burn. Even when people behaved in genuinely damning ways, goaded along by Cohen’s characters, the series suffered from a fundamental disconnect between what were intended as “gotcha” moments and the way such moments play out on TV at a time when politicians and media provocateurs regularly call for their opponents to be jailed or worse. What’s really shocking about Who Is America? is that it’s not shocking at all.

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Most of the finale centered on an elaborate joke in which Cohen, in the guise of Israeli terrorism expert Erran Morad, puts a trio of Trump-supporting white men through special “training” on how to infiltrate America’s most dangerous group — antifa. Morad selects one man to accompany him to the Women’s March in San Francisco, where both men dress up as “radical lesbians” in pink knit pussy hats and put “tracking devices” on three individuals in the crowd. Using an iPad, Morad shows the man the location of the three targets, and instructs him to press a button to detonate the device and kill one of them. The man does as he’s told. “I feel a little queasy,” he remarks, but it’s just a brief moment of pause. Then he calls the experience “wonderful.”

So much for the gotcha. This segment and others throughout Who Is America?’s seven-episode first season (Showtime hasn’t disclosed whether there will be a second) remind me of a very different show with a similar problem. Hulu’s I Love You, America With Sarah Silverman, which premiered last fall and returns for a second season on September 6, is an unabashedly sincere program dedicated to bridging the gaps that divide Americans today. A “late night” talk show, if a streaming series can be described in such archaic, clock-bound terms, I Love You, America is filmed in front of a studio audience, with taped remote segments and a guest each week who sits down for a one-on-one with Silverman.

In the show’s first-ever episode, Silverman has dinner at the Louisiana home of a white, Trump-voting family that was displaced by Hurricane Katrina; she’s the first Jew the family has ever hosted. But despite Silverman’s enveloping warmth, it’s hard to take the show’s stated aim — to connect with “un-like-minded people” — at face value. When Silverman leaves their home after the meal, one family member who earlier had confessed to being a birther remarks that it was so nice to talk to a person with different viewpoints without being judged. Like so many Who Is America? bits, the segment ultimately does nothing but make a racist conspiracy theorist feel seen and heard.

I Love You, America may posit itself as a sweet antidote to the bitterness of so much contemporary political comedy, but more often than not that approach renders the series jarringly out of touch with political reality. And, like Cohen’s show, Silverman’s series never delivers on its promise to reveal something about America that viewers likely don’t already know. (Her show is basically Heal the Divide, one of several fake reality shows that constitute Who Is America?, this one hosted by an NPR T-shirt–sporting, pussy hat–wearing liberal.) With the aid of heavy prosthetics, Cohen appears as several characters who, through their interactions with politicians, tech executives, reality-TV stars, and ordinary Americans, will provide a collective answer to the show’s title question.

With the exception of a few genuinely damning segments, however, Who Is America? quickly betrayed its pledge to peel back the curtain on the dark corners of this fractured country. Most sketches devolved into adolescent-boy fart-and-dick humor — a series of missed opportunities that recall South Park’s bungling of the 2016 election. (Who Is America?, which has an all-male writing staff, also falls into the same both-sides trap as South Park, treating wounded Hillary supporters as the hysterical equivalent of the goons who chant “Lock her up.”)

In one episode, Cohen appears as a Finnish YouTube star of a toy-unboxing show, with dyed-red hair and a pair of loudly checked overalls, and sits down with Trump backers David Clarke, the former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and, in a separate segment, Joe Arpaio, the cruel, immigrant-hating former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, whom the president pardoned last August after Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court. In the presence of these two despicable humans — both oversaw correctional departments that were responsible for horrific human rights violations, some of which resulted in the deaths of inmates — Cohen reverts to wordplay jokes about golden showers and hand jobs, and relies on the toy-unboxing for laughs.

Nothing is revealed here; this is the liberal equivalent of the conservative rallying cry “own the libs,” and the viewer’s reward is often just a befuddled expression on the face of Cohen’s target before a sketch abruptly ends. The show presents itself as a no-holds-barred shock-fest, but there’s not much about Who Is America? that feels truly risky in the manner of Terence Nance’s kaleidoscopic series Random Acts of Flyness. And, like that of I Love You, America, Cohen’s apparent goal of exploring America’s multitudes belies his show’s actual focus on belittling, baiting, or simply giving a platform to white Americans in particular. It’s the entertainment equivalent of pundits who focus on the white working class as the one and only demographic politicians need to court, rather than the full spectrum of enfranchised — and increasingly disenfranchised — Americans. In the vernacular of Random Acts, these shows suffer from whiteness.

It’s almost as if Cohen and his collaborators, and Silverman and hers, have too much faith in format, in the power of a familiar TV template, to win hearts and minds. What Cohen and his production team don’t seem to understand is that the presence of a camera doesn’t mean what it did fifteen or twenty years ago, when Cohen began his career as a gonzo, on-the-street comedian. We are under constant surveillance, often of our own volition, and anyway, what are the chances that the dude who dressed in drag to “infiltrate” the Women’s March has even one friend who watches Who Is America?, or for that matter, even knows what it is? Who has this guy been exposed to in the first place, and does he even mind that he’s been exposed? And if his peers were to see his performance, it wouldn’t be his pernicious beliefs that would turn them off, but the fact that he dressed as a liberal, gay woman — just as the Georgia state senator who participated in another of Colonel Moran’s “training sessions” in an earlier episode and subsequently resigned from his position likely did so because Cohen got him to pull his pants down and expose his bare ass, not because the show laid bare the senator’s blatant Islamophobia.

Cameras record people in power doing lots of shameful things these days, and most of those people — not least of all the president of the United States — simply shrug it off and keep moving. The fact that the show’s producers got O.J. Simpson to sit down in the season finale with Cohen’s Italian mogul character Gio Monaldo and laugh off jokes about killing one’s girlfriend means precisely nothing. Simpson is a free man. He wrote a book called If I Did It, confessing to the crime while claiming, with a wink, to be innocent. What has been exposed, here? If Who Is America? has demonstrated anything, it’s that political satire isn’t terribly effective in the age of Infowars — a show whose creators claim the mantle of satire when confronted with legal challenges even as they court an audience that takes host Alex Jones’s lunatic rants as gospel. A dangerous TV show is one that gives people with noxious views a platform to spread their poison and boost their brands. But I doubt that’s the kind of danger Showtime had in mind.


