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Daily Reads: The Standup Special Boom and the ‘Netflix Effect,’ How Rocky Became Philadelphia’s Secular Saint, and More

Daily Reads: The Standup Special Boom and the 'Netflix Effect,' How Rocky Became Philadelphia's Secular Saint, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. TV’s Stand-Up Specials Scoring Big Bucks. We’re currently living in a stand-up comedy boom, the first since the mid-1980’s. Stand-up is everywhere — in your bars, comedy clubs, and of course, the Internet and your living room. Comics are shooting specials and selling them to outlets like Netflix or HBO with more regularity. The Hollywood Reporter’s Lacey Rose writes about how the content demands of streamers mean top dollar for stand-up comics.

Netflix upended movie distribution, then scripted television. Now the streaming service is contributing to a growing arms race to land top comics in the increasingly competitive world of stand-up specials. By year’s end, Netflix, which debuted John Mulaney’s “The Comeback Kid” on Nov. 13, will have released 18 original stand-up specials, with comics including Aziz Ansari, Chris Tucker and Chelsea Peretti. And while many credit the 69 million-member service for jump-starting the market, others, including NBC’s forthcoming comedy streaming service Seeso, also are opening wallets. “There’s never been a better time,” says Brian Volk-Weiss, whose Comedy Dynamics has produced 40-plus specials this year, nearly doubling its output from two years ago. “We’ve been selling specials since 2007, and for the first five years or so, the buck slip I have taped to my desk said Comedy Central, Showtime and HBO,” he says. “Now, it says Netflix, Comedy Central, Epix, Showtime, HBO, Seeso, Amazon, Vimeo and a few others.” Among the draws: evergreen content on a tiny budget. “With the exception of porn, there’s nothing cheaper to do,” adds Volk-Weiss. Which is not to say the girl or guy on stage is paid poorly; increased demand has proved a boon to comics. According to one industry veteran, roughly 80 percent of comics are making between $50,000 and $500,000 for an hour-long special; 15 percent make between $500,000 and $2 million; 4 percent make between $2 million and $6 million; and 1 percent (think: Kevin Hart) make more than $6 million. “Stand-up comedy has always worked well on TV,” notes Showtime president David Nevins, who wants an original special each month, with such names as Steve-O, Jermaine Fowler and, deal permitting, W. Kamau Bell on deck. “It has [even] more value in an on-demand, libraried world, which is how we, HBO and the streaming services program.” He points to his older specials from Hart and Dane Cook, adding, “Those still play.” Though basic cable networks have sniffed around, the format is less friendly to ad-supported outlets because the genre doesn’t provide ancillary opportunities in international or syndication. (Comedy Central’s work-around often is to package a special into a development deal, as it did with Amy Schumer and Hannibal Buress.) For Seeso chief Evan Shapiro, relying so heavily on stand-ups — in January, his $3.99-a-month service will offer exclusives each day along with specials from comics including Rory Scovel, Jay Pharoah and Cameron Esposito — wasn’t a given. But the feedback from 11,000 potential users interviewed was that the core Gen Y audience, raised in the ashes of 9/11 and the financial meltdown, has an appetite for comedy-club fare. “They’re looking for soothsayers to help them navigate through the chaos,” explains Shapiro. “So they go to these ‘churches,’ so to speak, and someone gets up on the pulpit and starts speaking the truth to them, and I think it gives them a sense of place in the world.”

2. How Rocky Balboa Became Philadelphia’s Signature Superhero.
Creed,” the seventh installment in the “Rocky” franchise enters into wide release today. The film follows Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed, as he travels to Philly to request training from an aging Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). In Philadelphia, Rocky is a signature figure and is completely intertwined with the city itself. At Yahoo!, Carrie Rickey writes about how Rocky became Philadelphia’s own secular saint.

