Review: ‘How It Ends’ (2021), starring Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny

July 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

“How It Ends” (2021)

Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “How It Ends” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Hours before an impending apocalypse, a woman in her 30s sees a physical manifestation of her 15-year-old self, and together they visit people they know to say their goodbyes in case they don’t survive the apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “How It Ends” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “mumblecore” comedies that are self-consciously quirky in a way that will annoy some viewers.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

The smugly oddball “How It Ends” looks and sounds like it could have been a pilot episode for a mumblecore sitcom rather than a compelling cinematic experience. In this time-wasting apocalyptic comedy, the end of the world is depicted as Los Angeles hipsters and weirdos acting as annoying as possible and thinking that they’re hilarious. You can see that on Hollywood Boulevard for free. You don’t need to pay money to see that in a movie as dull as this one.

Husband-and-wife duo Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein wrote and directed “How It Ends,” and it looks exactly like what it is: A movie that was rushed into production during the pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic, just so the filmmakers could brag about how they braved the pandemic to make this movie. Unfortunately, not enough time seems to have been spent on developing an interesting story for this repetitive and mostly empty-headed film.

“How It Ends” takes place in Los Angeles, just hours before an apocalypse is supposed to destroy the world. It’s never explained how people know the exact hour that this apocalypse is going to hit. But the characters in this movie are just way too calm about it, and they go about their lives as if it’s just another sunny day in California.

At least half of this movie just shows the two main characters walking from house to house, as they say goodbye to friends and assorted loved ones before the end of the world happens. Expect to see repetitive shots of people sauntering down a street as if they’re just out for a pleasant stroll before the apocalypse. And everyone they talk to just happens to be “quirky.”

The two main characters in the story are supposed to be the same person at different stages in her life. The movie opens with protagonist Liza (played by Lister-Jones), who’s in her 30s and with an unknown occupation, in her home on the morning before the apocalypse. There’s a teenage girl (played by Cailee Spaeny) jumping up and down on Liza’s bed.

Liza checks her voice messages and finds out that her friend Mandy (played by Whitney Cummings) has invited Liza to an end-of-the-world party happening that night. Liza tells the teenage girl, “Tonight, I want to get really fucking high and eat ’til I puke.” The girl in Liza’s house replies, “I can list so many problems with that idea. The first is: You’re out of weed.”

Who is this girl? Liza finds out this other person in her home is her 15-year-old self. Liza might want to roll on Ecstasy to get high, but the only thing rolling during this movie will be viewers’ eyes at the self-consciously twee absurdity of it all. Guess who’s hanging out with Liza for the whole movie? Young Liza, who’s somehow wiser and more emotionally intuitive than the older Liza.

It’s explained in the movie that Young Liza can only be seen on the last day before the apocalypse happens. And based on the advice that Young Liza gives her older self, Young Liza is supposed to embody hindsight. Young Liza also doesn’t have the emotional baggage that older Liza has, so she’s able to see things more clearly when it comes to unresolved issues in older Liza’s life.

Before Liza and her younger self go to the party, they decide to visit a series of people to say their final goodbyes. A lot of these half-baked scenes (many of them look improvised) are just filler. There are long stretches of the movie where it’s nothing but Liza and her younger self walking from place to place and encountering goofy, strange and usually very irritating people.

Wait, doesn’t everyone drive in Los Angeles if they can afford it? The movie comes up with a reason for why Liza and her teenage mini-me end up walking everywhere for more than half the movie: Liza’s car has been stolen. It’s the end of the world, so there’s no point in reporting the theft to the police. Will Liza get her car back though? That question is answered in the movie.

Most of the people whom Liza and her young self visit are the type of characters you would expect in a low-budget indie flick where the filmmakers think that it’s automatically supposed to be funny to see adults acting like immature kooks. There are the wacky neighbors in different homes, such as Derek (played by Bobby Lee), who’s a babbling stoner; Manny (played by Fred Armisen), a forgetful eccentric; and anxious Dave (played by Paul Scheer), who gets yelled at by another neighbor for not washing his recycling container.

And then there are a few people randomly performing in the middle of the street or on a sidewalk in this residential area, including a nameless stand-up comedian (played by Ayo Edebiri), who’s actually one of the few highlights of the film. Real-life singer Sharon Van Etten shows up toward the end of the film as a folksy singer named Jet, who plays acoustic guitar in the street to an enthralled audience of two: Liza and her younger self.

“How It Ends” desperately wants to be a uniquely modern film, but it uses the oldest and most cliché trope in a comedy starring a woman: She’s pining over a man because she wants him to be her romantic partner. In Liza’s case, “the one who got away” is Nate (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a former hookup whom she has deeper feelings for than she was willing to admit when he was in her life and when she emotionally pushed him away. Liza regrets shutting Nate out of her life, and she wants to see Nate again so she can tell him that she loves him before the end of the world happens.

Liza also has some unfinished business with her divorced parents Kenny (played by Bradley Whitford) and Lucinda (played by Helen Hunt), as well as her ex-boyfriend Larry (played by Lamorne Morris), who cheated on her when they were together. Liza visits all of them during this movie to tell them how she really feels. Viewers find out that she has major abandonment issues and has had a problem communicating her true feelings to the people who are closest to her.