“Random Acts of Flyness”: Oh, Damn, They Can Do That on Television?

“Do you suffer from white thoughts?” Jon Hamm asks in the first episode of Random Acts of Flyness, a trippy new variety series created for HBO by filmmaker Terence Nance. Appearing in a fake commercial for a topical salve known as White Be Gone, Hamm describes whiteness as a debilitating yet seductive condition that gives those afflicted a “profound sense of identity and purpose, as well as an unbridled populist political power.” Suddenly, an iMessage pops up on the screen, and the scene we’ve been watching shrinks to fit the interface of the video-editing software on Nance’s computer. “It seems to me that as ARTISTS,” the friend who has messaged Nance writes, “we should be addressing whiteness less and affirming Blackness more.” The director agrees, and the segment abruptly ends.

Spastic and impressionistic, Random Acts of Flyness is the free jazz of television, a searing collage of black life in America with a rhythm all its own. The show is reminiscent of the early, experimental days of televised sketch comedy, particularly the surrealist gags of The Ernie Kovacs Show. But this is Nance’s first foray into television, and his collaborators are largely indie filmmakers like himself. The result is a TV show that feels like no other. Through jarring transitions, ironic juxtapositions and, most of all, an urge to deconstruct television itself, Random Acts, which has already been renewed for a second season, unsettles the familiar patterns of late-night TV comedy. It’s crafted to shake viewers out of their screen-induced stupor.

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The show is also, as that interrupted Jon Hamm segment illustrates, a pointed critique of political satire and its effectiveness, or lack thereof, in 2018. Some bits wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of Key & Peele, the Comedy Central sketch show that likewise zeroed in on race in America. In the Hollywood Squares spoof Hotep Squares, a contestant is quizzed repeatedly on the country’s racist history and each time assumes that some shameful fact must be an exaggeration; in another bit, Nance plays a Steve Jobs–like tech guru in a black turtleneck who, to a roomful of journalists, unveils an app called Bitch Better Have My Money — a new technology that matches black people to the nearest white person who may owe them some form of reparation.

But Random Acts is more than a sketch comedy show. The series is shot through with jolting, violent reminders of what it means to be black in America. The first episode begins with Nance recording a video of himself while riding a bicycle through what appears to be Brooklyn, the footage presented on a vertical strip of screen as if we’re watching a Facebook Live feed. As he introduces the show, a police car veers up behind him, siren bleating, and pulls him over; the phone tumbles to the ground. Another segment has the grainy texture and block lettering of a Seventies-era children’s program, but with a macabre twist: A black woman in a black cloak and headwrap named Ripa the Reaper (Tonya Pinkins) is the ghoulish host of this show, called Everybody Dies! She ushers screaming black children behind a door marked death and beats a little boy — labeled a “juvenile delinquent” — with a frying pan in a sequence dubbed “Whack-A-Soul!” She sings the theme song of Everybody Dies! to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Despite an air of ironic detachment, Random Acts is at its core an earnest project, intent on opening up space for marginalized voices. It features running interviews with queer, trans, and bisexual people, who muse on life in their bodies; one gender-fluid interlocutor’s story about a date gone awry is rendered via stop-motion animation. Its finger firmly on the arrhythmic pulse of American life circa 2018, Random Acts of Flyness offers the viewer something deceptively simple and frustratingly rare: It shows us something that we haven’t seen before, but that’s queasily familiar all the same.


Michelle Wolf Was Never Gonna Be Your Jon Stewart, America

As Facebook and Google continue to swallow the advertising industry whole, media outlets ever more desperately chase those coveted clicks and eyeballs, luring audiences with the reliable bait of sensationalism. Nothing plays quite like shock and outrage, and when all else fails, there’s always a Trump rally to fill the time, or a “whataboutist,” bad-faith take to fill the op-ed pages. If the New York Times and CNN have disappointed with their urge to both-sides every issue to death, liberals have come to count on late-night comedians to step into the much-needed role of truth-teller.

Michelle Wolf is having none of that. Over the course of ten uneven but steadily improving episodes of her abruptly canceled Netflix series, The Break With Michelle Wolf, the 33-year-old comedian flatly refused to play this part. “I’m not gonna try to teach you anything or discuss political policy with you,” she vowed in the first episode. “I guess I’m sort of like a cable news show in that way.”

To some viewers, this may have seemed like a bait and switch; Wolf’s show arrived on the heels of her fantastic and somehow controversial White House Correspondents’ Association dinner speech, which offered no mercy to the president and his enablers in the press. For those hoping for the second coming of Jon Stewart, The Break may have been a letdown: At its best, the show was a canny deconstruction of contemporary late-night comedy, which has been swamped with political satire since the former Daily Show host turned Bush-era liberal outrage comedy into its very own TV genre.

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In the three years since Stewart stepped down, the already blurry line between journalism and entertainment has thinned to a fine mist, a perpetual fog that leaves viewers blindly groping for solid ground. But unlike almost every other late-night host in the age of Trump, Wolf didn’t take this reality as an invitation to climb aboard a soapbox. On The Break, she wore the uniform of skinny jeans and high-top sneakers that she wears in her stand-up sets. She wasn’t fiery or pissed off; she was sardonic and irreverent. She’s the Vivian Gornick of comedy: Just as Gornick lives in service to the tale and not the teller, Wolf lives in service to the joke, not her own persona or crowd flattery.

Despite Wolf’s declaration that the title of her show promised a break from the relentless flow of Trump-related news, The Break was, of course, political. The show’s writers, led by Christine Nangle, demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the viral outrage cycle that is the news in 2018; in the opening monologue of the final episode, released on July 29, Wolf mentions that Ivanka Trump’s clothing line has folded, and instructs viewers to start buying up her wares now: “Nazi memorabilia tends to skyrocket in value.” In an aside directed at Fox News, Wolf adds, “Since we know you’re watching, we made this to save you the trouble” — and suddenly the screen is overlaid with a Fox & Friends graphic, accompanied by a chyron that blares, “‘COMEDIAN’ MICHELLE WOLF CALLS IVANKA TRUMP A NAZI.”