Is there any other film figure so deeply linked with one city? I wondered then — and I still do now, as the Italian Stallion passes the boxing gloves to the son of his onetime rival Apollo Creed in director Ryan Coogler’s new drama “Creed” that’s hitting theaters on Thanksgiving. From “The Philadelphia Story” to “Trading Places,” the Philly story onscreen has mostly been about blue bloods and blue collars initially at odds, but ultimately finding common cause. “Rocky” is different. “Stallone made the Horatio Alger story, tarnished and suspect during Vietnam, credible again,” film historian Jeanine Basinger told me in 2001. I arrived in Philly a decade after “Rocky” bested “All the President’s Men” and “Network” to win the 1976 Best Picture Oscar. By 1986, “Rocky II,” “III” and “IV” had been released and the eponymous pug created and portrayed by Sylvester Stallone had been canonized as the city’s secular saint. He was as essential a part of the urban mythos as Benjamin Franklin. I couldn’t buy a piece of fruit in the Italian market without being shown the exact spot on 9th Street where some guy threw Rocky the apple in the original movie. (I later found out this moment was unscripted: An anonymous green grocer threw it, and Stallone made the catch without missing a beat.) Nor could I go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Cezannes (how do you like them apples?) without overhearing someone say, “This is where Rocky runs up the stairs.” According to “Time,” the art museum steps rank as the second-most-iconic film location in all of cinema, after the “Field of Dreams” cornfield. (This No. 2 ranking, by the way, was denounced on every Philadelphia radio call-in show.) If I had a nickel for every wise guy that found out that I reviewed movies for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and that challenged me to recap the fights in every “Rocky” movie, I could probably buy a Cezanne. There are guys in Philly who can give you color commentary on every bout as if these fights actually happened. By the time of the release of “Rocky V” in 1990 — generally considered the nadir of the franchise — friends visiting the city wanted to know everything “Rocky.” My sportswriter colleagues Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow (who voted “Rocky” No. 1 in their “Ultimate Book of Sports Movies”) unearthed one favorite piece of trivia: Sylvester Stallone spent so much time punching the frozen sides of beef in the training scenes that his knuckles are permanently disfigured. Another: Dan McQuade, intrepid reporter at “Philadelphia” magazine, clocked how many miles Rocky would have run in the training montage in “Rocky II” — and it was more than 30! A factoid that shocks many Philadelphians is that original director John Avildsen, working with a shoestring budget of $1 million, figured that “Rocky” would play the lower half of a double bill. And who knows whether the Museum of Art steps would have factored into the film at all had not Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, whose revolutionary camera-stabilizing harness puts the audience in Rocky’s skin, shot a demo reel of his wife running up the museum steps. When Avildsen saw it, his first questions were, “Where are those steps?” and “Want a job?”

3. How “Mystery Science Theater 3000” Came Back to Life.
Earlier this month, Joel Hodgson announced a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a new run of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The series debuted in the late-1980’s on local Minneapolis television before heading to stints on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel until its cancellation in 1999. Now, it’s back with all-new hosts and movies and everything. Vulture’s Luke McCormick sits down with Hodgson to discuss the new version of “Mystery Science Theater” and why it’s coming back now.

Q: Take us back to the very beginning of the Kickstarter idea. How did this newest run of “Mystery Science Theater” come about?

A: I always felt, if we were to do it again, we needed to invite the fan base to be a big part of it. I wanted measure the interest and invite them to be involved because they were able to keep everything going when we couldn’t. They’ve been flying the flag and circulating tapes and all of that. So when we got more rights cleared for old episodes’ movies about three months ago, my partners, Shout! Factory, and I said it was important we start with the fan base and create a sort of hybrid show that could then find even another life on an online platform or new channel later on. The other big aspect is that these people just really care about the show, and you really need to listen to them. I’m not surprised to see what they’re capable of, and that was my motivation to get started again.

Q: With such passionate fans, is there pressure to just give them the same show from before, or will you be trying different things?

