Rebecca OMalley's blog

Alumni Newsletter: Week of November 20, 2012

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  • Judd Apatow recently joined Conan O'Brien on the new online talk show "Serious Jibber-Jabber". Their conversation lasts nearly an hour, but is truly a must-see for those who strive to craft fine artisanal humor pieces.
  • Founding UCB member Matt Besser has just released a digital short called “ The 6 Most Important Sets in the History of Stand Up”. It features Besser doing stand-up in six of his favorite characters: Satan, King George VI, Pope Benedict XVI, The Escaped Clone, Zeus and Bjork. You can grab it here and listen to it furtively throughout the holiday weekend while your cousins are out back sharing their dog pictures. (Quick aside: Matt Besser performed as Zeus at a past MaxFunCon and it was truly masterful.)
  • Kyle Kinane’s first original one-hour special, Whiskey Icarus, is premiering on Comedy Central on Nov. 24th. This video preview of it is, as you might expect, NSFW.
  • Jimmy Pardo was on Conan this week talking about his concerns regarding the movie “Brave”. Later this week, on Nov. 23rd, he will be hosting the fourth annual Pardcastathon from noon to midnight. The show is a twelve-hour marathon of top-level comedy entertainment that raises money for SmileTrain. Be sure to watch the show – and donate generously - here. Guests will include Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman and Doug Benson.
  • British writer and actor David Mitchell has a new book out called Back Story– and you can hear him do two readings from it on SoundCloud. Also, Channel 4 just posted a few quick previews from the upcoming season eight of Mitchell’s popular sitcom Peep Show. (U.S. readers will have better luck watching them here).

Alumni Newsletter: Week of November 12, 2012

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  • Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein announced the release date of the new season of Portlandia via this delightful video, Meditation Crush. The show will return to IFC for its third season on January 4th. As a holiday treat, the show will release a special on Dec. 14th called Winter in Portlandia.
  • Here’s a bright start to the holiday season: on November 28th, Maria Bamford will self-release a new comedy special entitled Maria Bamford: The special special special! True to her unique style, the show was taped in her living room and the only audience members are her parents, Joel and Marilyn. Best of all, you’ll be able to download it from Chill.com for the fan-friendly price of only $4.99!
  • Bored with your current collection of holiday music? We have wonderful news: Our MaxFun pals Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick are releasing a new CD of original Christmas songs! (And one Hanukkah tune!) For a taste, you can stream two of the songs here; but if you want the full holiday experience, you can order the complete collection - plus other related treats - here.
  • Chris Hardwick premiered his first one-hour Comedy Central special this weekend. Entitled Mandroid, it is chock-full of the usual nerdy goodness you’ve come to expect from Chris and will be available on CD, DVD and as a digital download on January 22, 2013 (but a real friend would pre-order it , don’t you think?)
  • And, of course, you’ve totally read Jon Ronson’s terrific new book, right? It’s an amazing set of stories entitled Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries- and it features the same unique blend of humor, adventure and thoughtful journalism that have made his previous works so memorable. Ronson visited The Daily Show recently to discuss it. You should also check out Ronson's recent appearance as our special guest on International Waters.

Meet Tom Allen and Holly Walsh: Team UK for this month's episode of International Waters

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By Chris Bowman

In a continuing effort to initiate the uninitiated, we bring you a brief conversation with the UK side of this month’s installment of International Waters. Holly Walsh may be best known as the comedian who broke her elbow on a very public stage. Or possibly for her Edinburgh Fringe Best Newcomer nominated show Hollycopter. She’s appeared on many British panel shows including the pop music quiz show Nevermind the Buzzcocks and 8 Out of 10 Cats. Tom Allen is a Fringe festival veteran. After six consecutive appearances, he decided to sit it out this year. He’s a regular cast member on the BBC Radio Four show Bleak Expectations. He also writes and presents the show Dictionary Corner.

There’s a disturbing trend with the comedians who have been on this show. They are all exceedingly nice. Which begs the question: "What do they know that we don’t know?" For now, I think it’s residual Olympic fever.

International Waters: Holly, you are only the second repeat guest to appear on International Waters. Please describe how it feels.

