I wrote not long ago about trying to understand the appeal of a kind of situation comedy that I was for the most part never involved with, with one exception – a PBS comedy anthology series called Trying Times, for which I wrote an episode starring comedian Steven Wright. That was the only episode I ever wrote that was not joke driven and shot in front of a live studio audience. It actually turned out pretty well.
Before I go on, I would like to thank you for your insights and observations in response to “Something’s Different” (5/7/12). From the points made, the articulation and the humor of your comments, all I can say is, I like our intellectual demographic.
Secondly, let me remind us all – and that includes me – that, at any time in TV history you care to mention, the not great shows have always substantially outnumbered the better ones. Always.
Today, I would argue, the bar, if anything, is higher than ever, meaning, there are more shows on the air that are not terrible. Maybe it’s because of cable, setting the standard, and forcing networks push the envelope, whether they want to or not. Maybe it’s because contemporary writers have “gone to school” on the writers who went before them, and, standing on their shoulders, have advanced creatively as a consequence.
Maybe, it’s because people are just smarter today. Better educated. And intellectually more agile. It seems to me that, when I was writing, it was like a page divided into four squares. Now, it appears, it’s like 512 squares.
Pong, as compared to the video game marvels of today.
As I mentioned in “Something’s Different” (5/7/12), there are still a number of sitcoms written in the traditional manner – filmed in front of audience, with broad storylines, and structured in modular, set-up-punchline formulation – I generally don’t watch them, for cheesiness and taste reasons – but I know they’re still doing them, and, in fact, those shows, like The Big Bang Theory, remain the highest rated comedies of all.
It’s the others I was talking about – using, as examples, NBC’s Thursday night line-up – Community, 30 Rock, The Office and Parks And Recreation.
These series are indisputably not intellectually challenged. They seem to have thought behind them, a conceptual intention.
The stories are carefully constructed; they rarely leave me scratching my head, dumbfounded by inconsistencies, or gaping potholes in the narrative. Though I can still see myself working as a consultant, offering suggestions to improve the storytelling, with these shows, I would honestly have very little to tell them.
The shows are skillfully done. They just don’t very often make me laugh.
Which brings me to the issue of “character”, which a number of my commenters weighed in on after reading “Something’s Different” (5/7/12). It is, in fact, these comments that led me to follow up today.
Traditionally, “characters” in sitcoms has meant familiar prototypes, character who, allowing for comedic exaggeration without going overboard, resemble people like us, or like people we know. We watch, to a substantial degree, because we identify with those characters.
As an example of the way characters are delineated today, I offered a line from 30 Rock, where, reacting to the Tiny Fey character’s expression, the Tracy Morgan character observes,
“You have the look on your face my wife has when I tell her I’m going to retire and move into a lighthouse.”
Writer and blogger-extraordinaire Ken Levine comments that this line is not “character based”, because there is no way the Tracy Jordan character would actually say that to his wife.
“To me it’s the opposite of character comedy. It’s sacrificing your character to get a laugh.”
Commenter “Keith” disagrees.
“Strange, because I do think of Tracy saying that to his wife, and that’s what I think is funny. His character, to me, is a five year old in a man’s body, who also happens to wield enormous power.”
So there you have it. Ken insists that Tracy’s joke obliterates character the way “rock crushes scissors.” Keith argues that the joke reflects character.
What do I say?
I say – as I usually do, it’s a little bit of both. I believe, from the 30 Rock stylistic standpoint – portraying the “nightmare” version of reality – the joke, in fact, does reflect character.
The thing is, that character, in its hyper-exaggeration, and complete lack of self-awareness, is not, within light years, close to any character I have ever personally run into.
You create a character – the man-child baby, a comedic prototype that has walked the sitcom firmament from “Fibber” McGee to Larry David – but you push it to a bizarre, surrealistic extreme.
Question: “Is that still really a character?”
Not one I would recognize.
But what difference does it make? Maybe that’s part of what the “new” comedy is all about. Maybe, for the purposes of laugh-inducement, insight and cultural commentary, the concept of “character” has been re-designed, transforming comedic prototypes into helium-filled Macy’s Parade balloons, because the traditional portrayal of “realistic characters” has outlived its entertainment value, and become ho-hum.
This is not necessarily a shande (a shameful embarrassment) for the neighborhood, though there will inevitably be better and inferior examples. What’s not particularly illuminating, it seems to me, is to evaluate this approach by the discarded standards of an earlier era.
That’s all I wanted to tell you.
Except have a nice day.