But the best and funniest encounter that Liza has is with an estranged friend named Alay (played by Olivia Wilde), who’s just as neurotic as Liza is. Liza and Alay have a rapid-fire conversation where they talk over each other about what went wrong in their friendship (they fell out because Alay didn’t approve of Larry), and they call a truce—because of, you know, the apocalypse.

Alay eats a very decadent-looking cake during this conversation and says she’s a psychic. What does she see in Liza’s afterlife future? Alay says, “Timothée Chalamet and lots of dairy with no consequences.” Sounds like heaven for a lot of people.

If only “How It Ends” had more of this type of laugh-out-loud comedic scene with Wilde and Lister-Jones, because they have such natural and appealing chemistry with each other. Maybe they can co-star in another movie someday. Hopefully, it would have a better screenplay and more exciting direction than what’s in “How It Ends.”

But for every scene like the rip-roaring one with Wilde, there are five or six more scenes in “How It Ends” that are just so tedious and downright cringeworthy. For example, when Liza goes to her ex-boyfriend Larry’s home, it’s a retro ripoff with derivative ideas: She holds up a boombox (just like John Cusack famously did in the 1989 movie “Say Anything”), and then she quotes the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “You Oughta Know.”

And there’s some self-pitying drivel, such as when Liza and her younger self have an argument with each other. Liza wants to ditch her younger self and continue on her own, because she thinks Young Liza doesn’t count as her real self. Young Liza shouts, “I do count! All your life, you’ve been licking your fucking wounds, when I’m the biggest wound of all!” Oh, boo hoo. Did anyone bring any tissues?

Lister-Jones and Spaeny previously worked together in the disappointing 2020 horror film “The Craft: Legacy,” which was written and directed by Lister-Jones and starred Spaeny as a teenage witch who joins a coven of other teen witches. The chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny in “How It Ends” is more like older sister/younger sister as two different people, rather than entirely convincing as two versions of the same person. One of the takeaways from the movie is that Liza looks physically older than her younger self, but she hasn’t emotionally matured very much since she was a teenager.

Spaeny makes some attempt to mimic certain mannerisms that older Liza would have had in her teen years. And there are times that Liza and her younger self do things in snyc when they’re walking down the street. However, the movie looks like it was filmed so quickly that Spaeny and Lister-Jones didn’t have enough time to do work on body language and speech patterns that are more subtle and nuanced.

“How It Ends” is not so off-putting that it won’t find its share of people who will love this movie. There’s a very specific type of viewer who automatically thinks any movie that reeks of being self-congratulatory “quirky” is something that’s worth admiring. But for people who prefer their comedies to actually be funny and have a significant plot, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because “How It Ends” comes up very short in these elements and is mostly just a series of poorly conceived vignettes.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “How It Ends” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Hero Mode,’ starring Chris Carpenter, Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin and Indiana Massara

June 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chris Carpenter and Philip Solomon in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Hero Mode”

Directed by A.J. Tesler

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Hero Mode” features a predominantly white cast of a characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old computer whiz thinks he can save his mother’s video game company from financial ruin by developing a computer video game that he expects to be a hit, but he experiences skepticism and obstacles from some adults.

Culture Audience: “Hero Mode” will appeal primarily to people who like lightweight and predictable family comedies and don’t mind if the jokes and some of the acting are substandard.

Pictured in front row: Sean Astin, Monte Markham, Philip Solomon, Kimia Behpoornia, Mira Sorvino and Mary Lynn Rajskub in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

The family film “Hero Mode” is stuck in one mode: low-quality. This poorly written, predictable movie about a computer gaming whiz has an uneven tone that stumbles back and forth, from cringeworthy comedy to sappy melodrama. Even though some of the cast members seem to be trying very hard to do their best to bring some charisma, it’s not enough to save this amateurish movie. The film’s protagonist is supposed to be wildly imaginative. It’s too bad this movie isn’t.

Directed by A.J. Tesler and written by Jeff Carpenter, “Hero Mode” starts off looking like it’s going to have a madcap pace throughout the entire film. The characters trade fast-talking one-liners. The camera and the editing move quickly from scene to scene, as if “Hero Mode” is a movie for people with a short attention span.

But somewhere in the middle of this movie (which is supposed to be a comedy), the pace slows down considerably so that it resembles a run-of-the-mill, teen-oriented drama. It’s almost as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide on which pace to have for “Hero Mode”: hyper or regular. And the end result is a movie in search of a clear identity and competent direction.

The plot of “Hero Mode” tells viewers from the beginning that this movie requires a lot of suspension of disbelief: A 16-year-old boy, who’s described as having “genius-level” computer skills, is supposed to come up with a computer video game in 30 days that will save his mother’s computer game company from going out of business. And he doesn’t just have to develop the game for beta testing. It has to be ready to market and sell at an upcoming video game convention.

People who’ve seen enough of these formulaic movies know exactly how these movies are going to end. And so, that leaves the writing, acting and directing to deliver something clever to outweigh the tedium of having an unsurprising story. Unfortunately, “Hero Mode” comes up short on almost every level. “Hero Mode” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, also has a lot of outdated jokes that might have worked in the 1990s, but not now.