Despite The Break’s unapologetically liberal, feminist perspective — in one segment, Wolf presented a literal “salute to abortions” — the series didn’t only go after predictable targets of liberal indignation. The Break hit a high note in its eighth episode, which demonstrated the show’s stubborn refusal to pander to its left-leaning audience. Since this is a comedy show in 2018, Wolf declares at the beginning of a desk segment, one thing’s for sure — it’s going to be “sincere and angry.” “There will be graphics and facts,” she intones with rehearsed self-importance, “and it will feel a little bit like school.” She then proceeds to take apart the standard structure of such a segment, ending with a middle finger raised and a bleeped-out, “Fuck you, Trump!” The crowd applauds wildly as the words “standing ovation” appear in block letters on the screen.

The bit takes aim at the slightly smug, self-congratulatory tone of so much political satire these days: Can you believe I, a mere entertainer, have to do the media’s job? It finds a counterpoint in an earlier sketch that skewers the New York Times opinion section. Wolf plays a journalist pitching an editorial on foreign policy to the paper of record, before she learns that all submissions must first go through a Mad Hatter–like trickster on a tricycle named “Op Ed.” The man launches into a jaunty song-and-dance number (“Opinions are like assholes/I want to taste them all”) that suggests there is no logical editorial process behind the paper’s notoriously bad takes; there’s only an anarchic impulse to host any and all points of view, a carnival directed by a chaos-craving clown.

The sketch positions journalism as pure spectacle, just as the “sincere and angry” segment positions late-night comedy as a righteous fact-finding mission. The Break was the rare comedy to point up this contradiction rather than shrink away from it. It will be missed.


Why Chris Gethard Is Walking Away From His TV Show

On Monday afternoon, in a long Facebook post, Chris Gethard announced the end of The Chris Gethard Show. The series has a long and somewhat torturous history: It began as a monthly live show at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade in 2009, when Gethard was an instructor at the legendary improv theater, and moved to the public access channel Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) in 2011. Comedy Central commissioned a pilot in 2013, but declined to pick up the series. The show aired out of MNN’s 59th Street studio until 2015, at which point Fusion picked it up — and cut it down from an hour to thirty minutes — for two seasons. For its third and final season, which ended in May, TCGS hopped to truTV. And now, more than 200 episodes later, it’s over.

A freewheeling phone-in series with an anarchic spirit, TCGS had a punk-rock heart and an air of spontaneity that is rare for television these days. The late-night show had a simple conceit, centered on host Gethard; his “sidekick,” longtime UCB artistic director Shannon O’Neill; and “internet liaison” Bethany Hall, who would facilitate live Skype calls from fans all over the world. Regular viewers came to know and love recurring characters like the Human Fish (David Bluvband) and Gethard’s nemesis, Vacation Jason (Riley Soloner). Despite the looseness of the format, most episodes were built around concepts like, “Show Us the Weirdest Thing About Your Body,” the first episode to air on Fusion, in 2015, with guests Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The season two finale, “Fight for the Fish,” features a wrestling match between Gethard and Vacation Jason (Jon Hamm shows up and dons a sumo suit). The season two episode “One Man’s Trash,” from May 2016, was an instant classic: A dumpster is wheeled out at the beginning of the episode, and Gethard and guests Jason Mantzoukas and Paul Scheer spend the entire hour taking audience guesses as to what’s in it.

In his Facebook post, Gethard, 38, writes that the end of his namesake show was a mutual decision between himself and the executives at truTV. “With my hesitation to continue and truTV’s need for numbers improvement,” he wrote, “it’s time to throw in the towel.”

The Voice spoke to Gethard — who is looking forward to some down time before jumping into his next project — about the reaction to the show’s cancellation, the struggle to break into the mainstream, and making TV with heart.

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This must’ve been an intense week for you. How are you feeling?

I’m feeling pretty good, honestly. It’s been pretty nice to feel people’s love as they reach out and also, as I said in the thing I wrote online, it feels like a bit of weight off the shoulders. I’m sure it’ll hit me at some point and I’ll get tremendously sad and grieve it. But for now, I gotta say, I’m letting out a sigh of relief that the pressure is off.

There are over 200 comments on your Facebook post. Have you read them?

I’ve read a lot of the reaction online, yeah. It was really beautiful. I’d say 95 percent of it was just really nice, people telling me what the show meant to them, saying that it had some effect over the years and that’s really overwhelming. When I think about it, the fact that anyone gave a shit is still so remarkable and flattering to me. There was three percent of it that was like, truTV fans that were like, “Good! Now we can get more of the programming we like back.” Then there’s the two percent that really rattles my nerves, which is old fans who say we sold out anyway, celebrating our demise.

So much late-night TV these days feels geared to producing short clips that can go viral, but your show felt almost like the opposite. It had this kind of “You had to be there” vibe, like going to a late-night UCB show — like the point of it was to hang out for an hour.

Well, I certainly wasn’t opposed to having clips go viral, and we tried our best. We had a whole team of people who were trying to make it happen. My hope would always be, float out that clip, get people interested, and then they’d want to come in for the whole long-form show. But I think my experience is just proving more and more, that is not how people’s attention spans work right now. There are other shows that I think are built to accommodate that more and sadly I think ours is a little bit more of an experience where you had to buckle up and come along for the ride. It just wasn’t happening. I know I sound a little dismal and defeated, but what can I do? I feel like nine years of banging my head against the wall is enough banging my head against the wall.

At the same time, and maybe this was the show’s tragic flaw, but I think it worked because it was smaller and more intimate — it felt like something special in this little corner of a really crowded TV landscape. There aren’t that many shows that really foster a community the way yours did. Do you think that’s possible to do in TV these days?

