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A Token of Gratitude December 22, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, politics, pop culture.
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As if I didn’t already have enough reason to love Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld and the man responsible for the brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm), he’s now written a hilarious op-ed for The New York Times thanking Republicans for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The satire will probably be lost on most Republicans, but it perfectly encapsulates the absolute absurdity of the argument that those in this tax bracket would be in any way financially disadvantaged if the tax cuts had been allowed to expire.  It’s just another example of how the GOP has manipulated the dialogue to make the average middle-class American think it’s their patriotic duty to support an upper class that couldn’t give a shit about them.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt:

It’s also going to be a boon for my health. After years of coveting them, I’ll finally be able to afford blueberries. Did you know they have a lot of antioxidants, which prevent cancer? Cancer! This tax cut just might save my life. Who said Republicans don’t support health care? I’m going to have the blueberries with my cereal, and I’m not talking Special K. Those days are over. It’s nothing but real granola from now on. The kind you get in the plastic bins in health food stores. Did someone say “organic”?

Larry David: Thanks for the Tax Cut! (The New York Times; 12/20/10)

*****

Current listening:

Balthazar – Applause

Last movie seen:

From Within (2008; Phedon Papamichael, dir.)


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All We Make Is Entertainment December 21, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, movies.
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When it comes to movies, we’re conditioned to respect singularity. The pop culture landscape is cluttered with the names of directors who are credited as the sole voice, the lone vision, behind their films.  This gets hammered home through trailers, commercials, and opening credits, when movies are billed as “A (insert name here) Film” or “A Film by (insert name here”).  This often gets done without recourse to logic or reality, when even marginal talents who haven’t contributed anything of real consequence to cinema history, but who also don’t write or produce their own films, are granted an authorial credit.  I don’t particularly have anything against Jon Turteltaub, but I remember being especially peeved during the trailer for his recent film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when it was marketed as “A Jon Turteltaub Film,” as though that actually means anything to anyone.  (“The visionary behind National Treasure is directing a Disney flick marketed to kids?  Sign me up!”)

Sometimes, though, it’s earned.  In this country, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane stands as probably the most obvious example, with Welles as producer-writer-director-star of what is often considered to be the greatest movie of all time.  Woody Allen is another good example, taking a writer-director credit on all of the 42 features he’s directed, and starring in many of them, including undisputed classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Probably the most relevant contemporary example is writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose films clearly boast the man’s unique visual style and verbal gameplay. Even pulpier names like Kevin Smith and George A. Romero can lay legitimate claim to singular authorship.  As both writer and director of many of their movies, there’s no denying that the end products reflect their particular sensibilities.

More interesting to me, though, is the creative partnership.  Whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s brilliant work over several movies with Robert de Niro, Tim Burton’s partnership with composer Danny Elfman (13 films), or Christopher Guest’s unparalleled troupe of improvisational comedians, I’m drawn more to the work of people who clearly inspire one another and do their best work in each other’s company. I’m sort of fascinated by things like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s brilliant trifecta of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, or even how Judd Apatow has continually worked with certain actors over the course of his career.  Interpersonal dynamics, and the process by which artists complement each other, are, for whatever reason, much more compelling to me than the notion of one person taking primary responsibility for a work of art.  I’m not taking anything away from that accomplishment (when was the last time I wrote and directed a movie?); I just find it less interesting than, say, Bill Murray showing up in every one of Wes Anderson’s films.

My favorite partnership, though, is pictured at the top of this post.  Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – while not solely filmmakers – have done more to entertain me in the last seven years than anyone.  Their original UK version of The Office is one of the best shows of the decade, and I watch the whole thing at least once a year.  Their follow-up, Extras, doesn’t hit quite the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s every bit as entertaining and possesses some impressive emotional undercurrents  that sneak up on you when you don’t expect it.  And their podcast with Karl Pilkington is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.