This is one of those movies that exists because two parents—”Hero Mode” screenwriter Jeff Carpenter and his wife Mary Carpenter, one of the “Hero Mode” producers—made this film so that their son could star in it. It literally says so in the “Hero Mode” production notes: “They [Jeff and Mary Carpenter] knew from the beginning that 16-year-old Chris Carpenter (who had been acting in film and theater since he was 10) would play the teenage coding genius, Troy Mayfield.”

Troy Mayfield (played by Chris Carpenter) is an only child who lives with his widowed mother Kate Mayfield (played by Mira Sorvino), who is struggling to keep her independent video game company Playfield Games in business. Kate is the CEO of Playfield Games, a company that she co-founded with her husband/Troy’s father, who died when Troy was a very young child. The cause of death isn’t revealed in the movie, but there are repeated mentions that Troy’s father was a computer genius and that Troy seems to have inherited his father’s extraordinary talent with computer technology.

Troy is a typical male computer nerd in movies like this one: He’s socially awkward around girls and he doesn’t have many friends. His closest pal is Nick Williams (played by Philip Solomon), an outgoing fellow student who sometimes has a mischievous side. Nick (who seems to be an aspiring director) loves to use his phone to make videos and to upload the videos on social media.

In “Hero Mode,” an upcoming annual video game convention called Pixel Con is the most important consumer convention for the video game industry. New products are introduced at Pixel Con that can make or break a company’s profits. In an early scene in the movie, Troy and Nick talk excitedly about going to Pixel Con. Nick wants to go so he can meet girls, while Troy has a different motivation: “Nick, you know it’s not about the girls. It’s about making one great game and showing it off at Pixel Con.”

And the stakes are high for Playfield Games for this year’s Pixel Con, because the company is on the verge of financial ruin. Unbeknownst to most Playfield Games employees and Troy, the company will soon run out of operational cash. However, there’s a possibility that an angel investor can save the company. Kate is throwing an upcoming party for this investor at her house, with the company’s employees in attendance.

In the movie’s early scenes, which take place at Troy and Nick’s high school, there’s a lot of goofy comedy that eventually fades in the middle of the movie, only to pop back up again toward the end. In his 10th grade computer class, Troy is bored and frustrated because the teacher Mr. Diehl (played by Erik Griffin) is way behind the times. The class is coding a video game that looks like a primitive Pong game from the 1980s.

Suddenly, the school vice-principal, whose last name is Goodson (played by Bobby Lee), shows up in the classroom to talk to Mr. Diehl. Vice-Principal Goodson seems stressed-out about something, because he has an angry outburst at the students. Goodson then quietly mutters to Mr. Diehl that his wife has just left him.

Since Troy is a star student in the computer class, Goodson takes Troy aside. “Troy, I can honestly smell the hormones pouring out of you, and it’s nauseating,” Goodson quips. What Goodson really wants to tell Troy is that because Troy was so helpful in tutoring students in computer science, the school’s test scores went up significantly. As a reward, the school district gave the school 15 new computers.

But there’s a problem: The higher scores were too good to be true. Goodson knows it and asks Troy if he manipulated computer records to alter the scores so that they would be higher than they actually were. Troy essentially admits it, so he’s suspended from school.

Troy’s mother Kate is upset by this news, but she’s got a bigger problem to worry about: Getting the angel investor to sign the contract that will get Playfield Games out of the company’s financial hole. The investor is an elderly man named Bruce, who’s actually computer illiterate, but he wants to invest in Playfield Games because he thinks it will make him look cool to be in the video game industry.

At the house party, Playfield Games’ over-confident lead designer Jimmy (played by Sean Astin) gives Bruce a flash drive that has the beta test of a video game that will be Playfield’s next big product launch. The game is called Jack House. It’s a very 1980s-styled, boring game about a Super Mario type of carpenter character called Jack that likes to jackhammer houses. Jimmy is very proud of this game, but he’s very clueless about how badly outdated the game is. Jimmy thinks Jack House is going to be a big hit.

Because Bruce doesn’t even know how to use a flash drive, Bruce asks Troy to show him what’s on the flash drive. And so, Troy and Bruce (with Troy’s sidekick Nick also in the room) use Troy’s computer to look at this test version of Jack House. Bruce doesn’t mention that what Troy will be looking at is the game that Playfield is counting on to bring the company out of its financial dire straits.

Troy finds several mistakes (or “bugs”) in the game, and he says the game is hopelessly dumb and outdated. This negative review completely turns off Bruce from investing in Playfield. Bruce makes a hasty exit from the party without even saying goodbye. And when Kate finds out why Bruce ditched the party and changed his mind about investing in the company, Troy gets in even more trouble with his mother.

Kate goes to a bank and is told by loan manager Larry Lopes (played by Al Madrigal) that they won’t give her any more money. Out of desperation, Kate secretly meets with a corporate executive named Rick (played by Nelson Franklin), who’s the head of a larger rival company called Xodus. Kate knows that Xodous has been interested in buying Playfield Games, and she tells Rick that she’s now willing to consider selling Playfield to Xodus. It still doesn’t solve the problem of how Playfield Games can come up with a better game than Jack House.

