The Buzz: Popstar-dom Through the Internet
Welcome to the first The Buzz on the newly revamped Man of the Hour Magazine. Because we are an internet publication, what better way to start it off than exploring how the internet has contributed to the relationship of the internet with celebrity. We are going to look at two different ways of reacting to celebrity through comedy. One is a mainstream comedy that underperformed in the box office and the other is a stand-up special focused on the introspective ideas of what it means to perform. Furthermore, we are going to look back at a documentary that started a term for predatory internet dating and speculate on if the cult filmmaker responsible for Drive can get back to form with his latest film.
Movies: Popstar: Never Stop Stopping: One of the first videos I ever watched during the nascent days of YouTube was a Saturday Night Live sketch called “Lazy Sunday.” The brain trust behind this video, The Lonely Island, blended a DIY shooting style with an inane relatable subject of watching The Chronicles of Narnia on a boring Sunday to a catchy hip hop beat and it became a viral hit. The sketch created a model for future Youtube comedy sketches and ushered in the rise of alternative comedy to break into the mainstream.
The Lonely Island is comprised of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, whom have been friends since junior high school. Since “Lazy Sunday,” the three continued to make Digital Shorts, developing their brand of off brand humor, skewing materialism, male bravado and the culture of celebrity, all with a mix of immaturity that felt like a breath of fresh air.
Popstar: Never Stop Stopping, co-written by all three members of The Lonely Island and directed by Taccone and Schaffer, is a natural extension of the themes that they have been skewing through their years at SNL. Samberg plays a rap-pop star, Conner4Real, a multi-platinum selling music artist of albums such as “Thriller, Also.” The movie does not hide the fact that Connor is a form of Justin Beiber, mirroring Beiber’s 2011 documentary (and fluff piece) Justin Beiber: Never Say Never. Popstar is even shot as a mockumentary, following Connor 4 Real’s release of his newest album “Connquest,” an album so bad that it receives the poop emoji from Rolling Stones.
But, negative reviews don’t stop Connor’s sense of entitlement where he surrounds himself with an entourage consisting of yes-men, a turtle handler and a roadie who enjoys flat-lining. His music is derivative of the worst pop clichés, making sure the “con” in Conner was not accidental. The Lonely Island’s skill at making bangers, however, always allow for sense of believability that these ridiculous songs would becme hits.
Conner’s rise as part of a rap group called The Style Boyz, which consists of characters played by Taccone and Schaffer as Conner’s eventual DJ (whose sole equipment is a phallic helmet in the realm of Daft Punk and an iPod Classic circa 2006) and estranged lyricist (now living in a farm in Colorado growing the state’s most famous crop) respectively, must follow with his eventual fall due to his own ego and blunders. However, it’s the themes of true friendship through the blinding light of fame is a celebratory ode to the true companionship that radiates through the making of the movie. In real life, the fame of being in several movies and starring in network sitcom has never stopped Andy Samberg from continuing to work his Lonely Island cohorts.
But, the plot and the story is none factor for a movie like this. How many people can recall from beginning to end what happen in This is Spinal Tap, the definitive music mockumentary. The joke density in this film is large. The film actively parodies the rise of corporate advertising and the artificiality of young “rebel” hip hop stars with Hunter the Hungry (guess which Odd Future member that is a parody of).
But none of the humor seems biting enough to skewer the state of music industry. But, that sort of harsh satire was never part of the good natured dirty humor of The Lonely Island. Like the late night hosts of Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, the crew just seem happy enough to be there and even happier to have celebrities like Seal and Nas peppered in every scene.
Alison Herman of The Ringer mentions in her piece about the film that Samberg now occupies the space that has been long vacated by Adam Sandler. There is a lot to that statement. While Sandler’s particular brand of humor has grown stale, Samberg’s and Lonely Island is next evolutionary form for the modern audiences. They reference, skewer and react to pop culture but is still so referential to it. Taccone’s previous directorial effort was MacGruber an action parody that so lovingly reveres the genre that it felt like it was Taccone’s pleasure to make fun of it. The same is seen with this Popstar. The immature lewdness is not mean spirited but just amplifies that charm.
