Friday, November 19, 2010

"Repeat Visits"

It has always been a mystery to me why there are certain, let’s restrict it today to comedies, that I’m willing – nay eager – to watch again and again, and others, though I enjoyed them the first time, that initial viewing was sufficient, and I have no desire to see them again. In fact, I avoid seeing them again.

Every week, I’d watch Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends. They both made me laugh, and, in different ways, satisfied my requirements. That sounds a little risqué. Let’s say they satisfied my entertainment requirements. That isn’t much better. I just liked them, okay?

I recall funny and easily identifiable Raymond episodes, most notably the one where Ray and his wife, after returning from a trip, engage in an escalating battle concerning which of them will unpack their suitcase.

I’ve been there. Not about the unpacking, but about which of us would return the suitcase to the storage closet in the basement. The empty bag sat there for days.

And then I lugged it downstairs.

Friends’ appeal for me was the likability of the cast, and the out-of-left-field nature of the jokes, my favorite being, “Let’s go out for Chinese food. Or as they call it in China, food.” I hadn’t the faintest interest in who the father of Rachel’s baby was. I showed up for the laughs.

I watch neither Raymond nor Friends in reruns. I pass them as I “remote-click” around the channels, and I reflexively keep going.

On the other hand, Seinfeld reruns, I can watch forever.


Why do I have a visceral reaction against watching shows I originally enjoyed – I mean, I see them now and I’m physically repelled – and why, as with Seinfeld, and also Monty Python’s Flying Circus, do I welcome their repeat showings with enthusiasm and delight.


“It’s the ‘Limo’ episode!”

“They can’t find their car!”

“It’s the ‘Bubble Boy!’ George is going to say ‘the Moops’!”

“It’s ‘The Show About Nothing!’”


“It’s the “Argument” sketch!”

“It’s ‘The World’s Funniest Joke’! The long version!”

“They’re doing the ‘dead parrot’!”

“It’s ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks!’”

Okay, at this point, I will repudiate the fundamental principle of my entire writing career. A ‘one-eighty’ on my core belief. I am old now. Consistency is out the window.

During an illustrious B+ career as a writer and series creator, I believed, more than anything, in the good, solid, logical, compelling, comedically surprising and believably resolved


The story was key. If a story idea grabbed me, I was off to the races. And while developing that story, I was fiercely committed to tying up all loose ends and inconsistencies – the story had to make sense. Otherwise, it was a balloon with a hole in it. It would not hold water. And it would eventually deflate, if you’re going with the balloon metaphor. Or drown the audience’s interest, if you’re following the ‘water’ analogy. Either way, it’s not a good thing.

I still believe story matters. But with a caveat. It matters, and I still believe it’s essential, the first time around. But when it comes to reruns, I already know the story. For my willingness to commit to a second viewing, and beyond, I need something more.

Repeat enjoyments require an element that goes beyond an engaging storyline, and the (sometimes wearying) emotion of the characters invested in it. That repeat-visit element, it now seems to me, is

Comic inspiration.

You’ve heard the story. It’s exhausting to wade through it again. By contrast, comic inspiration never gets old. And I mean, never.

Case in point:

I Love Lucy

I was never, though there are people I respect who were, a big Lucy fan. I generally found it broad and silly. But when Lucy’s working on an assembly line, and those chocolates keep rolling in on that conveyor belt, and she can’t keep up, and she starts eating the candies and stuffing them in her blouse…

Comic inspiration.

Hilarious in the fifties. Still hilarious today.

And only a devoted Lucy fan could tell you what the story that included that “assembly line” scene was about.

It doesn’t matter.

The scene is a classic.

As I never tire of saying, though you may be tired of hearing it, comedy is subjective. What’s funny to me may not be funny to you. The same goes for “comedically inspired.”

I know what I think is comedically inspired.

And I tip my hat to it.

Every time I watch.


Diogo said...