But wait. There would be no “Hero Mode” movie if Troy was really punished. Somehow, he convinces his mother that he can come up with an even better game than Jack House, just in time to introduce this new game at Pixel Con, which is happening in 30 days. And since Troy has been suspended from school, he convinces a reluctant Kate to let him work in the Playfield Games office to get this project done by this unrealistic deadline.

Troy had been constantly begging his mother to work at Playfield, but she refused before because she thinks he’s not old enough. Later in the movie, she tells Troy: “You and your dad share the same gift, but he did not have a normal childhood. We both swore to each other that you would.” But desperate times sometimes lead to desperate decisions. And so, Kate agrees to give Troy a chance to prove that he’s the computer genius that he thinks he is.

Jimmy is extremely annoyed that this kid thinks he can outshine Jimmy in a job that Jimmy’s been doing longer than Troy has been alive. Welcome to nepotism, Jimmy. The other Playfield Games employees are also skeptical about working with an underage teenager, but they have no choice because he’s their boss’ child. These other employees aren’t as hostile to Troy as Jimmy is, but they aren’t exactly completely welcoming to Troy either.

The other Playfield staffers who are also on the project of making Troy’s video game a reality are chief financial officer Lyndon (played by Monte Markham), who is the most easygoing and practical of the group; technical lead Laura (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub), who is often uptight and grouchy; and senior story editor Marie (played by Kimia Behpoornia), who is artistically creative but a very nervous type of person. Lyndon is the only person at the company, other than Kate, who knows about Playfield’s financial problems.

Of course, a cliché movie like “Hero Mode” has to have a love interest for the nerdy protagonist, who stereotypically falls for someone he thinks is “out of his league.” The love interest is Lyndon’s granddaughter Paige (played by Indiana Massara), who’s about the same age as Troy. Paige and Troy meet one day at the Playfield Games office because Paige goes there after school to visit her grandfather and to do homework. According to Paige, she’s temporarily living with her grandfather Troy because her parents are having marriage problems and her parents are trying to “work things out.”

It’s attraction at first sight for Troy, who now has an added incentive to come up with the next big video game that can save Playfield Games: He wants to impress Paige. By the way, Paige is an aspiring singer, so viewers can easily predict how that’s written into the movie. The original songs in “Hero Mode” are very mediocre and forgettable.

The idea that Troy comes up with for the would-be blockbuster video game is called Yort, which is is essentially a cheap “Lord of the Rings” ripoff, but Troy has named the video game after himself. (Yort isTroy spelled backwards.) Troy has all these complex world-building ideas that couldn’t reasonably be developed for a video game in less than a month. But Troy thinks he can do it.

And this is where the movie really goes downhill: Troy thinks he can do it all by himself. He orders the people on this team to go home and stay away from the office because he needs the solitude to concentrate. There’s a considerable chunk of the movie with ridiculous scenes of Troy frantically coding and working in an empty office during the day and in his bedroom at night.

Meanwhile, Jimmy becomes Troy’s biggest detractor who wants Troy to fail. But since the movie wants to make Jimmy somewhat sympathetic, it turns out that Jimmy has “daddy issues.” Jimmy’s stern and judgmental father James (played by Jim O’Heir) doesn’t think that what Jimmy does for a living is a “real job,” because Jimmy’s father thinks that Jimmy just gets paid to play video games. Troy has “daddy issues” too, because he wants to prove he’s just as good as his deceased father was.

And where is Troy’s mother Kate, the CEO of this company? Not doing much but letting Troy call the shots to get this video game ready in time for Pixel Con. With this kind of bad decision making from the CEO, it’s no wonder this company is on the verge of going out of business.

Troy’s arrogance backfires, of course. And the movie has to have this teachable moment in order to preach “There’s no ‘i’ in teamwork” in the corniest of ways. Some of the cast members of “Hero Mode” try their hardest to be likeable and funny, particularly Chris Carpenter and Solomon. The movie needed more scenes of the two of them together, because their friendship chemistry seems natural.

However, longtime actors Sorvino and Astin are doing the type of acting that’s often called “phoning it in,” because they don’t look particularly invested in playing these characters. The other cast members also turn in very generic performances. It doesn’t help that “Hero Mode” is plagued by awful screenwriting.

Astin’s Jimmy character is set up to be the villain for most of the movie, but he’s feeling how a lot of longtime employees would feel if they were shoved aside for someone with no work experience. Jimmy’s best line in the movie isn’t even very funny, and it’s a meta reference to Astin’s real-life co-starring role as hobbit character Samwise Gangee in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. In Troy’s video game Yort, which is a substandard imitation of “The Lord of the Rings,” Troy has envisioned himself as a chief wizard, similar to Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.” In response, Jimmy sarcastically says about Troy, “The longer we let Gandalf lead us, the greater chance we have to lose everything.” Ho hum.

Sorvino is forced to portray someone who isn’t believable as a video game company CEO. Sorvino’s Kate character is stuck in the 1990s, complete with wearing a Nirvana T-shirt (not a bad thing) and telling stale MC Hammer jokes (a very bad thing), such as saying to Troy that the company is “too legit to quit,” while half-rapping MC Hammer’s 1991 song “2 Legit 2 Quit.” Oh, the cringe of it all.

