Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

Sally Field and Tom Hanks in the film “Punchline”

At some point in the 1988 film Punchline, starring Sally Field and Tom Hanks as aspiring stand-up comics, Field asks Hanks:  “How do you know if something is really funny?”  Hanks (as the Jewish comic Steven Gold) tells her something to the effect of: “Either it’s wet or it’s dry.  If it’s wet” (funny) “then you can tell right away.  There’s no in-between.”   These words of comedy wisdom (as recalled by my fallible memory) came back to me frequently as I sat through the Hollywood Comedy Shorts Film Festival earlier this month, where it often felt like I was trekking through a desert, only to come upon the occasional oasis.

But first, a few observations on “funny.”

Mister Warmth


A long time ago – the late 1960s – this Twisted Hipster was just one teenager in a group of teenage outward bound kids who for some reason were walking down a street on the Las Vegas Strip in the middle of a weekday afternoon.  On a street corner, a fat balding guy was talking with a light-skinned black guy.  As we passed the two men, the balding guy insulted each of us in turn.  To me he said: “Hey kid, maybe someday you’ll grow into those ears!”

Tears sprung to my eyes, and there were titters from a few of my fellow hikers, which soon dissipated as their turn came to be insulted.  I hated this man, who I soon recognized as Don Rickles from The Ed Sullivan Show, where he’d insulted audience members as sharply as he had insulted me.  Even years later, after I had been producer and head writer for two Off-Broadway evenings of political satire (and had indeed grown into my ears), it still took me a long time to feel at all warmly toward Mister Warmth.  I just have problems with comedy that makes fun of people for their physical attributes or for simply being who they are.  Yet I had to admit that I remembered what Rickles had said long after I’d forgotten most other jokes and jibes, and that sometimes when I thought about it, I chuckled.

(The insults he’d hurled at my fellow outward bounders were more difficult to recall, partly because I was in shock from his comment to me.  There were barbs about pimples, facial hair, stupid expressions, stupid grins, tits–mostly how “flat” these girls’ chests were.  I think he asked one tall blond guy if he was in town for the Hitler Convention.)


Mel Brooks has famously said that comedy is tragedy plus time.

So think of the climactic scene of Hamlet, when Hamlet is about to partake in a fencing match with Laertes, whose father and sister he has already killed.  The tension is high, and soon all the major characters in the play will be dead.  But what if the minor character of Osric, who is refereeing the match, holds everything up because he sees a wasp in the room and spends the next 5 minutes trying to swat it?  Then you go from highbrow tragedy to lowbrow Monty Python sketch.  (Tom Stoppard employed a variation of this strategy in his Hamlet satire, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead.)

Then we come to the 17th Century painting of Bacchus and Ariadne by Guido Reni in LACMA’s permanent collection.  This is gorgeously-painted, with a blue backdrop worthy of Giovanni Bellini.  There are learned references in the painting to Titian (who painted the same scene) and Leonardo da Vinci (in the manner of the rocks), and there is a dry humor in the characters’ body language  – Ariadne was married to Bacchus, then left him for Theseus, who has abandoned her, and now Bacchus is back.  But I think it’s hard for many of us to appreciate all those aspects while looking at the wine god’s uncircumcised micro-penis.  Right?  I mean, I know what I said about disliking the mocking of peoples’ physical attributes – and I suppose it may seem immature on my part – but that penis would be small on a baby much less a god, and it seems dishonest not to remark on it.  I’m sure it posed no problem for Reni’s contemporaries, where it was considered vulgar and unseemly to depict the male organ as a thing of any length, much less girth – but our sense of proportion being what is, and the prevalence of phallic images being what they are in our time, it’s hard not to laugh when you see this.  So, dry in its own time, but wet as a baby’s diaper in ours.


Watch out for Ricardo Navas, a comedy double-threat


60+ short films were shown over two days at the Hollywood Comedy Shorts Film Festival, most of them lasting 10-12 minutes.  It was a little like watching a cattle call audition for actors in which you want to be fair to everyone, but after a while it feels overwhelming and hard to take in, hard to clear your mind of the world you’ve just been in and then enter another.  And like auditioners too, each film tried as best it could to use its few minutes to carve out a niche for itself, that would make it distinctive.  Yet the harder that most of these films tried to be memorable, the “dryer” and more like each other they became.

The majority of the films took place in Hollywood, were actor-centered and concerned either career aspirations or the perils of dating.  Ironically – given my “wet-dry” metaphor – many of the films were either about the California drought or had that as its backdrop.

The Day LA Stood Still, written and directed by Karl Harpur, is one such film.  It’s about how a simple rainstorm turns four fun-loving, good-looking residents of Silverlake into terrified and jabbering maniacs, spouting long-hidden secrets, certain that the world as they’ve known it is over.  It’s all filmed very nicely, but the idea is hardly large enough to support a two minute sketch, much less a seven minute movie.


Mere Players is one of those actor-centered movies in which all the world really is a stage, as long as you’re a good-looking young actor who cares only about honing his craft and advancing his career.  But this film rises above the others on the wings of its young star, Lionel Sam, whose likeability quotient is so high that we follow him with amusement and interest, no matter how suspect (and even heinous) his character’s actions might be.  Lionel was present at the screening, and we spoke briefly.  “I love acting, man, I love everything about it, and I just want to keep doing it.”  I ask how things have been going.  “It’s been too quiet, man.  I mean, there are things happening, but I want more.  I want to be challenged.  I’d love to work on a TV series, a sitcom, something that gives me a chance to show what I can do.”  The sentiments aren’t new – I’ve heard them from many young actors – but from what I saw in this short film, I think that Lionel has some real comedic chops, and it would be exciting to see how far he could go if given the opportunity.  So all you casting agents and TV producers out there – make it happen!  And that’s an order.


