Funny Business

Photo from Talking Funny © 2011 Home Box Office, Inc.

Ricky Gervais is hosting the Golden Globes ceremony again after all.

Last year there was foofaraw from some quarters — including The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the Globes and was one of Gervais's targets — about his barbs being distastefully sharp. Many of the Western world's most prominent humorists rose up to defend him. I was in the minority position, expressed in my writeup of last year's telecast, of not minding the acerbity of the jokes but feeling a lack in their overall quality and even quantity; Gervais didn't seem as sharp to me as usual (in terms of keenness of delivery, not pointedness of content) and he was AWOL for long stretches.

Gervais said in the wake of the hubbub that followed the 2011 show that he wouldn't host again even if asked, less because he was incensed at the HFPA's lack of support than because he wanted to go out on a high note. But come 8 p.m. ET he'll be back in the saddle tonight 
on NBC. While I believe that it's a funny man's prerogative to change his mind and he will almost certainly not be on his best behavior and everyone likes the neatness of a trilogy, I'm a bit sorry to see him do an about-face just on curmudgeonly principle.

"I loved doing it, but I was worried that I couldn't improve on last year," Gervais wrote in a November post on his blog (which apparently doesn't allow for links to individual posts) of the decision to host the Globes "for a third and definitely final time" — at least for a while, he later clarified. "I knew some people would be uncomfortable with me being host," he added, noting parenthetically that he considered that fact "a pro".

Anyway, I've spent too long on that subject. I'm also writing to let you know that a nifty conversation about stand-up comedy called Talking Funny, which debuted last April on HBO, is coming to HBO Go today, Jan. 15th, through the end of February (which is a day longer than usual this year); returning to HBO On Demand tomorrow, Jan. 16th; and showing on HBO channels several times over the next couple of weeks starting on Jan. 16th at 5:05 a.m. ET on HBO East. You can find a complete schedule (as well as some clips) on the show's page at the HBO website by holding your cursor over the Schedule button at the bottom right and then, if you want, clicking All Showings in the pop-up window — if you just click Schedule right away you get the whole HBO grid of what's on at the moment.

Talking Funny is 50 minutes of Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. talking amongst themselves about their craft. I probably don't have to tell you that there's harsh language involved, especially as Seinfeld explains why he doesn't work blue, Rock and C.K. discuss using a certain racial epithet, and a recurring joke is made of a parody lyric to Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay". Even if you're not a particular admirer of any of the gentlemen involved — which if you like stand-up comedy is unlikely — you should find this fly-on-the-wall experience enlightening.

I found it fairly fascinating, as I love shop talk about any creative discipline in which I have even a passing curiosity. That stand-up comedy is equal parts "creative" and "discipline" (in the other sense of the word) is something that gets rewarding air-time here. I started jotting down notes as I watched last May — a hazard of this blog, it seems, as I've taken to doing that when watching or reading anything I think I might write about — but stopped because there was just so much of interest and it really broke the flow of the show for me to keep pausing it; my laptop had a tough row to hoe at the time anyway.

One topic that stood out for me, though, even more so than how a particular bit evolves, is how much of a set should consist of older bits versus newer material. Rock pointed out that he grew up admiring Woody Allen and Prince — "I like short geniuses," he observed, which made Seinfeld laugh — and said, "Every year Woody Allen has a new movie; every year Prince has a new album," making the case for constant creative output.

"But Jerry's point is that when you go to see Prince you want to see his greatest hits, not his new album you haven't heard," Gervais responded.

"I want to see both," Seinfeld clarified, and therein lies the crux of the problem that bedevils so many creative professionals.

One takeaway from the show for me is a resolve to see more of Louis C.K. He's probably the least known quantity in Talking Funny to most people, but I've heard too many good things about him for too long not to have searched out more of his work online if nothing else. The first two seasons of his FX series, Louie, are in my Netflix queue awaiting release.

My biggest complaint about Talking Funny is that it was too short — and the quick Google search that I did to remind myself exactly when the show premiered last year revealed that I'm not alone. I recall some transitions feeling a bit artificial because the participants presumably had at least an outline of subjects to touch upon in under an hour of airtime. There's no DVD of the program yet, and hopefully when there is it'll contain copious bonus material — but hopefully, too, it will lead to sequels and spinoffs. Not everyone who practices stand-up comedy, even well, is necessarily going to make for a great round-table participant, but the hyperverbal, almost obsessively observant Patton Oswalt comes to mind as a prime suspect; I also think that expanding to more than one gender would be fruitful, with at least a couple of women involved so that neither is chained to the de facto position of speaking for all femininity.

Gervais mentioned to David Letterman when he visited The Late Show last year to promote Talking Funny that if it was successful he'd like to do a similar project about what Brits like him call "chat shows" (Talking Talking, perhaps). Ricky Gervais picking the brains of Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Jon Stewart or maybe even Craig Ferguson — a refreshing throwback to the days of Jack Paar when hosts were legitimately invested in having a conversation with their guests — would be Christmas at any time of year, especially if they could really get Letterman to open up and engage in some analysis of his own and others' work, because he ain't as dumb as he looks.

You're probably aware of Ricky Gervais's website, home to the above-mentioned blog, and his Twitter feed, if you're a fan, but there are those links as well. He'll probably have something to say about the Golden Globes telecast when it's over.

I said just about everything that I have to say about the Golden Globes as a phenomenon last year, and I'm trying to wind down my blogging for a spell, so if I do blog on tonight's show it'll just be a random wrap-up of good lines and genuine surprises.

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