Kate also happens to have multiple sclerosis (she uses a cane), but a tone-deaf movie like “Hero Mode” wouldn’t have a character with MS without using this disease for a gimmicky part of the story. It borders on crass exploitation, just to add melodrama to the movie. “Hero Mode” isn’t “worst of the worst” bad, but it lazily doesn’t come up with anything new that hasn’t been already been done in similar movies about underdog computer nerds.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Hero Mode” in select U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘Call Your Mother,’ starring David Spade, Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Roy Wood Jr., Norm Macdonald, Kristen Schaal, Bridget Everett and Fortune Feimster

May 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Spade and his mother, Judy Todd, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Jenna Rosher/Comedy Central)

“Call Your Mother”

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Culture Representation: The documentary “Call Your Mother” features a racially diverse (white, African American and Asian) group of mostly American comedians talking about how their mothers have affected their lives, with some of the comedians’ mothers also participating in the documentary,.

Culture Clash: Some of the comedians describe having nonconformist or dysfunctional childhoods that are often used as material for their stand-up comedy acts.

Culture Audience: “Call Your Mother” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about the family backgrounds of some well-known comedians.

Louie Anderson with a picture of his mother, Ora Zella Anderson, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Alex Takats/Comedy Central)

If you ask any stand-up comedian who’s the family member most likely to inspire material for their stand-up comedy act, chances are the comedian will answer, “My mother.” With that in mind, the documentary “Call Your Mother” interviews a variety of comedians (and some of their mothers) to talk about how with these mother-child relationships have affected the comedians’ lives. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “Call Your Mother” might not have a deep impact on society, but it accomplishes what it intends to do. The film is a mostly light-hearted, sometimes emotionally moving and occasionally raunchy ride that will give some psychological insight into how and why these comedians ended up where they are now.

“Call Your Mother” includes interviews with a notable list of comedians (almost all of them are American), including Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Jimmy Carr, Bridget Everett, Fortune Feimster, Rachel Feinstein, Judah Friedlander, Jim Gaffigan, Judy Gold, Jen Kirkman, Jo Koy, Bobby Lee, the Lucas Brothers, Norm Macdonald, Jim Norton, Tig Notaro, Yvonne Orji, Kristen Schaal, David Spade and Roy Wood Jr.

In some cases, the mothers of these comedians are interviewed alongside their comedic children: Everett, Feimster, Schaal, Spade and Wood all have wisecracking moments with their mothers, who are also shown in the audiences while their children are on stage, as well as backstage or at home. Former “Saturday Night Live” star Macdonald is also interviewed with his mother.  (For whatever reason, no Latino comedians are in the documentary, which is a shame, because there are many Latino comedians who talk about their mothers in their stand-up acts.)

Bridget Everett’s mother, Freddie Everett, is memorable for being as foul-mouthed and crude as Bridget. (Freddie even gives the middle finger to the camera, but all in good fun.) Bridget Everett says, “My mother is really one of a kind. She’s the person you meet that you never forget. She can be kind of mean, but somehow she gets away with it.”

Bridget continues, “She’s got a real naughty streak in her,” when describing how her mother was the type to wear very revealing outfits in places where it would be inappropriate for a woman’s breasts to be openly displayed. “There’s something really liberating about that in a small, conservative town.”

Like many of the comedians interviewed in this documentary, Bridget Everett is a child of divorce. After her parents’ divorce, her mother Freddie (who raised six kids) would take a pre-teen Bridget with her to stalk her ex-husband, mainly to see if he was dating anyone new or other reasons to spy on his post-divorce love life.

Bridget remembers her mother telling her to look in windows and report what she saw to her mother. These experiences are part of Bridget Everett’s stand-up act.  And just like her mother used to do when she was young, Bridget Everett dresses in cleavage-baring outfits on stage. “My mom pulses through my performance,” she says. “It’s really a tribute to her.”

British comedian Carr says although his mother “was the funny person in the house,” she often suffered from depression. He turned to comedy to help cheer her up. He says of stand-up comedians: “Most of us come from unhappy childhoods.”

Fans of Louie Anderson already know about how he grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a loving mother, because he’s used his childhood as joke material in his stand-up act for years. In the documentary, Anderson (who’s been doing stand-up comedy since 1978) says that he started out doing self-deprecating fat jokes, but he eventually switched to mostly jokes about his family when he saw that it got a stronger reaction from audiences. He also says that dressing in drag for his Christine Baskets character in the FX comedy series “Baskets” was a tribute to his mother, Ora Zella Anderson.

Anderson believes that there’s a reason why so many stand-up comedians come from dysfunctional, often abusive households: “I think comics are about control. They’re trying to control the whole situation, because we had no control growing up.”

Anderson also echoes what most stand-up comedians said in Comedy Central’s documentary “This Is Stand-Up” about gravitating to stand-up comedy because it was their way of being the center of attention and getting unconditional love from people, even if it’s for the limited time that the comedians are on stage.

Spade is another child of divorce. His father left his mother when he was a child, and he says it had long-lasting effects on him and undying respect for his mother, Judy Todd. “My mom is very positive and upbeat and also very funny and clever.”