Holly Walsh: Well, I feel like the first time I learned a great deal. Also, I’ve watched a lot of the Olympics, so I’m going to use some sporting phrases. I feel like I did enough in the first to get me through to the second one. But right now, I’m going to dig deep, I’m going to look forward, and I’m just going to do the best I can.

Meet Team U.K. for this month's episode of International Waters: Helen Zaltzman and Michael Smiley

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This interview was conducted and written by Chris Bowman.

The U.K. team for this month’s episode of International Waters is composed of Helen Zaltzman and Michael Smiley. Helen Zaltzman hosts an award-winning podcast with Olly Mann called Answer Me This! It’s a funny and insightful show that is definitely worth your time. She is also a writer and maker of things which are available for your perusal at helenzatlzman.com. Michael Smiley is a stand up comedian and award-winning actor. Some may recognize him as Tyres O’Flaherty from the geek-friendly sitcom Spaced. His role as Gal in the Ben Wheatley film Kill List garnered him the award for Best Supporting Actor from the 2011 British Independent Film Awards and should not be missed. It’s twisted and graphic, but man, is it good. The common thread here is that they are both lovely people. Not to mention funny.

International Waters: Helen, you’re a writer and podcaster, what comes more naturally to you: writing or talking?

Helen Zaltzman: Well, talking takes much less time, so I’d say that.

IW: How often do you hear back about the advice you give to listeners who write in?

HZ: Oh, they’re quite vocal. Some of them are quite grateful, I think others are a little bit hurt. But we’ve probably saved many lives in our podcasting career.

IW: Do you have a particularly memorable bit of feedback?

HZ: We had this 17-year-old guy who wrote to us a few years ago and said, “I’m thinking of having an affair with my 43 year old neighbor who’s my mum’s friend. She sent me some sexy texts so I know she’s up for it”. We said, “She’s your neighbor and she’s married as well. Don’t shit where you eat, basically. And she’s your mum’s friend so they might talk about your sexual performance. Very traumatizing.” He wrote back and said, “Actually I did decide not to do it because she sent me some photos of herself undressed and I decided I didn’t fancy her and also her husband is really frightening.”

IW: Oh God.

Director Matt Walsh On His New Improv Movie, High Road

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Matt Walsh is a longtime MaxFun hero. He was a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade and has performed in a wide range of popular comedy features including The Hangover, Due Date, and Old School. He also has an impressive resume in television comedy including a turn as a correspondent on The Daily Show and stints on many of our favorite shows, including Community, Children's Hospital, Human Giant, Apt. 2F, Reno 911 and, of course, the Upright Citizens Brigade.
As his resume suggests, he is one of the top improvisational talents working today.

Most recently, Walsh made his directorial debut with the movie High Road. The film is composed of largely improvised dialogue and features a cast of top comedic talents including Ed Helms, Joe Lo Truglio, Rob Riggle, Horatio Sanz, Lizzy Caplan, Abby Elliott, and Andrew Daly. It's a very funny and clever coming-of-age road picture that I know our listeners will love. It's available now on DVD and digitally on iTunes.

Last week, Walsh took a few minutes out of his schedule to talk with me about the film.

Matt Walsh (MW): Did we meet at MaxFunCon?

Rebecca O'Malley (RO): I don’t think so. I was there, but I don’t think we met. It was a lovely time, though. I was so glad that you could join us.

MW: It was a tremendous event. Tremendous.

RO: Glad you enjoyed it! I know that High Road is the first film that you directed. How long had you been developing the concept and the script?

MW: It was a screenplay that I had written four years ago with a friend of mine, Josh Weiner. We spent a couple of years working on the screenplay. About a year after we decided that no one was going to make it, I decided that I would direct it myself. Initially, I was willing to do it for free; but we were eventually able to raise some money for the project. And about a year after that, we boiled it down to an outline.

RO: If you have worked on a story for that long, how difficult is it to let your actors take charge of the dialogue. Did the movie start out as fully scripted?

MW: When we wrote it initially, it was completely scripted. All of the dialogue. Then, when I decided to make an improv movie, I borrowed the story from that. I deleted some of the side characters and made it simpler.

RO: Why did you decide to use improvised dialogue?

