On DVD: Amy Poehler in ASSSSCAT!, John Lennon with Tom Snyder


When it comes to DVD projects, you could do worse than to think of the retro-pop-culture label Shout! Factory as the Rhino Records of the home video biz. Their catalog of "Music, Movies and Video for the discerning Pop Culture Geek" -- new material as well as archive and "vault" releases -- provides a welcome resource that's far outside the Blockbuster box. Whether you love their DVDs for the nostalgia or the preserved cultural history or simply for the freaky-wacked-gonzo factor, Shout! Factory provides a valuable service in our age when "retro" too often means last month's biggest YouTube download. They're one of my fave labels not just because I'm one of those discerning Pop Culture Geeks -- we meet at the Greenwich Village night club DPCG the first Tuesday of every month -- but also because every time I visit shoutfactory.com I find something new that (a) I gotta have and (b) I can't find anywhere else.

Two new releases this month do a good job representin' Shout! Factory on our DVD shelves. One DVD delivers a live stage performance by the Upright Citizens Brigade, the New York and L.A.-based improvisational and sketch comedy group featuring Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and the current comedy It babe Amy Poehler in their native element: on a small stage spontaneously riffing for a rowdy audience. The other Shout! Factory DVD dips back to 1980 -- specifically, the day after John Lennon was murdered, when Tom Snyder's late-night TV Tomorrow Show rebroadcast what turned out to be the ex-Beatle's last televised interview.

For fans of long-form improv comedy, The Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT! delivers the goods with two hours of "renegade improv comedy," interviews with the cast, outtakes, and even an illuminating, no-bullshit cast commentary track about the improv performance we're watching. The main event is one of the UCB's live weekly improvised shows, ASSSSCAT, with the troupe's four founding members -- Poehler, Besser, Walsh, and Roberts -- joined by Horatio Sanz (an SNL colleague of Poehler), Sean Conroy (Crossballs), Andrew Daly (The Office, MadTV), and Chad Carter (Crossballs) building scenes and jokes from suggestions tossed out from the audience. Unlike, say, the quick-change/hit-the-buzzer style of Whose Line is it Anyway?, ASSSSCAT starts off its performances with a guest monologist -- in this case Thomas Lennon (Reno: 911!) and Kate Walsh (Grey's Anatomy) -- improvising a funny personal story on the spot. Then the UCB troupe takes elements from the monologues and spins them off into free-form scenes and mini-sketches that morph and grow organically in hilarious, frequently surreal directions.

Naturally, some moments work better than others, but these pros always know when a bit has outlived its lifespan, then Matt or Amy or Horatio taps out one of the players to whirl the taffy-like premise into something new, even if for just 30 seconds. Topics getting the treatment include a car mechanic tripping on mescaline (always listen to the talking cactus!), a restaurant's talking moose-head that dispenses more honesty than it should, a middle-class crack-smoking party, the Worst Birthday Gift Ever, a divorce party, a post-break-up ski trip, and other set-ups that never know where they're going until they get there.

Amy Poehler in Shout! Factory's 'Asssscat!'But since improv -- in particular the long-form styles developed by disciples of Del Close, the boddishatva for two generations of A-list improv and sketch comics -- is all about the impulsive creative jazz, the immediacy, and the spontaneous energy of a live, you-are-there, no-rules event, does ASSSSCAT work on DVD? It does. For most of its brisk duration, the show unfolds raw and uninterrupted, although the occasional cut reminds us that some post-production editing went into shaving it down a bit for home video. At the show's start, Besser acknowledges the home viewing audience by coming right up to the camera and chiding us for being lazy fuckers (by the way, this is not a "work safe" DVD) who should stop eating on our couches, mock-dissing us for not being worthy of the live performances to come. Poehler gushes in a recent AV Club interview, "It is such a live feeling; there's nothing like watching a live performance of, frankly, anything." And it's true that a recording of a live performance obviously distances us from the "being there" of it. Yet this troupe has honed their improv and on-camera skills to a fine point; at the same time, those of us at home eating on our couches accept that this is inevitably a one-step-removed performance, so there's still a two-way understanding at work here. The audio's Dolby Digital 5.1 "surround sound" helps by placing us right there within the crowd, however vicariously.