I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais elsewhere on this site, so what I really want to do is take a few moments to talk about the underappreciated Merchant.  As good as Ricky is, it’s only in his collaborations with Stephen that he truly soars.  For instance, Gervais is a fine standup comedian, but his two American specials aren’t essential viewing in the way The Office or Extras are, and Ricky’s first directing credit without Stephen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying, is certainly sly and funny, but it’s also frustratingly uneven and dips significantly in an overlong final act.  While their individual strengths are obvious – Ricky is an expert at broad comedy, where Stephen seems to be subtler, quieter, and more self-deprecating – it isn’t clear exactly what role each man takes in their collaborations.  However their responsibilities are defined, it’s clear that Gervais’ best work is done with his frequent partner.

One of my favorite things about Extras is that it allowed Merchant to introduce the character of Darren Lamb, the well-meaning but completely incompetent agent to Gervais’ character, Andy Millman.  Their scenes together transcend typical TV comedy because their interactions are based 100% in character; there’s never a sense that the comedy comes in favor of jokes at the expense of who these two men really are.  And, more importantly, each of their scenes is tinged slightly by sadness and frustration, giving the show surprising emotional heft.  Darren really wants to do well, but he lacks the necessary something (responsibility? mental acuity? common sense?) to get the job done.  Even so, there’s always the sense that the shallow and indecisive Andy doesn’t deserve someone as loyal as Darren, even though the agent is clearly not helping Andy’s career.  It’s a virtuoso tightrope act, where the viewer’s allegiances can shift within a scene, from wishing Darren would finally do something right for a change, to wishing Andy would take it easy on a guy who’s clearly trying his hardest.  I think this dynamic is mainly a credit to Merchant, who could easily play Darren as a dolt.  Instead, he comes off as a good-natured and fiercely loyal scatterbrain, whose best will just never be good enough.

What follows is a montage of some of the best of Darren’s bits with Andy.  I don’t know how well these brief excerpts will translate to someone who doesn’t know the show, so I’ve also included a longer scene, which is one of my favorites.

These scenes serve as a compelling testament to the quality of Gervais and Merchant’s partnership, but they also prove that Merchant is crucial to their joint endeavors.  In this way, Merchant looks to be Brian Eno to Gervais’ David Bowie: Gervais is capable of quality stuff on his own, but it’s only with the right collaborator that he achieves greatness.

*****

Current listening:

Duran Duran – All You Need Is Now (2010)

Last movie seen:

The Alphabet Killer (2008; Rob Schmidt, dir.)

Friday Funny (12/10/10) December 10, 2010

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I’ve had tickets for nearly four months, but tomorrow is finally – finally! – the night to see Louis CK.  I hesitate to use terms like “favorite standup comedian ever” (too hyperbolic by far), but he’s damn close.  Here’s one of my favorite bits.  Enjoy.

*****

Current listening:

Big Troubles – Worry (2010)

A More Perfect Union April 23, 2010

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Despite my general disdain for James Cameron’s Titanic, I’ve always been a huge fan of Kate Winslet.  In fact, she could star in a half dozen sequels to Titanic, and I’d still come down firmly on her side just for her portrayal of Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s to her immense credit that, post-Titanic, she didn’t snatch up every big paycheck that came down the line at the expense of her artistic integrity.  Instead, she’s stuck mainly to her indie roots, with only the Nancy Meyers-directed comedy The Holiday her only true foray into Hollywood convention (and even that one’s a little perverse by trying to pass off Jack Black as a romantic leading man).  Her other projects have all been stubbornly independent: Quills, Little Children, Holy Smoke – even movies like Finding Neverland and Revolutionary Road, despite their prestige and big-name casts, haven’t been terribly mainstream.

And then there’s her appearance on Ricky Gervais’ brilliant Office follow-up, Extras. For those who don’t know the plot, Extras focuses on a pair of the titular background actors, Andy Millman (played by Gervais) and Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen).  The show isn’t quite as uncomfortable as The Office, but it still explores some of the same territory, as the harmlessly self-centered Andy and the hapless Maggie try to get a line or two while on the set of their latest movie, usually to humiliating effect.  The beauty of the show, however, is due to its celebrity cameos.  David Bowie, Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Daniel Radcliffe, and others show up in various episodes and poke vicious fun at their public personas.