MW: In my personal experience, the comedies that I have done that have been really fun have allowed for a certain amount of improv time. You’ll shoot the script – and then you get to play with it. And I had long been wanting to direct an improvised film. I had been involved with an improvised television show and I really enjoyed the process. So I felt I had a really good handle on it. And I’ve long been a fan of the genre – Christopher Guest movies, etc. And I’ve had so much exposure to improv during my lifetime that I felt it was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to crack that problem – delve into that challenge. So I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. And the material was very appropriate. As we had written it, I started to think of all the people I knew who could play the specific characters. The screenplay became a 120-page character description.

RO: Was the main character based on any person or persons that you have encountered in your life?

MW: Yes. I did have a friend who was a part-time pot dealer in Chicago. He was very talented – brilliant. But he had become stuck because he took an easy choice and ended up doing it long than he wanted to. And had he stayed there, his life may not have panned out very well. But he did step away from it and now he’s a successful person. But none of the other characters are taken from our lives. Though the game Milky Milky Cakey Cake - which is mentioned in passing - is based on a real thing.

RO: (Laughs).

MW: You’ve seen the film?

RO: Yes! And of all its elements, I never would have predicted that one as having some basis in your actual experience.

MW: A friend of mine was in a band in high school and a father of one of the band members was abusing a substance one night. While doing so, he offered to have the boys stay at home with him one night and play "milky milky cake cake". It’s a game where you get a sheet cake, create a hole in the middle, and pour milk into it and eat it until all of the milk and cake are gone.

RO: That’s weirdly wonderful.

MW: Yes.

RO: One aspect of the film that I really enjoyed was the documentary-style camera work. It made the story feel very intimate. Why did you choose that approach to filming?

MW: First, a documentary crew can capture spontaneity better than others in their field. Anything can happen when you are creating an improv film. So I needed a crew that was experienced with being limber and ready to go. There weren’t many set up shots. They were capturing things as they happened. I had seen a film called Darkon which was a documentary about live action role players. And Hillary Spera is the woman who had shot that. I was lucky enough to get her for this film. The performances in this film are very real and natural. And documentary style helps to capture that feeling.

RO: I also read that you asked your actors to do improv work for character development – including theater work on scenes that were not part of the film. Can you tell me more about that?

MW: We did two weeks of theater camp. We went into the UCB theater and worked with the main characters pretty much every day and ancillary characters only for a few days. We wanted them to understand their back story, their world and their relationships. We also wanted to develop the proper tone for their dialogue. So we did, for example, classic interviews where I would ask them a half hour of questions. And then we would discuss the results to try and discover what was true about each character and what part of our discovery might naturally come up during the course of the film . We also did fun scenes that would never happen in the film. And we put groups together – like the band – so they would have a rapport and their friendships would feel natural and true. Improvising scenes did help their chemistry.

And then Dylan O’Brien, who played the young boy, had had no improv experience. So it was a boot camp for him. I had plugged him into an intensive UCB course in addition to this two week theater camp. All to prepare him for suddenly entering the big leagues of improvisation.

RO: That’s impressive. I’m sure many actors would have found that intimidating.

MW: Yes – and he was great. He was a solid comedy fan – starstruck with everyone he met.

RO: Who wouldn’t be? After you completed camp, how did you go about rehearsing the actual scenes? How does that work in an improvised film? How do you keep the scene fresh?

MW: In the theater rehearsals, we never did any scenes from the film in order to preserve spontaneity. Occasionally, though, there were jokes that we would come up with during rehearsal that we would keep. Or that I would remind the actors about on set. But once we were on the set – it was pretty traditional. I would talk to them about the scene and we would rehearse it in order to familiarize everyone with the blocking and the staging. And then we would shoot the wide. Hopefully, we would get it after a few takes and then everyone would feel comfortable with the rhythm. Then, if there were elements that were popping up that were new and funny, as we went in for singles and closer coverage, we could do multiple takes and multiple variations on it.

RO: Well, the end product is wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I want to thank you specifically for including the concept of a White Stripes cover band in the film. Extremely funny.

MW: (Laughs). My friend and co-writer, Josh, is obsessed with them. So he got me hooked on that idea.

