It starts with a four-way split screen — satirically emblematic of “modern” TV journalism — morphs into a superimposed montage of pop-culture faces over a stylized spinning globe, then opens up on an officious-looking anchor in old-school suit, sitting in front of downtown L.A.’s gleaming skyline. A buzzy, metal-rock guitar riff screams “aggressive, dynamic, cutting-edge news program,” and host Steve Tatham announces the date and welcomes you to The Ointment, the daily comedic news program he’s been offering on the Web since February 2006.
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A brief topical monologue is served up, which, on any given day, may include such jokes as: “China is sending an astronaut to the moon, which is great news for the United States because if all goes well, soon we’ll be able to outsource NASA,” and “No Country for Old Men . . . isn’t that what it says above Demi Moore’s bed?”
What happens next is an unpredictable array of creative sketches and spoofs that may include a guest appearance by gruesome 1970s puppet Madame, or Tatham hilariously lip-synching to Céline Dion hit and Clinton campaign theme song “You And I.” Every Wednesday show features a special guest comedian; no one has repeated yet in 500 episodes.
Tatham did an entire episode in the stark, dread-filled black-and-white style of Ingmar Bergman to commemorate the great Swedish director’s death, and a silent episode after the passing of legendary French mime Marcel Marceau. And in a blurring of the fiction/reality line, Tatham often runs video of his actual campaign to be an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention from California’s 29th District.
The reality of The Ointment from behind the camera is surprisingly modest, low-key and . . . suburban. The entire show is basically shot and created in a room in Tatham’s comfortable Glendale foothills home, with only a tripod-mounted camera, an impressive hanging backdrop of downtown L.A. and one very important, doubtlessly overburdened and memory-enhanced computer. Tatham, who lives with his kids and wife, Mary Manofsky — a former Groundling, who does killer characters on the show, including Australian Stripper, Femme Fatale, Wal-Mart Clerk and an especially acidic Ann Coulter — is amazingly calm and collected for someone with such a seemingly Herculean workload.
“It’s probably some sort of diagnosable compulsive disorder at this point,” he says. “It’s four hours of production each weekday. Although I’ve taken vacations when I take time off from work, I haven’t missed a day.”
A former comedian and writer at Disney’s Imagineering unit, Tatham felt that his steady supply of topical and political jokes was being underutilized at the coffeehouses, bars and other modest standup venues he frequented, so he decided, a couple of years ago, to start an online series in the vein of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and SNL’s “Weekend Update.”
In a system somewhat resembling syndication, The Ointment is reposted on other video-content Web sites, which helps attract some 100,000 hits a month; the show has been mentioned on CNN and broadcast TV news programs, and he’s had to unlist his phone number. “Pretty good,” says Tatham, “for a guy sitting around in his house in a coat, tie and pajama bottoms.”
In one particularly brilliant spoof, Tatham is interviewed by the real Larry King. It’s a highly believable product of video cut-and-paste, and when King asks how long he plans to keep doing this, Tatham responds: “As long as I keep getting renewed, I’m there. And since I’m the one doing the renewing, there’s no end in sight.” Does Tatham consider himself a “Great American”? King wonders. “I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you what,” he calmly declares, quite statesmanlike, “every time I write a bit, I think about it. I think: ‘Is this the truth, from my point of view? Is this gonna make a contribution?’”
When asked about this segment, Tatham admits that he does at times go for sincerity over laughs, even if that means getting a bit strident. “TV is where you have late-night hosts who try not to offend anybody by having a political bias. I have a bias and a point of view, which is what keeps me churning out these videos.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon
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