It’s funny, because if we did anything it was build a community. So I guess it’s possible — we did it. The real question now on my mind is, “Is it possible to build a community that can grow to a mainstream size?” and we came a couple inches short of the goal line on that. So I don’t know; I don’t know if that’s what people are interested in right now. I was happy to give it a shot and I have no regrets because the community was a very active one, it was one that I was really a part of in a big way. I don’t think I was just some figurehead from afar. I’ve spent the days since we announced the show ending thanking a lot of people who have tweeted at me, sent me messages — people who watch the show and used to show up at the studio, people who used to call in. I know who they are, I know their names. They really did mean a lot to me and the show meant a lot to me, and the fact that the show could be a gathering place where I got to meet all these interesting, unique, odd people — it was the best thing about it.

It almost feels like an earlier era of the internet, where certain websites would foster similar communities — like the website Videogum, maybe a decade ago. Or the GLOW, the 1980s wrestling show that the Netflix series is based on — it was scrappy and goofy and small-scale and I don’t know how long something like that can last without changing fundamentally. It almost spells its own doom.

That’s totally true. One thing that I cop to is, I still have a chip on my shoulder, but it’s not the same chip on my shoulder I had when I came up with this idea. You mentioned GLOW, and there’s a whole bunch of examples of these scrappy local TV shows. I think of Uncle Floyd, who I grew up with in New Jersey. I think of Steampipe Alley, this weird kids’ show I grew up with. Clearly somebody was fighting to get those things through. Nothing that weird can exist without somebody fighting. I think I’m just ready to fight some different fights. I’m older now.

There’s also a real embrace of sincerity on your show that can be hard to come by on television, and in comedy. Do you feel like that’s something people are craving more of?

My assumption, knowing my career, is that now that we’ve ended my show, eighteen months from now sincerity’s gonna become the biggest thing in the history of the world. That just seems to be how things go for me. Now that I gave up, it’s gonna become all the rage.

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How does that make you feel?

If I was gonna worry about that I would’ve ended [the show] many moons ago. I just had to keep my head down and do it because it was fun.

I did an appearance on a talk show a few years back. One of the executive producers pulled me aside before I left and he was like, “You know, your show is really popular in writers’ rooms.” And I was like, oh, that’s really cool, got the respect of my peers. And he was like, “No. Your show is really popular in writers’ rooms — watch your back.” At first I was like oh, he’s telling me everyone’s gonna rip us off. There was a part of me that was real worried about that but I was like, you know what, rip us off, take what was good about it, make it better. I think what was good about the show was that it had a lot of heart, and if people rip off having heart, find ways to make it more palatable and more mainstream — big thumbs up at this point.

You’ve still got your podcast, Beautiful/Anonymous. Does that feel like a nice change of pace from doing such a chaotic live show?

There’s no pressure on it — there’s not like a big brain trust of people that get together and rubber-stamp everything for approval, which is how TV works. On a creative level, I feel like the entertainment I love the best feels really personal, feels a little small. I think I think The Chris Gethard Show really fit that description when it was at its highest peak. The show was maybe starting to grow to a point where I wasn’t necessarily feeling that as much. Doing smaller stuff feels good. The podcast feels good; it’s one-on-one. And I’ll tell you what always feels best, and will always feel best till the day I’m on my deathbed, is performing live. Just getting onstage in a roomful of people where I can see their eyes, I can react to them. They can see me, I can see them, and we can all feel like we’re a part of something together.


In “The New One,” Mike Birbiglia Reckons With Life After Baby

Mike Birbiglia’s couch is the spine of his engaging one-man show, The New One, playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre through the end of August. Couches, he muses at the top of the show, are humble, not like those holier-than-thou beds that demand we name a whole room after them. The couch is “a bed that hugs you” — an eternal comfort, symbolic of a cozy status quo.

The comedian and filmmaker is practically describing himself. Like his favorite piece of furniture, Birbiglia is a soothing presence. Loose and friendly, at the performance I saw, he began to greet the audience before he put on his headset microphone, as if we were guests gathered to hear a story in his living room. The subject of The New One is Birbiglia’s resistance to and gradual acceptance of fatherhood, but it creeps up on you slowly, as if to mirror the shift in his attitude toward being a parent.

From the opening bit about his beloved couch, Birbiglia steers the show, subtly but deftly, into the subject of parenthood and his unambiguous feeling, at the outset, that it’s not for him. “I never wanted to have a kid for seven specific reasons,” he divulges, not least of which is that “People aren’t great.” To be fair, he’s got some legitimate reasons to be wary of procreating, such as a sleep disorder — the subject of his breakout show and subsequent 2012 film, Sleepwalk With Me — that requires him to be physically restrained in bed while he sleeps. “There are details in my life that are both setups and punchlines,” he quips.

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After a visit to his brother, whose children appear to be making him miserable despite his insistence that they’re the best things that ever happened to him, Birbiglia returns home to his couch and his wife, the poet Jennifer Hope Stein, who confesses that she, too, would like children. She promises this addition won’t change the way they live their lives. Cue uproarious laughter.

Directed by Birbiglia’s frequent collaborator Seth Barrish, The New One is simply staged, at least at first, with just the odd lighting change and a stool, placed in an upstage corner, standing in for that couch. Midway through, set designer Beowulf Boritt introduces a creative and appropriately surprising visual rendering of life after baby. At this point, Birbiglia’s tone shifts from gentle and relaxed, like a well-worn pair of jeans, to a panicked bark as he outlines the ways in which life with a newborn baby who refuses to sleep is, it turns out, a bit of a change.

Birbiglia is a seasoned storyteller, and he plays the audience like they’re an old acoustic guitar he’s been noodling on since childhood. Sometimes his voice will drop so low it’s practically a whisper, and the audience leans in, hanging on every word. He’s not the first comedian to tackle fatherhood, but he resists the caustic spit of Louis C.K. — who’s always coaxed laughs from the edgy juxtaposition of shockingly dirty humor with thoughtful material about raising two little girls — or the addled exhaustion Jim Gaffigan channels when riffing on raising a big family in Manhattan.

