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    Michael Che Is Still Trying to Crack the Code

    As he readies a new season of his HBO Max series, “That Damn Michael Che,” the Weekend Update anchor contemplates his future at “Saturday Night Live.”Michael Che tries not to impose too many rules on his fellow writers when they’re creating sketches for his HBO Max comedy series, “That Damn Michael Che.”“We’ll write what we think would be the funniest chain of events,” he explained recently. Yet for all the paths this would seem to leave open, their sketches — about the tribulations faced by a fictionalized version of Che — inevitably end at a similar destination.“I always come out looking bad,” he said. “I’m never the winner.”With a chuckle, he added that he understood why having his own series required these outcomes. “When you invite people to your house, you always eat last,” he said.In the sketch that opens the second season (due May 26), our star tries to help a man getting beaten up on a subway platform. But when the victim starts spouting bizarre obscenities, Che becomes the target of an internet backlash that threatens to wreck his career.The episode that ensues is (among other things) a parody of the “John Wick” movies and a satire of now-familiar rituals of so-called cancel culture as Che fumbles to restore his reputation.In contrast to the rapid-fire, headline-driven setups and punch lines that Che has delivered for eight seasons as a Weekend Update anchor on “Saturday Night Live,” “That Damn Michael Che” offers a looser blend of standup and sketch that gradually becomes a story or riff on contemporary themes.Che said of his future on “Saturday Night Live” that “my head has been at leaving for the past five seasons.”Andre D. Wagner for The New York TimesThat his streaming series has arrived at this broad formula — applied to quotidian annoyances, social injustices and high-class celebrity problems — was “not necessarily on purpose,” Che said.“I think that ended up being what happened,” he explained. “When you start a show, you’re looking to find its identity.”It’s a process that Che continues to navigate, not only on “That Damn Michael Che” but also in his standup and on “S.N.L.,” where he is learning to balance the demands of these intersecting assignments. He is still discovering the individual benefits of these formats, the best ways to work on them and even what he wants to say in them.While Che projects a certain unflappability in his live comedy, he can be self-scrutinizing offstage and openly unsure about his choices. If you squint a certain way, you might even see a guy at a crossroads, who has at least teased — then quickly laughed off — the idea of ending his productive “S.N.L.” tenure.As with developing a new series, Che suggested that figuring himself out professionally had also required trial and error. “Everything looks easy till you start doing it,” he said.On a Tuesday afternoon this month, Che, who turns 39 on May 19, was sitting in his “S.N.L.” dressing room, a darkened chamber lit by a TV silently playing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.” He was initially quiet and hidden under a hoodie — still reacclimating after a trip back from the Netflix comedy festival in Los Angeles, he said — but he became more gregarious as the conversation turned to his work.Though the cycle of another week at “S.N.L.” was underway, Che said he wasn’t stressed. “I like the dirty part of the game,” he said, by which he meant composing material: “Trying to crack the code, solving the puzzle. The part nobody sees is what’s really interesting to me.”That work ethic caught the attention of his colleagues at “S.N.L.,” where Che started contributing as a guest writer in 2013 and joined Colin Jost on the Weekend Update desk in the fall of 2014.Jost, who helped bring him onto the show, said that Che quickly became one of its best writers despite his lack of previous sketch-writing experience.“He just worked at it and figured it out,” Jost said in an email.Che, with his fellow Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost. If an audience doesn’t like a Che joke, Lorne Michaels said, “you don’t get the sense that he’s not going to sleep that night.” Will Heath/NBCLorne Michaels, the creator and longtime executive producer of “S.N.L.,” said he didn’t see any neediness in Che’s coolly confident stage presence. For most performers, Michaels explained, “it’s all about being loved or wanted, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in that.”He added, “If he believes in the joke, he’s doing it. And he’ll acknowledge the audience’s response, but you don’t get the sense that he’s not going to sleep that night.”Jost said that while working with Che on Weekend Update, it “definitely took a while for us to figure it out, individually and together, and that’s why it’s satisfying now to be out there and get to enjoy it after years where it felt like a struggle.”“Che’s thing was always that he didn’t want to tell a joke that someone else could tell,” Jost said, adding that he believes Che had accomplished this: “Even a random joke at the end of Update that anyone could technically tell, he finds a way to do it that’s unique to him.”From one perspective, Che’s ascent has been rapid: after playing his first open mics in 2009, he was performing on David Letterman’s “Late Show” in 2012 and working as a correspondent on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” two years later.But for many years prior, Che cycled through other vocations: drawing and painting, designing T-shirts, working in customer service at a car dealership. All he wanted out of a career, he told me, was that it “wasn’t illegal or a gigolo.”His upbringing as the youngest of seven children raised in public housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is rarely far from his mind, and he frequently looks for ways to give back to the community that forged him.When I asked him, somewhat frivolously, what he’d do to keep pace with Jost’s recent investment in a retired Staten Island ferryboat, Che thought for a moment. Then he answered that he’d use a hypothetical windfall to renovate a community center at the Alfred E. Smith Houses that he frequented in his childhood.“Having more places and programs for kids to go would help them a lot,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t just go home. Sometimes there’s 12 people living in a three-bedroom apartment. Sometimes there’s bad things happening in your apartment.”He drew a breath and said to me, “That’s a very odd question.”When the opportunity arose for Che to create his own series with HBO in 2020, Michaels encouraged him to pursue it in tandem with his “S.N.L.” duties. “It’s in my interest for people to keep growing,” said Michaels, who is also an executive producer on “That Damn Michael Che.”But working out what the new show would be was a challenge. Che said he originally thought it would be an animated narrative — an idea he said he might still return to — then leaned back to sketch comedy, which is faster and more familiar to him.Che doesn’t buy into so-called cancel culture: “To me, there’s risk in everything you say and you have to take responsibility no matter what.”Andre D. Wagner for The New York Times“As the scripts started to come in, HBO started saying, it’d be great if you were on camera a lot more,” Che said. With his existing commitment to “S.N.L.,” Che said the questions he faced were, “What could we shoot? What could we do without having to miss work here?”Hiring a writing staff for “That Damn Michael Che” wasn’t difficult; the star just turned to the cadre of stand-ups he regularly hangs out with in comedy clubs.“Those late nights, talking about nothing, goofing off, turned into Mike getting his own show and saying, ‘Hey, come write,’” said Reggie Conquest, a comedian and actor (“Abbott Elementary,” “Scream”) who has written for both seasons of the series.As Conquest described them, those writing sessions “felt just like hanging out at a comedy club and talking like we normally do.”“It was very therapeutic,” he said, as they spoke “from real places, real experiences. And no matter how awful it might sound, you try to make it funny.”In Season 1, that strategy yielded sketches on topics like police violence and hesitancy around the Covid-19 vaccine. Reviewing the show for The Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon wrote, “The comedy and the intimacy of Che’s personal experience create a show that feels funnier, more resonant, and more current than he could ever hope to be on ‘S.N.L.’”Gary Richardson, the head writer of “That Damn Michael Che” and an “S.N.L.” veteran, said that the first season reflected the interests and preoccupations of its star. “He really wanted to make sure it was his show,” Richardson said. “It was a lot of pressure-testing his ideas.”On Season 2, Richardson said that Che “let other people cook more — he felt more comfortable opening it up and letting other folks add their flavor to the pot.”Che himself said his approach this season was to aim “more on the side of funny than on the side of making a point.” That has led to episodes where he tries to organize a brunch party honoring Black excellence and struggles in his shameless efforts to populate it with top celebrities; and where he confronts the repercussions of cancel culture, a phenomenon that Che said he doesn’t regard as meaningful or particularly new.“I don’t buy into it,” Che said. “To me, there’s risk in everything you say and you have to take responsibility no matter what. It’s funny for me to see people learn things that I had to know as a survival tactic my entire life.”In his own work, Che said, “I constantly think my career is over after a bad set or a bad Update. You always think, this is it, at any moment, I’ll be found out.” By having it happen to him in a sketch where an attempt at altruism leads to his downfall, he said, “I just thought it would be a very funny way to lose everything.”Not that Che expects to give up his habit of using social media to antagonize journalists who have criticized him or who he feels have misrepresented him or his friends.“I haven’t turned over a new leaf,” he said. “There is a power that I think writers know they have, that they won’t admit they have, in making perception a reality. I just like to make fun of that. It’s like, I see you — you see me.”Che admitted to a certain professional jealousy of peers like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Michelle Wolf, whom he sees as especially polished stand-ups who can devote their time solely to honing their live acts.It would be understandable if Che were contemplating a life after “Saturday Night Live,” where he is the first Black person to become a head writer and the first to be an anchor on Weekend Update. He holds the second-longest tenure in the show’s history (behind his desk partner, Jost).When Che made a pop-up appearance at a Minneapolis hair salon in March, the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted him as saying, “This is my last year.” But in comments he later posted to his Instagram account, Che said that he wasn’t leaving the show.(In the post, which he has since deleted, Che wrote: “to comedy fans; please stop telling reporters everything you hear at a comedy show. youre spoiling the trick.”)“There’s people who hate me who can tell me every joke I’ve ever done on the show,” he said, referring to “S.N.L.”Andre D. Wagner for The New York TimesIn our conversation, Che continued to play his remarks off as a joke. “Who doesn’t say they’re going to quit their job when they’re at their other job?” he said. “I’m sure Biden says that twice a week.”In a more sincere tone, Che said, “My head has been at leaving for the past five seasons.”He added, “I do think that I’ve been here longer than I’ll be here. This show is built for younger voices and, at some point, there’ll be something more exciting to watch at the halfway mark of the show than me and dumb Jost.”(Jost said he construed that as a term of endearment. “Now I’m excited to pitch ‘Dumb Jost’ to Apple,” he responded.)Michaels said that “a year of change” was possible after the current season of “S.N.L.” but he hoped Che would not be part of that turnover.“If I had my way, he’ll be here,” Michaels said. “And I don’t always get my way. But when you have someone who’s the real thing, you want to hold on as long as you can.”Though the comedian hopes his work on “That Damn Michael Che” will stand on its own, Che recognized that his time at “S.N.L.” confers a unique status that no other program can duplicate.“There’s people who hate me who can tell me every joke I’ve ever done on the show,” he said.He added, “Even when it’s not exciting, people are like, when’s it going to be exciting? No one says it was never exciting. You understand that, at any moment, something cool could happen.”Speaking as a guy who already has two sketch shows and a standup act to choose from, Che said, “I got really lucky in my career. When I get bad stuff, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m due, I can’t complain.’ I didn’t complain when it was good.” More