A: That’s an interesting question. I think a lot of people were behaving like this would be a reunion show, or like a celebration of the past, and I was never thinking about it that way. I came in thinking this was like “Dr. Who” in that there’d be a new guy hosting every 100 shows or something. When I played out my ideas for everyone involved, I got a good response. It’s also, like I said, been great hearing from the fans, and helping my creativity with their input. I don’t really believe in giving people exactly what they want because they don’t know exactly what I know and where all this is going.

Q: There are going to be new people involved with the show, but what is your exact role going to be? You’re not the host this time around, so are you the showrunner?

A: Showrunner is a title that’s germane to the West Coast, and the East Coast doesn’t really have that. I’ll have meetings, and people will go, “Who’s the showrunner?” and I guess I need to figure that out. [Laughs.] When we originally did “Mystery Science Theater” it was truly an ensemble, and we all signed off on the best takes, things like that. I’m going to find someone to be the head writer who is on set to deliver alternate jokes to our actors. In a way, you want to make it really fun on the set and have lost of ideas flowing around. The head writer or showrunner is that person. It just won’t be me. I’m the producer and creator, and I have to think more big-picture stuff. I guess I’m an executive producer, but in today’s world, each show has like 80 of those. I still don’t know exactly my role, but I’m definitely more intimately involved with the creative stuff. Like, this week we’re looking at concept art and the visual elements of the show, like the sets and costumes. I’m also hiring a writing staff who will be writing the shows along with the new cast. We don’t just hire actors to say the lines.

4. Gena Rowlands: A Life On Film.
Two weeks ago, Gena Rowlands (along with Spike Lee) was finally given an Honorary Oscar for their lifetime working in the film industry. Working since the mid-1950’s and nominated for a slew of awards, Rowlands at 85-years-old is one of our greatest living actresses. RogerEbert.com’s Sheila O’Malley examines Rowlands’ life on film, taking a look at her numerous performances over the past half century.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974), directed by John Cassavetes: Rowlands’ unforgettable performance as Mabel Longhetti in “A Woman Under the Influence” brought her her first Oscar nomination. The performance is as startling today as it was in 1974, and is the kind of performance that raises the bar for everyone else. It shows the enormous gap between skill and genius. Rowlands’ Mabel is a reminder to actors (or it should be) of just how deep they need to go, how brave they need to be. Rowlands said about playing Mabel: “It left me exhausted and depressed-feeling. Some of the time, when you’re walking out there where the air is thin, you just hope you can walk back again.”

“Opening Night” (1977), directed by John Cassavetes: Rowlands gives another masterpiece performance as Myrtle Gordon, the alcoholic actress rehearsing a play in New Haven all while descending into a prolonged crack-up involving binge-drinking, consultations with mediums, and a repeat hallucination of a young girl. Rowlands’ drunkenness in “Opening Night” is in the pantheon of Great Drunks onscreen. Early on, when Myrtle is first confronted with the hallucination/girl, there’s a closeup of Rowlands’ face that is an example of her unique genius. One can’t actually describe what the moment IS because the truth of it lies on the periphery, not at the center, and even then, it flickers in and out of focus. Even very talented actors feel the need to show an audience “what a moment is about.” Not Rowlands. In that closeup, Myrtle stares at the girl, wondering if she has finally lost her mind, and then she puts an almost welcoming expression on her face, before mouthing the word, “Hello!” It’s hair-raising.

Night on Earth (1991), directed by Jim Jarmusch: Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth” was the first film Rowlands appeared in after the death of Cassavetes. In the Los Angeles sequence of the film, Rowlands plays Victoria Snelling, a high-powered talent agent, first seen racing across an empty airfield in black heels, clutching a briefcase. She finds herself in the back seat of a cab driven by the chain-smoking Winona Ryder. Victoria is at first so self-centered about her own career she can’t focus on anything outside of herself, but once you share a cigarette with someone, it’s a bond for life. Nobody smokes a cigarette like Rowlands. For those of us who were giant Rowlands fans, eagerly awaiting for any sign of her, “Night on Earth” brought a heaving sigh of relief. She’s back.

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