Birbiglia has always substituted the in-your-face aggression that characterizes so many male stand-ups with a kind of bemused detachment. Here, that approach certainly encourages vulnerability — he divulges that he and his wife had trouble conceiving because his “boys don’t swim” — but it made me feel at times as if I was being forced to sympathize with him against my will. “I get why dads leave,” Birbiglia admits late in the show, describing the hermetically sealed world that his wife and baby seemed to inhabit, while he was stuck on the outside looking in, feeling useless. Being a dad, he says, is like being the “pudgy, milk-less vice president of the family.” It’s a funny line, as is the one where Birbiglia’s wife points out that the story he often tells about her and the baby ignoring him while he does the dishes is true — except for the part where he does the dishes.

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It wasn’t until after I left the theater that I began to think about how The New One might have been received were it a woman standing onstage, confessing that she does practically no housework, never wanted to have her daughter in the first place, and understands why mothers leave their babies. I commiserate with people raising children, regardless of their gender, but I wish our culture had the capacity to give mothers the same kind of empathy and reverence we bestow upon fathers. It’s telling that when C.K. was talking about the pain of being a single dad at the height of his career as a stand-up, the most prominent female comic was Amy Schumer, who rose to fame on her persona as a party girl who’s “sluttier than the average bear.”

That’s why it was such a radical departure for Ali Wong to perform her debut stand-up special, 2016’s Baby Cobra, while seven months pregnant. Wong was also pregnant, with her second child, during the filming of her 2018 special Hard Knock Wife, and I can’t think of another stand-up who’s dived so unapologetically and angrily into the topic of what childbirth does to a human body, and the ludicrous reality that women in this country still don’t have federally mandated paid leave to heal their quite literally broken bodies before returning to work. Her tone isn’t bemused and calm; it’s furious and fed-up.

But Birbiglia is not the kind of comic who aims to shock. He appears more eager to put his audience at ease, to assure us that all will be well. He ends the show on a positive, heartwarming note, so that we’re literally applauding him for not leaving his wife and baby. In the realm of stand-up comedy, dwarfed for so many years by C.K. and his meditations on family life, the concept of a father who actually parents his children and is subsequently showered with admiration has become a kind of status quo. Maybe it’s time for a new one.

The New One
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Through August 26


“Succession” Is the Perfect Show for Life Under Late Capitalism

HBO’s Succession feels like a comedy. Creator Jesse Armstrong is a British comedy writer who wrote for the political satire The Thick of It. Executive producer Adam McKay, who directed the pilot, is the longtime writing partner of Will Ferrell, who is also credited as an executive producer. The show’s focus on a mega-rich family of fuckups has earned it comparisons to Arrested Development, and it has the mockumentary feel — and the high volume of creatively devastating insults — of Veep. (Armstrong worked on that show, too, as did Succession EP Frank Rich.) Succession is shot in the loose style of much contemporary comedy, with scenes that often end abruptly, on tossed-off remarks that function as punchlines. But Sunday’s season finale made clear that Succession is pure tragedy, particularly in the arc of the show’s protagonist, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), the perfect antihero for life under late capitalism.

As the title indicates, Succession‘s dynastic family drama is positively monarchical; the family name even echoes the French word for king, roi. The degree to which familial bonds define the Roy children’s social reality lends the show the scale of Shakespearean tragedy, but with a contemporary twist — the very bonds that allow these characters to live lavish lives so far removed from the rest of society also undermine their ability to enjoy their spoils; it’s an empty victory, being born on third base. The story of the show’s first season is the story of those bonds unraveling, and the ripple effect that has on the family’s powerful company — not to mention the regular people caught in their crosshairs.

If you’re one of those people who can’t stand to watch unlikable characters, you won’t find much to like in Succession. The show kicks off when Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the patriarch and CEO of the News Corp–like global media conglomerate Waystar Royco, has a change of heart on his eightieth birthday and decides to stay on rather than pass off the company to Kendall as planned. When Logan has a stroke, it sets off a season of power grabs and squabbles among Kendall and his siblings: The appropriately nicknamed Shiv (Sarah Snook), short for Siobhan, is a political operative who’s stepped away from the family business, even as she prepares to marry Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), a sycophantic Waystar executive. Roman (Kieran Culkin) is an unrepentant asshole whose first order of business upon being named COO of the company is to close his office blinds and masturbate onto the floor-to-ceiling window while looking out over his fiefdom below. Connor (Alan Ruck), Logan’s eldest child from an earlier marriage, is a directionless buffoon who has to effectively bribe his much younger girlfriend, Willa (Justine Lupe), a playwright and former call girl, to move out to his isolated ranch in New Mexico. This is a man so disconnected from reality that, upon receiving his family at his gargantuan desert compound, he declares, “Welcome to the real America!” By the finale, this man who does not work is considering a run for president.

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But Succession, or its first season at least, belongs to the arrogant but deeply insecure Kendall. We meet him in the backseat of a chauffeured car, listening to the Beastie Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC” on a pair of giant headphones; there’s a sick irony in a white guy named Kendall using this anthem to New York’s scrappy diversity as pump-up music before taking over daddy’s multibillion-dollar company. Kendall walks like he owns Manhattan, but he practically sweats self-doubt, and it’s no surprise to learn that he’s a (barely) recovering addict.

Kendall isn’t some Wall Street wolf snorting blow off strippers’ asses. He pines for his estranged wife, Rava (Natalie Gold), the only person who accepts his vulnerability instead of using it against him. His attempts at tech-bro bravado fall hopelessly flat; in the pilot, he opens a business meeting with an awkward, “So, we ready to fuck or what?” His siblings mock his self-importance, and any swagger he may possess pales when he’s in the presence of his father, whose gravitational pull turns Kendall — who can’t so much as make a cup of coffee without his household staff — into a scared little boy. Kendall may be unlikable, but that’s not a synonym for unsympathetic. The genius of the show is to make the viewer, despite her best efforts, feel sorry for this poor, cracked shell of a man.

The show’s production team presents the Roys’ opulent lifestyle matter-of-factly, in a cool, dispassionate style that mirrors the characters’ detachment from the world outside their gilded bubble. Succession has a feline appeal, slinking back and letting the viewer approach it and make her own conclusions about these characters’ virtues, or lack thereof. While the show doesn’t exactly flatter its subjects, it’s also not entirely clear at the outset whether we’re meant to laugh at them, pity them, or despise them.