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    A New Class of Campus Satire

    IN THE SMALL hours of the morning, as my viscera turned to water, I binge-watched the entire season of “The Chair,” Netflix’s 2021 campus comedy. It was the night before my first colonoscopy, a middle-age rite of passage, and I was a captive, contemplative audience of one. I must have been a sight: swigging Suprep, laughing in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of my iPhone as Sandra Oh played out scenes from my professorial life. When two of her character’s aged, tweedy white colleagues began discussing colonoscopy results (“Clean as a whistle! You could serve shrimp off my colon”), an existential dread welled up within me: “Perhaps I’m them now — not the hero but an easy satirical mark.”I am a tenured English professor, 47 years old, Black as well as white, more likely to wear a hoodie than houndstooth, Nikes rather than tasseled loafers. I led my first college class when I was 23, which means I’ve been a teacher over half my life. By a conservative estimate, I’ve spent some 3,000 hours lecturing. I’ve taught at small liberal arts colleges, Ivy League and large public universities, on the East and the West Coasts, in the South and in the Mountain West. Of all the places I know, I know the college campus best.That’s why “The Chair” startled me. Unlike most accounts of campus life, it depicts an experience that I recognized as my own. The six-episode series follows Oh’s Ji-Yoon Kim, a newly minted English department chair, as she confronts plummeting enrollments, an aging faculty — and her attempts to reconcile her own progressive values with the realpolitik of administrative leadership, all while attending to life as a single mother of a young adopted child.I’ve grown accustomed to campus fictions that center students, a sensible creative choice. After all, most of us were students once. And students’ lives are intrinsically interesting. College-age 18-to-20-somethings are navigating their identities, tacking to extremes in pursuit of a centered self. College has long figured as a second womb, a space of quasi-independence in which young people, finally free of their childhood homes, can come of age in mind and body with the more measured paternal intervention of the campus: professors to cultivate the mind; staff to provide hot meals; administrators to offer a baseline of safety, a buffer from law and consequence. Onscreen, most college-based films and television series favor students nearly to the exclusion of faculty, staff and administration, like 2021’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls” on HBO Max and “Dear White People” (both the 2014 Justin Simien-directed film and the 2017-21 Netflix series). If you tour fictional colleges — Faber from “Animal House” (1978), Hillman from “A Different World” (1987-93), Port Chester University from “PCU” (1994), Cal U from “Grown-ish” (2018-present) — you’ll discover that faculty are either overlooked or introduced as comic foils trying to catch a contact high off their students’ youth and cool. Pembroke, the Ivy-inspired setting of “The Chair,” is the first place I saw professors both satirized and humanized, presented as fully conceived members of an imagined community. That matters because the real campus is far more complicated — and compelling — than most projections ever show.Clockwise from top left: Marisa Tomei, Dawnn Lewis, Ted Ross, Vernee Watson-Johnson, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Lisa Bonet in Season One of “A Different World” (1987-88).© Carsey-Werner Co. Courtesy of Everett Collection“The Chair” is part of a renaissance of college comedy, dramedy and satire — onscreen and on the page — offering new understandings of a swiftly changing campus. In the last three years alone, I’ve read a syllabus’s worth of recent campus novels, which variously employ elements of satire in telling their stories: a voice-driven coming-of-age tale in Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” (2017); a transgender academic detective novel in Jordy Rosenberg’s “Confessions of the Fox” (2018); a high-literary surrealist dreamscape in Mona Awad’s “Bunny” (2019); a fictionalized multigenerational history of an Israeli prime minister in Joshua Cohen’s “The Netanyahus” (2021). These works are both rooted in conventions of campus satire stretching back nearly a century and responsive to life on campus today.With more people spending more time in college and graduate school, seeking refuge from economic uncertainty; with the proliferation of M.F.A. programs stocked with fiction writers fulfilling the age-old maxim to write what they know; with contentious campus debates over racial justice, gender and reproductive rights, mental health, disability rights, police abolition, academic freedom and so many other issues, it’s no wonder that fictions about college provide such fertile imaginative territory. Satire is uniquely suited to respond to challenging times because it provides a comedic safety valve that admits the existence of tragedy while also holding on to hope that the world can change for the better. One senses all of this in “The Chair.” Pressing in on its expression of the inherited tropes of campus life on film — the strains of Vivaldi opening the first episode, the stately buildings seen from on high, the students cutting paths across the quad — is an insurgent awareness of a modern university in crisis.Another of Winant’s collages, this one made using stills from films and television shows, including “The Sex Lives of College Girls” (2021), “Legally Blonde” (2001), “Old School” (2003) and “The Nutty Professor” (1963), spliced together with vintage images from historically Black colleges and universities.Carmen Winant, courtesy of the artist. Source photos (clockwise from top left): courtesy of HBO Max (2), Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, MPTV, Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images, Richard Foreman, Jr./Dreamworks Distribution/Photofest, Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, courtesy of HBO Max, Buyenlarge/Getty Images, courtesy of HBO Max (2), Paramount/Photofest, courtesy of HBO Max, the Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert A. Sengstacke/Getty Images, courtesy of HBO Max (2)THE ROOTS OF satire stretch back to antiquity. Narrowly defined, satire is a genre of literature (traditionally a comic poem written in hexameter) that employs techniques such as irony, parody and burlesque to illuminate human folly and vice. However, ask an English professor and they’ll tell you — I’ll tell you — that satire most often functions less as a narrow genre than as a rhetorical mode, a disposition toward life. At a minimum, satire is purpose-driven. One doesn’t accidentally write a satirical takedown of the English occupation of Ireland by suggesting that the impoverished Irish might sell their children to the English as food, as Jonathan Swift did in “A Modest Proposal” (1729).The campus satire emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century with Max Beerbohm’s “Zuleika Dobson” (1911), a whimsical tale that follows a governess who moonlights as a prestidigitator to Oxford University, where she turns class and convention topsy-turvy. (One could even trace the satirical gaze on academic life back to Swift’s portrayal of the grand academy of Lagado in “Gulliver’s Travels” [1726].) It then made its way across the Atlantic during the interwar period: One early example is the Marx Brothers’ film “Horse Feathers” (1932), which introduces Groucho as the college president Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff. In a memorable scene, he barges into a lecture on anatomy and exposes the professor’s teachings as claptrap. The campus, however, is little more than a convenience, as good a place as the circus or the opera for the brothers to clown.Groucho Marx (center) and Zeppo Marx in “Horse Feathers” (1932).Everett CollectionMost modern conventions of campus satire found form in post-World War II literature, with Mary McCarthy’s “The Groves of Academe” (1952), Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim” (1954) and Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures From an Institution” (1954). McCarthy is particularly ruthless when it comes to describing academics, among whom she counts “a certain number of seasoned nonconformists and dissenters, sexual deviants, feather-bedders, alcoholics, impostors.” (Jarrell’s novel, by contrast, filters through a nameless protagonist who offers equal-opportunity comic upbraiding, taking specific aim at a churlish novelist named Gertrude Johnson, allegedly based on McCarthy.)Recent Issues on America’s College CampusesSlavery Ties: Harvard released a 134-page report on the universty’s four centuries of ties to slavery, in an effort to begin redressing the wrongs of the past.Admissions: The Supreme Court will decide whether two race-conscious admissions programs are lawful, raising serious doubts about the future of affirmative action.Hiring: Outrage ensued after U.C.L.A. posted an adjunct position that offered no pay. Turns out, the school is not unique.Tuition: After a plan for free community college failed to gain traction in Congress, New Mexico is taking the lead in the tuition-free movement.The rise of the campus novel coincided with major demographic shifts in higher education. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, dramatically expanded college attendance. Once the bastion of the privileged few, the campus soon came to be seen as a way station along the road to the middle class. In 1930, only 12 percent of 18-to-21-year-olds attended college; by 1950, that number was nearly 30 percent. (Statistics from 2020 place enrollment at 62.7 percent.) More women also arrived on campus; women now make up nearly 60 percent of students. Racial diversity has similarly expanded; the National Center for Education Statistics reports that almost half of college students now self-identify as a race other than white.Despite this evolution, the campus has remained surprisingly unchanged in the collective imagination. Part of that fixity comes from nostalgia. For many, the college years are the most fun and formative time of life. It’s an age of self-fashioning, when people claim possession of their identities — racialized and gendered, sexual and social. As such, it’s an exciting place at any age, whether you’re in the process of your own becoming or submerged in the ambience of other people’s awakenings.Reese Witherspoon (far right) in “Legally Blonde” (2001).Everett CollectionThe campus is also a workplace, increasingly reliant on underpaid part-time instructors rather than tenured faculty. College presidents warn of an impending enrollment crisis, born of the Great Recession’s baby bust. Higher education’s financial model, reliant on escalating tuitions, appears broken, leaving a generation of students — low-income and Black students most especially — saddled with crushing debt.Yet something about the campus novel, film and television series bends not toward tragic depictions of dire reality but toward satire. Maybe it has to do with ecology. The campus is a nexus of social relations: courtship, custom, identity formation, instruction, service, competition and hierarchy. It’s governed by a seasonal calendar, with certain designated periods of intense activity and others of rest. It’s conceived as a place apart, an ivory tower or, to borrow Don DeLillo’s name for his fictive school from his satirical novel “White Noise” (1985), a College-on-the-Hill. It cultivates its own set of rules and rituals, many of which are inscrutable to outsiders and therefore vulnerable to critique as elitist and out of touch. At a time when values and norms are in flux in almost every sector of society, the campus, by outward appearance, promises stasis. Everyone is enlisted in living — or at least supporting — the life of the mind, or maybe they’re just there to have a good time. Perhaps that is why the campus lends itself so readily to satire; it’s one of the few places contained yet familiar enough in which to stage a comedy of manners.Melissa McCarthy in “Life of the Party” (2018).Hopper Stone © Warner Bros., courtesy of Everett CollectionJohn Belushi in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978).© Universal Pictures, courtesy of Everett CollectionYOU ARE MORE familiar than you might think with the comedy of manners, even if you haven’t spent much time reading British Restoration theater. William Congreve’s “The Way of the World” (1700), one of the best examples of the form, relies on an audience initiated into the rituals of courtly life, the petty squabbles and vanities of the privileged class. Time-travel three centuries to 2001’s “Legally Blonde” and you’ll find many of the same comic mechanisms at work. Reese Witherspoon’s sorority girl and recent college grad, Elle Woods, is out of place and maybe out of her depth in the staid confines of Harvard Law School but, over the course of the film, she bends and snaps the square-toed culture to her fashionable ways, all while proving she can hang with the brightest minds on campus.Satire is generally built on types like these, stock characters that an audience can recognize and learn to anticipate, comprising a shorthand vocabulary that creators may enlist in forging their fictions. Think of the absent-minded professor, so brilliant as to have a hard time with everyday things. That comic idea coalesced in the 1961 film of the same name, starring Fred MacMurray, and in Jerry Lewis’s “The Nutty Professor” two years later. It lives on today in characters as far removed from one another as Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth in the long-running Fox animated series “Futurama” (1999-present) and Professor Mito Fauna, D.V.M., Ph.D., Ed.D., etc., from Adam Gidwitz’s delightful children’s book series “The Unicorn Rescue Society,” which began in 2018. Or consider the rare but relatable species of the binge-drinking, too-old-for-college party animal, as exhibited by John Belushi’s seventh-year frat bro, John “Bluto” Blutarsky, from “Animal House”; Will Ferrell’s Frank “The Tank” Ricard from “Old School” (2003); and Melissa McCarthy’s Deanna “Dee Rock” Miles from “Life of the Party” (2018). Types like these invite a smile, maybe a shake of the head, rather than a finger pointed in judgment.Some satirical types are fashioned to fight. When Ishmael Reed wrote his campus satire “Japanese by Spring” (1993), he was fully enlisted in the 1980s and ’90s culture wars — a time, not unlike our own, when conservatives and progressives waged battle over affirmative action and gay rights, family values and censorship of the arts. Reed’s novel is a satire in the old-school sense of the word. He makes no pretense at realism. Instead, he juxtaposes wild and obvious exaggerations of character (his protagonist is an opportunistic and ideologically mercenary Black professor with the downright silly name of Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt) with even greater absurdities of historical fact (the novel’s fictional Oakland campus, Jack London College, is named for the beloved author of “The Call of the Wild” [1903], who was in fact also an avowed white supremacist who advocated genocide of the “lesser breeds”).Courtesy of Penguin BooksReed, now 84, credits his use of types to his childhood love of comic books and folk tales. “Well, types exist in Black folklore,” he explains. “That’s the basis for a lot of my work in terms of what I call comic aggression, which is used by people who are persecuted.” He points to stand-up performers from Redd Foxx to Richard Pryor, Jack Benny to Lenny Bruce. Comic aggression embodies satire’s seeming paradox: that so much raucous humor can be born out of anger and pain.The mid-20th-century literary theorist Northrop Frye once wrote that satire must have “an object of attack.” It casts an othering gaze, one that essentializes and passes summary judgment. Satire is generally incurious of motive, unconcerned about the conditions that produced whatever distortion of personality, misdeed or excess it targets for opprobrium. Simien’s “Dear White People” makes clear early on that its object of attack is white supremacy. It renders the campus in Black and white rather than as the multicultural community it is today.As such, the film does not invite its viewers to ask why the white kids who run the humor club Pastiche on the fictional Ivy League campus of Winchester University choose to host a party inviting their fellow white students to “unleash their inner Negro,” donning blackface and hurling racist slurs. In a meeting to plan the party, one of the club’s leaders invokes Pastiche’s motto, “Sharpen thy sword.” “It’s a reminder that satire is the weapon of reason,” he explains. Then he ominously asks, “So who on campus is being unreasonable?” Their answer is Black students, particularly a biracial woman named Sam, played by Tessa Thompson, whose radio show, “Dear White People,” insists that white students confront their anti-Black bias. Pastiche’s satire itself becomes the film’s satirical target, upending the insidious claim that those who decry racism are somehow the racists. To underscore the point, the film’s closing credits intersperse real images of blackface parties from campuses across the United States.Courtesy of Penguin BooksCourtesy of Simon & Schuster“ ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’ really shifted how we think about the campus,” the novelist Elaine Hsieh Chou says, reflecting on the racist party scene. Chou’s debut novel, “Disorientation” (2022), centers on a literary hoax: a white male poet assumes a Chinese name and identity, going so far as to masquerade using yellowface and eye tape. It is a grotesque conceit but, as with Reed’s novel and Simien’s film, grounded in fact. Chou, 35, was inspired — and enraged — by the strange case of Yi-Fen Chou, the nom de plume assumed by a middle-aged white poet from Indiana named Michael Derrick Hudson, who hoped that a Chinese name would improve his chances of finding a publisher for his poems. It worked, and one of his poems was published in Prairie Schooner and later reprinted in the 2015 edition of “The Best American Poetry.”“The word ‘satire’ makes us think something is so outrageous and absurd that it could never happen,” Chou says. “But nearly everything in the novel happened.” Chou brings receipts, in the form of endnotes, that include, for instance, a 2014 Seattle Times article detailing a production of the comic opera “The Mikado” starring 40 white actors in yellowface. “I wanted to say [to the reader], ‘Don’t just put down this book and say, “Well, that was a wild ride!,” and never think about any of those implications again.’”The implications of “Disorientation” are inescapable. The novel follows Ingrid Yang, a Taiwanese American graduate student, as she struggles to complete her dissertation. Chou, a former doctoral student herself (she studied literary modernism), knows Ingrid’s world well. She peoples her novel with characters readily available for satire: the arrogant white male professor of East Asian studies, the self-serious campus radical, the model minority conservative. Rather than reveling, as Reed does, in satirical types, however, Chou burrows under them to expose the human complexity that lies beneath. This humanizing approach, common in today’s satirical fictions, blunts the satire as it sharpens the psychological complexity of the characters.“Sometimes with satire, you can make a point with a very broad brush. Ishmael Reed is in that category; Percival Everett — other writers who are outlandish and having fun with being outlandish,” explains Julie Schumacher, 63, the author of two comic novels set on campus, including “The Shakespeare Requirement” (2018). Schumacher’s first campus novel, “Dear Committee Members” (2014), won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, a first for a book by a woman author. Both books center on Jason Fitger, an irascible but idealistic creative writing professor and English department chair at the fictional Payne University. Like Chou, Schumacher considers herself an accidental satirist. “I would never say that I started out thinking, ‘OK, I’m writing a satire,’” Schumacher says. “I don’t feel like that’s my strength as a writer. I want a character to play against type, to not quite fit the category.”For a character to play against type, of course, a writer must first render that type legible to readers. In “The Shakespeare Requirement,” Schumacher does this most pointedly with one of Fitger’s colleagues, a Shakespearean scholar named Dennis Cassovan. Like the colonoscopy-conversing codgers in “The Chair,” Professor Cassovan presents as a familiar comic figure: the elderly curmudgeon upholding antiquated ideals. Cassovan’s particular inflexibility, memorialized in the novel’s title, lies in his conviction that all undergraduate English majors should be required to take a semester of Shakespeare. Schumacher generates some good laughs at “the old mossback” Cassovan’s expense, mostly through Fitger’s acerbic voice. But she also does something that no doctrinaire satirist would ever do: she ventures into Cassovan’s point of view, exposing the emotional complexity that accounts for his beliefs. We learn that he is a widower and that he lost his teenage son to cancer. Schumacher nonetheless resists the consolation of pity, inviting her readers