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Friday, September 14, 2018

Director Report Card: Jeff Lieberman (1994)

5. But…Seriously '94

To cult movie fans, after the release of “Remote Control,” it must have seemed like Jeff Lieberman disappeared off the face of the Earth. The man behind minor classics like “Squirm” and “Just Before Dawn” didn't make another horror movie for fifteen years. Lieberman, however, was doing stuff during what appeared to be a lengthy hiatus. He wrote the little-liked third entry in the “NeverEnding Story” series. In the mid-nineties, he also produced and directed two short documentaries for cable television. The first of which was “But... Seriously,” which is called “But... Seriously '94” in its opening title. The film aired on Showtime and has been completely forgotten since then.

So what is “But...Seriously '94?” The film is a short documentary. It cuts together about a dozen comedians, from various specials and performances, as they talk about the then-relevant news stories of the day. Throughout the special, we see some well-known - and some not so-well-known performers - reflecting in irrelevant and somewhat serious ways about social and political events that still resonate and some that have been completely forgotten today.

“But...Seriously” is a highly specific look into events that occurred twenty-four years ago, a time that seems both very long ago and not nearly long ago enough. Many of the events referenced by the comedians are still well-remembered today. Naturally, Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpsons – two of the biggest names of the day – come up. Michael Jackson's molestation trial and his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley are referenced. Lorena Bobbitt and the notorious severed penis get a series of scenes to herself.

Yet some of the names mentioned have already faded into history. The Menendez brothers are referenced casually several times, so much that the film doesn't even feel it necessary to explain who they are. A segment is devoted to Michael Fay, the kid that got caned in Singapore, a controversy that is rightfully forgotten today. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, two rightfully forgotten old racists who also worked as politicians, get name-dropped. I lived through 1994 and this is the first time I've heard of some of these events. Such as seven comets that collided with Jupiter. Or the United States apparently nearly going to war with Haiti. To be fair, I wasn't really paying attention to these things much at the time.

Yet, while watching “But...Seriously,” I couldn't help but think about the way things are similar and the way things are different now. Bill Clinton and his various political scandals, such as Whitewater, Paula Jones, and the Brady Bill, are talked about. Today, during our current administration, it's hard to believe the American public and political body was ever offended by such controversies. There are events highlighted here – the murder of an abortion doctor in Pensacola, parents blaming “Beavis and Butthead” for their child burning the house down – that I doubt would even make the national news today.

Yet some things never change, I guess. There was a push in 1994 to install universal healthcare by the political left, which was apparently laughed out of Washington. Gun control is debated, with comedian Rick Ducommum presenting an especially tasteless disapproval of it. During that business with Haiti, debates about America's relationship with refugees emerge. Flagrant corporate corruption is on display, when tobacco industry execs deny that cigarettes cause cancer.  The death of Richard Nixon, and the disconnect between the public's opinion on Nixon and the eulogies given at his funeral, bring the very recent debates surrounding the postmortem treatment of John McCain to mind.

The general mood projected by the comedians here is apocalyptic. Early on, comedian Paul Mooney talks about how he feels the world is ending. The first segment in the special is devoted to the Northridge Earthquake, which the comedians are especially irrelevant about. Later on, references are made to the wars in Serbia and Yugoslavia. The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda are discussed. The especially sharp comedian Jimmy Tingle makes the point that the American media cared much more about O.J., Tonya, and Lorena than they did these far more destructive events. More than once, the onscreen performers express disappointment with America, its people, and its culture.

As much as “But...Seriously” is a look into the past of American politics, it's much more a look into the past of stand-up comedy. Politics, pop culture, and scandal remain common topics for stand-ups today. However, modern stand-up – in a post alt-comedy world – is characterized by a more personal and absurd approach. The comedy on display in “But...Seriously” seems more aggressively zany. Performers like Richard Belzer, David Brenner, Jack Coen, and Charles “Roger Rabbit” Flesicher are all funny to varying degrees. They also affect silly voices, exaggerated personas, and a general broadness that I simply can't see playing today. These comic tactics were common at the time but read as phony and insincere today.

More pressingly, is “But...Seriously” funny? Yeah, it definitely is. Talented comedians like George Wallace and Pam Stone have pointed, absurd, and amusing observations about some of the various topics, such as Michael Jackson and VCRs. David Brenner's increasingly silly thoughts on hunting and gun control made me laugh. Jack Coen's antics are maybe too wacky but his reflections on muskets made me chuckle. The briefly featured Sue Kolinsky and Beverly Mickens have a dryer, more personal approach that I personally find a lot funnier than many of the other people displayed here.

Some of the comedians I'm really not sure what to think about. The notorious Andrew Dice Clay appears, doing his typical shtick that prioritizes a macho persona over good taste. Joy Behar has insightful thoughts on Lorena Bobbit before making some tasteless jokes about Paula Jones. Rick Ducommum and Will Durst, with their very loud delivery, both come off as pretty obnoxious. There's a lot of debate in modern stand-up about what role, if any, political correctness should play in the medium. “But...Seriously” takes place before a time when such thoughts were considered at all.

Perhaps more interesting than “But...Seriously '94” itself is there's some minor confusion over what the movie even is. See, IMDb, Amazon, Letterboxd, and other resources list the film with a run time of 88 minutes. All three also say George Carlin, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, and other very well known performers appear in the film. These sources also say the film was more about the relationship between politics and comedy in general than specifically the events of 1994. None of these big names appear in the version I saw, which only runs about an hour. I do know that the special I watched was directed by Jeff Lieberman, as his name is listed in the credits.

So is there two different specials with the same name and some of the same people in it that have been conflated over the years? Or is “But...Seriously '94” a follow-up to an earlier special from the same year, also called “But...Seriously?” This separate film seems to exist but, whether or not Jeff Lieberman had anything to do with it, I can't answer as it's totally unavailable. This intrigue is a mystery no one but me wants to answer, as obviously nobody is talking about these obscure comedy documentaries. Whatever the fact is, the “But..Seriously” I watched is an amusing if definitely minor little film. [Grade: B]


Jay El said...

You actually posted a picture of the front cover of the VHS of 'But Seriously' - which states who's in it clear as day, and that was a FEATURE DOCUMENTARY I made in 1993. But Seriously 94 was merely a follow up one hour year end special- NOT a 'short' made because of the tremendous success of the original feature on Showtime. Both were aired in primetime on Showtime. I can't imagine how this could be the least bit confusing since they both have different titles, different running lengths and different casts. I suppose using the internet to glean information to post back on another place on the internet results in pointless 'reviews' filled to the brim with mis-information. The fact is, 'But Seriously'- the feature film- went on to play on Comedy Central for years and also Channel Four in the UK and was considered by critics and more importantly the comedy world itself as being a touchstone in political comedy and is to this day.
Funny that i'm writing this because I'm likely the only person who read your review and ironically, it came up during my search looking for something else!

Bonehead XL said...

First off, Mr. Lieberman, thank you for reading my writing! The confusion extends from IMDb and other sources not listing But...Seriously as a separate entity from its follow-up. Thanks for the clarification.