I have watched Sid Caesar's This Is Your Life parody sketch over a dozen times. As a kid, I worked my way into Caesar's comedy by way of the more effortlessly accessible Mel Brooks. I revisited the talents of the writer and performer after his 2001 appearance on Whose Line Is It Anyway. And Caesar was hardly overlooked in my comedy writing curriculum in college. There isn't a great deal of material from Pat Weaver's Your Show of Shows, on which Caesar canonized his prowess, readily available today. Like the stand-up of Lenny Bruce, the groundbreaking variety show is only made more legendary by its dearth of preservation. But there is one sketch in particular that hasn't entirely evaded the public grasp, thanks in equal parts to good luck and the notion that the world might crumble were we to lose it forever: "This Is Your Story," the aforementioned parody sketch that starred Caesar opposite Carl Reiner and Howard Morris in a 10-minute long bout of expertly executed hysteria.
If you've never seen the routine, take a few to watch in full before reading on:
Long after its 1953 air date, "This Is Your Story" is lauded as one of the funniest comedy sketches in television history. To pinpoint exactly why might be futile, as comedy is more art than science (though a share of both, admittedly), but there is a word I keep going back to every time I watch, and laugh at, the skit: sincerity.
The scene opens on a set of no stark dissimilarity to that of This Is Your Life. It doesn't exactly poke fun at the documentary series or contort any of its conventions, like a Saturday Night Live episode might do with Jeopardy or the evening news. In fact, everything out of Carl Reiner's (playing the nameless host) mouth from beginning to end is utterly sincere, and would fit right at home on an actual episode of the sketch's source material. He never even loses that smile once the mayhem takes hold.
But this mayhem in question is not born from particularly crazy characters. In fact, it's born from a question that just about anyone who has ever seen an episode of This Is Your Life has asked: "How would I act in a situation like this?" Odds are, most of us would land closer to the behaviors exhibited in the parody than on the stuffier, more rigid, and far less sincere performances on the actual program. "This Is Your Story" feels like it was the result of Caesar, Reiner, and Weaver watching This Is Your Life and saying, "This can't be real. You know what would really happen?" And clicking with the realization of just how funny that real display would be.
Of course, "This Is Your Story" doesn't shy away from ridiculous. When you've got talented comics like Caesar, Reiner, and Morris, you can translate real emotion into genius delivery and masterful physical comedy (Morris is a breakout in this sketch, latching his diminutive frame to the much larger bodies of his costars without relent). A few "gags" are tossed in — the snapshot of a grown Caesar's head on a baby's body, Caesar smooching a perfect stranger, and even Morris' character name ("Uncle Goopy!"). But all in all, the comedy here comes from honesty. The honest pandemonium that lives within each of us.
Caesar once said "Comedy has to be based on truth," adding, "You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end." Perhaps his most famous sketch, "This Is Your Story" exhibits this perfectly — just how funny the real world is when we take a sincere look at it.
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When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Duane Allman left us 42 years ago this week, and while he's remembered as one of rock's greatest guitar stylists -- not to mention one of its greatest tragedies, felled by a motorcycle mishap when he was just 24 -- his whole story is seldom told. The release of the seven-disc box set Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective goes a long way towards addressing that issue. Over its vast expanse, besides a crucial handful of tracks from the guitar hero's best-known affiliations, The Allman Brothers Band and Derek & The Dominos, it offers a stunning array of other projects Allman contributed to in his woefully brief lifetime. From Allman's pre-ABB groups to his far-ranging session work, this rich piece of American musical history encompasses every aspect of the six-string sultan's output, often venturing into corners previously familiar only to hardcore aficionados, and definitively displaying the multiple musical personalities of a rock & roll icon. Here are just a few of the unexpected roles in which you'll find Allman over the course of this revelatory collection.
The Garage Rocker: "Gotta Get Away" by The Allman Joys
Here's Duane in full fuzztone mode, ripping into a raw-boned rocker with the mid-'60s band he and brother Gregg fronted.
The Psychedelic Soldier: "Norwegian Wood" by The Hour Glass
After The Allman Joys came late-'60s outfit the Hour Glass, who weren't above venturing into some serious psychedelic territory, as shown by Duane's deft manipulation of an electric sitar on this ambitious Beatles cover.
The Muscle Shoals Soul Man: "Hey Jude" by Wilson Pickett
Speaking of ambitious Beatles covers, before finding fame as a blues-rocking firebrand with The Allman Brothers Band, Duane found another kind of Fame: recording with tons of top-shelf soul singers at Muscle Shoals, Alabama's legendary Fame Studio. "Wicked" Pickett's Fab Four takeover is one of many awe-inspiring examples of Allman's Muscle Shoals tenure included here.
The Session Star: "Beads of Sweat" by Laura Nyro
Even after The Allman Brothers Band's ascendance, Duane continued following his muse far and wide, bringing his guitar prowess to all manner of sessions. Here he joins some of his Muscle Shoals comrades on a trip to New York to back the sophisticated song-poetry of Laura Nyro on an album that also included everyone from jazzman Joe Farrell to Rascals frontman Felix Cavaliere.
The Jazz-Funk Jam Master: "Push Push" by Herbie Mann
Anyone who's heard some of The Allman Brothers Band's epic jams knows that Duane doesn't need a script to follow. Here he chases jazz flute giant Herbie Mann across a 10-minute track full of juicy, jazzy jamming.