Make 'Em Laugh: Gifts of Comedy
What is funny to one person may not be funny to another, but laughter is the healthiest involuntary response (second maybe only to sleep) that your body can experience. Humor identifies common ground, breaks tension and brings people together. So why not spread it around this holiday season?
Take a look at the headlines. Who needs a laugh? Hmmm, let's see...EVERYONE. After I absorb all the violence, betrayal and financial decay that the WSJ, NPR and CNN can deliver every morning, I calm myself with The Onion - the morphine-drip of news. (Hey, they have fun gifts too - including the category: "Gifts for Strangers.")
Surely I cannot be the only person on this crazy blue marble who has noticed the strikingly similar physical benefits of a hearty belly laugh and awesome sex. Exhausting and replenishing, no? I could use both right about always.
Therefore, if you've got someone on your list who appreciates comedy, or more importantly, really needs to laugh, consider these suggestions:
Night at a Comedy Club
I've got some comedian friends and let me tell you, comedy clubs are tucked away in every nook and cranny of this fine nation. I'm told they are especially busy during the Midwestern winter weather, who knew? Yelp is a great way to discover options near you along with helpful reviews. If you are lucky enough to live in comedy meccas like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, avoid the chain clubs where they demand a cover charge and two-drink minimum. A friend and I recently visited Garrett Morris' The Downtown Comedy Club in Los Angeles (with a Groupon, no less!) and were quite charmed by the talent and the lack of fascist drink minimum, not to mention the genuis of Brett Butler Just a quaint little bar and a big bowl of free chocolate, plus all the blues and laughs we could stand. There's just no replacement for live comedy, kids.
Subscription to MAD Magazine
Yes, it is still being published. (RIP National Lampoon.) As a kid, whenever my mom dragged me to a store, the same scenario would unfold. I would immediately escape to the magazine racks where I'd hungrily consume MAD's foolhardy contents - the dark inevitability of Spy v. Spy, the brilliant illustrations of Sergio Aragones or the latest mockery of the pop culture du jour. The history of MAD dates back to 1952 and it now publishes bi-monthly at a reasonable annual rate of $19.99 US/Canada and $29.99 International. A recent issue depicts MAD's mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, battling Angry Birds.
There is no underestimating the extensive healing powers of a film that makes you open your mouth real wide and slap your knee. When my brain is fried or I just want to stick my head into a silly dimension, I turn to goofy cinema. Here is a small sampling of some of my favorites (the official list is loooooong) but I'd love to hear your suggestions too:
Airplane! (Leslie Nielsen, Robert Haggerty, Lloyd Bridges) - Who knew all that natural comedic talent was buried 'neath the tough exterior of Leslie Nielsen? This 1980 film even made nuns funny.
Fun with Dick and Jane (Jim Carrey, Tea Leoni) - An update of the 1977 film - truly funny and incredibly romantic, in a destitute sort of way. Very timely.
Galaxy Quest (Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver) - My Dad and I would watch this every year together and know the script line-by-line. ("It's always about you isn't it?!?") I never seem to tire of the Trekki-mocking premise.
The Hangover (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifinakis) - I believe you've been introduced. It's the only film I keep on my laptop for comedic emergencies.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World (Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, etc.) - With an unbelievable cast of comedy greats (Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters), this is 1963 gem is worth (re)discovering. Parents will love it!
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (John Candy, Steve Martin) - The only thing I dislike about this film is how much it makes me miss John Candy all over again. What a lovable genius was he. Also, a perfect film to watch once you've survived the holiday travel madness.
Some Like It Hot (Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe) - Probably my favorite comedy of all time. Director Billy Wilder gifted the world with 1953 hit and it only improves with time. Lemmon in drag is always a sure thing.
Sooper Troopers (Broken Lizard Comedy Troupe) - Written, directed by and starring all five members of a New York-based comedy troupe, this stoner classic is sheer genius, especially if you are a fan of 'Reno 911'. You'll never look at maple syrup the same way again.
Support Your Local Sheriff! (James Garner, Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan) - This 1969 classic is Garner at his hunky-funny prime. Whenever it came on TV, it was a major Clisby family event.
This Is Spinal Tap (Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean) - Rob Reiner's mockumentary about the "world's loudest band" will charm you all the way up to 11.
Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black) - Ben Stiller's masterpiece of actors mercilessly mocking actors is unforgettable. RDJ even scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his freaky portrayal of "a dude playing a dude, playing another dude", who just happened to be black too.
Young Frankenstein (Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn) - Oh, the genius of Mel Brooks! This 1974 film is one of the all-time greats thanks to the brilliant cast and script. Plus, I'll see anything with the late Ms. Kahn - one of my favorite comediennes.
What's Up Doc? (Barbara Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn) - Which reminds me of this film. It's Streisand at her most charming. I still recall watching my father wipe tears off his face at the drive-in from laughing so hard at this film.
Zoolander (Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Farrell) - Two words for you, my friends: "DANCE OFF!"
