Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Keeping It Real"

In the early nineties, I attended a one-man stage show starring a comedian named Rick Reynolds. Two things attracted me to the performance. One was that Reynolds’ manager was the revered Jack Rollins, manager of Woody Allen and many other outstanding comedians, giving Reynolds a lofty stamp of approval. The other draw was the title of his show:

Only The Truth Is Funny

I recall the show being very entertaining. Though Reynolds’ act was comprised of extended anecdotes concerning his often nightmarish life, he made you laugh, the more so, at least for me, because you knew those stories were true. Reynolds’ life had some agonizing turns to it. But it made for an extremely funny show.

I thought, as Eddie Izzard often goes…”Yeh.” It is indeed the case that Only The Truth Is Funny. And then, as I often do, I thought again. And what I thought was, “Not so fast.” (I’m pretty much ready to discard my first thoughts, since my second thoughts are invariably deeper and more rewarding. My eighth thoughts are amazing, but by then, most people have generally left the room. Including me.)

I believe it can be persuasively argued that only the truth is funny. But with a caveat. (Not to be confused with Dick Caveat, who was also represented by Jack Rollins.)
That caveat is this:

Yes, only the truth is funny


Not all the truth is funny.

You see what I did there? I agreed with the basic premise. But I qualified. Not all the truth is funny. A lot truth is not funny.

As I learned, or was reminded, I don’t recall which, while watching a particular episode of Friends.

I was a regular watcher of Friends, enjoying a great number of its episodes. Though I never cared who fathered Jennifer Aniston’s baby, which generated stories for, I don’t know, the last three seasons, I found the actors engaging and talented, and the jokes often hilarious, my favorite being,

“Let’s get some Chinese food. Or as they call it in China…food.”

That joke was just sitting there. But somebody found it. To which I proclaim, “Hat’s off!”

Top to bottom, Friends was a savvy enterprise. But once, early in the series, they hit a wrong note. By doing the right thing. That right thing being

Trying to tell the truth.

The story was about money. Some of the Friends had decently paying, fulltime jobs, and some didn’t. I think the breakdown was three and three. The show runners decided to do an episode about that. To wit:

How do you handle it when the Friends who have money problems can’t keep up with the Friends who don’t? How does the “affording” issue affect the group’s decision-making? How does it affect the spontaneity? The group cohesion?

In short, how does money affect the Friendship?

It sounds like a workable idea, based on the undeniable truth of the Friends’ situation. The result, however, was one of the sourest episodes in the history of the series.

It just didn’t feel good. And to a “feel good” television series, that’s the exact opposite of what they want.

It turns out Friends facing the truth about their unequal financial situations was, though true, painfully unfunny. It cut too close to an uncomfortable bigger truth. The capitalist reality. Where, without ignoring differences in wealth, we’re expected to act like they don’t matter.

For one episode, the Friends confronted that issue. They never did it again.

What do we learn here? First, we learn, as previously mentioned, that not all the truth is funny. Some of it is downright painful. And other things as well. If we have a desire to be entertained, we should not expect total truth from our television shows. (Who ever did? Me, and I was wrong.)

The best each television show can do is to define from the outset the level of truth that show will be making an effort to maintain. This is the undercurrent message of the pilot. It not possible for a show to tell the whole truth. There are always idiosyncratic “blind spots.”

Por ejemplo:

The Korean War lasted two years, but M*A*S*H, the show about the Korean War lasted eleven.

On Gunsmoke, Marshal Matt Dillon caught a bullet at least four times per season. Over the show’s twenty-year run, that means the man was shot over eighty times.

I don’t watch The Office that much, but does that paper company make any money at all?

How does the show on 30 Rock get done when you never see anyone working on it?

Could the obsessively id-driven Larry David we see on Curb Your Enthusiasm ever have run a successful television series like Seinfeld?

You like the show, you ignore the blind spots. As long as the show remains consistently faithful to its intentions.

The truth of Friends was bouncily delivered by its theme song:

“I’ll Be There For You.”

The Friends lived up to that.

Despite the disparity in their incomes.


Anonymous said...

I know I'm going out on a limb here, but you might find the new show "Modern Family" pretty funny for just those reasons. They are using the new style of zipping the camera around, breaking the 4th wall and lots of quick cuts, but they hit a lot of nerves of truth along the way and the characters, even the kids and the baby, are terrific.

JED said...

Do you think the subject of that episode of Friends, the difference in the incomes of the friends, could never be funny or could it have been fixed? I think that would be an interesting group of articles for you to write: how Earl Pomerantz would have written for various sitcoms. Not necessarily how you would fix bad episodes (although that would be interesting) but how would you fit your writing style in with the existing "universe" of the sitcom if they asked you to come in a write an episode.

MikeThe Blogger said...

Anonymous, thanks for the recommendation of "Modern Family" - just watched the first two episodes - it has that "SCRUBS" feeling with the three different plot lines being summed up at the end with a common philosophical realization... and I like Ed O'Neill's acting...

PALGOLAK said...

If the Friends episode you have referred to is the "Restaurant Celebration" episode (and I suspect it is) then I must disagree unqualifiedly (sp?).

To this day, whilst musing over my past TV-related life, I often think back to the hilarious discomfort of the 3 broke Friends in that episode.

It was funny because it was true!

James said...

I think truth is funny in a special way. But I loved There's Something About Mary, which is about as fake/fantasy as it gets, and the part I laughed at most was the shot of the dog in a body cast. And I don't think anyone is going to call that "real."