Those who follow Fresno pop culture, as I do, were a buzz this week over news that the city would be lending its name to a film staring Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) and Judy Greer (“Arrested Development”).
OK, it’s not like the city council took a vote or anything. But still.
“Fresno” is a comedy set for release in 2015. It revolves around the co-dependent relationship of two siblings (one’s a lesbian, the other a sex addict) who wind up back in Fresno cleaning hotel rooms and accidentally kill one of the hotel’s guests.
It’s a dark comedy, obviously.
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If Fresno seems an arbitrary choice of setting, remember that the city has a history of being a Hollywood punchline.
It goes back to 1986 at least, and Carol Burnett’s “Fresno” mini-series, which featured the red-haired comic as the matriarch of a crumbling raisin empire living in a city that’s most iconic landmark is a water tower (it’s on the film’s poster).
The jokes must have written themselves.
Historically, this is how Fresno is portrayed in films and television: a countrified cow-town where the locals play at being dignified city folk. Or worse, it’s the place you return to when you’re down on your luck with no place else to go. It’s a city full of dead-beat ex-husbands (or wives) and bad decisions.
In film land, people may live in Fresno, but no one really wants to live here.
“That’s what makes it funny,” says Aviva Kirsten, a Fresno native who may know more than anyone about the city’s pop culture references. She’s been collecting them since 2011 for a video series she posts on YouTube, “Did Somebody Say Fresno?.” You can watch them on her YouTube page. She’s currently working on the seventh volume.
Yes, Fresno gets mentioned a surprising amount on TV and in the movies. And it’s rarely in a good light.
In some ways, the city is an easy target. Fresno plays against the stereotype of California, Kirstensays. People expect sky-scrapers, sunshine and shore lines. What they get here are strip malls and bad air. It’s also kind of a weird place – one that makes national news because a hatchet-weilding hitchhiker just happens to be passing through.
In that context, a pair of sisters accidentally killing a hotel guest doesn’t seem that odd.
“There's always a fear of Fresno being portrayed in a bad light in the media,” says Roque Rodriguez, a local filmmaker who has been following the “Fresno” news via the Twitterverse. Lyonne has been tweeting from the set, apparently.
There is some hope here, Rodriguez says.
For one, this film could be hilarious. Along with Lyonne and Greer, the film stars comedians Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen and Ron Livingston. It’s being directed by Jamie Babbit, who did the 1999 film, “But I’m a Cheerleader,” and has at least been to Fresno before. Babbit’s last film, “Itty Bitty Titty Committee,” screened at the 18th annual Reel Pride Film Festival in 2007 and the director was part of a filmmakers forum panel at the festival in 2002.
Plus, the movie was written by Karey Dornetto, whose previous work includes writing for the TV series “Community” and “Portlandia.”
“If they can somehow manage to do for the city of Fresno what they did for the city of Portland, then this might end up being a good thing for our fair city,” Rodriguez says. “But I'm not holding my breath.”