In the end, it’s a little of all three. Despite their overwhelming advantages, the Roy children are helplessly dwarfed by their name and the man who gave it to them — none more than Kendall, whose desire to displace Logan as CEO barely masks his deep yearning for his father’s love and respect. In a brutal twist of irony, Logan sees that very yearning as a sign of weakness — Kendall is too “soft” to run the company, Logan tells his son in the pilot, before taunting him, “Are you gonna fucking cry? Kendall, are you fucking crying?” The more Kendall tries to ingratiate himself the more he disappoints — even disgusts — his father.

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Like any royal family, the personal is always inextricably intertwined with the professional. (Logan facilitates a group therapy session at Connor’s ranch only after being told that the family’s very public dysfunction is hurting the company stock.) When the clan travels to England for Shiv and Tom’s wedding in the final two episodes, the royal connection is rendered even starker — despite Tom’s genuine love for Shiv, this is a strategic union. The Roys inhabit a literal castle, the ancestral home of Shiv’s mother, Logan’s second wife, and people wave and take pictures when the wedding procession rolls through the town, as if cheering on Harry and Meghan.

These are the kings and queens who now control so much of the world, and if Succession at first comes off as comedy, it’s because these people are such clowns. But clowns can be unwittingly terrifying, and the Roys are never scarier than when they’re casually and thoughtlessly toying with the lives of the little guys — usually people who work for them, like the waiter at Shiv’s wedding who, in Sunday’s finale, accidentally spills champagne on Logan’s sleeve and is subsequently fired. That’s just the beginning of the young man’s woes: Kendall, having finally succeeded in taking down his father by initiating a hostile takeover of the company with his financier buddy, can’t enjoy the victory, and anxiously begs drugs off the just-fired waiter. Then he takes him on a jittery, late-night drive to buy cocaine, which ends in calamity when Kendall veers off the road to avoid a deer and slams the car into a lake, leaving the waiter to drown. Stunned, he stumbles back to his room, bathes, changes his clothes, and rejoins the party.

For Logan, this isn’t a tragedy but an opportunity, and one he immediately seizes. The next morning, he summons Kendall into what can only be described as a throne room and informs him that his key card was found near the scene of the crash, and a witness saw Kendall walking back to his room last night, soaking wet. But all will be forgotten, he asserts, if only Kendall drops his plan and lets his father assume control of the company. “You’re my number one boy,” Logan promises, as he wraps Kendall in a hug before quickly dismissing him. In the end, he proves his father right: Kendall’s too “soft” to take Logan down without running into the warm embrace of his addiction.

In Shakespeare’s plays, comedies end in a wedding, and tragedies end in death. That Succession‘s freshman season ends in both is appropriate for a series about the contemporary American version of a monarchy — one that borrows elements of Shakespearean tragedy but is firmly set among the absurdly, unnaturally wealthy lives of modern kings. Succession is about the infinite lives the wealthy get to lead, the endless second chances that money can buy. Through the figure of Kendall, the series encourages the viewer to see this social reality as rotten to its core — a world in which qualities like vulnerability, trust, and love are not virtues but tragic flaws.


Hannah Gadsby and Comedy’s Toxic Masculinity Problem

About midway through Hannah Gadsby’s final performance of Nanette, at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival on Friday, the comic recruited an audience member in the front row. Pointing to a man with his arms crossed, Gadsby asked for his name. “David,” he replied. “Of course it is,” Gadsby shot back, to a roomful of laughter. Before continuing with the bit, which required a little of poor David’s participation, Gadsby asked, “Are you ready, David? I’m asking for your consent.”

David may not have been too pleased at Gadsby’s flippancy, but the sold-out crowd at L’Olympia theater, in Montreal’s “Gay Village,” howled. To be fair, they hooted and cheered through the whole evening, which had the electric charge of a political rally. It’s easy to understand why: Nanette, a stand-up special that premiered on Netflix last month and catapulted the forty-year-old Australian comedian to mainstream fame, has tapped into a mounting sense of rage and exhaustion among women and minorities. And it’s done so at the risk of alienating a demographic that has for so long been considered, as Gadsby put it, “human neutral” — that is, straight white men.

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It was particularly powerful to witness such an ecstatic reception for Gadsby at Just for Laughs, the comedy industry’s biggest event, which this year — its 36th — played host to nearly 500 artists at more than 174 shows over two and a half weeks. Its producers have done an admirable job in recent years of booking diverse showcases, and there wasn’t a straight white man among this year’s annual Just for Laughs Awards (Gadsby herself won “Comedy Special of the Year”). Still, the whole thing carries a whiff of Eau de Bro; you can practically smell the Axe when you step off the elevator at the Hyatt Regency Montreal, where the festival is headquartered and where behemoths like Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and, more recently, Netflix, throw nightly parties during which performers and industry players take advantage of a surging open bar.

Drunk men are everywhere at Just for Laughs, encouraged by an open-air street festival dotted with beer kiosks, and a general party vibe. (For its bash, Netflix hired a bevy of bartender vixens dressed in extremely low-cut, skin-tight red dresses. Gazing helplessly down the front of one such dress as its wearer poured me a head-spinningly strong drink, I considered how the spectacle hinted at that “human neutral” that most art caters to — whose pleasure matters most.) It’s the kind of place where you might overhear, as I did, two very young men talk about how the totally awesome-sounding HBO series Confederate has gotten a lot of people “triggered,” before one of them launches into a description of the upcoming Netflix original series Insatiable, already the subject of an intense backlash: It’s about this fat chick who gets punched in the face and has to have her jaw wired shut so she loses, like, a hundred pounds, and then she comes back to school and gets revenge on everyone. Some people are just hotter than others, and what’s so bad about admitting it? I’m sorry, it’s true.