And that’s where Kate Winslet comes in.  In the series’ very first episode, Andy and Maggie are extras on the set of a Holocaust-themed movie.  Andy plays a German soldier, Maggie plays a Jewish refugee, and Winslet plays herself playing a nun who hides the Jews in a church.  In one of the episode’s subplots, Maggie reveals she has a new boyfriend who likes to talk dirty on the phone, but Maggie doesn’t know how to respond.  In a feat of comic derring-do, Winslet shows up to give her lessons.

(The following video of the first ten minutes of the episode is very funny, but if you only want to watch the shorter clip in question, watch from 5:00 to 7:20.)

Then, toward the end of the episode, Winslet checks in with Andy and Maggie to see how the phone call went.

Winslet’s performance is great for a variety of reasons, but for me the pleasure comes from seeing an actress often known for playing straight-laced characters in period movies (Sense and Sensibility, Quills, Finding Neverland, Jude) give lessons on masturbatory dirty talk.  And of course there’s an extra layer of subversion as she does it in a nun’s habit.  Winslet has shown hints of comic flair before, but her work here is so terrific (some of which admittedly has to be credited to Gervais, who has a knack for making everyone shine) that I wish she’d take the plunge and do a full-fledged comedy.  Stick her in Judd Apatow’s next movie, or let her star in something with, say, Zach Galifianakis or Paul Rudd or Steve Carell.  I’d be first in line.

*****

Current listening:

Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away (2010)

Last movie seen:

The Crow (1994; Alex Proyas, dir.)

Stiller Saturday April 17, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, TV.
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The Ben Stiller Show is one of the great lost TV shows of the 90’s.  Not only did it feature, over the course of thirteen stellar episodes, razor-sharp parodies of popular culture, it launched the careers of a handful of our best comedians.  Besides Stiller himself, Judd Apatow was a producer and writer, the three cast members consisted of Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, and Janeane Garofalo, and David Cross joined the writing staff late in the series’ run, and appeared as a cast member in a few episodes.  Along with The State and The Kids in the Hall (and eventually Cross and Odenkirk’s own Mr. Show), The Ben Stiller Show was certainly one of the very best sketch shows of the last 25 years, and in its best moments, it’s top-notch television, bar none.

The two sketches below were written by Cross.  The first is probably my favorite sketch in the series’ run, called “The Legend of T.J. O’Pootertoot,” and the second is a sly parody of Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men (featuring Andy Dick’s killer impersonation of Keifer Sutherland).

And, what the hell, here’s one more.  It’s called “Legends of Springsteen.”  Enjoy.

Intermission January 6, 2010

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Not to get into the habit of posting a video from The Daily Show on a regular basis, but on last night’s show, Jon Stewart and Aasif Manvi had a terrific conversation about the supposed persecution of Christians.  It’s a nice little follow-up to my recent columns about Brit Hume’s attempted religious conversion of Tiger Woods.  The entire video is worth a watch (hell, it’s only 4:40), but if you’re crunched for time, fast-forward to 2:35 for the key bit.

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How and Why Our Dads Lost the War January 5, 2010

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As usual, the Daily Show hits it out of the park.  In last night’s episode, Jon Stewart said everything I was trying to say in last night’s post … only, you know, funnier and more intelligently.  Fast-forward to 6:10 to hear more about one thing I only touched on briefly in my own post: the right-wing’s hypocritical attacks on Obama, which conveniently manage to forget everything they said in the last eight years regarding terrorism.Vodpod videos no longer available.

Song of the Day (12/1/09: Standup Comedy Edition) December 1, 2009

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So tonight I had on the Comedians of Comedy documentary as background noise while I did some work, and gradually found myself doing more watching and less work.  As this horrific slide toward sedentary oblivion progressed unabated, I had the pleasure of discovering again just how freaking funny Maria Bamford is.  She gets a little overshadowed by Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn, but her comedy is so bizarre that it’s a shame more people don’t know about her.  Here are a few clips from her Comedy Central specials that do a pretty good job of capturing what she does.

