Monday, February 14, 2011

"The Inclusionary Rule"

Last week, I talked about Family Guy, a show I said I liked and didn’t like, didn’t like because of – and I’ll quote myself here – 

its infuriating satisfaction with its own unevenness.”

I’ve never seen a show like this.  It seems to have no standards whatsoever.  Which is, apparently, a source of pride for the guy who made it up.

“Look at us.  We can do a great joke and then a bad joke.  We’re renegades.  We can do anything!”

I won’t give you examples of Family Guy’s “good” jokes and “bad” jokes.  Judgments of that nature always get me into trouble.  I offer an example of some joke I think is hilarious, and there’s bound to be someone, or even multiple someones, who’ll say,

That’s not so funny.”

And vice versa, of course, as well.  I’ll single out a joke I think is tasteless, or stupid, or “It might be funny if I understood it, but I don’t”, and the feedback will be, “You’re an idiot; that’s hilarious.”

So no examples.  Just a studied observation from a comedy professional:

Family Guy is all over the map.

Now, you’d think a show like that would be easy to write.  No standards – no problem.  You pitch it; we use it.  Finished by five; dinner with the family.

I’m thinking at this point, “Not so fast.”

One of the primary responsibilities of a show runner is to decide, in an effort to maintain a series’ tonal continuity, including tonal comedic continuity – “There’s comedy we do on this show, and there’s comedy we don’t do.  Great jokes can be shot down, not because the show runner thinks they’re not funny, but because they don’t fit the comedic temperament of the show. 

(Imagine a Two and a Half Men joke on Seinfeld.  The Seinfeld characters would just look at each other, sharing a perplexed shrug.)

I made that kind of mistake once myself.  Once.  Hah.  But this is the one that comes to mind.  It happened on Major Dad.

Very early in the show’s run, during the second or third episode, I wrote a scene that the actors were reluctant to perform.  It didn’t feel “right” to them.  Just writing that gives me a stomachache.  Confrontation is not my favorite activity.  Especially concerning matters of taste and judgment, which are notoriously subjective:

“It doesn’t feel right to me.”

“It feels right to me.”

Then what?

Sidestepping a kerfuffle, we wrote a replacement scene, and it worked okay.  But I was curious.  So I put on my “I don’t want a fight” voice, and I said, “Would you guys do me a favor, and just read the other scene for me?  I need to hear it for myself.”

The actors agreed.  We went off to a table, they retrieved the pages of the discarded scene, and they sat down and they read it to me. 

The experience was very educational.  The scene was funny.  So I was right about that.  But listening to it made me quickly aware that it didn’t fit the show we were trying to do.  It sounded, instead, like Major Dad if it were The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

That’s an example of a situation where, early in a series’ development, even the guy who made the show up got it wrong.  The point I’m making here, however, is less about my personal incompetence, which is always entertaining, but about the fact that you can’t get it wrong, unless there’s a “right.”  And what I’m saying is, every show has a “right.” 

Sometimes, that “right” is apparently apparent right from the get-go, owing to the show runner’s certainty as to exactly what they want.  Other times, as exemplified by the Major Dad incident, the discovery evolves gradually. 

None of this seems true for Family Guy.

Except that I’m wrong.

I never met Family Guy’s creator, but I’ll bet, though the show doesn’t transparently reflect it, Family Guy too had a “right.”  Though always mysterious to some degree, Family Guy’s standard of inclusion must be particularly elusive to its writing staff.  I can imagine a writer sitting there going, “Anything seems to go on this show.  But I just pitched something, and the guy said ‘No’.  How exactly does that work?”

Just because a show seems to be comedically erratic doesn’t mean it is.  Elusive or otherwise, there is inevitably a standard.  Why?  Because it’s somebody’s show, and they have a sense, perhaps not always clearly articulated, of what they want in it, and what they don’t. 

And how exactly is that standard characterized?

That can best be delineated by the words of former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Potter Stewart who, when he was required to decide what was pornography and what was not, wrote:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kind of material I understand to be embraced{b}ut I know it when I see it.”

That, ultimately, is the show runner’s “standard of inclusion.”  “I know it when I see it.” Or, in the case of a pitched joke, hear it.  Though every show’s standard of inclusion is different, the common denominator is that every show has one.

I know there’s a standard.  There has to be.  But as a semi-regular Family Guy viewer, I have no idea what it is.


YEKIMI said...

Maybe they're all over the map because what may seem funny to you may leave someone else scratching their head and going "Huh?" "Family Guy" is one of my favorite shows but I can be sitting there laughing my ass off at one scene and someone sitting next to me says "You really think that's funny?" I sometimes get the feeling that they do something simply because it's animation and they CAN do it whereas a "live action" show, the joke just may not work or they flat out can't pull it off.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

You're right, Earl. Some shows get away with being all over the map. Most don't. If they don't obey their own logic, they pull the rug out from under the characters.

On Cheers, the writers sometimes gave Ted Danson lines which were too smart for Sam Malone. They were funny because Ted could sell the lines, but they weren't Sam.

An example, there's a Cheers episode where Sam pretends he's been in a gay relationship with somebody for years and years. The little lie that's supposed to get him out of a jam.

The skeptical woman asks Sam why he and his boyfriend don't hold hands or touch. Sam Malone answers that after all these years, "We're no longer physically demonstrative."

Physically demonstrative? Sam Malone would never say that.

It was funny and I laughed, but it wasn't Sam.

Mac said...

Spot on. I love Family Guy but sometimes I wonder what the logic is. There was one episode where they cut to a video of Conway Twitty and played what felt like the whole song. It reminds me of ideas that come out of smoking a ton of blow (not something I do any more) and the audacity of doing something like playing an entire Conway Twitty song would be funny as all hell to the baked creators of the idea, but to the viewer it just seems like a post-modern prank that fouls up a great show.