The 1st Annual Wayne Federman International Film Festival: A Celebration of Stand-up and Film - Together

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This week, the Cinefamily in Los Angeles is hosting a unique film festival that features top comedians presenting movies that were personally inspiring or influential for them. The festival runs from the 12th to the 14th and features Garry Shandling (screening The King of Comedy); Margaret Cho (showing Darling); Paul F. Tompkins (presenting Topsy-Turvy); Doug Benson (discussing Cocktail!); Kevin Pollak (screening The In-Laws); and Andy Kindler (presenting Modern Romance). Each comedian will introduce the film, perform, and conduct a Q and A afterwards. It's sure to be a very fun and interesting series. I'm planning to attend and, if you are in the Los Angeles area, you should definitely join me. You can get tickets - which are only $10 - here.

The festival is being produced and hosted by actor and comedian Wayne Federman. Mr. Federman took a few minutes yesterday to tell me a bit about the aptly-named 1st Annual Wayne Federman International Film Festival and how it came to be.

Rebecca O'Malley (RO): What inspired you to create this festival?

Wayne Federman (WF): It wasn’t any one particular epiphany. It was a number of events that happened over several years. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, Rob Cohen, who is a writer for The Simpsons, rented out a movie theater and showed the old Batman movie from the 1960s. It was very fun because it was communal and because he loved this film. And that really stuck with me as a fun, happy memory. Then, a few years later, I saw Patton Oswalt present a movie I'd never heard of called The Foot Fist Way. And it was so great to watch Patton introduce it because – one, he’s funny. Two, he was passionate about the movie. And three – what I liked most about it – was that he had no connection to the film. He wasn’t in it and trying to promote it for that reason. He wasn’t reminiscing about what it was like on the set – none of the usual type of presentation that you might encounter during a screening at a film festival. This was just someone I greatly admire being a fan of something he loved – and that was intriguing for me.

That’s when I had the idea to bring in comedians and have them pick a film - with the only criterion being that they cannot have been involved with the movie's production. Then we’ll show that film – do some stand up at the top - do a Q and A at the end – and just talk about this movie. Just nerd out over it. I thought that would be tremendously fun.
And every comedian that I asked to do it said "yes". They all liked the idea.

RO: That’s wonderful. How long did it take you to put the event together?

WF: It came together rather quickly. In a couple of weeks, actually. I knew all of the comedians. And I knew someone at Cinefamily. The key, really, was Garry Shandling. He was the first one to say “yes” – and he was so enthusiastic, so encouraging. He was very excited to see his movie selection in the theater again.

RO: Did he immediately know which film he wanted to present?

WF: He had a couple of ideas, but he kept coming back to The King of Comedy. He felt that it had a connection to Larry Sanders because of its backstage perspective and the way it was shot. And even beyond that he believes that this movie - and I'm sure he'll expand on this idea at the festival - it was so ahead of its time in terms of how it discusses the desire to be famous and what people will do to achieve fame. This was many years before reality television. It’s about comedy, in a weird way, and about talk shows. And about America.

RO: Did any of the other comedians immediately know which film they wanted to present?

WF: Some did. But most of them had never been asked to do something like this before – and they were very excited. Especially Margaret Cho. She truly loves the movie she is presenting, Darling. It's her favorite movie.

RO: If someone asked you to select a film to present, which one would you choose?

WF: That’s tough. One option that would be near the top of my list would be a movie called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I’m sure you’ve never seen it, but it was written by Roger Ebert. So that’s already fascinating – to see a film written by someone who critiques movies made by others. But it is also simply a terrific movie to watch with a crowd. I would consider it for those reasons alone. It’s not influential to me in any way. It hasn’t informed my comedy or my acting; but it is very entertaining to share with a crowd. But, beyond that, I’m pretty boring. I enjoy the classics. I would probably choose a Woody Allen film or Casablanca.

RO: Casablanca could never be boring! So is this festival - as the name suggests - an event that you are hoping to host annually?

WF: Oh yes! Definitely! Next year I want to expand it and make it a special thing for comedians. It’s exciting because I live in Los Angeles - and this is one of the few places in the world where you could put together this festival and invite people to attend and join the fun for only $10. Because we don’t have to fly in anyone or put them up. There are no expenses; only great comedians who want to participate. And who can get here easily. It’s just a celebration of stand-up and film – together.