instead to recognize that “Cassovan’s true existence had flowered within the confines of this dingy 8-by-10-foot room.”In this passage Schumacher gifts her character something no stock satirical type could claim: dignity. In doing so, her novel, like Chou’s “Disorientation” and like “The Chair,” joins a new wave of campus satires, many of which are written by women, that aren’t really satires at all. By exposing their characters’ human motives, their frailties and failings, deflated aspirations and unarticulated hopes, they offer something more radical than righteous critique: avenues for empathy and, perhaps, pathways back to community for those who have strayed far away.Winant’s third collage, made with images from “Dear White People,” the 2014 film that inspired the 2017-21 television series of the same name.Carmen Winant, courtesy of the artist. Source photos: courtesy of NetflixTHESE UNSATIRES OF the campus are cropping up onscreen, as well, without sacrificing the outrageous qualities that attract audiences. Consider “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a series that stands out for truth in advertising, as we witness the aforementioned college girls having sex in an inspired range of locations. (“None of my friends get down like that!” my 21-year-old research assistant, Chazz Hannah, recently said to me.) Shows like “Grown-ish” and “A Different World” also focus on attractive people consciously coupling and uncoupling, and sex remains a fundamental element of the campus novel, too. In “Moo” (1995), for instance, Jane Smiley titles a chapter “Who’s in Bed With Whom,” then calls roll of campus bedfellows: an undergrad with a grad student, two professors in perfunctory congress, two others in passionate embrace, before arriving at an econ professor who’s “in bed” in a figurative sense, colluding with a billionaire.Of course, sex is central to these fictions of the campus because it features so prominently in the real college experience. Mindy Kaling and the series’s co-creator, Justin Noble, spoke about returning to campus — Kaling’s alma mater, Dartmouth, and Noble’s, Yale — to interview current students, but “The Sex Lives of College Girls” does not rely on capturing current trends. Quite the contrary, it is built on types — even stereotypes: Bela, a newly unsheltered South Asian girl looking to make up for lost time with lots of sex; Kimberly, a guileless suburbanite hanging on to a platonic long-distance relationship; Leighton, a blond socialite with a legacy pedigree; Whitney, a Black talented tenth striver whose force-of-nature mother is a prominent politician. The series begins with these stereotypes, then works to reveal the humanity that the stereotypes occlude. By the end of Season 1, for instance, Leighton has begun to embrace her lesbianism.This evolution of character enacts a process of identity formation inherent in college students everywhere. It’s an intimate undertaking often acted out in public, drawing on the influence of others, including professors. “There’s a great craving among students to be told about who they are,” the novelist, playwright and theater professor Julia May Jonas tells me. “And that unasked request, if you answer it, can be very dangerous. It can be at best confusing and at worst dangerous.”Jonas’s 2022 novel, “Vladimir,” surveys the limits of student-professor intimacy — including sexual relationships. One of the animating forces of the plot is a long history of a married male professor’s affairs with his students. This is a familiar story, enough to be a common satirical plotline in its own right; it’s also a topical one, with recent scandals at both Harvard and Yale surfacing the damage done when professors abuse their power. Jonas, 41, plays an intriguing variation on the theme, however, grounding her novel in the seductive first-person perspective of the philandering professor’s wife and, more than that, having her give voice to a nuanced understanding of campus sexual relationships. The book announces these subversive intentions from its opening lines: “When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.” Among other things, the line is a riff on one of Jonas’s inspirations, Vladimir Nabokov and his controversial classic, “Lolita” (1955). (Nabokov was also the author of two satirical academic novels of his own, “Pnin” [1957] and “Pale Fire” [1962].)“Vladimir” is alive to a range of intimacies. Early in the novel, Jonas’s unnamed protagonist revels in its ambience: “I like feeling the thrum of the students’ brains and hearts, uncensored by the classroom setting. In the library their lives swirl around me — I’m aware of their romantic entanglements, their grudges, hatreds, obsessions, all vibrating at a frequency I won’t ever feel again. Never will I love as they love, or hate as they hate or want what they want with such strong and solidified identification.” Jonas’s protagonist looks on her world with an eye alive to both the comic excesses and the enviable vitalities of her students. It invites us to revisit scenes so often played for broad comic effect — the sex lives of college girls, boys and otherwise — as deserving of more nuanced reflection.Fred MacMurray in “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961)Everett CollectionWE LONG FOR all that satire provides — its moral certitude, its keen eye for hypocrisy, its sanity-saving comedy — even as the writers and creators of today’s satirical art bridle against the narrow dictates of the form. This crisis of satire is nothing new. Seventy years ago, in “Notes on the Comic” (1952), the poet W. H. Auden cautioned that satire was exhausted, a relic of a bygone era when satirists wrote for a privileged audience of thousands rather than diverse communities of tens of millions or more. “Satire flourishes in a homogeneous society where satirist and audience share the same views as to how normal people can be expected to behave,” he writes. But what happens when one segment of society’s idea of “normal people” comes up against a resounding chorus of college students across the country — and, indeed, the world — who are naming and claiming their particular identities beyond the confines of gender binaries, inherited racial and ethnic categories, ability and disability? Satire, a form that thrives on homogeneity, cannot help but change in the face of such diversity. One wonders, though, if it can survive.When “The Chair” landed on Netflix in August of 2021, it provoked a spate of think pieces on academic satire — and an equal but opposite number of essays explaining, if sometimes pedantically, that the series was not, in fact, a satire at all. Annie Julia Wyman, 36, the show’s co-creator (along with the actress, writer and producer Amanda Peet), is definitive on the matter. “ ‘The Chair’ is not satire,” she says. “Satire is a kind of decadent, exhausted, austere and cold form.” Wyman, who holds a doctorate in English from Harvard and has taught courses on comic theory, describes the series instead as “something much closer to pure comedy.” She and Peet conceived the show’s central relationship — between Oh’s Professor Kim and Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass — in homage to the long tradition of the romantic comedy. “It’s about renewal and reintegration and what it takes to go on,” she says. “How can we remake our little society while we keep it afloat in a spirit of love and companionship?”That spirit is tested in the very first episode. Duplass’s Dobson, an acclaimed novelist, recent widower and now an empty nester, is struggling to hold himself together. He makes his way across campus to teach his lecture class, Death and Modernism. He begins by writing on the chalkboard.“Absurdism.”“Life isn’t what you think,” he says. “It will never be what you think.”“Fascism.”He points to the word.“All meaning is ascribed to the State.”Then he points to “Absurdism.”“There is no meaning.”His gesture becomes a Nazi salute. Then he utters a muted “Heil Hitler.”It’s a horrific moment to watch, all the more so because of the disconnect between the students’ shocked responses and Bill’s unabashed confidence that he’s simply indulging in a bit of pedagogical theater, ironically weaponizing the hateful gesture against itself.Except he’s wrong.The camera cuts to students’ faces. No one laughs or cracks a smile. The expressions range from befuddlement to concern. Through it all, Bill continues lecturing, oblivious to the growing commotion, unaware that his career may have just come to an end. By Episode 2, he’s a meme, his ironic stunt now source material for the students’ own satire of him.So why does it go so wrong? The series offers plenty of satirical reckoning to go around. Bill is out of touch, quick to exercise his freedoms without consideration of his responsibilities. For their part, the students willfully ignore the context of Bill’s gesture, not because it evades them but because they resent his entitlement. His actions after the incident don’t help; he calls a town hall to not apologize. “I want this to be a forum where everyone can voice their opinion,” he says. “You’re a white tenured professor who writes Op-Eds for The New York Times,” one student snaps back. “You really think this is an equal forum?” At season’s end, the tension is unresolved: Bill is fired but fighting it. On the campus of “The Chair,” on campuses everywhere, satire may well be dying. Who will mourn it?I’m thinking about this in the operating room, positioned on my side, gown open in back. In the final moments before the propofol takes effect, my gastroenterologist attempts to assuage my anxiety — not knowing that its source isn’t my concern over neoplastic polyps but of falling prey to Bill’s mistake. Lecturing is a vulnerable thing; it’s liberating, too. A good lecturer is part teacher, part preacher, part stand-up comic. I’ve danced a two-step, broken into song, laughed and even cried. I’ve marched a 100-student lecture across the quad to teach in an open-air amphitheater. I’ve even taught a semester-long course accompanied by a student D.J. and rapper. I’ve done all of this with the hope that I might inspire my students, or at least entertain them. The experience often leaves me exposed. The only protections are humility and respect for the sensibilities of the young people in your charge. That’s what it means to teach.“What do you teach?”My doctor must have seen my salutation in my chart.“I’m an English professor,” I tell her.This is usually a conversation stopper in Los Angeles, but not today.“Well, you must have watched ‘The Chair,’ right? My partner and I binged it in two nights. What did you think?”I’m out before I can respond. When I come to, I’m in the recovery room, head still cloudy, soul unsettled but clean as a whistle. More