TV Series on DVD
The best television shows never really go off the air, they just move formats. Everybody has a favorite. Find out what it is and buy it for them:
Absolutely Fabulous (1992 - present) Known lovingly as "AbFab" to fans, Jennifer Saunders is both creator and star of this British hit focusing on two middle-aged former groupies, Edwina and Patsy, still trying to be hip as they booze their way through life.
Arrested Development (2003-2005) Possibly the funniest show in modern history, the hijinks of the Bluth family will make you grateful for your own family as well as for creator Mitchell Hurwitz. The cast, led by Jason Bateman, is a mind-boggling collection of talent but the writers are the real stars here.
The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) - I worship this guy and even, with his permission, got to hug him once on a plane. How brilliant is he? Let's put it this way, Richard Pryor used to steal his comedy albums as a kid. (The finale of his next show, "Newhart" (1982-1990) is still widely considered the best show finale in the history of television.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) - God Bless Joss Whedon. The writing is phenomenally dark and funny and the actors, led by Sarah Michelle Gellar, are totally game. I cried when it was over...on the inside, but still.
Friends (1994-2004) Love it or hate it, this show was a force of nature and there are at least six good reasons it endured for so long. I especially loved the Chandler-Joey relationship.
I Love Lucy (1951-1957) - The groundbreaking sitcom by which all sitcoms have since been measured, the show made a cultural icon out of its wacky redheaded star, Lucille Ball. Every week, 11 million households tuned in, and this when there were only 15 million TV sets in the country. Long live Lucy.
In Living Color (1990-1994) - Brothers Keenan and Damon Wayans created this brilliant comedy show that flew under the radar on Fox. It birthed the careers of Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx and featured Jennifer Lopez as one of the Fly Girls. But it was David Allen Grier who won me over with his crusty old blues character, Calhoun Tubbs.
Mad TV (1995-2009) - Many seasons, MADtv surpassed SNL in comedic chops (they didn't need cue cards, for one thing) but the show was pure form comedy, no musical guests. My favorite skit featured Rodney Dangerfield on "Cabana Chat."
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969) I'd bet money that this show was the original inspiration for Saturday Night Live. With cutting edge political comedy (eventually causing the show's cancellation) and the newest rock bands (The Who's historical performance sparked the beginning of Pete Townshend's hearing loss), Dick and Tommy were counter culture despite their wholesome appearance.
Saturday Night Live (1975 - present) For an unbelievable 37 seasons, Lorne Michael's comedy + music formula has offered some of the most memorable skits, characters and comedy stars since the birth of television. Some casts are better than others but collectively, the scale of its cultural reach is unmatched.
The Tick (2001) - Wicked men, you face The Tick. Ben Edlund's comic-book-character-turned-cartoon-character-turned-live-action-character is positively worth your time. Sadly, the show only lasted nine episodes but Patrick Warburton as the dim-witted but highly committed blue crime fighter, along with accountant sidekick, Arthur, and friends, Captain Liberty and Batmanuel, will gift you with a lifetime of hysterically funny quotes. The episode, "Arthur Interrupted", is especially clever.
PBS Documentary: "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America"
Hosted by Billy Crystal and narrated by Amy Sedaris, this six-episode series chronicles the history of American comedy. Just when you think they've forgotten somebody, they show up in the next segment. For the true comedy student and fans alike.
I just bought my parents each a classic Bill Cosby album from back in the day. Large chunks of my childhood memories are filled with his monologues. ("I started out as a child...") Classic comedians like Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor put out some amazing stuff but guess what? New geniuses like Daniel Tosh, Louis C.K. and Kathleen Madigan are still doing it, just on iTunes now. I have a 1955 album of Diller's that she autographed for me and I've already decided it would be the first thing I grabbed in a fire.
Introduce them to the Paley Center
Have a comedy/media nerd like me in your life? They will be blown away when you introduce them to the high holy Church of All Media in Los Angeles or New York. Formerly known as the Museum of Radio & Television, I once brought the entire Ginsberg family here and they just stood in awe. You can check out any classic broadcast of your choice from a video librarian and then savor it in a private cubicle with headphones - bliss. (It's where I stumbled upon the cutest nine minutes in television history.) They also have a room for enjoying radio broadcasts and the media events are unparalleled.
How's that for a wide open suggestion? Books are a bit more precise in taste than films so it could be Mark Twain or Erma Bombeck, Al Franken or Tina Fey. My favorite of all time is 'Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal' by Christopher Moore. Written as an account of J's not-so-holy best buddy and let me tell you, it clears up an awful lot.
'Stewart-Colbert 2012' Gear
Now that the movie rental/download company has settled on a name, consider a subscription for less than $100 a year so your giftee could watch as many movies as they can stand.
Finally, get them a book of quotes, personalized for their interests - cooking, golfing, politics and such. For example, I'm fascinated by final earthly statements, so somebody (my mom, I think) bought me a book of "Famous Last Words", quotes from famous people on their deathbed. It was a hit! My favorite? Oscar Wilde's final utterance:
"This wallpaper is killing me. One of us has got to go."
Now that, my friends, is true comedic dedication.
BlogHer Section Editor, LIFE & GREEN; Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns; Proprietor, ClizBiz