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FUNNY PEOPLE

While Alex Borstein may be best known as a former cast member of MADtv and Lois on Family Guy, her stand-up comedy is not to be missed (just google “Alex Borstein vagina soap”). Tonight, she makes a rare New York appearance at What’s So Bloody Funny?, a benefit for the National Hemophilia Foundation (yes, she will be doing her popular character Ms. Swan). The evening also includes sets from Sarah Silverman, Marcus Monroe (2012 Andy Kaufman Award–winner), and more comedians to be announced. Enter the costume contest and raffle to win prizes; DJ Hesta Prynn spins the hits at the dance party.

Wed., Oct. 30, 8 p.m., 2013

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Seth McFarlane’s Ted Is Stuffed with More of the Same

Fans of Seth MacFarlane’s Fox mainstay Family Guy who wish he would run afoul of FCC regulations every week might be pleased with Ted, the story of a 35-year-old man and his foul-talking teddy bear. Plushies, too, might be turned on by the pot-smoking, whore-banging CGI toy ursus of the title, voiced by MacFarlane, making his feature-directing debut, which he co-scripted with Family Guy writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. Other specialized demographics—namely, anyone over 15 who can’t claim membership in either of the above groups—might sit in the theater in stony silence.

The film begins in 1985—the middle of the decade whose pop-cultural detritus will be fetishized continually in Ted—when eight-year-old pariah John Bennett wishes upon a Christmas-night star that his new, cuddly gift could speak. A montage during the opening credits highlights three decades of their insoluble bond: The now-talking Ted rises and falls from beloved Johnny Carson guest to louche celebrity washout; scrawny John becomes Mark Wahlberg and starts dating Lori (Mila Kunis). Kunis’s role isn’t developed much beyond those quick, silent intro shots: Once tirelessly understanding of the relationship between her layabout boyfriend of four years who can barely get to his rental-car job on time and his longtime comfort object, Lori now demands that Ted move out of the Boston apartment the three have been sharing so that John will finally grow up. The man and his toy might now have separate addresses, but Ted can still activate John’s id, encouraging him to break a date with Lori on the promise of snorting coke with Sam Jones—Flash Gordon himself.

Ted’s overextended, desultory 104 minutes—which include a kidnapping, a car chase, a set piece propelled by Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” video, and a Norah Jones concert—also operate on the premise that audiences can’t resist having their baser instincts appealed to over and over again, especially when the filthy talk, gay panic, and racist jokes pour forth from as dissonant a figure as a stuffed animal. But does the bear really look that dissimilar to—or function that much differently from—Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, or any other round-bellied bad influence from movies made under the sign of Apatow during the past five years? Like its buddy-movie predecessors, Ted has a soft, squishy ending, one meant to vindicate Lori, even if the film has so little use for Kunis—or any female who doesn’t want to spread her legs for Ted.

It’s dispiriting enough to witness Kunis still waiting for a comic lead role worthy of her. But the usually nimble Wahlberg—who at least has one great moment rattling off “white-trash girls’ names”—suffers the most, playing second fiddle to a knee-high Gund knockoff.

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Detention

Horror-comedy Detention combines the bravura mash-up showmanship and Wikipedic ’90s pop-culture savvy of a Girl Talk album with the frivolous, non sequitur wit of Family Guy. Another way of saying the same thing: It’s one of the most obnoxious movies ever made. Dowdy student Riley (Shanley Caswell) is trying to figure out who’s responsible for hacking up the hipster student body at Grizzly Lake High School while dressed in the guise of the villain from the popular Cinderhella horror franchise. So far, so Scream—but Detention expands the frames-within-frames conceit of Wes Craven’s movies into a pop-culture hall of mirrors. Digressing into sci-fi time travel and Freaky Friday transmigration of souls before its prayed-for ending, Detention was lavishly self-financed and directed with sterile, kinetic razzle-dazzle by Joseph Kahn, whose long career in music videos has made his mind a flypaper of pop detritus, as reflected in one circling shot that seamlessly time travels through a student’s two decades in detention, with accompanying fashion and music cues. The biggest laugh is the overblown cinematography staging school lunch at red dusk, but “MMMBop” and “all that and a bag of chips” are what’s offered for punchlines. “It’s called post-irony,” says one character of the swarming references. I can think of another word for it.