At a lean 86 minutes Popstar never wears out its welcome as being a solid mainstream comedy. The film is good natured filmmaking whose satirical natural never goes below the surface but that was never its purpose. The only objective is to make the audience laugh. That’s been Lonely Island’s objective since they first started Digital Shorts more than ten years ago.
Television: Make Happy: While the prospect of celebrity is something joyful for the Lonely Island, Bo Burnham is torn by his need to perform and his hate for what celebrity culture entails. In one telling moment of his latest Netflix comedy special Make Happy, he says upfront to the audience “Part of me hates you. Part of me needs you. Part of me fears you.” Its these intimate self-reflexive meta moment that makes Burnham a comedian that is indicative of this generation.
Make Happy is Burnham’s third comedy special after debuting as a teenager on YouTube, making him an early YouTube sensation to make the transition to Hollywood. But, that transition has been constantly the subject of his standup as it has openly created an anxiety of staying true to self and an audience pleaser. Burnham’s act filled with songs and lights shows skewers how easily celebrity culture can pander to an audience. “Pandering” is a parody of how modern country songs follow certain set phrases like a filling in MadLibs in order to appeal to wide audience and “Kill Yourself” cleverly turns the empowerment songs such as Katy Perry’s “Roar” on its head.
But throughout the show, Burnham struggles with the conception of performance and his place in that equation along with the audience. The prologue to the show has a disconnected omnipotent voice put into context that it is a privilege to laugh despite the fact that the world is an unfunny place (Guy Fieri has two functioning restaurants after all). During the show, Burnham opens up the house lights to disengage the audience from that illusion of separation, commenting on his role as a provider of joy over a person’s troubles in the world. And in the end he is there to make them happy.
His continuous breaking of that area of separation between performer and audience in an intimate way no other comedian has ever done before. Sure, Burnham’s wordplay is similar to that of George Carlin and his skewering of performance is comparable to Steve Martin in his prime, but the intimacy Burnham creates with the audience is more akin to a Spalding Grey than any comedian. His initial notoriety off YouTube created that connection. There is an intimacy to making comedy inside a bedroom and he continues that relationship.
The most sublime moment of the show comes at the end with Burnham engaging in a Kanye West style auto-tuned rant. In it, Burnham modulates his voice with technology engulfed with light to complain about inane things such as too much filling in a burrito. The changes to reveal that all these problems are a front to bigger insecurities of the pressures of performance with the refrain “I don’t think I can handle this right now.”
The evolution of Bo Burnham as a comedian in his bedroom to onstage is the development of us on the internet. Performance is everywhere from an instagram photograph of food in a restaurant to the regular Facebook status. Burnham started off where most people do but through luck converted that into a career in performance. That anxiety of constantly having to perform online is how Bo relates to us onstage. He is not afraid to break that fourth wall of intimacy. Yet, as he says, “He’s still not happy.” Rather he just tries to makes his audience happy.
Coming Soon: The Neon Demon: In 2011, Danish filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn broke through to American audiences with his Oscar Nominated heist film Drive. In 2013, his film Only God Forgives was booed out of the Cannes Film Festival (And deservingly so) and was limply distributed in the USA. His new film, The Neon Demon, making a limited run on June 24th does not seem like it is going to be the cultural sensation of Drive but is just as stylish and idiosyncratic Refn fans have come to love. Hopefully it will be a step up from Only God Forgives.
Rewind: Catfish: To follow the themes of internet and performance, I wanted to take you back to 2010 documentary Catfish, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Long before it was an MTV series, this documentary follows one of its director as he starts a relationship with a person online that he has never met before.
While the first half is an interesting mystery on the type of psyche it takes to create a fake relationship, the documentary becomes even more fascinating as a meta-commentary on documentary ethics. How much does of the information shown in the film is fact and how much is manipulated in order to create the arc that the second half explore.
Either way, no matter the ethics of the documentary, we now have a catch-all term for internet predatory behavior. If you are curious to what contrived metaphor the term “catfish” came from, you can watch Catfish on DVD or any digital rental provider. Just do not confuse it with the television series.