Acting Class, written and directed by Aaron Fradkin, is another actor-centered movie (duh), and it indeed takes place in that most spoof-able of locations, the Hollywood acting class.  It seems at first like another retread idea, as we are introduced to a caricature of an acting guru, a very affected African-American gay man who calls himself “the Real Julian Holloway.”   But then he is soon replaced by a 40-something woman who claims that she is “the Real Julian Holloway” – which should have been the name of the movie.  Anyway, the game is on, and a very fun game it is, with the talented Burt Grinstead at the center of the mystery.  As with all good mysteries, what makes this one work is a surprising resolution/revelation that is also funny and satisfying.  Bravo!


Time Travel Romance is funnier than it has any right to be.  It starts with a stock character – the average-looking single man who lives with his mother, always says the wrong thing to women he’s attracted to and can’t get a date – and it takes him in an outrageous direction that is just semi-believable enough for us to keep suspending our belief.  It stars and is directed by Ben Giroux, who also wrote it from an idea by Jessica Bishop.  The conceit here is that Ben’s character (Ben) is so frustrated by the constant rejection that he invents a time machine, enabling him to go back in time on dates and rewrite his stupid lines into something more likely to get him laid.  In order to do this, Ben has to carry his time machine around with him, which is difficult to do when it is the size of a suitcase bomb (which it resembles).  His gambit works at first – every time he pisses off the woman of his fantasies by something he says, he presses the button and goes back in time a few moments.  But the time machine has a loose connection and keeps getting stuck – which leads Ben to give it a wallop – and lands him in a very different date than he expected.

Skinny Fat Girl is one of those films that lodges uneasily somewhere behind your eyes, where it refuses to let itself be forgotten.  It tells the story of Annie, whose friend Hannah is trying with increasing frustration to get her laid.  Hannah is a veteran of the bar singles scene, but Annie – played wonderfully by Madison Cross – is the opposite.  She’s recently lost 100 pounds, transforming from a fat girl who men ignored to a sexy-seeming siren.  But all Annie can feel when men come on to her is anger and sadness at how they still don’t see her – the person – any more than they did when she was overweight.  And nothing feels right – she is still haunted by the ghost of the fat woman she used to be.  But then a man comes along, Parker (Jack Quaid), who may be just as much of a misfit as she is.   And just possibly, this might work out…

Connor Ratliff and Kristen Admovic in “Standards and Practices…”

Any film that uses an obscure academic book like Zizek’s “The Plague of Fantasies” as its narrative lynchpin definitely has a claim on my attention.  But then again,  Standards and Practices: A Short Film on Modern Romance by Ellena Chmielewski makes it clear right from the start that it is playing a different kind of dating game than most other films in this genre.  It opens with a seduction scene between Rick, a dumpy-looking semiotics professor, and Clair, his sexy student.  It seems as if Clair is seducing Rick – but then she reveals that she is in fact brilliant, and Rick stops her.  He tells her that she has ruined his seduction, as he can only fuck empty-headed women that he feels superior to.  This leads to an argument between them, which ends with Clair grabbing Zizek’s book off the professor’s desk and tossing it out the window, where a beautiful dark-haired woman passing by picks it up.  The short film then unfolds in a series of “La Ronde”-like scenes between couples who are indeed “plagued” by “fantasies” which don’t allow them really to love the person they’re with or even see them properly.  Not every scene is equally good, and the film often seems to have too much on its mind, in a didactic sort of way, and too many influences – yes, it’s heavy on the Bunuel.  But there’s a real intelligence at work here, which often clicks on both the visual and textual levels, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.    

The Nation Holds Its Breath, written and directed by Kev Cahill, is an Irish movie that reminded me a lot of the work of Bill Forsyth (Local Hero) and Jim Sheridan (In America).  Kate Gilmore and Sam Keeley are pregnant, and their baby has chosen the worst of all possible times to be born – just when Ireland and Romania are playing a World Cup game that has transfixed everyone in their town, including the nurses and doctors at the hospital.  Should Sam stay with Kate for the birth or should he go in with everyone else and watch the one TV, black & white with poor reception?  There are imminent tragedies everywhere, including the threat of a breached birth, but this is an Irish movie, full of that particular kind of dark-souled whimsy, and so you trust that good things will happen in the end.

And then there was one – Millions of Drops, directed by Matt Larson, written by and starring Ricardo Navas.  This was for me the most consistently original and funny movie in the festival.  It’s about a pop idol, Shay-T, who is a former member of an “In-Sync”-like boy band named MillenYum, whose biggest hit was the song “Millions of Drops.”  Shay-T is now breaking away from the boys and going solo.  But to do that, he has to win back the one groupie who ever left him, Rosella.  This is very difficult to do – both because Rosella is now with an Australian bodybuilder, and because everyone Shay-T meets wants to have sex with him.  This includes Zoe, Rosella’s roommate, who is so hot to trot that he is forced to protect himself by any means necessary.  But Shay-T has vowed to stop sleeping with “thousands of ladies” and settle down with just one – if he can just give her one reason to trust him again.  The film includes some very funny music videos of what Shay-T will be performing in his solo career, if he can just find a way to keep his dick in his pants.  (Take that, Guido Reni and your Bacchus micro-penis!)

Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.