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Michael McDonald: Mystery White Boy

Michael McDonald was the Akon of the ’80s. Ubiquitous, inescapable. The consummate guest star, backing vocalist, and duet partner, trading lines with everyone from James Ingram to Patti LaBelle to Kenny Loggins to his own sister. Like top-shelf vodka, his bubbly, mush-mouthed yodel (wherein murdered consonants ascend to heaven and are awarded 72 virgin vowels) enhanced and intoxicated whatever you mixed it with. Consider Steely Dan’s “Peg,” his note-perfect bleats finely chopped like pristine lines of cocaine, a sublimely OCD mingling of the perfectionist and the populist, the alien and the instantly familiar. Only one fate can befall a voice so memorable, so distinct: Nowadays, he’s a bit of a joke.

A joke Mike’s in on, though, at least to an extent. In 2008, he has evolved into a slightly less athletic Chuck Norris. A kitschy pop-culture punchline masterfully wielded by The 40-Year-Old Virgin (“Ya mo burn this place to the ground”), The Family Guy (“Faaaaart!”), the brilliant Internet serial Yacht Rock (“California vagina sailors”), and even power-pop stars the New Pornographers, who held a YouTube contest in which fans submitted videos of themselves singing NP tunes in the inimitable Michael McDonald style. (Some guy with an atrocious beard won for warbling “It’s Only Divine Right.”) The Family Guy joke is most instructive: Mike is hired to sing backup vocals to everything anyone says, because it all just sounds better—sweeter, smoother, more soulful—when issued from his lips. Not a bad rep. It wouldn’t be quite so bothersome, though, if these days he didn’t mostly sing old Motown songs.

We’re live last Wednesday night at the Blue Note for the sold-out Michael McDonald show. That is not a typo. Aside from the sax guy briefly evoking A Love Supreme during the intro vamp to “I Keep Forgettin’ ” (that’ll probably cost you a few virgins, pal), this is no hackneyed jazz crossover plea—before a euphoric crowd, Mike instead grinds through 90 minutes unifying the two halves of his estimable career: the cheerily smooth r&b on which he built his fortune (“What a Fool Believes” triggers mass hysteria), and the cheerily smooth renditions of classic, often not traditionally smooth r&b songs that’ve dominated his last several albums (a superfluous take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” triggers significantly less hysteria). His new Soul Speak, third in a trilogy that includes the instructively titled Motown and Motown Two, tosses in a couple of flaccid originals and a few bewildering tributes from farther afield: Mike’s take on “Hallelujah” can’t match the profundity of that American Idol dude’s version, let alone Jeff Buckley’s. His backing band tonight hails from the to-save-the-song-we-must-destroy-it Vietnam school, unnecessarily bombastic solos and all. For protection and companionship, I have brought along three martini-swilling associates, and we struggle mightily as to the degree of irony with which we are enjoying ourselves, or not. Nearby Blue Note patrons are visibly alarmed by our (relative) youth; that not every last person in the joint is bone-white befuddles us in turn.

It’s complicated.

Anyway, “Oh, you’re gonna pay, guitar!” howls one of my martini-swilling associates as the lead guitarist’s face contorts violently while searching for that perfect, sweet, climactic note. For convenience’s sake, we assign every side player to a bygone TV star: Beau Bridges on guitar, Wilford Brimley on sax, etc. Mike’s drummer is evidently nicknamed “Baby Girl.” As for the man himself, he remains middle management incarnate, his hair and Brillo-pad goatee a resplendent shock of white; the spit starts flying by the middle of the towering opener “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and the sweat is pouring freely just a few songs later, coating his cheeks to almost strategically suggest that Mike is crying. He pounds his electric keyboard and yodels his ass off. “I know what’s good for you, baby,” he violently coos, and you get to thinking that maybe he does.

