Category Archives: Humanities

Laraine Newman

“We [the SNL cast] all bore witness to each other’s youth.”
– Laraine Newman

There had been improvisational and sketch comedy ensembles before Saturday Night Live (SNL) debuted in 1975, including the venerable Second City, Monty Python, the Goon Show, the Goodies, the Proposition, Firesign Theatre, and the Groundlings (from which sprang Laraine Newman), but none have had the longevity or wide-ranging cultural impact of SNL. What set SNL apart was the breadth and depth of the show’s on- and off-screen talents, combined with a determination to bring risky, youth-oriented “alternative comedy” to a mass audience. SNL is now entering its 43rd season, and the original cast – Newman, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, and Garrett Morris – have become the stuff of legend.

Newman had theater experience at an early age and studied mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau, but she notes that it was her work with the Groundlings that provided the best possible preparation for SNL, a show in which scripts were sometimes treated more as useful suggestions than as holy writ. However much the cast would occasionally stray from the prepared text, though, they appreciated the writers’ work; not surprising, considering that several cast members were established comedy writers themselves. As a performer Newman worked closely with the writers and fellow cast members in developing skits and signature characters.

Following her five-year stint on SNL Newman has maintained a busy film and television career in both leading and supporting roles, and is a prominent voice artist on television and in animated features. She’s also a writer and editor who regularly contributes to several online publications, including McSweeney’s, the Atlantic Online, and Huffington Post. When asked what advice she would offer to aspiring writers and performers, Newman’s response is succinct: “Read a book. Make a compendium. Do things differently.”

Watch Saturday Night Live’s Laraine Newman – Script to Screen

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Life After The Fall of Hussein

Join novelist Sinan Antoon and journalist Leila Fadel as they discuss the documentary, Life after the Fall, directed by Kasim Abid, which follows the daily life of a family in modern day Iraq after the fall of Sadam Hussein.

As one family member says, “After the fall, we would sit on our balcony and talk about the future of Iraq. We had high hopes… But in the end everything failed. We didn’t benefit at all. The country didn’t get better or rebuilt, it just got destroyed some more.”

According to Sinan Antoon, there are very few documentaries like this one where Iraqis get to speak about their feelings and desires for more than 30 seconds in American media. “It’s so rare that you actually get to see Iraqis who are not terrorists or extremists.”

As a journalist, Leila Fadel wanted to document what it was like to live and survive invasion occupation. “I told the stories of grave-diggers… I told the stories of pregnant women trying to have their babies without getting shot on roads after curfew… I told the story through marriages and divorces…”

Key to documenting the Iraqi experience is living outside the protected “green zone” and interviewing as many Iraqi people as possible. Says Antoon: “Iraqi’s are like other humans on the planet… are a spectrum, come from different classes, different backgrounds. And they don’t all have one of two opinions – either Saddam lovers or US lovers. It’s more complicated.”

Fadel agrees. “Sometimes when you’re a journalist abroad, they’ll say things like ‘what are people saying on the Arab street?’ — which doesn’t exist and nobody has one opinion and I don’t know where that street is.”

“Without hearing these stories of real people,” says Antoon, “it’s sometimes difficult for people to imagine Iraqis living full lives. So their destruction is not really registered as a loss.”

Watch Life After The Fall – Storytelling from Iraq

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Moms Mabley – Women in Comedy

“If you don’t want your children to know the truth about life don’t send ’em to the theater to see Moms, ’cause I’m gonna tell them THE TRUTH, hear?”
— Moms Mabley

Comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley became a familiar figure to television audiences in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1894, Mabley was a veteran of the segregated vaudeville “Chitlin’ Circuit” (aka Theater Owners Booking Association) who held a residency at Harlem’s Apollo Theater before breaking into the white mainstream in the early Sixties. She released more than a dozen albums, gave a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, and made numerous appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Tonight Show, Merv Griffin Show, and other popular programs of the day. Mabley developed her distinctive persona – a toothless, bedraggled woman in a faded house dress and rumpled hat – in the 1920’s and refined it throughout her career.

