Thursday, May 5, 2011

"The Difference"

When I was writing for television, a lot of stories “turned” on a moment of embarrassment for one of the show’s characters. In the first episode I ever sold, an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the premise of the episode was:

“Mary is alarmed, because she believes that a priest is giving up the priesthood, because he’s in love with her.”

The “big reveal” is that the priest’s giving up the priesthood has nothing to do with Mary whatsoever.

An embarrassing moment for “Mary.” Eruptive, rolling laughter for the show.

Such was the nature of comedy in the seventies. And not, cheesy, pandering, second-rate comedy. We’re talking about the “Gold Standard” of comedy for that era, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I think about these things. I think about how comedy has changed. And about and why I am no longer permitted to participate in it professionally. And why that, alas, is probably appropriate.

When my contract at Paramount was not picked up, effectively ending my career, the on-the-record explanation for my disemployment was:

“Earl’s out of step with the marketplace.”

The evaluation pissed me off at the time, but it was probably accurate. And it seems to be even more accurate today, as exemplified by, if not the “Gold Standard” then the “Pretty Valuable Precious Metal Standard” of current situation comedies,

The Office.

Which I made a point of watching recently, thinking it was the last Steve Carell episode, but it wasn’t.

A little background. Despite its perceived resiliency, every comedy form – the joke rhythms and the storytelling approach – eventually becomes old, tired and cringingly predictable. The “Uppie” Factor inevitably wears off.

What’s the “Uppie” Factor? You lift an infant high in the air, then you bring them back down. The moment they’re down, the child squeals, “Uppie!”, requiring you to repeat the maneuver again. And again. And again. And again. Until you die, or the infant gets married, whichever comes first.

The “Uppie” Factor is an elemental component in comedy. The audience loves to laugh at the same thing, over and over. You repeat variations of the same basic joke – a character is stingy, or they’re sexually suggestive, or they startlingly stupid – and the audience laughs every time. Until they don’t. That’s the “Uppie” Factor. Which, though sooner for some viewers than for others, inevitably wears off.

This – what do they call it in drug addiction, the “tolerance” phenomenon – is in evidence in every branch of the entertainment business. Consider the magician, or illusionist. They make a person disappear. Then they make a tiger disappear. Then they make a man on a motorcycle disappear. Then, they make the Empire State Building disappear. They can’t keep giving them “The Disappearing Person.”

“We saw that already.”

“But this was a larger person.”

“It’s not enough.”

Entertainers in all categories are regularly required to raise to ante. Upping the “Uppie”, as it were. The two-handed “Uppie” progresses to the one-handed “Uppie.” Then, it’s the “Uppie” with the toss. (And hopefully the catch.)

The “Flaming ‘Uppie’?” That may be a bridge too far.

As it is with illusionism, so is it with comedy. The “Uppie” must continually be “upped.”

How is the “Uppie” upped in situation comedy? Well, comparing the approach of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with The Office, one way to up the “Uppie” is upped is by increasing the emotional charge of the comedic “surprise” from embarrassment to humiliation, the understanding – and not without evidence – being, the more psychic pain, the bigger the laughs.

The result is, that in 2011,

“Humiliation” is the new “embarrassment.”

“Michael Scott” is presenting the “Dundies” during the office’s annual awards ceremony. One of the categories is an award for having diabetes. The humiliation was cleverly doubled in this regard. The winner had to come up and receive their award for having diabetes. And, it turns out, another office employee also has diabetes, and they were seriously miffed, because they hadn’t been recognized.

Augmenting the serial humiliations, an award recipient used her acceptance speech to publicly break up with her boyfriend. An employee, who feels overlooked for higher recognition, flips his lesser “Dundie” into a trash bin. And, of course, there was the extremely stage-frightened co-host’s (Will Ferrell’s) repeated vomiting.

Later in the show, in what they call in the comedy business, a “Treacle Cutter” – you do something sentimental, in this case, it was a group, special material “sing”, written to acknowledge the Steve Carell character’s departure, then you “cut” the preceding emotion with a joke, here it was the announcement of the “Extremely Repulsiveness” Award, which the winner first objects to for taste reasons, but then proceeds to behave extremely repulsively.

I am fully aware of the smartness of this type of comedy. And the episode’s comedic engine – mining the satire of the awards-giving process – I really got it. I also understand that simple embarrassment no longer rings the comedic bell. And that vomiting is always funny.

But, I don’t know…it still feels kinda yucky to me.

In my day – a dead “aging” giveaway, rivaling “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” – we deliberately stopped at “embarrassment.” In all my years – another giveaway – I can remember only one “humiliation” episode. It happened on Taxi.

There was a shower in the taxi garage, and Louie (the Danny DeVito character) had peeked through a hole in the wall and seen Elaine (Marilu Henner) naked.

As the story reached its climax, it is determined that the only way he could emotionally “even the books” is for Louie to reveal something equally “exposing” about himself. Backed into a corner, Louie confesses to having to shop for clothes at the Children’s Department, Danny DeVito, and therefore Louie, being rather seriously inch deprived.

I think Taxi’s head writers found this scripted moment of personal humiliation bold. I found it disturbing. Judging from the dead silence of the studio audience as the scene played out, nobody found it funny. Nor was it meant to be.

It appears it would be found funny today.


PALGOLAK said...

I am not sure The Office is a typical example of contemporary US sitcoms, since it is directly drawn from the UK version of The Office (a primo example of painfully humiliating British-style comedy.)

Rory Wohl said...

I'm with Earl on this one. I can't watch "The Office" or those segments on "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report" where they make fun of somebody and the somebody doesn't realize they're being made fun of. It's just too "cringe-inducing" for me, if that's a word, and makes me feel "kinda yucky," too.

Mac said...

I think the humiliation thing has run it's course in the UK.
After The Office, there was a rash of single-camera shows with akward pauses, excrutiating embarrassment etc but within the last two to three years, the highest-rating shows have been broad, silly, people-falling-over sitcoms that sort of hark back to the seventies, or warm, inclusive almost comedy-drama shows.
Maybe in tough economic times people want something less cruel and intense and more warm and colorful. Or maybe people just got fed up of cringing.
I hope it's on the way out, I'd rather see something with jokes, not just people being humiliated.

Brian Phillips said...

I think that the trend can be tracked over the run of "Cheers". "Taxi", one of the creators said, was about a group of beautiful losers. "Cheers" started that way and then it became more and more of a "Monty Python" style show, which is to say, everyone is dumb, just in varying degrees. For example, at the top of the run, Sam was a reasonably smart guy with a large libido, who then became more and more driven by his sexual needs regardless of intelligence.

I would also like to say that I found it funny throughout its run.

As to Rory Wohl's point, "The Daily Show" does indeed poke fun at some of the unsuspecting, but at least they are going after public figures. In the Craig Kilborn days, TDS would find unknown or little-known people and hold them to national ridicule, which is just cruel. It is elitist, college humor that insists "we" are superior to "them".

Having said that, it isn't easy to write comedy that doesn't cross a few lines, regardless of current social trends. A Jack Benny radio program addressed this in an episode where everyone was nice to each other, which, of course, didn't last long.

Garry Trudeau called it, "Neutron Bomb" humor, in which the explosion happens but the truly valuable things are gone.