You watch a guy like this close his set with a triumphant double-shot of Stevie Wonder songs, and you can’t help but think it: Pat Boone. But does the elated throng here actually prefer Mike’s version of, say, “Walk On By” to the original? Doubt it. Hope not. He avoids any outright debacles, though, and his mercifully solo reading of “You Don’t Know Me”—the Ray Charles version—is the killer tonight, a Lifetime movie tearjerker that earns its pathos, even if it’s borrowed. My martini-swilling associates are right to point out the grueling irony of covering “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” but ah, screw it. The oldies album is the official baby-boomer exit strategy. It’s not his fault. And it’s heartening that “Takin’ It to the Streets,” from Mike’s original meal ticket, the mighty Doobie Brothers, inspires the most crowd rapture tonight, folks leaping to their feet and clapping awkwardly but endearingly as our hero’s sweat pours forth. He’s got his own canon, thank you very much.

But Michael McDonald remains a truly confusing notion in 2008, an ironic mustache of a man, alternately appalling and appealing, but bewildering throughout. Before he rips into “What’s Goin’ On,” Mike deigns to make a political statement that I, in my vertiginous state, completely misread. He announces that we stand at the threshold of what could be a great time, and praises “the one guy” who could lead us to that promised land. The gender specificity of this statement is immediately obvious, but what follows somehow is not. “I love when politicians talk about how they can’t wait to get into office and cut all that wasteful spending,” Mike chortles. “We know what that means, right? It means they take all the money from us hard-working people, and they line the pockets of their friends.” Huge audience whoops, including from the nice lady next to me who, as the lights had gone down, had been telling her neighbor about how “Giuliani is a great man.”

I thereby read Mike’s monologue as a direct endorsement of a) McCain, and b) Bush’s tax cuts. My martini-swilling associates, however, insist he was backing Obama. In the cold light of reason, their take seems much more feasible; the man himself remains as unfeasible as ever. We stagger out into the East Village night, quotation marks spinning around our heads; we may be fools, but we believe nonetheless.

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G.I. Joe, You’ve Been Replaced

A nation of young parents weekly weaned on stereotype-skewering shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons don’t want to toss Little Janie a useless Barbie, or encourage James Junior’s early war-mongering with GI Joe. But what can we replace them with? Barney’s creepy, and American Girl is a cult. We proffer these savvy toys that will prepare children for their futures in New York, imbuing them with the creative skill sets their parents use to get by every day.

Teach your kids: To reach for that Soho loft in the sky . . . while still not compromising their artistic integrity The Fashion Angels, an empowered, multiracial group of dolls with interests in soccer, open-mic nights, and rare vintage, would never kick back in some rehashed My Little Pony stable or Barbie’s vomity-pink dollhouse; only a loft in Soho will do, one cribbed out with marabou rugs, glass-beaded curtains, and glass chandeliers. They need a stylish pad to crash in after their grueling hours as fashion designers, just like your little pun’kin could be one day. Other sets include everything your kids need to design their own clothes for the Angels. Various Fashion Angels products, available at Geppetto’s Toy Box.

Teach your kids: Windowsill gardens are superior to a backyard Avenue A fire escapes are all the party you need, kids. Get them started early on the unique joys of tiny gardens in our urban jungle, courtesy of this Window Sill Garden Kit at Geppetto’s Toy Box.

Teach your kids: An Early Appreciation for Organic Forms in Po-Mo, Minimalist Architecture Available at Kar’ikter, Oliblock are “architecturally-inspired” biomorphic building blocks, an alternative to the more linear Legos of our past. Only suckers would still buy their kids Duplos. Parents feeling a little more flush can shell out $690 for Kid O‘s Mies-inspired dollhouse, the Villa Sibi.

Teach your kids: The importance of socialist guerrilla uprising in downtrodden, U.S.-backed dictatorships Or, the Che Guevara doll. After they’ve mastered peas, it’s time to hit ’em up with a little lesson on socialist upheaval in Latin America. It’s never too early to learn about stickin’ it to The Man. The Che plush, part of the Little Thinkers set, is available at Trust Fund Baby.