“Anxiety”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

“Office Enemy”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

“Impressions”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

“Cults”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Can’t Help but Smiling November 5, 2009

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montypython

Monty Python will always be one of our most significant cultural dividers.  There’s really no waffling when it comes to what I consider to be the greatest collection of comedians of all time (just so there’s no question about which side of the divide I rest on).  You either love them fervently, slavishly, and absolutely, or you can’t figure out just what the hell everyone finds so funny.  If there’s a middle ground – slight, though it is – it might be the people who find Monty Python & the Holy Grail quite amusing, thank you very much, but who don’t have much time for the rest of their expansive output.

Fittingly, it’s with Holy Grail that I became a fan.  When I was a high school sophomore, a couple of my older friends were huge devotees of Python, and because I was a spineless little weasel, all I wanted was to be in on the joke.  One Friday night I went to the video store (I don’t think it was Blockbuster yet; it might have still been Video Towne), rented a copy of Holy Grail, and my comedy horizons were broadened forever.

It really was like nothing I’d ever seen: broad visual jokes (horsemen with coconuts), physical comedy that verges on slapstick (the battle with the Black Knight), bizarre arcana (“A five-ounce bird could not carry a one-pound coconut!”), unapologetic intelligence (“We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune!”), and a proliferation of non sequiturs that shouldn’t have worked but did.

I still didn’t know who everyone was, so it wasn’t until much later that I realized John Cleese played Lancelot and Tim and the Black Knight and one of the French guards.  And the jokes came so fast and furious that I vividly remember the movie coming to an end, immediately rewinding it, and starting it a second time.  It just blew me away.

And so began what has become a life-long love affair with all things Python.  As funny as Holy Grail is, I actually think The Life of Brian is a better movie – smarter and more sophisticated, to be sure, and a more comfortable mix of their verbal and physical comedy.

And I think – although I’m not positive – that this was the first example of satire I’d ever seen.  I didn’t then have the knowledge base that I have now, but even as a 16-year-old, I got what they were saying about the dangers of organized religion, and the peril of following a false prophet – as well as the importance of verb conjugation.

But the real joy for me has always been their BBC program, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Later sketch shows have done a good job of extending the Pythons’ humor, but there’s still really nothing that’s been able to match the dizzying display of comedy in an average episode of Flying Circus. The impact of their show has been somewhat diluted in the last forty years, but try looking at some other comedies during the late 60’s.  Everything had a punchline, and movies would end with a go-cart race or a pie fight.  The Pythons exploded all that – no punchlines, a slow pace when it was necessary, and an internal logic that you either accepted or you didn’t.

To try and post all the sketches that made a mark on me would take all day.  There are a few more here, which I put up a week ago in celebration of John Cleese’s birthday.  What I’ll leave you with instead is an anecdote I heard recently on the Independent Film Channel’s Python documentary, Almost the Truth, which I think perfectly captures the beauty of Monty Python.  In it, a comedian of Indian descent (I forget his name, sorry) recounted what it was like to be the first generation of his family to grow up in England.  He was gradually becoming more “English,” and as a result, the cultural gulf between him and his more traditional Indian parents was growing rapidly.  He hung out with British kids, listened to popular music, and fell in love with movies, and especially with Monty Python.  His mother, he says, could never understand it.  Something just didn’t translate.  Until the day she saw the fish-slapping dance.

That was the one and only time, he says, when he saw his mother laugh at Monty Python, and that moment forged a rare connection between mother and son.  There’s something about the fish-slapping dance that transcends culture and age to speak to all of us.  Funny stuff.

*****

Current listening:

Mark klamath

Mark Eitzel – Klamath

Happy Birthday October 27, 2009

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Everyone lift a glass or have a slice of cake in honor of John Cleese’s 70th birthday.