This sly persona was one of the factors that enabled Mabley to perform what we now call transgressive comedy – that is, comedy that addresses a range of taboo topics. In Mabley’s case these subjects included race, gender politics, and sexual orientation. It was risky enough for white comedians such as Lenny Bruce to feature such material; for a black woman and avowed lesbian to achieve mainstream success while doing so was nothing short of transformational. Like Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, and other cutting-edge African-American humorists of the time, Moms Mabley was less concerned with “translating” her material for the comfort of white audiences than with expressing essential truths. As she once told an audience, “I don’t know no jokes, but I do know some facts.”

Since her death in 1975 Moms Mabley has gradually receded in the cultural landscape, and her work is now all but forgotten by the general audience. In the episode of the “Women in Comedy” series devoted to Mabley, Bambi Haggins (Film & Media Studies, UC Irvine) makes the case for Mabley’s influence on her contemporaries and the generation of comedians that followed, while arguing that Mabley should not be forgotten though we’re three generations removed from her heyday. Haggins was a consultant for the HBO documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” and she shares Whoopi’s view that Mabley helped to pave the way for Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, Dave Chappelle, and others, including Whoopi herself. Further, Haggins maintains that many up and coming young comedians who perform socially-conscious material can trace their lineage back to Mabley, even though they may not be overtly aware of Mabley’s influence. In this role as a progenitor Mabley’s nickname, Moms, is an apt one.

Watch Moms Mabley with Bambi Haggins – Women in Comedy.

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The Bright Future for Video Gamers and Esports

Real competition.
Real professionals.
Real emotions.
Esports have come a long way from groups of friends playing video games in the living room. Digital sports now fill arenas and command huge TV ratings, with hundreds of thousands of people watching online. So, what does the future hold for the growing industry? Dave Stewart, the executive producer of Riot Games’ North American League of Legends Championship Series, predicts the audience is only going to get bigger. In a fascinating conversation, Stewart discusses what it takes to put on huge events, like the World Championships that drew thousands of fans to a stadium in China in 2017, and how he plans to keep breaking records. He looks at how producers are taking notes from traditional sports – following player storylines and focusing on the emotions of the competition.

Watch Esports and Gaming Futures

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Bearing Witness

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” – Elie Wiesel

Following Eva Clarke’s presentation, you may be forgiven for thinking the title “Against All Odds: Born In Mauthausen” is an understatement. Clarke was one of only three children (the “miracle babies”) born into captivity in the notorious KZ Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. As she relates it, the camp had run out of Zyklon shortly before her birth, or her mother surely would have died in the gas chamber. Nine days after her birth World War Two ended and the camp was liberated. Eva and her mother, Anka Bergman, were the only survivors of their extended family, other relatives having died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1948 they emigrated to the UK and settled in Cardiff, Wales. Anka lived into her nineties, old enough to know three great-grandchildren.

Since her age at the time precluded first-hand memories of the Holocaust, Clarke focuses instead on her family’s history in the years just prior to the war. She describes in detail the incremental process by which the Nazis disenfranchised, segregated, dehumanized, and ultimately exterminated Jews in Czechoslovakia, her mother’s homeland. Dozens of laws were enacted to marginalize Jews, each more draconian than the last, until finally they were categorized as “undesirables” and shipped en masse to one of over 40,000 camps and ghettoes established throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Clarke describes the rationalizations used by both their neighbors and by the affected Jews, including some of her relatives, to reassure themselves that “this isn’t so bad” and “it won’t get worse than this.” Sadly, they were wrong. As Clarke’s narrative attests, conditions in the camps – overcrowding, disease, starvation, arbitrary brutality, and profound despair – made them one of the most hostile man-made environments on the planet, and especially so for an 80-lb. pregnant woman. In this regard the “miracle” mentioned earlier is not so much that both Eva and Anka lived, but that anyone survived at all.

Eva Clarke cites four reasons for wanting to tell this story. The first is commemoration, to honor the memories of those millions who did not survive the Final Solution. The second is a desire to relate her family’s story, one that is unique but nevertheless representative of many others. The third is to enable her listeners to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. The final reason is to counteract any and all forms of racism and prejudice, a daunting task in view of the many genocides since World War Two – Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Myanmar, South Sudan, to name but a few – but one we must undertake if the Holocaust’s lessons are to have any broader meaning in the modern world.

Watch Against All Odds: Born in Mauthausen with Eva Clarke — Holocaust Living History Workshop — The Library Channel.

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