Teach your kids: The importance of designer labels and identifying fakes Begin with those popular Kid Robot figurines customized by Giorgio Armani, John Galliano, Helmut Lang, Jean Paul Gaultier, and others. Then bust out a copy of Art Fraud Detective from Geppetto’s Toy Box. A truly smart kid can put two and two together.

Teach your kids: That tofu is a happy staple of any well-balanced vegetarian lifestyle, preferable to slaughtering innocent farm animals Introduce your tykes to soy product with To-Fu figurines, charming, benign dolls with a block of tofu for a head. Or shelve the tofu discussion till later, and hit ’em up with a copy of Herb, The Vegetarian Dragon. It’s a pleasant beach read about the dangers of dragons eating human flesh.

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Whole Lotta Dads: Paternal Overkill on Fox’s Sunday Night

Let’s review the saga of Seth MacFarlane: At age 25, he nabs a prime-time animated series. Although critics love The Family Guy‘s warped family sitcom, Fox cans it. But after the show carves out a successful afterlife on Cartoon Network and DVD, Fox uncancels it and also invites MacFarlane back to create a new series, American Dad, that bears a staggering resemblance to, uh, Family Guy.

The result is paternal overkill. Fox’s Sunday-night lineup is wall-to-wall with buffoonish dads, from Homer Simpson to Family Guy‘s blue-collar bumbler Peter Griffin to American Dad‘s Stan Smith, a CIA agent as good at protecting his country as Homer is at guarding a nuclear power plant. Stan is the least sympathetic pop of the bunch, not a powerless suburban patsy but a patriotic bigmouth who reveres and abuses power. Stan offers to help his son win the class presidency (“I work for the CIA. Rigging elections is my bread and butter”) and tries to sabotage his wife’s real estate career by kidnapping Alan Greenspan, thus triggering a property crash. American Dad clearly intends to slay us with its political humor, but the satirical edge is too blunt to register most of the time. The occasional funny moments emerge mostly from meta-jokes. For instance, what does the Smith family do when it thinks it has just 24 hours to live after exposure to a deadly biological substance? The ultimate meta-gesture: They sit down together to watch a full season of 24. Now that’s a TV family.

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Darndest Things

If Dilbert is mainly just tedious, Eddie Murphy’s new animated series The PJs, which premiered on Fox January 10, is flat-out stupefying—and not just because it’s an eyesore, though that helps. While I don’t believe that any technique should be rejected out of hand, I might make an exception for claymation—whose laborious look undercuts the very free dom animation is good for, and whose golliwog aspects come unpleasantly front and center when it’s used to depict non whites, as here. With exec producer Murphy providing the voice of a cranky, lazy housing-project super whose hobgoblins include a skeletal crack head who’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys on your back along with a gallery of uppity females out to make our hero’s life hell—nagging, dumpy wife, grotesquely obese neighbor, cranky old biddy, voodoo-priestess ball breaker—and a pair of tykes doing the darndest things, this ghastly show makes Amos ‘n’ Andy look like Amistad. According to TV Guide, the show is supposed to be impudent topical satire, so here’s a sample: Murphy’s shiftless character is named (are you rolling on the floor yet?) Thurgood.

Instead, with Matt Groening’s Futurama not due ’til March, the animated show I’d advise you to check out is Family Guy, premiering January 31—which I can’t properly re view, since Fox didn’t have the complete pilot available. But the half-episode I’ve seen has giggles galore. Yup, it’s that good old middle-class dysfunctional homestead getting sent up again—but this time mostly for the hell of it, in a spirit of oddly equable glee. Tanked but genial Dad treats his buds to a screening of porn classic Assablanca, Jan Brady gets tossed into the Chamber of Fire, and a seething infant snarls in Basil Rathbone accents from his high chair at the inoffensive mother he’s sworn to assassinate “since the day I escaped from your wretched womb—that cursed ovarian Bastille.” Then Dad got told he’d been fired, and answered with a genuinely chagrined, “Aw, geez. For how long?”