Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Twilight Zone: The Comedian

I started watching The Twilight Zone in the early 80s with my parents and brother when the old black-and-white reruns aired on channel 9 at 10 o'clock at night. The first time I really remember being scared as a child was during the episode, "The After Hours," when Marsha White realizes (with the help of a blaring tuba blast) that the saleslady who helped her in a department store was actually a mannequin. Later, after our family moved to town and my dad signed up for the Columbia House Video club that sent out a beta tape of four Twilight Zone episodes each month, my brother, best friend, and I would watch the entire tape in one sitting, freaking out over how cool it was that something so old could still be so scary. Most of our favorites focused on those chilling horror elements so well-done in episodes like "The Living Doll," "The Dummy," or "The Grave." Who could forget that shit? I hear the creepy laughs of ALL THREE OF THOSE VILLAINS in my worst nightmares, even now!

When Matt and I were first married I subscribed to my own video club (VHS then, thanks) and made it a mission to watch each episode and review it, from start to finish. It was a wondrous project that I loved dearly--it reminded me of my dad and some of the greatest experiences of my youth. Watching as an adult led me to the conclusion that in a lot of these episodes, people aren't very nice, or in a somewhat gentler way, people really seem to have trouble with bad decisions, and now, some sixty years later, it's both reassuring and troubling that not much has changed. I think creator Jordan Peele understands this concept only too well. My overall assessment: This series is going to be amazing.

The Comedian (2019) 
written by: Alex Rubens
directed by: Owen Harris 
starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Diarra Kilpatrick, Tracy Morgan, Jordan Peele

Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) is a comedian who wants his standup routine to matter. He wants to entertain his audience yet he wants to inspire deep thought about important issues such as the second amendment or the shortcomings of the president. He also wants respect, followers, and money for his efforts. After a flat performance Samir meets comedy legend JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) at the bar where Wheeler shares what he's learned in the business. "The audience don't care about what you think, they care about you." Sharing deeply personal details, Wheeler implies, is necessary to win people over and gain followers, although he also warns (with a billow of vape-smoke) that this kind of sharing isn't without consequences. Samir continues to open each of his sets with the same oppositional rants but he eventually takes the advice and begins using material from his own life to win approval from the crowd. Wheeler was right---it works for Samir, instantly. The question is, just how long will Samir be able to continue feeding his audience, and at what cost?

"Once it's theirs, that shit
is gone, forever."
The technique used in telling this story pays great artistic homage to Rod Serling's original opening monolog (which creator Jordan Peele kept* and announced himself), namely the elements of light and shadow. As the majority of the scenes take place at night inside the comedy club or in the city streets surrounding it, shadows, lighting, and depth of field showcase beautiful darknesses that accompany these settings. Blues, blacks, golds, neons, and smoke look amazing throughout each scene.

The camera both takes its time revealing walls, ceilings, and corners (watch for HUGE Easter eggs from the original series on the opening mural and in fellow comedian Didi Scott's dressing room) and also overwhelms us with a series of rapid, manic shots when Samir, in the height of his success, goes on what can only be coined as a sharing-spree, firing off names and details with power and vengeance. Little musical effects punctuate shocking scene endings. At least three classic Twilight Zone episodes** are alluded to (via the comedy scene, the changing and vanishing of objects from the world, and the willful elimination of displeasing items), and The Shining is referenced through Samir's apartment corridors, the mural at the comedy club, and the mention of the family name, "Torrance," in a story that is told in passing. All of these technical elements show us that in addition to being an amazing writer and creator, Jordan Peele knows and loves his film and television ancestors; he's a smart guy who has a lot of interesting things to show us.

The theme present in this episode is very nostalgic for fans of the series--the issues being explored here are of the same vein as many of Serling's original episodes, but with modern updates and allowances for items such as social media, the commonness of curse words, and insight into the lives of people who aren't exclusively white and European. The theme overall that emerges is a common one, suggesting that age-old idea that things seem to go well for a while when an average citizen is granted a special type of power or control, but in the end, humankind never really can master that moderate middle ground between being satisfied with what is given and the constant need for wanting more. Samir could have stopped himself halfway through this episode, realizing he's good with the initial bounty of popularity, riches, and respect he finds, but he doesn't do this. The message that Peele is exploring here is that like Samir, humans rarely ever quit while they're ahead. Stephen King talks a lot in interviews about how he enjoys the idea in many of his stories of a "Pandora's Box," that once opened, facilitates the decline of lives due to the usually-fated tendency toward poor decisions that humans seem destined.

Also worth mentioning is the ethnic background and composition of the key characters in this story. Samir is an Indian-American comedian who competes with a white (presumably hetero) male, Joe Donner, and an African-American homosexual female, Didi Scott, onstage at the comedy club. Donner is identified early on as someone whose livelihood and future is effortlessly secured by his whiteness. He is overweight, vulgar, sexist, and guilty of a hit-and-run accident that resulted in the deaths of a woman and her infant, yet he is not only found innocent and allowed to continue performing comedy, he's a celebrated icon! Joe Donner is indicative of the larger (fat, criminal, white) system that calls the shots, controls the money, and largely influences the audience, who resemble his demographic more than any other. Joe Donner's character represents those who RUN THE SYSTEM.

Didi is an interesting character because she manages to remain true to herself and her values while at the same time functioning within a system that is stacked against her, knowing full well the rules and sacrifices that go along with what she's doing. She doesn't kiss anyone's ass, but she knows that she's subject to the obligations that go along with success and income, which largely involve playing to the white people with money. Didi's character represents someone who KNOWS THE SYSTEM and does what she can to FUNCTION SUCCESSFULLY WITHIN IT.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have been
Samir Wassan!"
Samir is the wild card, the character who has two conflicting desires: he wants to make people think with his comedy but he also wants fame and riches. Peele's point via JC Wheeler's character is that Samir cannot have both of these elements at once, especially as an Indian-American (although this concept could have worked with a character of any ethnic background, really). A performer will eventually have to choose between keeping true to himself or making a living. Samir chose to make a living, and in the end, it ruins him. Samir was at first a FLUKE WITHIN THE SYSTEM, but then became just another cog in the machinery of entertainment, ultimately losing everything that made him an exceptional human being in the first place. And what of JC Wheeler? Is he Jesus (JC)? Is he the devil (vape smoke seems too aesthetic at the right moments to ignore)? It's open for debate, although Wheeler is definitely a knower, an influencer of the game, and someone who sets acts in motion. Samir mentions in their early discussion that Wheeler was everywhere, then just disappeared. What happened to him? Having found out the secret of successful stand-up, did Wheeler decide to just hang around and serve as a sentinel, a guide, to others that were following in his footsteps? Or is he more than that, someone always waiting, always watching, meant to escort young performers to their respective demises? Is the episodes's message that a skilled insider is controlling the system or is it rather that humans will screw themselves and take whatever bait is put before them?

Hard to say where the line is drawn, or if it is, at all.

* Peele's updated introductory monologue substitutes the words, "one," and "one's" for "man," and "man's."

** "The Dummy," focused around a comic and ventriloquist, "Shadow Play," involved a death row inmate who could change the elements of his surroundings at will (because the entire story was being dreamt, by him), and "It's a Good Life," brought us Anthony Freemont, who disposed of anything he didn't like into his family's cornfield.