Like Me, Friend Me

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Hey friends,

We all know that in this brave new digital world, there is only one true test of friendship and loyalty: the Facebook "Like" button.

In that spirit, I'm hear to announce some great new Facebook pages that we hope you will "like" over and over again:



Jesse Thorn (Entertainer)




Bullseye with Jesse Thorn




Jordan, Jesse, Go!

It's a quick, easy way to show your support and find out the latest about great new stuff we're doing.

So go ahead - push our buttons!

Hodgman on Ferguson

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Deranged millionaire John Hodgman recently stopped by Craig Ferguson's The Late, Late Show to discuss mustaches, Dr. Who and The Church of Satan.

Jordan returns to "The Indoor Kids"

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Jordan is back this week on the wonderful gaming podcast "The Indoor Kids." According to Jordan's own summary of the episode, "Kumail, Emily and I talk lost games, judge-related pornography and games to play when you’re unemployed."

Can't beat that. Check it out here.

Interview: Jon Ronson

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Filmmaker, author and humorist Jon Ronson just released a fascinating new ebook about ordinary individuals who are trying to live extraordinary secret double lives: they are donning extreme costumes and taking to the streets to fight crime as real-life superheroes. The book, The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes is available for download from Amazon and other ebook retailers. It is a quick-paced and engaging read that I know you folks will enjoy.

Jon was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the book and the superheroes he encountered during its creation.

Rebecca O’Malley (RO): How did you first become aware of the real-life superhero movement?

Jon Ronson (JR): It was Twitter. There was a flurry of tweets about Phoenix Jones. Someone from Seattle tweeted about how proud they were of their city that it could create something as fabulously insane as Phoenix.

So I watched a short CNN segment about him, and kind of knew that I was destined to go on patrol with him. He just felt like someone waiting to be written about by me. He was a mix of genuinely inspiring, mysterious, awesome, but also kind of absurd. I really liked that combination.

RO: How difficult is it to track down and gain the trust of someone who is trying to keep his identity a secret?

JR: It was tough. I had to go through an emissary, Peter Tangen, whose own origin story is amazing. Peter is a Hollywood studio photographer. He shot the movie poster for Spiderman. When he learnt that there were people doing in real life what Tobey Maguire was only pretending to do on a film set, it unlocked something profound in him. He became compelled to become their official photographer and media advisor. So whenever I wanted to talk to Phoenix, I had to approach Peter Tangen.

RO: You’ve written about psychology before, so I’m sure some of your expertise in that area must have influenced how you viewed the real-life superheroes. What do you think motivates these individuals to create these identities and seek out danger? Boredom? Altruism? Swagger? Or just a need for excitement and attention?

JR: All four of those things!

RO: Do you have a personal opinion as to whether it is appropriate for these individuals to attempt to intervene in situations that are normally kept solely in the realm of the police?

JR: Well, I'm a liberal, so I'm instinctively against the idea of what's basically a form of libertarian vigilanteism. But you can't help falling for Phoenix when you hang out with him. He's so goofily charming and inspiring and charismatic, your sagacity goes out of the window a little. You kind of fall in love with him.

RO: Do you believe that they are actually making the streets safer?

JR: I think they perform acts of derring-do that improve people's lives, yes. But I also think they're so addicted to doing good, they'll sometimes leap into a situation that they oughtn't. One time Phoenix tried to give a taco to a drunk driver to sober him up. The drunk driver refused it. Phoenix insisted. The drunk driver got violent. Phoenix pulled out his taser... So sometimes things will inadvertently escalate.

RO: There were a few times in the story when the would-be superheroes seem very disappointed that their evening patrol did not result in the discovery of any ongoing crime. What did you make of that? Does it expose something about their desire for either excitement or notoriety?

JR: Yes. It's a bit of a worrying character trait. One time they started hassling some wizened old addicts at a bus stop at 3am in Seattle. I was thinking, "Leave them alone. They'll be gone by the time the daytime people arrive."

In the middle of my adventures with Phoenix I had dinner one night in New York with Ira Glass. I was telling him all this stuff, how I thought they should leave the crack addicts alone, but I was probably mainly thinking that because I'm scared of confrontation, and Ira said, "Your position obviates the need for superheroes."

I don’t want to obviate the need for superheroes! But I do think they should be careful out there.

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