As the comedian and podcast host Erin Gibson pointed out in a long Facebook post, this year in particular, Just for Laughs served as a “tiny little laboratory where we could witness the melting down of toxic male comedy all in one place.” If you can believe it, more than a few male comics are struggling to come to terms with the new paradigm Gadsby is helping to usher into the comedy world. At one showcase Gibson attended, a male comic repeatedly picked on a woman in the audience who, it had been established, was there by herself, “aggressively” asking her out, twice (“Don’t do that at 11 p.m. in a major city with a bunch of people who’ve been drinking,” Gibson wrote). Then, after Gadsby got up and performed a short routine from Nanette, an unnamed male comedian got onstage and “twirled into a toxic tantrum of jealousy and rage,” launching into a set-long complaint that straight white men are suddenly the brunt of so much criticism. I was reminded of a joke from Andy Kindler’s annual State of the Industry address, in reference to the #MeToo movement: “Oh, because I do the terrible things, I’m the bad guy?”

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Into this overall atmosphere of douchebaggery stepped Gadsby, in a navy blazer and dark pants, for an audience at L’Olympia that was on their feet before she even said a word. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crowd so fired up. Most people had likely seen the show on Netflix already, and anticipated many of the special’s greatest hits (“I identify as tired”; “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself” — that one got a deafening, sustained applause). It was like being in the boomer-heavy crowd of a classic-rock revival concert, but with fewer ponytailed men. When Gadsby paraphrased Picasso, who once remarked, “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one,” a woman in the audience yelled, “Fuck that!”

Still, Gadsby added new riffs, like an extended one on the woman she named the show after, whom she met at a café in a small town — the kind of place where a queer person is eager to seek out her “people.” When she elaborated that her people were, of course, “the lesbians,” the crowd roared. She was among her people that night.

That probably made it easier for Gadsby to pick on poor David, and to use him to flip the all-too-usual script at a comedy show — straight man with microphone picks on woman or minority in the crowd; gets easy laugh. Here, though, it was a presumably straight man who was getting picked on, and a theater full of women and queer people who were easily laughing. Perhaps at this moment in time, Gadsby pointed out, men are dealing with the kind of public critique that people like Gadsby have grown hardened to. “I am pleasantly dead inside,” she joked, while they’re still “fresh.” “They’re just jokes, fellas,” Gadsby quipped, aping the kind of justification we so often hear from male comics who delight in punching down. “They’re just jokes.”

It’s never just a joke, though, is it? Not when we live in a world that continues to stack the deck in favor of straight white men. Before the show began, I’d sat in my seat scrolling through Twitter. Ronan Farrow’s reporting on decades-long sexual assault allegations against CBS head Les Moonves had just hit the New Yorker’s website. I thumbed through the article; I’d like to say I was shaking with rage and shock, but it was a familiar story. That the man in charge of a multibillion-dollar entertainment conglomerate that puts out TV shows, movies, and books is a serial sexual harasser was, sadly, no surprise. I watch TV shows and movies and I read books, and I’ve long been receiving the message that some people’s pain and pleasure and joy and fear matters more than others.

But a little over an hour later, I sat in that same seat, practically bawling as Gadsby wrapped up her triumphant show and the audience once again leapt to their feet. “I just wanted to do something constructive,” Gadsby finished. “And I think I might have.”


“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” Exposes the Cruel Idiocy of Gay Conversion Therapy

At the gay conversion therapy center at the heart of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the teenage charges wear uniforms: blue button-down shirts and navy skirts for girls, pants for boys. The outfits are remarkably similar to those worn by Red Sparrow’s young Russian spies in training. Blind obedience and conformity are at the heart of both scenarios — submerging the self in service of a higher power. At least the spies get to fuck.

Based on the same-named 2012 novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post stars Chloë Grace Moretz as the title character, an orphaned eleventh-grader living with her aunt and uncle in Montana circa 1993. (There’s wood paneling galore.) Directed by Desiree Akhavan, and written by Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, the film takes a grown-up approach to its young-adult material; this is a somewhat somber YA adaptation, with teenage subjects who are fully formed and all too human.

It opens with close-up shots of young hands gripping copies of the Holy Bible for Teens while a white-haired pastor warns, “You are at an age where you are especially vulnerable to evil.” The pastor keeps talking, in voiceover, as Cameron and her bible-study friend Coley (Quinn Shephard) bike to Cameron’s house, shut the door to her bedroom, and furiously make out. Cameron and Coley go to prom with their boyfriends, then thrash joyfully together on the dance floor before stealing away to the back seat of a car, where they smoke pot and fool around — until Cameron’s boyfriend opens the door and catches them in the act. This precipitates Cameron’s enrollment at God’s Promise, a Christian gay conversion therapy center located in a remote cabin in the woods. The setting is appropriate; Cameron Post is a kind of horror film, in its own way.

There, Cameron meets Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), who cheerfully rummages through her belongings and confiscates her Breeders cassette. They’re not singing in praise of the Lord, now, are they? “He used to struggle with same-sex attraction,” Cameron’s chipper roommate, Erin (a scene-stealing Emily Skeggs) divulges — until his sister, Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), intervened. After successfully converting Rick, Erin explains, Lydia set up shop and began spreading her gospel.

Moretz is perfectly cast as a girl who sees through the bullshit and instinctively understands that most adults don’t know what they’re doing. She’s not confused; she knows what she wants and who she is. Cameron doesn’t say much about her identity, but she and Akhavan show us. She has recurring dreams about Coley, and in these scenes and flashbacks, the director outlines a budding teenage romance that makes the viewer feel the steam heat of these stolen encounters. Akhavan is a subtle but deft storyteller — there is no external narration, no voiceovers or inner monologues explicating what we’re seeing. We need only see a brief overhead shot from the top of the stairs, of Cameron’s aunt and uncle sitting in their living room with that white-haired pastor, her aunt nodding and crying, to know what’s happening and why.

At the conversion center, Cameron befriends Jane (Sasha Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck); she decides she can trust them when she catches them smoking weed together. Through the stories of how these teens ended up at God’s Promise, Cameron Post suggests the rigid hegemony of American life, the all-too-common story of religious belief perverted in the service of fitting in. Jane was born to hippie parents and grew up on a commune, but when her mother married an evangelical Christian, Jane was shipped off to God’s Promise; Adam was born into the Lakota tribe — a community that recognizes a third, in-between gender — but became a problem once his father decided to go into politics and thus converted to Christianity.