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    After Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle Attacks, Comedy Venues Increase Security

    Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars. Dave Chappelle was tackled at the Hollywood Bowl. Now some venues are increasing security to protect comedians.It was a joke about a mother, cocaine and Walmart that set the man off.He had been sitting with a woman at the Laugh Factory in Chicago this winter, shouting enthusiastically in response to a joke about drugs when, after being needled about his relationship with the woman, he said that she was his mother.So when Joe Kilgallon, the next comedian, took the microphone, a joke popped into his head.“That’s healthy — cocaine with your mom on a Monday,” Mr. Kilgallon recalled quipping. “Getting some real Walmart vibes here.”The man leaped from his chair, cursed and made a beeline for the stage, club officials and Mr. Kilgallon recalled. A security guard grabbed the man before he could climb onstage and hustled him out of the club through an emergency exit.It wound up nothing more than a minor confrontation, the kind that comedians have had to deal with for years, given that making fun of people and mixing it up with hecklers is basically part of the job description. But a couple of recent high-profile physical attacks on comedians — Will Smith slapping Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars in March and a man tackling Dave Chappelle as he performed at the Hollywood Bowl last week — has left some comics wondering if the stage is becoming less safe, and has led some clubs and venues to take steps to beef up their security at comedy shows.Laugh Factory officials say that as a result of the recent unrest, they have added cameras and metal detectors and increased the number of security guards at some of their locations. They have made a few additions — “This is not a U.F.C. match!” “We do not care about your political affiliation!”— to the standard monologue about two-drink minimums people hear as they walk in the door. The Uptown Comedy Corner in Atlanta last weekend hired an off-duty police officer to bolster its security, moved one of its guards closer to the stage and began using metal detecting wands to check patrons and their bags at the door. And the Hollywood Bowl said it had implemented its own “additional security measures” after the attack on Mr. Chappelle.Garrett Baney was searched this week as he entered The Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.Alex Welsh for The New York Times“When a comedian gets onstage, what is their only goal?” asked Judy Gold, the comedian and author of “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble.” “To make you laugh. That’s it.”“When you take the comedian’s intent out of the formula and you decide ‘I am going to take this joke the way I perceive it, instead of the way the comedian intended it,’ ” she said, “and then say ‘I didn’t like that joke, I want that person canceled or silenced or beat up,’ I mean, it’s just devastatingly sad.”In interviews, comedy club owners and comedians themselves expressed varying degrees of concern over the recent events. While some spoke of a worrisome uptick in audience outbursts that predates the Oscars, others cautioned against conflating what happened to Mr. Rock and Mr. Chappelle and drawing overly broad conclusions.Trevor Noah addressed the situation with comedy last week, when he warily walked out onto the stage of his Comedy Central program, “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” under the watchful eye of a man in a black windbreaker that said “Security” who appeared to murmur into a Secret Service-style earpiece as Mr. Noah opened the show.Noam Dworman, the owner of the Comedy Cellar in New York, said he viewed the Smith-Rock confrontation as a highly specific “one-off” in which Mr. Smith seemed to be trying to embarrass Mr. Rock more than physically hurt him. Seeing an audience member tackling Mr. Chappelle was concerning, he said, but might be part of a broader trend.“It just seems like violence is creeping up on us,” Mr. Dworman said, citing recent riots and protests that have turned violent. “We have a lot of people equating words with violence. And the logical extension of equating words with violence is to say that it’s reasonable to answer words with violence.”Some comedians brushed off concern about their personal safety, noting that they are not, for the most part, big names like Mr. Rock and Mr. Chappelle. Several made clear they did not plan to soften their material. But some worried that societal forces, including the bitter debates of the Trump years and the difficulties many faced during the pandemic, may have left people increasingly on edge — and less willing to take a joke.After Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars and was allowed to stay at the ceremony, some comedians feared it might embolden copy cat attacks. Ruth Fremson/The New York TimesJamie Masada, the owner of the Laugh Factory, said he had been counseling his comedians to take into account that some audience members have spent much of the last two years inside their apartments during a grueling pandemic. Mr. Kilgallon said he believed that after so much time alone, “people don’t know how to act in public” — whether it be in comedy clubs, bars or sporting events.Comedy clubs have long employed bouncers and security guards to deal with the occasional patron who has been overserved, or who is heckling a tad too much. And long before Mr. Smith strode onto the Academy Awards stage to slap Mr. Rock as retribution for a joke about his wife, there have been scattered instances of people confronting comedians during their sets, or in some cases, physically assaulting them.In the aftermath of the Oscars slap, some comics warned of the potential for copy cats. Mr. Smith was not only not removed from the Dolby Theater after hitting Mr. Rock but was given a standing ovation soon afterward when he was awarded the Oscar for best actor. (He was later banned from the Oscars for 10 years.)“These people gave him a standing ovation and no punishment,” Ms. Gold said of Mr. Smith. “We all said there will be copycat assaults. And there was.”The attack on Mr. Chappelle was murkier. A man carrying a weapon tackled Mr. Chappelle onstage at the Hollywood Bowl, where he was appearing as part of “Netflix Is a Joke: The Festival.” The Los Angeles city attorney charged Isaiah Lee, 23, with four misdemeanors in connection with the attack, including battery and possession of a weapon with intent to assault; Mr. Lee has pleaded not guilty.The Los Angeles police have not released any information about Mr. Lee’s motive for the attack on Mr. Chappelle, whose comedy has provoked controversy in the past. Mr. Chappelle discussed the encounter at another comedy show in Los Angeles later that week, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Mr. Chappelle told the audience that he had spoken to Mr. Lee after the incident, and said that Mr. Lee had said he did it to draw attention to the plight of his grandmother, who had been forced out of her neighborhood by gentrification, the trade publication reported.The Laugh Factory recently installed a new security camera.Alex Welsh for The New York Times“More than the incident itself, it’s the reaction people are having and saying — saying this is an ongoing or repeat thing,” said Angelo Sykes, a co-owner of Uptown Comedy Corner, which stiffened its security after the attack on Mr. Chappelle. “When you hear those things it makes you say, ‘OK, we can’t take those chances. We’ve got to be on the safe side.’”In telephone interviews last week, several comedians in Los Angeles said the attacks had been a topic of conversation between comics after shows. Ms. Gold described some of her fellow comedians as “weary and tired” and said others were “freaking out.”Comedy, she noted, is often a work in progress. “We don’t know where the line is until we bring up our material,” she said. “The audience informs us.”Tehran Von Ghasri, a Los Angeles-based comedian, was among those who said an increasing share of “hypersensitive” audience members seemed to be coming to shows and either inviting confrontation, “looking to be offended” — or both.Mr. Kilgallon said social media was also to blame. He has noticed that audience members are now quick to pull out their phones if a controversial topic is being discussed or a tense moment arises. But he said that the fundamentals of comedy remained the same.“Over the last five years, people come up to me after a show and say, ‘It’s got to be tough these days doing comedy — everyone’s so sensitive,’” Mr. Kilgallon said. “And I say, ‘No, it’s not.’ I perform in the bluest parts of the country and some of the reddest parts of the country. If you’re funny — no matter what the joke is, people laugh.” More

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    Shows About Abortion Surface a Stark Divide

    Decidedly anti-sensationalistic, Alison Leiby’s shrewd and funny personal monologue plays downtown. Uptown, a staged reading focuses on a gruesome case.A few nights after the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn the right to abortion protected by Roe v. Wade, the comedian Alison Leiby walked onto the stage of the Cherry Lane Theater, in Manhattan’s West Village, to greet the audience before her monologue.“How are we doing?” she asked, taking the temperature of a friendly crowd that had more men in it than you might expect. Then, easily: “The show is exactly the same as it was before we lost all of our rights.”Low-key sardonic, politically charged humor it would be, apparently. We might have guessed as much from the title of the insightfully funny piece she was about to perform: “Oh God, a Show About Abortion.”It is probably true, in terms of Leiby’s script and Lila Neugebauer’s direction, that the monologue — constructed around an account of the abortion that Leiby had three years ago, at 35 — has not changed. But the atmosphere surrounding abortion rights has; it’s more charged, more urgent, more anxious. And the audience always brings the outside world into the room.So here is the first thing you need to know about Leiby’s abortion story: In a smart and entertaining show, full of observations about the sometimes painful messiness of female bodies — menstruation, childbirth, lactation — and the social pressure to put on a happy face about all of it, her trip to Planned Parenthood is the least dramatic, most calmly straightforward part.“Does this feel anticlimactic to you?” she asks, when she’s done retelling it.She knows it must, because back when it happened, she’d expected something more lurid, too.“I think that I thought I’d have some kind of Scarlet A that tells everyone I had an abortion,” she says, “which would have been devastating because it’s private, and also red clashes with my complexion.”A laugh line, sure, but that bit about the fear of the Scarlet A? It lands.“Oh Gosnell: A Show About the Truth” is a staged reading based on court records that features the cast members, from left, Roxanne Bonifield, Kaché Attyana, Benjamin Standford and Andrea Edgerson.Russ RowlandA couple of miles uptown, at the Chain Studio Theater on West 36th Street, is a show that announced its New York run as “Oh Gosnell: The Truth About Abortion” — a tabloid title with stalkerish overtones, especially given that its own news release mentions Leiby’s show.A publicist for “Oh Gosnell” said that the creation of the play was inspired by Leiby’s comic monologue. “They laugh about it — we tell the truth about it,” says the website of the play now going by the name “Oh Gosnell: A Show About the Truth.”It’s written by Phelim McAleer, who is credited on IMDB as being a producer of the yet-to-be-released film “My Son Hunter,” starring Laurence Fox as Hunter Biden, and as a writer and a producer of “Obamagate,” starring Dean Cain, which The New York Post described as a play that had its premiere on YouTube. His other plays include “Ferguson,” about the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown.Laughter and truth are not mutually exclusive, of course, even if McAleer, a right-wing provocateur whose program bio calls him “a veteran investigative journalist,” implies otherwise.As for conveying any general truth about abortion, rather than specific truths about the gruesome case of Kermit Gosnell — a Philadelphia physician convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder for killing three babies after botched late-term abortions — it doesn’t. Neither is it constructed to persuade.The script for the play, simply titled “Gosnell,” says that it was “compiled, verbatim, from grand jury and criminal trial transcripts” in the Gosnell case. In a spare, somewhat murky staged reading directed by David Atkinson, it has a cast of seven that includes a compelling young actor named Kaché Attyana, who I hope will soon get better work.“The first thing I want you to be assured of, ladies and gentlemen,” a prosecutor (Roxanne Bonifield) says, close to the top of the show, “is that this is not a case about abortion.”For emphasis, she repeats that assertion. Maybe McAleer, the co-author of a book about the Gosnell case, and a producer and co-screenwriter of the 2018 movie “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” didn’t hear her?Then again, in a program note, McAleer writes of the Gosnell trial: “Perhaps the desire to suppress information was why no national media covered the story. There is a reluctance to shine a spotlight on abortion in the U.S. Few people are prepared to go behind the doors and tell the truth of what is really happening there.”Heidi Schreck in her play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which opened on Broadway in 2019.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesThe problem with saying that no national media covered the story — well, his own show contradicts that right off the bat, when images of news clippings about the case include one from The New York Times. (Projections are by Meghan Chou.)As for going behind those doors, women do that every day, seeking abortion care. Leiby did it. I’ve done it. My mom did it, too, pre-Roe v. Wade, to save her life from an ectopic pregnancy before my brothers and I were born.Telling the truth about abortion, though — speaking of those experiences, that is, in a culture where abortion remains heavily stigmatized — well, that is rare.Which is maybe why Leiby expected to feel something more sensational than relief after her own abortion.“I thought I’d spend the next few days or months staring out the window like I’m in a depression medication commercial,” she says. “I thought I would carry sadness and emptiness with me everywhere I went.”Kidding, a little bit? Probably. But the notion of abortion as an automatic trauma is pretty deeply rooted in the culture, and it’s not often interrogated onstage. Which leaves the mystery intact.And, conversely, gives the shows that do discuss it an added potency — like Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land,” which harnesses the ticking-time-bomb feeling of an unwanted pregnancy, and Lightning Rod Special’s “The Appointment,” which juxtaposes wild musical satire with the crisp quiet of an abortion clinic. And, of course, Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which put an abortion story on Broadway.In the Signature Theater revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s play, Christine Lahti (right, with Joaquina Kalukango) portrayed an abortion provider. Richard Termine for The New York TimesWhen Leiby mentioned the Scarlet A, I thought of Suzan-Lori Parks’s take on “The Scarlet Letter” — the one of her Red Letter Plays whose title we can’t print here — with its heroine, Hester Smith, who is described in the list of characters as “the Abortionist.” Kia Corthron’s “Come Down Burning,” which also has a heroine who performs abortions, makes a clear connection between the option to safely end a pregnancy and women’s ability to control their own lives.Then there is Ciara Ni Chuirc’s “Made by God,” which had its premiere this winter at Irish Repertory Theater: a drama about a shame-filled Irish teenager who died alone with her newborn in the 1980s, and about the seismic shift in public opinion that led Ireland to legalize abortion in 2019. The play’s principal anti-abortion character is an American interloper.Leiby — who reports, incredulously, that she whispered the phrase “an abortion” to Planned Parenthood when she called to make an appointment for one — means her monologue to start people talking about theirs.Beyond that, though, her show makes a broader point: about the need for women to be able to decide what they want and don’t want, and shape their existences accordingly.“I’m a woman who did something she needed to do,” she says, “to protect the life she built for herself.”It’s not funny, but it’s true.Oh God, a Show About AbortionThrough June 4 at the Cherry Lane Theater, Manhattan; cherrylanetheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.Oh Gosnell: A Show About the TruthThrough May 15 at the Chain Studio Theater, Manhattan; ohgosnell.com. Running time: 1 hour. More