Hi Earl

I have that too. Many of the shows I apreciated a few years ago don't hold up as well. Raymond is a perfect example. At the time it aired, it prouded itself on being made the old fashioned way (long static scenes, very real, belivable subject matter, day to day events). But, in watching it again it just seems trivial to me.
On the other hand, Comedies like the Honeymooners, and all in the family still have me on the floor laughing as hard as I can, and an episode of TAXI (Reverend Jim: A Space Oddissey), still has, for my money, the funniest scene I've ever watched (Jim's Driving test).

I think Seinfeld will always be popular, because the kind of minutia details they obssessed over and over, will probably still bug people one way or another for generations to come. Time and tastes may change, but, 20 years from now everybody will still understand what Shrinkage means, and everybody will relate to "getting the details" on a date, to cite just 2 examples of many.

What I find fascinating about revisiting TAXI episodes on DVD is how different the show becomes, depending on what character has the focus of the episode that week. If you tune in on most sitcoms nowadays, you basically know what you're gonna get. On that show there's a tendency to go from very broad comedy (Jim or Latka episodes), to very real (Alex/Elaine) with what seems to be (but I'm sure it wasn't) little effort. I wonder if you could blog on that sometime in the future, on how you balance broad comedy with real situations, and make it a cohesive episode.

I was gonnna e-mail you, but I can't find the blog's e-mail address. I'd really apreciate it if you could respond to this.

Thanks for the laughs.

James said...

Just to add some food for thought.

When you mentioned MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS -- the first sketch I thought of was the argument sketch. Low and behold, it's the first one you listed.

Perhaps there is a piece of the equation that is missing. While FRIENDS and RAYMOND can have interesting "funny bits" often they aren't all that new, nor shocking. Rarely is there anything where I go "OMG! I've never seen that before! And it's hilarious!"

MONTY PYTHON on the other hand was chalk full of funny bits that I had never seen before, that were rip-roaringly hilarious. Seinfeld (And it's ALWAYS SUNNY, as well) do.

There is definitely more of an over-the-top quality and absurdness to the stuff that you are listing as wanting to watch. Maybe that's the key? Maybe there's something inherently human in wanting to see somewhat a "superhuman" reality portrayed in our entertainment. I don't know.

I only post this, because I find myself in the same boat. Not just with comedies, but all genres. While I think THE GODFATHER and SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION are amazing movies, it takes a lot for me to sit down and watch them. I mean, I've seen them. But FIGHT CLUB and KILL BILL, I will always stop on the channel -- And I've seen these hundreds of times and could tell you them inside and out. And will quite frankly say that they are "lesser" films than the previous ones mentioned. But I find myself irresistibly drawn to them.

I don't really understand it either.

There may also be another factor -- When I am cruising in my car and a song is playing from a CD in my radio, a song I've heard a thousand times before, a song I like -- I will often find myself bored with it and turn off the CD player to listen to the radio instead. By coincidence, sometimes that very song I just turned off is playing on the radio. And all of a sudden, it is somehow better. Like, this chance moment of finding this song that only seconds earlier I didn't want to hear is now on the radio for the duration of the next 3 minutes, I am compelled to listen.

I wonder if there is a strange fickleness in how we determine what we want to be entertained by at a specific moment in time.

Isador W. Morgavi said...

I'm not sure where I was from '89 to '93 but somehow I missed "Major Dad". But I was lucky enough to catch it on HULU. I just spent every evening from 6 to 7:30 watching it everyday until there was no more.

Thank you; thank you for so much great entertainment.

I'm an 80year old lifetime Democrat and anti-war activist yet you were able to create a something that I thought I'd never see; someone who I would follow into hell and know why I was doing it.

What you and McRaney put together was a 'one of a kind" for me and is something I will revisit many times again; something I rarely do.

If one were to find a place for that program in the dictionary, it would be under the heading of "What Great Talent Can Produce"

I've always been in awe of those of you who can create, no only something, but something that reflects the small things that are so important in life.

There is too much garbage out there that relies on mass acceptance that is totally without any depth or artistic appreciation and requires little if any talent.

Thank you again.