There’s not one mediocre performance in the film. Ehle is terrifically severe as the ruler of her little clan; when she enters the classroom to meet her newest “disciple,” the room goes quiet as her heels slowly stalk the floor. Chastising Adam to get his hair off his face, Lydia yanks it back herself and ties it up. “There’s no hiding from God,” she intones. At least, not at God’s Promise; a flashlight roving over Cameron and Erin at night, to assure they’re safe in their separate beds, is a recurring image. It also functions as a callback to the film’s devastating inciting incident, when Cameron’s boyfriend opens the car door, interrupting her and Coley’s bliss and shedding a probing light on their warm, dark secret.

Akhavan doesn’t belabor the point, but there’s wicked humor in the fact that all the kids at God’s Promise (and Rick) are so undeniably gay. In one therapy session, Cameron can only laugh when a boy takes one look at her and declares her an obvious “dyke.” Erin is a diehard Vikings fan who earnestly throws herself into a workout routine with the help of an exercise video called “Blessercize,” giving all her conflicted feelings and hormonal energy a gender-appropriate outlet. They’re just so horny, the poor things!

In the end, Cameron Post is a damning indictment of institutional Christianity and adults who make it their mission to tamp down kids’ spirits in the name of God. Akhavan shrewdly captures the claustrophobia of organized religion — the oppressive sense that nothing and no one can exist outside the context of Christianity, that we are all merely vessels for an extremely particular God, human instincts be damned. As the film so beautifully, and painfully, illustrates, when there’s no one to turn to, you turn on yourself.

 The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Opens August 3, Quad Cinema and Landmark at 57 West


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The “Variety” ’10 Comics to Watch’ Showcase at Just for Laughs Was…Interesting

Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” showcase, an annual series at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, got off to a great start. The lineup of comics, picked by a team of the magazine’s editors, writers, and critics, included Insecure’s Amanda Seales; SNL writer Julio Torres, soon to appear in the new HBO comedy Los Espookys alongside Fred Armisen; Daily Show correspondent Dulcé Sloan; American Vandal and Big Mouth writer Jaboukie Young-White; and rising stand-up star Joel Kim Booster. It’s a testament to the slowly but surely changing times that almost every comedian on the bill was either queer, a person of color, or both.

Then Darren Knight came onstage. The final performer of the evening, Knight and his routine felt out of place from the get-go. Knight, who is from Alabama, is only a couple of years into his comedy career and is apparently known for his “Southern Momma” character, which, according to Variety, has “garnered a windfall of social-media page views.” If you don’t believe the magazine, just ask him: Knight spent about half his time onstage at Montreal’s Monument-National theater thanking the organizers of the festival — he couldn’t even remember its name — and boasting about his supposedly meteoric rise to stardom. (Knight’s website claims he is “the fastest rising comedian in American history.”)

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Knight began by making a groan-inducing “joke”: “To our wives and girlfriends,” he drawled, “may they never meet!” Then he told a bunch of poo jokes. The crowd tittered. One guy couldn’t seem to stop cackling, but not at the so-called punchlines; he was just uncontrollably giggling throughout. As his routine came to a close, Knight declared that he wasn’t going to get up onstage and talk about race or sexual orientation, because that’s not what people paid to be there for. They were there to laugh. At this point, basically everyone in the audience loudly booed, and Knight left the stage. The evening’s host, Chris Redd, came back out and lamented that the show ended on such a weird note, and the audience streamed out of the theater, puzzling over what they’d just seen.

Amanda Seales, Dulce Sloan, Taylor Tomlinson, Julio Torres, and Jaboukie Young-White at the Variety panel

Even before Knight gave his parting shot, I couldn’t understand how he’d ended up on the showcase. He simply did not seem to be at the same level as the other comics; maybe Variety, which put together a notably diverse lineup, wanted a token Southern white guy to round it out. Fair enough, but surely there are Southern white male comics out there who aren’t complete and total hacks whose idea of funny is the fact that men cheat on their wives and also sometimes have IBS. I saw one such comic, Rocky Dale Davis, just a couple of days ago at the New Faces showcase, and he built much of his set around his identity as a white guy from Alabama. He was also funny.

I’m not saying every straight white male comic has to center his act around his identity. (Although that’s something that most queer comics and minorities kind of do feel the need to do; performers like Cameron Esposito and Hannah Gadsby have spoken about the pressure they feel to put the audience at ease by declaring that, yes, they’re lesbians, and they know what they look like.) I just can’t figure out how Variety’s editors decided Knight deserved to be on the same bill as Torres, Young-White, et al.; the cynic in me assumes they wanted to throw a bone to anyone who might complain that straight white men were underrepresented on their list (lol), that they wanted to appear hip by including a YouTube comic, and that they fell for Knight’s self-boosting talk about his stratospheric career trajectory. What they didn’t seem to consider was if the guy had any talent.

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After the show, a few other performers took to social media to call out their fellow “comic to watch.” Early Saturday morning, Seales posted a short video to her Instagram page, of Knight being booed off the stage, and wrote, “This clown ass hack Darren Knight embarrassed himself royally by being made to close out the Variety Comics to Watch showcase at Just for Laughs Montréal after…speaking the same ‘challenging racism has no place in comedy’ sentiment during an earlier panel.” She added, “Comedy is a tool that uses laughter to heal, to uplift, and to educate. If you ain’t doin that, get off the stage. WE DON’T FUCK WITH YOU COMEDICALLY.”

Soon after the show ended, Young-White tweeted, “This comic said, on stage, that comics shouldn’t talk about race or sexuality and got booed by Canadians do u kno how trash u gotta be to get booed by Canadians.”

This morning, Comedy Hype posted a short video to its YouTube page, which shows Redd confronting Knight backstage: “You sat there and bombed the whole time, and decide what comedy is?” Knight is shown walking away. Seales posted similar footage in the form of an Instagram story, followed by a short clip that shows Sloan telling another man, presumably Knight’s manager, “Drop him as a client, he’s not good for you.”

Booster pointed out that what made Knight’s set so noxious wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it. “No matter what your terrible opinion is, if you’re a comedian onstage the least you could do is present it as a joke,” Booster told me. “He didn’t do that. He was right that the audience paid to laugh and he didn’t even attempt that in his lecture.”