Todd is seen visiting the set of her son’s talk show “Lights Out With David Spade” on her 82nd birthday, where the audience shouts “Happy Birthday” to her, and she’s invited on stage with the interview guests. Todd is somewhat “normal,” compared to what other comedians have to say about their mothers. She’s almost downright reserved, since she doesn’t do anything to embarrass her son.

The same can’t be said for what comedians Koy, Lee and Gold have to say about their mothers, whose cringeworthy mothering techniques have been fodder for much of these two comedians’ stand-up comedy acts. Koy, who was raised by his divorced Filipino mother, Josie Harrison, remembers how his outspoken mother would inflict terror on anyone who would dare to criticize him.

Bobby Lee talks about how his Korean immigrant mother, Jeanie Lee, used to call his name to get his attention, just so she could fart in front of him. And when they would go to a shopping mall, she would encourage Lee and his younger brother to play in the shopping-mall fountain, while she would take a nap on the floor in a store. Lee, who is a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, also claims that his mother was fairly good-natured about his multiple trips to rehab, whereas most other mothers would be horrified or ashamed. He describes a moment during a family rehab meeting where his mother got the family to laugh so hard in what was supposed to be a serious gathering, they almost got kicked out of the meeting.

Judy Gold says in the documentary that she had the quintessential nagging, over-protective Jewish mother, Ruth Gold, who liked to leave long, demanding phone messages. Gold’s mother passed away in 2015, but Gold still plays some of her mother’s phone messages in her stand-up comedy act. She also plays some of the phone messages in the documentary and remembers that she did not get much overt affection from her parents when she was growing up.

Gold also says that her parents weren’t the type to hug their children and say, “I love you.” Instead, in her family, people would be rewarded based on whoever did the best to “one-up” the others with a quip. Still, Gold says that toward the end of her mother’s life, she did express her love more openly, and she shares an emotionally touching memory of what happened the last time she spoke with her mother.

One of the issues that the documentary covers is how mothers react when they find out that their children want to be professional comedians. Roy Wood Jr. says it was a very uncomfortable experience for him, since he had dropped out of Florida A&M University after being put on probation for shoplifting. He secretly started doing stand-up comedy in 1999, and when he told his mother, Joyce Dugan Wood, that he wanted to do stand-up comedy full-time, she was very upset.

“She definitely felt my priorities were in the wrong place,” he says. So, in order to please his mother, Roy went back to Florida A&M. And when he graduated, he gave his mother the plaque of the college degree that “I didn’t need” and began pursuing a full-time comedy career. Now that he’s become a successful comedian (including a stint as a correspondent on “The Daily Show”), Wood says of his mother’s approval: “These days, I feel supported.”

When comedian/actress Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum) was 4 years old, her mother died, so when she was growing up, her paternal grandmother was Awkwafina’s main mother figure. While most people in Awkwafina’s family had expectations for her to going into a traditional profession, her paternal grandmother encouraged Awkwafina to pursue her dreams in entertainment.

Although many of these comedians say vulgar things about their families in their stand-up acts, the documentary shows that a lot of stand-up comedians have a soft spot for their mothers and like to hang out with them. Kristen Schaal and her look-alike mother, Pam Schaal, are seen shopping together at a fabric store. Norm Macdonald and his mother, Ferne Macdonald, play Scrabble and golf together. Wood’s mother Joyce accompanies him to a tuxedo fitting.

But not all of these mother-child moments are warm and fuzzy. Some of the comedians, such as Norton and Spade, admit to changing their shows to being less offensive and less raunchy if they know their mothers are going to be in the audience.

Norton says that he’s felt uncomfortable at times when his sex life (which he talks about in his stand-up comedy routine) is a topic of conversation with his mother. Norton remembers how after he did a stand-up show where he talked about his experiences of hiring hookers, he got a call from his mother suggesting that he join a gym to meet new people and improve his dating life. (In the documentary, he even plays the voice mail from 2001 to prove it.)

As for talking about their mothers in their stand-up comedy acts, Koy says that it was hard for him to do at first, but his mother and the rest of his family have gotten used to it. Feinstein says about her mother: “She likes it when I impersonate her. She gets upset if I don’t.”

Fortune Feimster says something similar, in an interview seated next her mother, Ginger Feimster: “She would rather me talk about her and be the center of attention than me not talk about her at all,” Fortune says. “She’s a good sport and she likes the attention.” Ginger Feimster says in response, “That is so true.”

Whether these comedians’ relationships with their mothers have been good or not-so-good, one thing that most people can agree on is a sentiment that Gold expresses in the movie that is a tried and true cliché: “There’s nothing like a mother’s love.” And at the very least, this documentary might inspire people to get in touch with their mothers to express gratitude if their mothering wasn’t a complete disaster.

Comedy Central premiered “Call Your Mother” on May 10, 2020.

Review: ‘This Is Stand-Up,’ starring Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Sebastian Maniscalco and D.L. Hughley

April 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

D.L. Hughley in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up”

Directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton

Culture Representation: This documentary is a compilation of interviews, performances and off-stage footage of a racially diverse group (white, African American, Latino and Asian) of well-known, mostly American stand-up comedians.