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    The Strange Afterlife of George Carlin

    In the closing monologue from a recent episode of his HBO talk show, Bill Maher cataloged a series of social conditions that he suggested were hampering stand-up comedy and imperiling free speech: cancel culture, a perceived increase of sensitivity on college campuses, and Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.Near the end of his remarks, Maher invoked the comedian George Carlin, a personal hero whose iconoclastic spirit, he seemed to believe, could never thrive in such a thin-skinned and overly entitled era. “Oh, George,” he said, “it’s a good thing you’re dead.”Carlin, the cantankerous, longhaired sage who used his withering insight and gleefully profane vocabulary to take aim at American hypocrisy, died in 2008. But in the years since, it can feel like he never really left us.On an almost daily basis, parts of Carlin’s routines rise to the surface of our discourse, and he is embraced by people who span the political spectrum — they may rarely agree with each other, but they are certain that Carlin would agree with them.Carlin’s rueful 1996 routine about conservatives’ opposition to abortion (“they will do anything for the unborn, but once you’re born, you’re on your own”) became a newly viral phenomenon and was shown on a recent broadcast of the MSNBC program “11th Hour.” A video clip of a Carlin bit about how Americans are ravenous for war (“so we’re good at it, and it’s a good thing we are — we’re not very good at anything else anymore!”) has been tweeted by Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota. On the right-wing website Breitbart, Carlin has been cited as an expert on bipartisanship (“the word bipartisan usually means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”) and hailed as a rebel who didn’t acquiesce to authority.Carlin is a venerated figure in his chosen field who unites performers as disparate as Joe Rogan and Jim Gaffigan, but he’s also someone whose influence transcends comedy. He is a touchstone shared by the psychologist Steven Pinker, the rapper and actor Ice Cube and people on social media who equate the pandemic with George Orwell novels. Carlin’s indignant voice feels so impossible to duplicate that quotes he never said and entire essays he didn’t write are often wrongly attributed to him.George Carlin on “Saturday Night Live” in 1975. His fans include Joe Rogan and Jim Gaffigan.Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty ImagesThere’s a strange afterlife that Carlin enjoys, not just as a comic but also as a moral compass. Few of us care in quite the same way if our choices in life would meet the approval of Johnny Carson or Andy Kaufman.That Carlin’s work endures long after him is not only a testament to his talents; it’s a sign that his frustrations, which he expressed humorously but felt authentically, still resonate with audiences, and that the injustices he identified in American society persist to this day.“There’s something about his righteous aggravation — it’s a rare point of view, and it’s rare that it’s a natural point of view,” said Marc Maron, the comedian and podcaster. “It’s not something you can pretend to make happen. Aggravation is not always funny.”And Carlin’s routines, particularly from his splenetic, late-period specials, have hardly lost their punch. It’s still bracing to hear the bitter wordplay in his lament: “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”When he spoke, “you always felt like you were hearing the truth, or his truth,” said the comedian Bill Burr. “He was giving you the truth of what he felt, which most of us don’t do. It’s refreshing to listen to another human being tell you exactly how they feel, even if it’s 180 degrees removed from what you agree with.”But the durability of Carlin’s material can be dangerous, too. Dislocated from the time and circumstances that inspired his work, the arguments he delivered can be made to serve purposes he didn’t intend.As those who were closest to him have learned, when he is unable to advocate for himself, he can be made to seem like he supported any opinion at all.“It is a daily battle for me,” said Kelly Carlin, the comedian’s daughter. “At first I was like, I’ll be the interpreter and tell them what I think he meant. And then it was like, this is not my job. It’s like trying to push back a tidal wave sometimes.”The continuing relevance of Carlin’s material is partly a result of how he learned to compose and refine it over a career that spanned nearly 50 years.As he explained in a 1997 interview on “The Chris Rock Show,” he essentially saw himself as a playful provocateur. “I like to bother people,” he said, adding that he tried to figure out “where the line is drawn, and then deliberately cross it and drag the audience with you. And have them happy that you did it.”Carlin with his daughter, Kelly, on the left and his first wife, Brenda. He’s the subject of a new documentary.George Carlin’s Estate, via HBOCarlin is well-known for pivoting from a strait-laced, suit-and-tie approach to standup in the late 1960s and early ’70s and for immersing himself in the counterculture that shaped his personal politics.But a new two-part HBO documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” which will be shown May 20 and 21, illustrates how his professional trajectory consisted of numerous ups and downs — multiple efforts to rediscover his voice and refine his material when his personal radar detected he was out of step with the times.“He would do that every decade or so,” said Judd Apatow, the comedian and filmmaker who directed the documentary with Michael Bonfiglio. “At the moment when it seemed like he was out of gas, he would suddenly recharge and reinvent himself.”As he evolved from a fast-talking parodist of TV and radio to a rhetorical bomb-tosser, Carlin had a set of standards that remained consistent. “He had deep core values that were good,” Bonfiglio said: “Take care of other people. Take care of the planet. There was a sense of fairness and rooting for the underdog. Those would shine through, even in his darkest stuff.”But over the decades, as Carlin watched America’s retreat from Vietnam and its entrance into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as corporate power grew more intractable and environmental catastrophe felt unavoidable, his feelings of bitter disappointment flooded into his routines.At times, Maron said, “his anger became more pronounced than his ability to speak funny within it.” But in every hourlong set he performed, Maron added, “there would be one bit that was worth the entire special.”Carlin’s personal politics were readily identifiable. Kelly Carlin said her father was “99 percent progressive” and that he raised her in a manner that today might be contemptuously dismissed as woke.“He taught me from Day 1 that the Black and brown people have always been oppressed, horribly and systematically, by the owners of wealth,” she said. “He had a pure disdain and loathing for white men in America.”That leftist bent was unmistakable in Carlin’s standup, too: He railed against police violence, championed prison reform and environmentalism and condemned organized religion.But he was also critical of Democrats and “guilty white liberals,” while he endorsed other ideas that conservatives supported. He despised euphemism and the policing of language, reviled what he called “the continued puss-ification of the American male” and rebuked his countrymen who would “trade away a little of their freedom for the feeling — the illusion — of security.”Using language that would later be echoed by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Carlin observed in a 2005 routine that the interwoven systems of American economy and government were not designed to ensure the prosperity of the average citizen: “It’s a big club and you ain’t in it,” he said.“The table is tilted, folks,” Carlin added. “The game is rigged.”Carlin didn’t hesitate to criticize presidents by name — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush among them — but, more often, he spoke in broader terms and addressed institutional failings.“There were other court jesters before Carlin and alongside Carlin, but Carlin was more powerful and dangerous to the king,” said Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center, which is home to more than 25,000 items from Carlin’s archives.What gave him his potency, Gunderson said, was that he turned his standup “into a call to action.” Carlin, she said, “taught everyone where to find the power that they have and encouraged them to use it.”Carlin at a benefit for the Bitter End in New York in 1992. He was “99 percent progressive,” said his daughter, but also took some positions that echoed those of conservatives today.Ed Bailey/Associated PressThat approach gave Carlin’s comedy a longevity that not even the work of his esteemed predecessor Lenny Bruce has attained.“It requires a scholarship to appreciate Lenny Bruce,” Maron said. “You’ve got to sort through a number of very dated impressions and news stories. Whereas George was always making things totally accessible.”(Even in her father’s later years, Kelly Carlin said, if he had an idea for a topical joke, rather than put it in his act, he would share them with people like the broadcaster Keith Olbermann, who was then the host of “Countdown” on MSNBC. Olbermann confirmed this, saying that Carlin sent him “a couple of one-liners about Bush” and a sports joke he keeps framed on his wall.)For the most part, Carlin left behind no protégés or appointed successors. When he died, no one else could say they spoke on his behalf. And while the generations of stand-ups that have followed may have a sincere reverence for him, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are fluent in the jokes he told.“A lot of us know that you’re supposed to say Carlin is an influence, but I don’t think a lot of us can back that up,” the comedian Nikki Glaser said.A lack of familiarity with Carlin’s words, his history and his values can lead to misapprehension when his arguments are stretched to fit present-day conditions he didn’t live to see.Several times during the pandemic, Carlin has drawn attention for a routine from his 1999 special, “You Are All Diseased,” in which he mischievously suggests that a childhood spent swimming in the polluted Hudson River was the reason he didn’t catch polio.(“In my neighborhood, no one ever got polio,” he fulminates. “No one, ever. You know why? ’Cause we swam in raw sewage. It strengthened our immune systems. The polio never had a prayer.”)As Kelly Carlin explained, some viewers concluded — wrongly — that her father would have opposed coronavirus vaccines.“Everyone’s like, see? George Carlin would have been anti-vaccination,” she said. “And I’m like, no. My dad was pro-science, pro-rational thinking, pro-evidence-based medicine. The man was a heart patient for 30 years. When he was a kid and the polio vaccine became available, he got the polio vaccine.”Though she generally tries to avoid intervening in these kinds of disputes, Kelly Carlin has used her social media to correct this reading. “I felt it was important that people not use him to undermine what we needed to do to get through this virus,” she said.On other modern-day topics in which George Carlin surely would have had an incendiary but clarifying take on — the Trump and Biden presidencies, social media, Elon Musk or the Marvel Cinematic Universe — no matter how much we might wish to know his thoughts, he remains frustratingly out of reach. Kelly Carlin said she could understand why audiences might long for her father’s particular brand of unvarnished honesty at this moment.“I think we are in a time of exponential uncertainty as a species,” she said. “He’s a man who looked forward and said, ‘This is not going to end well.’ He saw the chaos coming.”And Carlin remains almost universally admired as a free-speech pioneer: He was arrested in 1972 for a performance of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and that same routine would later play a key role when the federal government asserted its power to regulate the broadcast of indecent content.Because of that status, Carlin is frequently summoned in contemporary debates over how comedians choose to use their platforms. When controversy engulfed Dave Chappelle’s 2021 special “The Closer,” which was criticized as transphobic and prompted walkouts at Netflix, Carlin’s name was invoked, even though no one could be certain what position he might have taken: Would he have criticized Chappelle as intolerant or defended his right to express himself?Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 on obscenity and disorderly conduct charges. The case was later dismissed and the comedian was widely admired for his free-speech stance.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesIn efforts to divine his opinion, some Carlin fans pointed to a 1990 interview he gave to Larry King, when he expressed his misgivings about the crude standup of Andrew Dice Clay: “His targets are underdogs, and comedy has traditionally picked on power — people who abuse their power,” Carlin said at the time.Kelly Carlin said her father “always took the stand that more speech is better than less speech” and would have supported Chappelle’s right to perform the special. But, she added, “if you’re a comedian, you’ve got to be funny.”“If you’re going to take the audience over the line, you’ve got to construct things in a way that they’re willingly crossing it with you,” she said. “Did Dave Chappelle do that for everybody? Clearly not.”Even so, Kelly Carlin said, “is it dangerous when a culture wants to shut people down for speech? I think my dad would say that is dangerous.”Like his friend and forerunner Lenny Bruce, who was arrested and convicted on obscenity charges (and who later received a posthumous pardon), George Carlin was battling the state’s power to discourage and punish his expression.Maron contended that free-speech conflicts have shifted since Carlin’s era in such a way that it doesn’t make sense to drag Carlin back into them.“That fight was already won,” Maron said. “What’s going on now is not that fight.” Today, he said, we live “in a world where anybody can really say what they want, whether anyone believes that or not.”While Carlin would still probably be dissatisfied with the state of free speech today, Maron said, his barbs would have been aimed at “the corporate occupation” of discourse, with digital monoliths like Google, Facebook and Twitter “dictating how culture thrives and is consumed.”And if a comedian wants to claim freedom of speech while using words that others deem hateful, Maron said, “you can say them all you want — you’re probably just going to be hanging around people who enjoy that kind of stuff. If that’s the company you want to keep, do what you gotta do.”Without Carlin’s humanistic spirit to guide it, contemporary standup can sometimes feel like a ruthless place. “There’s this fearlessness in comedy now that is so fake,” Glaser said. “There’s so much sleight of hand and so many illusions happening onstage to trick an audience that you’re being brave.”“There was never a cruelty to Carlin,” she said. “He always seemed filled with empathy.”Gunderson, of the National Comedy Center, described Carlin as “a leader who didn’t want to hold all the power.” The ultimate lesson he had for us, she said, is that we have “the unlimited right to challenge everything, to never stop thinking critically about any source of power or any institution” — even Carlin himself.Kelly Carlin cautioned that we should not be too beholden to any of the messages in her father’s stand-up: Of course George Carlin believed in much of what he said onstage, but what mattered most to him was that audiences learned to think for themselves. He never wanted to be anyone’s role model and was never a comfortable joiner of causes.“The moment anyone gets in a group, gets together for meetings and puts on armbands, he instantly didn’t want that,” she said.If George Carlin were around now to respond to the questions we have for him, “he would have schooled us on both sides and come up with a third-way truth that would have blown our minds,” she said. “But not solved anything. He was never looking to solve the culture wars or solve America’s problems. He was always looking to show off what he’d been thinking about at home.” More

