Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Five favorite DVD extras

And here's why I hate the Oscars: They've rarely recognized kickass comedic performances like Downey Jr.'s in Tropic Thunder, and they probably won't do so again this year.

On Tuesday, November 25, my special copy of the long-out-of-print Freaks and Geeks Yearbook Edition box set stopped being so special. That was the day Shout! Factory reissued the limited edition set--which was available only to fans like me who signed an online petition to get Freaks and Geeks released on DVD--and made the collectible available to everybody.

But I'm glad more viewers can now get the chance to enjoy the Yearbook Edition because hands down, it's the most impressive TV show box set ever put together. The packaging was designed to resemble a hardbound yearbook from Freaks and Geeks' 1980 high school setting, complete with an embossed McKinley High Norseman logo on the cover and pages of photos of the McKinley kids (actually behind-the-scenes snapshots of the cast) surrounded by the same corny typewritten text that's always found in yearbooks, plus ballpoint-pen scrawlings by the show's characters. In 2004, Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig recalled to Entertainment Weekly how the packaging designers reacted to his suggestions for the fake yearbook. He said, "The design guys were like, 'Everything you're trying to get us to do is stuff we spent years trying to stop doing.' It's like, 'I know, but it's gotta look kinda s---ty.'"

The Yearbook Edition is worth the extra ducats, thanks to Shout! Factory's willingness to pay expensive music-clearance fees so that each of the Freaks and Geeks music supervisors' '70s and '80s rock song picks remained in the show (that's one reason why the Freaks and Geeks DVDs cost so much), as well as the buttload of fascinating and sometimes strange bonus features (the standard edition contains less bonuses). My favorite extra gives us glimpses of an alternate-universe Freaks and Geeks. It's the audition footage of cast members as characters they didn't wind up playing on the show (Busy Philipps as Lindsay!).

The box set made me ponder which other DVD extras are equally enjoyable and which ones make viewers uncomfortable and are difficult to sit through, like some of the offbeat Freaks and Geeks commentary tracks that even the show's most die-hard fans will admit they find to be cringe-inducing and not worth their time (Portland film critic D.K. Holm said he was creeped out by the Freaks and Geeks stage parents' commentrak).

1. Robert Downey Jr. doing the Tropic Thunder actors' commentary in the accent of whatever character Kirk Lazarus is playing onscreen at the moment
In the movie, Kirk the insane and overcommitted Method actor says, "Man, I don't drop character 'til I done the DVD commentary." So Downey Jr. never drops character until the commentary is over. A commentrak in which the stars "get into character" is not a new concept, but Downey Jr. the comic genius takes it to another level.

2. "30 Rock Live!"
This 30 Rock: Season 2 extra is a home video of a 2007 UCB Theater appearance by the cast, who gave a staged reading of a script for an episode that hadn't aired yet at the time (one of my favorites, "Secrets and Lies," the ep in which Tracy wins a "Pacific Rim Emmy" and then gives Jenna a "sharking"). In an awesome gesture, the cast staged the UCB Theater show to raise money for the 30 Rock production assistants during the writers' strike. Though the footage quality isn't the best, this live version is a fun alternate take on "Secrets and Lies," and it even includes some amusing dialogue that was trimmed from the final cut. The highlights of the live performance are Alec Baldwin's sex faces during his love scenes with SNL staff writer Paula Pell, who subbed for absent "Secrets and Lies" guest star Edie Falco, and the improvised fake commercials with Jack McBrayer and Scott Adsit.

3. Jack Black pleading with the notoriously stingy surviving members of Led Zeppelin to license "Immigrant Song" for School of Rock (with the help of an audience full of a thousand screaming Zep fans)
Black says Richard Linklater came up with the idea to film the plea to Zep from the Staten Island theater where the movie's Battle of the Bands climax was shot. Linklater, you're a genius. (And yes, the filmed message ultimately won over Zep and they granted Linklater permission to use "Immigrant Song.")

4. The Peter Ustinov interview on the Spartacus Criterion Collection two-disc
Originally videotaped for the 1992 Criterion laserdisc, this special feature is easily the most entertaining laserdisc/DVD interview with a raconteur I've seen, thanks to Ustinov's gift for mimicry--he busted out dead-on impressions of his Spartacus co-stars Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton--and his jabs at Laughton, "an extremely sensitive man who went through life just waiting to be offended."

5. The "Mayonnaise Thing" extra on the Comedians of Comedy DVD
Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis must have been baked out of their minds while goofing around with the cameras and shooting this uproarious fake gay porno video, which appears in a much shorter and less explicit form in the documentary. Grossness alert: Posehn takes off his shirt.

Extras that make viewers uncomfortable:
- Claudia Christian arguing with Tom Wilson and then storming off halfway through the Freaks and Geeks "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" commentrak
- Linda Doucett shedding tears during an awkward but reconcilatory reunion with her ex-boyfriend Garry Shandling on a Larry Sanders featurette
- Cybill Shepherd weeping during the Moonlighting commentraks
- The 2006 Repo Man reissue's strange 21-minute interview with a short-tempered, rambling Harry Dean Stanton (I'd love to see how Stanton and the equally weird James Lipton would react to each other if Stanton ever winds up on Inside the Actors Studio)
- The dizzyingly shot Being John Malkovich mockumentary about Spike Jonze that ends with him puking on the side of the road

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