Culture Clash: The general consensus in the documentary is that being a professional stand-up comedian goes against what most people consider as having a “normal life.”

Culture Audience: “This Is Stand-Up” will appeal primarily to people who are stand-up comedy fans, even though the documentary ignores many problems (such as sexism, joke stealing and monetary rip-offs) in the business side of stand-up comedy.

Garry Shandling in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up” is kind of like the documentary equivalent of speed-dating. The movie packs in many famous stand-up comedians, who deliver a lot of personality soundbites, but ultimately there’s not a lot of depth or anything new that’s revealed for people who already know about the stand-up comedy world. Although a few of the comedians talk about their personal struggles, most just share anecdotes and advice, and the documentary doesn’t acknowledge the sexist and cutthroat side of the business.

Filmed over five years, “This Is Stand-Up” (directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton) has a “who’s who” of stand-up comedians (almost all American) who are interviewed in the documentary. They include Judd Apatow, David A. Arnold, Dave Attell, Maria Bamford, Bill Bellamy, Gina Brillon, Cocoa Brown, Cedric The Entertainer, Tommy Davidson, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Gilbert Gottfried, Eddie Griffin, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, D. L. Hughley, Mia Jackson, Jim Jefferies, Jessica Kirson, Bert Kreischer, Bobby Lee, Carol Leifer, George Lopez, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jay Mohr, Jim Norton, Rick Overton, Paul Provenza, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Owen Smith, Kira Soltanovich, Beth Stelling, Taylor Tomlinson, Theo Von and Keenen Ivory Wayans. (Noticeably missing: Dave Chappelle.)

Toogood and Lloyd are Brits who previously directed the documentary “Dying Laughing,” which had a limited theatrical release in 2017. “Dying Laughing” was an interview-only film about stand-up comedians, and featured many of the same people as in “This Is Stand-Up,” such as Seinfeld, Hart, Silverman, Rock, Shandling, Schumer and Cedric The Entertainer. “Dying Laughing” also had more international representation, since it included comedians from Canada (such as Russell Peters), the United Kingdom (Billy Connolly) and Australia (Jim Jeffries).  In “This Is Stand-Up,” Jeffries is the only non-American comedian interviewed in the movie. British comedian Ricky Gervais is shown as a guest on Norton’s SiriusXM radio show, but he’s not interviewed specifically for this movie.

Although it’s important for the documentary to include on-stage footage of the comedians, the best parts of the movie are when the comedians are shown off-stage. Stand-up comedy routines on stage can easily be accessed on the Internet, so “This Is Stand-Up” shines when it has exclusive footage of what the comedians are like in their homes or backstage. Mohr, Tomlinson and Kresicher are among those interviewed in their homes, while some of the memorable tour footage includes Maniscalco and  the “Kings of Comedy” team of Hughley, Lopez, Cedric The Entertainer and Eddie Griffin.

“This Is Stand-Up” is also a good introduction to hear some origin stories from famous comedians if you’ve never heard before how they got interested in doing stand-up comedy. (Die-hard fans of these comedians probably know these stories already, but the documentary assumes not everyone will know about these comedians’ backgrounds.) Silverman says, “When I was 3 years old, my dad taught me to swear, and he thought that was hilarious. I got crazy with power over that. I got addicted to that feeling.”

Schumer says her first introduction to performing in front of an audience and getting laughs was when she was in school plays—but she was getting laughed at for the wrong reasons. It made her angry until a teacher pointed out to her that people laughing at her performance is a good thing because laughter makes people happy.

Foxx remembers being the type of kid who was always mouthing off in class. Instead of sending him to the principal’s office, one of his teachers set aside time in class for Foxx to tell stories. According to Foxx, it was such a hit that other teachers would visit the classroom to watch him perform.

Maniscalco says that he was the opposite of the class clown. He describes himself as a shy and quiet kid who preferred to observe people. And for Rock, his first inclination to perform on stage was inspired by his grandfather, who was a reverend for their family’s church. Rock says that he saw how his grandfather was the center of attention, and it was the kind of attention that Rock wanted too.

In fact, almost all of the comedians in the documentary say in one way or another that being the center of attention is their main motivation for doing stand-up comedy, despite it being a very emotionally demanding way to make a living. Lopez comments, “What I like about comedy is that it’s given me a great life. And now, I know I’m important.”

However, it’s not a revelation that comedians are very insecure in their real lives. Most have openly admitted to being insecure and/or emotionally damaged. And many have even used their insecurities as the basis of their on-stage personas. It’s also clear from watching this documentary that most of the comedians use comedy as a way to fill a deep emotional void to make themselves feel wanted in this world.

Von (who first came to national prominence in the 2000s as a star of the MTV reality show “Road Rules”) is one of the comedians in the documentary who is followed on tour, instead of just doing an in-studio interview. He talks about his financially deprived background and unhappy childhood, which are the foundation for much of the material in his stand-up act. But he also opens up by saying that part of his motivation for doing stand-up comedy is so his mother will approve, since he says he’s never seen her laugh.

The problem with how the filmmakers deal with these stories and anecdotes is that there’s no outside verification. The documentary does not interview anyone who knew these comedians “way back when” or even people who helped give these comedians their big breaks. Everything in the film exists in the vacuum of what the comedians want to say, without including hardly any other perspectives.