All the Negatives Have Been Destroyed October 18, 2009

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davidcross

Even though there are standup comedians I like better, David Cross is probably the one I’ve gravitated to most over the last ten years (along with Patton Oswalt, which will be a post for another time).  I know it can be a mistake not to separate stage persona from “real life” personality, but I’ve always felt largely in sync with Cross, from his style of humor to his love of left-field music to his views on politics and religion.  His work on Mr. Show and Arrested Development is suitable for a comedy time capsule, and his two standup CD’s, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! and It’s Not Funny still get frequent play on my iPod (the former, especially, was in constant rotation for about six months after its release).  His standup is visceral and biting, and large chunks of it appear to be improvised, lending it a sense of playful unpredictably.  So, for all these reasons, I was really looking forward to seeing him last night at the Tabernacle in Atlanta.

Things started out auspiciously enough.  In fact, he was rolling through his early material, about the ridiculousness of airlines still announcing that they’re nonsmoking, years after banning smoking from all flights (“This flight is also non-slavery.  We would also like you to know that the Earth rotates around the sun, so sayeth Galieo”) and the pernicious effect years of drinking and drug use have had on his digestive system (“When I shit, it sounds like a junior high school orchestra warming up”).

Things hit a snag 40 minutes in, when a heckler from the balcony – apropos of nothing Cross was actually talking about at the time – starting giving him shit about doing a book signing at Barnes & Noble, instead of “an indepndent book store.”  Instead of ignoring the heckler, Cross stood still for a moment then, incredulous, said, “Wow.  You’re furious about this, aren’t you?”  He launched into a short explanation about how tours work and having contracts with various booksellers and wanting to get his book out to the most people, “and also, fuck you.”  The heckler yelled something else about the band Dinosaur Jr. playing an in-store at a local record store that day and Cross, flashing his music nerd chops, replied, “Oh, that must be Lou Barlow up there.” (Sidenote for those with a life: Barlow left Dinosaur Jr. acrimoniously a long time ago and only reunited with the band recently.)

Cross got back on track after that, continuing with material about the current political contentiousness, the fraud of Mormonism, and a beautiful bit about SkyMall that ended with him on the floor, humping his SkyMall-endorsed Time Mug™.  But now, whether emboldened by the previous heckler or just drunk, Cross was interrupted more and more frequently during the show.  He was able to brush these off, but when he was interrupted repeatedly in the quiet build-up to his closing bit (see Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves & Lollipops album for his treatise on how good comedy bits “start soft and then get loud, like a Pixies song”), a visibly angry Cross gave up. “I just can’t do this.  We’re taping the show in Boston, so you’ll just have to watch it on the DVD and then you’ll understand.”  He continued, “When I was looking at the map of where we’re playing on this tour, I never would have guessed Atlanta would be the shitty audience.  I thought for sure this was going to be a great show.”  He eventually did the bit – and it was funny – but he’d lost his momentum.  He stood there for a moment, looking off into the wings, and then finally said, “So now I don’t know how to end this.”  Another moment of silence.  “Goodnight.”  And he walked off.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Cross.  From my time doing improv, I know what it’s like to deal with drunks and hecklers, and watching him get angrier and angrier, yet still trying to carry on with his show, just made me respect him more.  The really sad thing is that a vast majority of the  crowd was on his side.  During the debacle of the closing bit there was an increasing amount of push-back toward the hecklers with people yelling at them be quiet.  This, of course, only made things worse.  But, as he said when he came back onstage for a brief bow, it only takes a handful of people to ruin a show.

And, you know, this is something that’s always frustrated me about hecklers and people who talk too loudly during live performances (which reminds me of the two guys sitting next to me at Lewis Black a couple years ago who just carried on a conversation through the whole show) and people who shout song requests at bands and people who won’t shut up during movies: Why is everything always about you?  When you’re in an audience with hundreds (or thousands) of other people, why this bizarre selfishness that allows you to believe your needs take precedence over everyone else’s?  And, better yet, why spend the money to go to a show if you’re just going to impose your retardery on the proceedings?  For the people at the show last night, was it worth it to spend $40 just to yell “Woooooooo!” every time Cross mentioned drinking?  When you’re seeing a band and it’s between songs, will your experience really improve if you interrupt the frontman by screaming out the name of an obscure b-side they haven’t played live in 15 years?  And if you’re just going to talk through an entire movie, wouldn’t it be cheaper just to wait to see it on DVD?  The increasing selfishness and solipsism of Americans is something I’ve become increasingly interested in and concerned with over the last few years, and I had no idea I’d get a good example of it at last night’s show.