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    ‘Which Way to the Stage’ Review: Theater Buddies, With Claws Out

    In her new comedy, Ana Nogueira spins zippy fun out of a fairly conventional story about a friendship strained by resentment.If you have ever fantasized about casting your favorite musical or ranked the actresses who have played Mrs. Lovett, chances are you will be familiar with Jeff and Judy. You might even be them.We first meet the two besties by the stage door of the Richard Rodgers Theater. They are waiting, Playbills at the ready, for Idina Menzel — this is 2015, when Menzel was still headlining “If/Then” and stars occasionally met with fans after a performance (an activity now curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic).Judy (Sas Goldberg) and Jeff (Max Jenkins) are arguing over the respective merits of Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone in “Gypsy,” and Ana Nogueira’s “Which Way to the Stage,” at MCC Theater, is off, its needle already close to the red zone. At least Jeff and Judy agree on one thing: either of those two stars is better than the one they refer to simply as “Imelda” (Staunton, unless Marcos also appeared in “Gypsy”). “Like a caricature of a caricature of a performance by my mother in the Temple Beth Israel talent show,” Judy says.You might have sussed out by now that Judy is straight and Jeff is gay, and both have a way with quips.Admittedly this is a fairly conventional setup, but Nogueira spins zippy fun out of it, the theater references are on point, and the director, Mike Donahue, imparts a nice screwball-comedy pace. Then come the variations on the theme.Michelle Veintimilla, from far left, Evan Todd and Sas Goldberg at a drag performance by Max Jenkins’s character, Jeff.Richard Termine for The New York TimesThe first is that, somewhat predictably, Judy and Jeff are actors themselves — though she makes a living as a real estate agent while he is a Crunch instructor with a drag gig on the side.We also gradually realize that their friendship is heavy with barely contained resentment. Jeff lectures Judy when she uses a slur for gay men, only to casually drop demeaning words for women. After she takes off during his drag tribute to Menzel, a wounded Jeff demands to know what she thought of his act. It is obvious the last thing he wants is an honest opinion, but he pressures Judy anyway.“Which Way to the Stage” is about the performances people put on for themselves, their friends, family and potential loved ones, as well as the identities they hide behind. (Nogueira has experience both as a writer and an actor, with acting credits on such shows as “The Vampire Diaries” and the Starz series “Hightown.”)This tension between who we are, who we think we are and the personas we project is especially fraught for actors, and it weighs heavily on Jeff and Judy. (Goldberg, a standout in “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow” and “Significant Other,” excels at suggesting hurt underneath sarcasm.) The veiled animosity between the two is brought to a head when they meet the handsome Mark (Evan Todd), who has the easygoing, insouciant charm of a born star — or at least someone who can live off his acting.Under its avalanche of knowing jokes, “Which Way to the Stage” has serious matters on its mind, including the undercurrent of homophobia and misogyny that can suffuse the relationship between straight women and gay men. Nogueira’s writing is at its best when she lets anger bubble to the surface, but like Jeff and Judy with theater, it seems as if she can’t quite decide whether her play is, at heart, about love or cynicism.“Which Way to the Stage” builds up to a conflagration that is the equivalent of an 11 o’clock number. But like many musicals, the show doesn’t know what to do with itself afterward, so it ends big with a move that feels like a Hail Mary pass. The attempt is fun to watch, but it also comes up short.Which Way to the StageThrough May 22 at MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. More

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    In Comedy, Timing Is Everything, Especially at Netflix’s Festival