The bottom line is this is one funny-with-a-capital-fuh DVD that leaves us wanting more. Good thing, then, that we get more. Shout! Factory is typically generous with the DVD extras, and The Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT! keeps the label's street cred intact. We get a 30-minute "Bonus Round" comprised of clips from one or more other ASSSSCAT performances on the same stage. This time the performers include comics Ed Helms (The Daily Show), Will Arnett (30 Rock). Jen Kirkman (blog), and Paul F. Tompkins. Some sequences in the Bonus Round are funnier than parts of the main program, so together they give us a superb sample of improv when it sings and occasionally when it stutters.

Also on the disc is a 17-minute backstage interview with the four UCB founders, who dish out some UCB history, stories of memorable shows, colleague-gone-big-time Stephen Colbert's Ben & Jerry's deal, the origin of the name "ASSSSCAT," and more.

In Monologus Interruptus, Tompkins is unaware during his monologue that a drunk or stoned audience member has wandered onto the stage behind him. Looking ill and apparently stumbling around for the nearest exit before he hurls and/or passes out, the big-gulp-sized stranger becomes a resource for improv by Horatio Sanz. In We Love Our Audience, a handful of audience members -- including a guy in a stoner stovepipe hat and "the nicest girl in the room" -- become targets of the good-naturedly snarky UCB gang.

The most impressive extra here is the full-length audio commentary by Walsh, Besser, and Roberts -- Poehler's not there, alas -- and any serious student of improv should consider this reason enough to grab this DVD. As we watch the feature ASSSSCAT show, these guys offer a play-by-play discussion of the improv techniques at work, what's happening in their heads in any particular moment, the impulses that triggered certain choices, what happens when a piece fails to ignite or flounders as it goes, how they work off each other's choices, and so on. It's informative, involving, and unavoidably funny stuff.




Shout! Factory's DVD box art for 'John, Paul, George, Tom and Ringo'Also available from Shout! Factory is John, Paul, Tom and Ringo: The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, a two-disc compilation of three late-night segments with the popular and influential (and occasionally insufferable and seemingly clueless) talk show host.

The key reason for this DVD is Snyder chatting up John Lennon in an April, 1975 interview. As Snyder explains at the top of the segment, this particular show reruns their '75 chat -- Lennon's last televised interview -- for a rebroadcast on December 9, 1980, less than 24 hours after Lennon was shot in front of his Manhattan apartment building. Totaling a bit over an hour long, Snyder augments the '75 interview with a "memorial tribute" perspective from 1980 and new interviews with journalist Lisa Robinson, who was friends with the Lennons, and producer Jack Douglas, who produced Lennon's final album, Double Fantasy, and had recorded a session with Lennon the night of his murder. Douglas is clearly broken by the shock of the recent news.

The Lennon interview occupies Disc One. Relaxed and good-humored even as he's sometimes assaulted by Snyder's impenetrable barking squareness, Lennon answers the obvious questions about his time as a young rock-and-roller surrounded by sex and drugs, his years as a Beatle, his relationship with his ex-bandmembers (troubled waters had been smoothed long before, the Beatles disbanded because of boredom above any other reason, and yay! for Ringo's solo success), his own solo career, the current music scene (he likes disco and reggae), his life in New York with Yoko Ono and their son Sean, his love of the U.S., and the corrupt police and political headaches tangling up his visa status. In fact, Lennon's immigration lawyer, Leon Wildes, joins the interview to lay down the facts and mention a countersuit against the U.S. immigration agency for its personally targeted profiling of Lennon.

John Lennon in Shout! Factory's DVD 'John, Paul, George, Tom and Ringo'It's a pleasant enough conversation and, for a Lennon or Beatles fan, a modestly essential recording. In the 1980 segment, Snyder admits that his '75 sit-down with Lennon was far from his best episode, and he's correct. Snyder's personality comes off as grating; meanwhile Lennon is gracious and patient, and also slyly gets his digs in. John can see as easily as we do that Snyder isn't at his best here, but doesn't thrash his host for it.

On Disc Two we get Snyder's December 20, 1979 satellite hook-up interview with Paul and Linda McCartney (45 minutes), and Snyder's November 25, 1981 interview with Ringo Starr and his wife Barbara Bach (48 minutes). In each case Snyder is at his most overbearing and off-putting. And although the interviewees are dutiful and polite in the face of their host's sometimes banal questions, everybody -- Paul and Linda particularly -- come off as uncomfortable and distracted. As news-making or even just casually entertaining interviews, they're disasters. They're worth a look for completist fans of McCartney and Starr, certainly, but nobody shines here.

Also here as part of the episode is an interview with actress Angie Dickinson promoting her TV series Cassie and Company. Snyder is this time sexist as well as insufferable. It's a skipper.