One of the exceptions is when the documentary goes to the home of Kreischer and shows some of his life with his wife and two young daughters, who are all interviewed on camera. He gets visibly uncomfortable when his daughters admit that they don’t like it when he’s away on tour. Family members of the other comedians are not interviewed in this documentary.

The nature of stand-up comedy is for comedians to often exaggerate about their lives in order to be funny. “This Is Stand-Up” takes everything that these comedians say at face value and doesn’t dig much deeper. For example, several of the comedians, such as Hart and Bellamy, talk about the importance for comedians to find their unique voices and identities, but the movie doesn’t give examples of how these comedians have evolved.

Hart says, “It takes a little time to develop who you are or who you want to be. I was definitely guilty of that in the beginning of my career. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t know I could be myself.” That’s all well and good, but if we’re being honest, that’s pretty generic and vague advice.

The comedians talk a lot about how honing the craft of stand-up comedy involves a lot of practice at open-mic nights for little to no money. And getting to the level of headlining a show can sometimes take years. Comedians such as Seinfeld don’t believe there should be any shortcuts to stand-up comedy fame—people have to pay their dues on stage in front of live audiences, not in front of a mirror or on a YouTube channel.

There’s also an entire segment of the documentary devoted to how to deal with heckling and bombing on stage. Shandling talks about once being so paralyzed with humiliation after bombing from a show that he stayed in a car and couldn’t move for about 15 minutes. Rock’s advice for comedians is to resist the inclination to talk faster when being heckled and instead to slow down and take back control.

However, there’s no mention in the documentary about all the sleazy things that comedians encounter on the way to the top—the rip-offs, the unscrupulous managers/agents, or even the difficulty in getting managers or agents in the first place. And because there’s a limited number of comedy clubs in any given big city, it’s a very insular network where the venue owners and concert promoters have a lot of control.

The documentary includes a diverse mix of comedians, yet doesn’t mention a big problem in stand-up comedy: sexism against women. And the movie has an unrealistic portrayal of stand-up comedians as this “we all support each other” community. (The movie uses “The Kings of Comedy” tour as an example.)

Although there can sometimes be camaraderie among comedians, the reality is that stand-up comedy is and can be very cutthroat. This documentary doesn’t even mention the widespread problem of comedians stealing each other’s jokes. And this documentary completely ignores the bitter rivalries that happen in stand-up comedy.

Seinfeld, one of the highest-paid stand-up comedians of all time, echoes what many of the comedians say in the film: Preparing a stand-up comedy show is a lot harder than people think it is. He says, “I adore the rigorous difficulty of creating and preparing a joke.”

He also says that there are four levels of comedy: (1) Making your friends laugh; (2) Making strangers laugh; (3) Making strangers laugh and getting paid for it; and (4) Making strangers laugh, getting paid for it, and then having them talk like you after seeing your show.

The documentary also covers the issues of social commentary in stand-up comedy and “how far is too far.” When asked if any topic is off-limits in stand-up comedy, there’s a montage of comedians who say “no.” Hughley says, “I’ll never apologize for telling a joke.”

Griffin adds, “It’s always comedy’s job to speak knowledge to power about what people are upset about, because comedy has always been about the people.” He compares stand-up comedians to being the modern equivalents of court jesters.

Silverman (who’s no stranger to controversy) comments on how smartphones and social media have impacted stand-up comedy: “It’s especially daunting now, because people are recording with their stupid phones and posting stuff. There’s more at stake to failing than just in the safe walls of a comedy club. That said, you have to not care.”

Although “This Is Stand-Up” fails to address the predatory side of the business (maybe that’s why managers, agents, promoters and venue owners weren’t interviewed), at least the documentary does include the reality that stand-up comedy takes a toll on comedians’ personal lives. Depression, divorce and substance abuse are common with stand-up comedians, as these problems are in many professions that require frequent traveling. But they’re especially toxic for comedians, who are more inclined to be insecure than most other people.

Brillon comments on what stand-up comedians experience in their personal lives: “Relationships suffer—not just romantic relationships, but family relationships, because stand-up becomes the longest relationship in your life—and the most abusive. And you still love it and go back to it.”

Mohr, who’s been very open about his struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, says that for him, stand-up comedy is his greatest love and biggest addiction. Even if he wanted to stop, he says, he’s compelled to keep going: “To be a stand-up comic, you have to be completely unreasonable, unwell and unhinged.”

Haddish explains why stand-up comedians are driven to do what they do: “When you’re on stage, it’s like being next to God … Comedy is the most fantastic medicine you can imagine, not just for the audience, but for the comedian.”

“This Is Stand-Up” might not be very revealing about a lot of showbiz realities, since documentaries and biographies about several famous comedians have already uncovered the dark sides to stand-up comedy. This documentary is, as Toogood describes it in a Comedy Central press release, “a love letter” to stand-up comedians—at least the ones who are famous enough to be in this film. If you want some in-depth insight into on all the sleaze and heartaches these comedians had to go through to get to where they are now, then you’ll have to look elsewhere for those real stories.

Comedy Central premiered “This Is Stand-Up” on April 12, 2020.

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