    Planned long before the streamer hit a rough patch, the expansive event had the feel of the end of an era. Still, there were plenty of stellar shows.LOS ANGELES — Over the past two weeks, in a shock-and-awe display of cultural power that suddenly seems from a bygone era, Netflix put on a behemoth festival that summoned all corners of the comedy world. Take Saturday evening, for instance. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey cracked jokes at the YouTube Theater while Billy Eichner hosted an evening of LGBTQ+ stand-ups at the Greek Theater that included, among others, Wanda Sykes and Tig Notaro. Tim Heidecker chatted with comics at the Elysian Theater, a savvy new alternative space, while Mitra Jouhari from Adult Swim’s “Three Busy Debras” prepared to go onstage. Two miles away, Gabriel Iglesias was getting ready to be the first stand-up to ever perform at Dodger Stadium.The inaugural Netflix Is a Joke Fest which was cooked up before the pandemic and then postponed, rivaled if not eclipsed Just for Laughs, the mammoth industry event in Montreal. Producing 298 shows in dozens of spaces throughout Los Angeles, this ambitious effort took place in an awkwardly humbling moment for the streaming giant, after a quarter when it reported losing subscribers for the first time in a decade and its valuation dropped more than a third. There were layoffs, talk of price increases and the once unthinkable, adding digital ads.The physical kind blanketed the city, including a seven-story sign overlooking Hollywood Boulevard that commanded: “Please Laugh Responsibly.” This is the sort of corporate humor that uses jokey irony to disguise a commercial purpose, but there was something especially incongruous about the swagger of these promotions. To trumpet, in another sign, “the biggest comedy event in history” (with an asterisk and the joke “probably”) while employees anxiously whispered about the company’s future gave the festival a certain “last days of the Roman Empire” vibe.Ads for the festival blanketed Los Angeles. Allison Zaucha for The New York TimesMy week at the festival, seeing two shows a night, was a reminder that comics thrive in such environments. “Anyone hear an earthquake or a tremor?” David Letterman quipped at his live talk show, held at the festival with only stand-ups as guests. (They performed short sets and also sat down to chat.) With his old pinpoint timing, he waited a beat before quipping: “Must have been the Netflix stock crashing.”Anthony Jeselnik told the crowd at his show he loved that Netflix started the festivities by “laying off half their marketing team, losing a billion dollars and then trying to kill Dave Chappelle” — a reference to an audience member’s attack on Chappelle earlier in the festival. Known for taut jokes, Jeselnik leaned more into storytelling while sticking to his commitment to navigating hot button subjects in sharp-edged punch lines, starting with material on the trans community that aims to be both transgressive and progressive. The rap against Jeselnik is that his use of misdirection can be formulaic, like a math problem, but this show was advanced calculus, an implicit rebuke to comedians relying on lazy jokes about marginalized groups. He said he had writer’s block over the pandemic so he set himself goals to escape it. “I wanted to not aim too high,” he said at a leisurely pace: “Set something easy: try to handle this better than John Mulaney.”Those expecting Mulaney, who performed at the Forum, to dig deep into the relationship drama that has made him a tabloid staple would be disappointed. He is touring with an hour of material that is the most anticipated of the year, and it lives up to the hype. (No news on when it will become a special.) When I first saw him do the same material at City Winery one year ago, his discussion of addiction and rehab was raw and messy and bleak. It has tightened into a polished showbiz machine, with his broadest act-outs, impressions and even an extended song and dance. (The suggestion of a suicidal tendency is gone.) His show is less a baring of the soul than a joke-dense and pointed scuffing up of his image. Its key line: “Likability is a jail.”If so, Meg Stalter might be its current warden, since her videos during the pandemic turned her into an unlikely star with a devoted community of fans who delighted in her collection of flamboyantly overwrought characters. How this success will translate to her live comedy is an open question. In a hectic, digressive performance to a sold-out audience, she left her characters behind and stuck to one self-dramatizing, often flailing star whose biggest laughs were less the product of bits than interactions with the crowd.While there were several star-driven shows, the festival was anchored by many showcases of short sets, often hosted by big names like Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. They introduced a stellar lineup of mostly women comics, including Cristela Alonzo and Michelle Buteau (who both told quarantine jokes). In between acts, Fonda and Tomlin bantered, comparing notes on who had been arrested more. When Margaret Cho came onstage, a few days after the leak of the Supreme Court abortion opinion, she told the hosts, “I look forward to getting arrested with you after the repeal of Roe v. Wade.”Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda were hosts of one show featuring mainly women comics.Elizabeth Morris/Netflix The biggest show by far was Iglesias’s at Dodger Stadium, a stand-up set that seemed to double as a celebration of its own feat, even though seeing comedy in a ballpark is not ideal. When Martin Moreno asked the crowd to not look at screens before introducing him, most of the audience, myself included, was watching him on a giant screen.But many of the funniest, most satisfying performances took place in small rooms, none more so than the one by Liza Treyger, whose act has become a Richard-Lewis-level opera of neurotic self-deprecation. What she called her “monologue of bad habits” is a rapid-fire series of beyond-jaded jokes at her own expense that often take the form of exasperated questions: “Do you ever watch a video on Instagram and tell your friends you watched a documentary?” she said. “Do you run late on purpose just to feel something?”For comedy nerds, it was also a pleasure to see Marsha Warfield, a former star of the sitcom “Night Court” and a figure from the 1970s Comedy Store scene whose legendary reputation rarely translates into high-profile shows. In a confidently moseying delivery, she talked about falling out of the public eye and coming out of the closet on Facebook, then defensively insisted that’s just where old people are. “Facebook is the 21st-century version of sitting in an open window and yelling at people,” she said.Of course such intimate live shows are not what created the most news. That would be Pete Davidson returning to stand-up (“In the last couple years, I’ve been onstage less than the babies inside of Ali Wong,” he said, a solid inside baseball quip) and cracking jokes about Kanye West. There was also the attack on Chappelle which added an element of tension to the entire festival. Beefy security guys were quick to clamp down on hecklers. I saw two people wrestled to the ground and dragged out of a theater before a Snoop Dogg-hosted show; another person was forcibly ejected after heckling Letterman. Many comics seemed jittery and ready to battle. When Mike Epps, dressed in a black leather suit, walked onstage shadow boxing, everyone got the joke. This was funny, but that this celebration of jokes sat alongside the new alertness to security added yet another irony to this festival.Pete Davidson made headlines for his return to stand-up (and for jokes about Kanye West).Ser Baffo/Netflix Comics were sympathetic to Chappelle, but the backlash toward his jokes about the trans community started make its way into sets. After saying that people have been asking her about the assault, Robin Tran, a trans comic who was headlining a show, quipped: “I just want to say, for the record, I only told him to scare Chappelle.” At a different show, another trans comic, Nori Reed, did a very funny, experimental set that postponed telling a conventional punchline for a few minutes, then calling it inspired by Chappelle: “No jokes, all vibes.”One of the strengths and perhaps vulnerabilities of Netflix, the festival and service, is its range. The streamer’s comedy taste has always been difficult to pin down. Its brand is big. I interviewed the heads of Netflix comedy in 2018, around the height of their power, though competition from rival services like Apple TV+ and Disney+ loomed. Asked if they could continue to draw the most famous names with big money, Lisa Nishimura, the vice president of independent and documentary film content, said: “If we continue to grow the audience, we’re OK.”Now that the audience has shrunk, what does that mean? Will the number of Netflix comedy specials dwindle? Will competitors fill the space? HBO has been putting out quality shows and found a discourse-dominating hit with Jerrod Carmichael’s “Rothaniel.” (That special was directed by Bo Burnham, whose “Inside” is one of the most impressive success stories for Netflix of the past few years.)In a Sunset Boulevard coffee shop, just a few blocks from the hotel where club owners and comics stayed and you could see unnerving sights like late-night Comedy Cellar staple Dave Attell bathed in Hollywood daylight, I met with Robbie Praw, the director of original standup at Netflix. He looked weary managing this behemoth. Asked if financial troubles will change Netflix’s commitment to comedy, he said no but conceded that when it came to the number of specials, there would be “a little more curation.”It was a cautious, careful answer, one that reflected the moment more than any joke, billboard or festival did that week. More

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    Ric Parnell, Real Drummer in a Famous Fake Band, Dies at 70

    The central characters in the mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” were comic actors, but Mr. Parnell was an actual professional musician.Ric Parnell, a real drummer best known for playing in a fake band, the one chronicled in Rob Reiner’s fabled 1984 mockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap,” died on May 1 in Missoula, Mont., where he had lived for some two decades. He was 70.His partner, McKenzie Sweeney, confirmed the death. She said a blood clot in his lungs led to organ failure.Mr. Parnell had been in several bands, including the British prog-rock outfit Atomic Rooster, when he auditioned for “This Is Spinal Tap,” a deadpan sendup of rock clichés, and got the role of the drummer, Mick Shrimpton. The central band members, though, weren’t primarily musicians, though they had musical ability; they were comic actors — Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. Mr. Reiner played the role of Marty DiBergi, a documentarian recording what turns out to be a disastrous tour by Spinal Tap, a heavy metal band that is past its prime and poorly managed.Mr. McKean said Mr. Parnell fit in seamlessly.“He looked perfect, all hair and cheekbones, but he also got the joke and knew to play the reality without comment,” he said by email. “And he was a great drummer in the tradition of his hero, John Bonham” — the drummer for Led Zeppelin.“Onstage,” Mr. McKean added, “he was the best kind of monster; offstage, a very nice, very funny guy.”Mr. Parnell had only a few lines in the movie, but he was pivotal to one of its funniest gags: Drummers for the band had a habit of dying in bizarre and unpleasant ways. In one scene, he lounges in a bathtub while Marty DiBergi asks him if he’s bothered by that history.“It did kind of freak me out a bit, but it can’t always happen,” Mick says, and Marty agrees, telling him, “The law of averages says you will survive.”The law of averages, alas, was wrong — near the end of the film, Mick spontaneously combusts onstage. When the film developed such a cult following that the fake band went on tour in the early 1990s, playing actual shows, that necessitated a tweaking of Mr. Parnell’s persona — he was now Rick Shrimpton, the twin brother of the deceased Mick.Life almost imitated art in mid-1992, when Mr. Parnell fell down some stairs while hurrying to a sound check as the band was rehearsing in Los Angeles. He injured an ankle.“Despite the odds of meeting with death by remaining with Spinal Tap,” a publicist for the band said at the time, “he’s looking forward to continuing the tour.”That “Return of Spinal Tap” tour eventually took the group to the Royal Albert Hall in London, a pinch-me moment for the British-born Mr. Parnell as he waited to go on alongside Mr. Shearer.“I remember during ‘The Return of Spinal Tap’ standing backstage with Harry and hearing the Albert Hall crowd just chanting, ‘Tap!’ ‘Tap!’ ‘Tap!’ ‘Tap!,’” Mr. Parnell told The Missoula Independent in 2006. “I turned to Harry and I said, ‘Come on, now. We’re a joke! Don’t they know that?’ It was just amazing how quite massive it all became.”The members of Spinal Tap, from left: Christopher Guest, Mr. Parnell, David Kaff, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean.Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty ImagesAbout two decades ago, Mr. Parnell settled into a much quieter sort of life in Missoula, where for a time he had a radio show called “Spontaneous Combustion” on KDTR-FM, on which he told stories and indulged his eclectic musical tastes. For one show he played only artists who were alumni of Antelope Valley High School in California, among them Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.“I get to play what I want, do whatever I want — all as long as I don’t swear,” he told The Independent. “That’s the only hard part.”Richard John Parnell was born on Aug. 13, 1951, in London to Jack and Monique (Bonneau) Parnell. His father was a composer, conductor and drummer, and he said that drumming came naturally from a young age.“I got it from my dad,” he told The Missoulian in 2007. “I could sit down at the drum kit and play a beat straight away.”Lessons, he said, were not his thing; he learned by playing in groups.“Over the years, I’ve built up a technique,” he told the newspaper. “I get drummers saying, ‘How did you do that?’ I say, ‘I have no idea. I’m just hitting.’ I wouldn’t know a paradiddle from a flam-doodlehead.”His father, who worked as musical director or in other capacities on numerous television shows, sometimes added to his education by taking him to the set. He recalled sitting at the feet of Jimi Hendrix when he performed on the singer Dusty Springfield’s British TV series in 1968.Mr. Parnell’s own career was starting about the same time. He recalled touring with Engelbert Humperdinck as a teenager. He joined Atomic Rooster in 1970, and then came a stint with an Italian group, Ibis. In 1977 he moved to the United States with a band called Nova, which settled in Boulder, Colo.He played numerous studio sessions over the years and can be heard on records by Beck, Toni Basil and others. For a time he toured with the R&B saxophonist Joe Houston. They would stop every year for a few shows in Missoula before heading into Canada to tour there. But, as Mr. Parnell often told the story, one year the group didn’t have the right paperwork to cross the border and had to extend its stay in Missoula.“I basically got stuck here and then didn’t want to leave,” he told The Independent. “I’d always liked this place — it’s like Boulder in the 1970s, when I first came to the states. I became a Missoulian instantly.”Mr. Parnell was married and divorced four times. In addition to Ms. Sweeney, he is survived by two brothers, Will and Marc, and two stepsisters, Emma Parnell and Sarah Currie.Over the last two decades he could often be found playing with one group or another at local spots in Missoula. In 2004, a writer for The Missoulian asked if he, as an accomplished musician, ever got tired of being recognized only for his joke band.“No, not really,” he said. “Really it’s quite nice to be a part of such a legendary thing.” More