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Traveling Through Cloud Cuckoo Land: An Advance Review of Showtime's "La La Land"

There's a certain subgenre of comedy that doesn't really have a label; it's the sort of humor that mines painful or uncomfortable situations for humor. Call it Comedy of the Awkward. The Brits are quite successful at utilizing this type of comedy for major laughs; the original version of The Office did this quite successfully, as did Peep Show, Nighty Night, and any of the characters created by Sasha Baron Cohen on Da Ali G Show (particularly Borat).

A few years back, British comedian Marc Wootton created and starred in an eight-episode BBC Three comedy series High Spirits with Shirley Ghostman, which found Wootton donning a number of hairstyles, costumes, and accents to play a variety of outre characters who then interacted with the public at large. (It aired Stateside on BBC America in 2006.) The result was a sidesplitting and often painful series of double-takes and belly laughs, especially when Wootton donned a white suit and French-tipped nails to play the titular Shirley Ghostman, a callous and hyper-ambitious psychic who claimed to be able to channel celebrity spirits.

This Monday evening sees the launch on Showtime of Marc Wootton's uproarious new comedy series La La Land, in which Wootton plays three characters--including his twisted grand creation Shirley Ghostman--in search of fame and fortune in Los Angeles. As before, the situations are real, though the people Wootton encounters are unaware of the fact that he is performing a character.

In La La Land, Wootton takes aim at the artificiality of both the entertainment industry and the denizens of Los Angeles who buy into the false magic of fame. Portraying Ghostman as a psychic who has arrived in LA for a fresh start (after a brush with the law in England), divorced documentary filmmaker Brendan desperate for success, and wannabe actor Gary who gives new meaning to the term "fish out of water, Wootten doesn't just transform himself into these characters, but channels them completely.

Each of the three men is played so straight and convincingly that it's difficult to separate at times the "reality" created by the characters (there are no false beards or wigs involved and Wootton workshops these characters in public) and the fiction that Wootton has created. Assisting this delicious fantasy are the sidekicks that each of the characters encounters along the way: Brendan hires stripper Kiki as a camerawoman; Shirley hires Chico as a chauffeur/gopher; and Gary turns to classic film star Ruta Lee for guidance as he navigates the choppy waters of life as a struggling actor.

Each episode features the three men engaged in different storylines that might involve Shirley auditioning for a psychic television series (here called Spirited) and attempting to eliminate the competition through some rather devious means, Brendan attempting to film a single-take documentary of an increasingly irate Minuteman, and Gary attending a workshop on Method acting. While the story strands are separate, they are intercut and woven thematically into individual episodes that recount another week of life in the City of Angels.

I won't say too much about the plot because it's best to just dive into La La Land and be swept away by the shock and hysteria of each episode. Wootton does a fantastic job at keeping the tension up and pushing the subjects as far as they can go before the scenario breaks down completely. It's a rare talent that showcases not only his knowledge of human nature and his precise comedic timing but also a deft satirical hand and an ability to blend right into each of his characters.

Shirley, Brendan, and Gary might not be people you want to run into on the streets of Los Angeles but their presence in the deliciously off-kilter La La Land will make you want to spend your Monday evenings with them. Just don't turn your back on Shirley...

La La Land launches on Monday night at 11 pm ET/PT on Showtime.


rockauteur said…
I hated this show... thought besides a few funny jokes, was pretty much not funny at all, and more annoying, than anything. PLus some of the "real" situations seemed more fake than anything else, but I suppose thats part of the magic in pulling this off.
Piper said…
I love Shirley Ghostman ("I must have shushy!") and am excited to see the show and the two other characters that Wootton has created!
Pin-gli said…
Great blog Jace - really enjoyed reading your thoughts on La La Land - have linked to your review from the latest posting on Marc's blog,
Brian said…
What a great show, with amazing comedic performances from Wootton. Just finished watching episode 4 with my girlfriend and I laughed till it was actually painful - not unlike some of the funniest moments in the show, I suppose. Really great stuff and I hope there's a second season!

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