Cross deserved better, and I only hope this experience doesn’t sour him from returning to Atlanta in the future.

*****

Current listening:

British man

British Sea Power – Man of Aran

Non-Song of the Day (10/17/09: Mr. Show Edition) October 17, 2009

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In honor of my imminent trip to see David Cross (and continuing the comedy thread from today’s earlier post), here’s a few of my favorite sketches from Mr. Show With Bob and David.  If you’ve never seen this groundbreaking HBO series starring Cross and Bob Odenkirk (and acting as a veritable incubator of comedic talent, launching the careers of Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Brian Posehn, and Tom Kenny [the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, for the uninitiated]), you’d better get while the getting’s good.

“Titannica”

“The Audition”

“Blowing Up the Moon”

After the Laughter October 17, 2009

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Sarah

Historically, I’ve always been resistant to Sarah Silverman.  Ambivalent is probably a better word.  I find an awful lot of her stuff to be groundbreaking and hilarious, and I admire anyone who is so adept at pushing people’s buttons.  At the same time, some of her standup seems so calculated to be offensive that it stops reading as humor and enters the realm of those Truly Tasteless Jokes collections that I used to devour when I was, you know, twelve.  It’s probably just personal taste, and while I’m not offended by it myself, that calculation – the desire to offend at the expense of humor – has always kept me from embracing her in the way I’ve embraced some of my other favorite comedians.  My resistance to her reminds me of the way I roll my eyes at some of Bill Hicks’ stuff.  I love him to death and admire so much of what he did, but there are other moments when I want to tell him to just put a sock in it.

Anyway, Sarah’s appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher last week went a long way toward cementing her reputation as one of the country’s greatest comedians, and eliminating any previous hesitation I had in admiring her comedy.  I was going to show this video last week, but then my computer went kerblooey, so I figured I’d missed my window.  But now that the predictably humorless Catholic League has issued an official statement condemning the video, I figure it’s still got some relevance.  Apologies if you’ve seen it before, and if you’re a sensitive soul, be warned that it’s got a smattering of potty language.

This is the kind of thing that I think she’s been leading up to, where her humor starts to enter the realm of social satire and really takes off. (To be fair, she’s already started exploring this angle in the first season of the excellent The Sarah Silverman Program.)  I’m excited to see where she goes with this next.

On a sort-of related note, I came across this site while doing a cursory search about Silverman.  Apparently it’s an anti-Jew site (hosted on WordPress, no less), and the gist of the page linked above is how Silverman is a Jewish heathen who will surely burn in hell for her comedy.  Or, in their words:

After viewing Silverman’s skits on JewTube, I’ve concluded that there’s some substance to the aforementioned allegation that she’s a cot case or just simply clinically not sane. One thing is for sure, Sarah Silverman is a very wicked woman who has run up a very heavy debt with Almighty God; and she’s certainly a singular exemplification of the Jew whore who rides the beast in the biblical book of the Revelation.

What can you possibly say in response to that kind of delusional hatred?  When does “love thy neighbor” enter into the equation?  It’s so far beyond the pale that it reads like a particularly inspired sketch from Mr. Show. The rest of the site is just as bizarre and troubling, with links to posts titled “Why the Jews Are Your Worst Enemy,” “Jews Invented and Foster Communism,” and “Register of Sexually Depraved Rabbis.”  The site also features a photo of a smoking World Trade Center with the headline, “Jews Mini-Nuke the Twin Towers.”  If this were a satire of the ultra-crazies on the Right it would be one of the most brilliant things ever created, but unfortunately it’s real (and for an extra jolt of paranoid rambling, read some of the user comments).

As an ardent supporter of free speech and the First Amendment I know I have to allow for this kind of thing.  But I wish I didn’t.

****

Current listening:

Women s-t

Women – Self-titled