Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Uppie!"

You know that game. In our family, it’s called, “Uppie!”

Little kid, maybe two, three years old, you pick them up in the air, hold them way over your head, and they’re cackling and laughing and squealing with delight; finally, you set them back down. And what do they always say?

“Uppie!”

Then want you to do it again. So you do it again, and they’re as squealy as the first time, if not more so. You set ‘em back down…

“Uppie!”

And you do it again.

And again. And again. And again. And again.

Till you can’t do it anymore. Your arms are aching. Your back is in spasms. You’re completely out of breath. You’re done. But they’re not.

“Uppie!”

“No more ‘Uppie!’ I’m tired.”

“Uppie!”

“I can’t do it anymore.”

“Upp-ieeeeeeeeee!!!!”

That’s little kids. It’s also regular watchers of television series.

Many regular watchers of television series are adults. I am not comparing them to children. Except in this one area.

The “Uppie!” area.

What makes a successful television series? (I limit myself, as I did throughout my career, to comedies.) Lots of things. An appealing cast. Consistently funny writing. An interesting arena. And also – and I’m not certain where it ranks on the scale of importance to a series’ success, but I think pretty high –

Repetition.

Audiences respond when a series plays the same tune every week. Of course, this assumes they liked the tune in the first place. If they did, what follows, for the run of the series, is the half-hour comedy version of “Uppie!”

Every episode reiterates the story in the pilot. The characters remain one-dimensionally consistent. The jokes are modular replacements of the establishing original joke. And then there are the catchphrases, repeated, generally once per episode for the duration of the series:

“Here come de judge!”

“Dy-no-mite!”

“Did I do that?”

“How are you doin’?”

“Pretty…pretty good.”

Catchphrases are the purest form of “Uppie!”

It’s an occupational hazard for writers in the genre to tire of the repetition earlier than the regular viewer. We know what’s going on. In the most extreme example, I remember watching the pilot episode of Three’s Company. The show ended, and I distinctly remember saying to whomever I was sitting with:

“That’s a very funny show. I’m never watching it again.”

I didn’t need to watch it again. I was almost certain every episode would be the same as the first one. I don’t believe I was too far off the mark.

Yes, TV series need to be reliable in their approach; otherwise, viewers will quickly become disenchanted. If they tune in for that show’s particular brand of “Uppie!” and don’t get it, they’ll stop tuning in. They want “Uppie!” every week. The "Three Amigos" deviated from audience-pleasing western adventure movies and instead made “The Amigos on Broadway.” The movie tanked. The studio boss correctly assessed the problem:

“We strayed from the formula, and we paid the price.”

You can’t stray from the formula, or the audience will go away. The thing is, it’s a delicate balance. The continually repeat yourself, and the audience will go away. You don’t want the audience to go away. You’ll lose your health benefits.

You know, the more I write about this, the more it appears to be more about me than it does about you. Unless you wrote television comedies too. There are reasons to believe that, for the regular viewer, the repetition in television series may not be a problem at all.

At a recent lunch, Ken Levine, who writes a popular blog of his own (bykenlevine.com), told me that, during the later seasons of Cheers, when the repetitions were starting to wear thin, the show received higher ratings than any time in its history. The audience doesn’t seem to mind repetition, even with a perceivable dip in quality, as long as they get their weekly dose of “Uppie!”

The whole issue came to mind, because I’ve become tired of a show I really liked when it premiered, the show being, The Big Bang Theory. I know, at its essence, the show is a not particularly groundbreaking version of, “Four Nerds and a Hottie”, but there was something unique about the way it played out.

For one thing, the show’s creators were not required, as they would have been in my day, to dumb down the socially inept physicists’ dialogue, so it would “play in the Midwest.” Instead, the characters are permitted to speak pure, unadulterated…“I don’t know what they’re talking about, but it sounds refreshingly on the money.” Respecting the audience with “‘real deal’ genius talk” seemed, to me, startlingly original.

In the beginning.

Now, it feels like the same thing every week. The “never-their-strength” storylines have become numbingly similar, the jokes are reminiscent of the same joke from the week before. The one change – and it’s not for the better – is that the show has coalesced around a single character – “Sheldon” – who is virtually required to carry the series on his own.

During Big Bang’s first season, I made it a point not to miss it. Now, I check in on an episode, and it feels like I’ve already seen it. And it isn’t a rerun.

I’m pretty much finished with The Big Bang Theory. Not so, however, is the show’s audience, whose ratings, perhaps through the “word of mouth” of its regular viewers, continue to improve.

It’s hard to pinpoint why people remain loyal. Maybe it’s the show’s humor, which, though not necessarily smart, is endearing, rarely offensive, and a cut above the competition in “ha-ha.”

Maybe it’s the show’s appealing group of likable losers.

Or maybe it’s just “Uppie!”

Ask any little kid.

You never tire of “Uppie!”

5 comments:

diann said...

I only started watching Big Bang Theory this year, so maybe that's why I'm still in love with it, but it is my first choice of what to watch. It's been probably 3 or more months now and I'm still laughing about Sheldon spraying Leonard with a squirt bottle when he was arguing that Sheldon shouldn't be trying to train Penny. It was just so unexpected and felt like it was out of left field and yet it was completely in-line with the story. In fact, I'm laughing right now. I find a lot of their humor is like that - very fresh and unexpected. But I can see how I could come to expect it after a couple of years of watching.

I hope it doesn't wear off. There are not many sitcoms that I really like right now. I do enjoy Modern Family when I'm watching it, but there's nothing that compels me to come back week after week. Same for How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock.

YEKIMI said...

I can't remember the last time I watched any comedy show. The writing on most of them is atrocious, I can see the jokes coming from a mile away. I've even watched with a friend and said the punchline at the same time as the character....and it wasn't a repeat.

diane said...

I've been watching The Big Bang Theory from the start and while I've seen some repetition I still find some bits that feel new to me. Raj trying to find something to do now that Howard and Leonard have girlfriends, for instance. I'm still laughing. Maybe it's "uppie", but it doesn't feel like it to me. The possibility exists that it is "uppie" though because I remember laughing harder in the first two seasons.

Harkaway said...

I absolutely agree with you on this. They've gotten a bit lazy as they've allowed Sheldon to dominate the plots rather than than develop the other characters in interesting ways. They've written themselves into a corner with Raj's inability to talk to women, which should have been resolved a while ago, at least with women he has known for a while. And they need to have more semi-regulars to come in and reconfigure the other relationships. Leslie Winkle, Stuart and Kripke are good starts, but they need more stuff like this.

Repetition is an essential ingredient, but it is also seeing how that repetition can be disrupted that makes something funny.

Thanks for your great blog. I really enjoy it!

growingupartists said...

They need to update that apartment...maybe win some big prize that expands their digs.

Oh, I'm hilarious.