This is the post, if proof were necessary and it’s not – hence the subjunctive – of how comedically out of touch I am with the current…what they’re doing today.
Last Thursday, I watched the four sitcoms in NBC’s, if not ratings healthy then demographically appealing, eight to ten lineup – Community, 30 Rock, The Office and Parks and Recreation – and I have to say, except for scattered stretches during Parks and Recreation, I did not do a tremendous amount of laughing.
Today, more than usual, is kind of an interactive arrangement. I need you – more specifically the “demographically appealing ‘you’”, if you’re out there, though I’ll take anybody – to explain to me what I’m missing.
Now, you might say, “Earl, it’s a new kind of comedy. And since you’re old, it is entirely understandable you are not going to get it.”
To which, I’d reply, “Thank you” – because I’m a polite person and not easily offended, at least not in certain matters – but I would continue with this:
When I worked most successfully, during the 1970’s and 80’s, I imagine there were writers from an earlier era – most particularly the corps of left behind variety show writers – who would look at, for example, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and proclaim that it is not as funny as what they did, because, on the whole, Mary did not generate the tears-in-your-eyes hilarity of, say, The Red Skelton Show (1951-1971).
What they wouldn’t say is, “I don’t understand what they’re doing.” Because they did. They just found it less funny.
Sitcom writers from an earlier era, say, writers for My Three Sons or The Andy Griffith Show, would also understand what we were doing. What they would say is, “In our day, we were not permitted to do that”, “that” being portraying a single woman who dated various men, some of whom, it was suggested – “suggested” only, this still being the only-three-networks-“Standards and Practices”-controlled seventies – may possibly have slept over.
There was unquestionably a transition from the previous generation of writers to mine. But the current transition is different, by which I mean, bigger.
This is more like the “Big Band” musicians listening to 50’s “be-bop” and saying, “Why is that music?” or listening to 50’s rock ’n roll and saying, “Why is that good?”
I have the same type of question concerning the quartet of comedies I watched last Thursday.
“Why is that comedy?” and “What makes that funny?”
I sampled two hours of “quality comedy”, and rarely did the sides of my lips crinkle up, nor did I hear “Ha-ha” coming out of my mouth.
So what exactly are they up to?
I know these shows are smart, by which I mean cracklingly nimble-minded. I have seen stupid shows, and these are definitely not them. I have never looked at a script of any of these four series, but I bet if I did, I am almost certain I would find the spelling impeccable and the punctuation Ivy League perfect.
I understood the stories they were doing. They were pretty much straight forward, with the exception of 30 Rock, which was apparently a parody of some reality show format that I have never seen, so I had no point of reference about what they were lampooning, and was actually confused.
“Confused” by a sitcom storyline. That, for me, is a new one.
What throws me, if I may jump and head – jump ahead of what? The stuff I don’t want to talk about – is the nitty-gritty of all comedies, the method by which these television shows get laughs.
Just like me in the seventies watching network variety shows and finding them broad and unchallenging, I can see how today’s writers (and audiences) might find what we did formulaic and tame, “groundbreaking” in their day, if you want to be fair about it, but still “Thanks, Grandpa, but we’ve moved on.”
The question is, “moved on” to what? In all honestly, I have no apparatus for evaluating that “what.” I understand jokes. I am aware of how they’re constructed. And I feel qualified in determining when I hear a joke whether or not I, at least, believe it is funny. How?
If I laugh, it’s funny; if I don’t laugh, it’s not.
The shows I watched last Thursday contain few if any – in the traditional sense of the word – jokes.
(Other comedies, such as the Chuck Lorre stable of sitcoms – Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike and Molly – hew to the traditional template and are riddled with jokes, many of which are funny, though they do not make me laugh for other reasons, generally taste related. I am not talking about them. Modern Family, rounding things out, is what I’d call a “tweener”, stylistically updated, but relying on a more traditional approach, which is explainable by the fact that the show’s dual creators underwent extensive traditional sitcom format training, Christopher Lloyd with Frasier, and Steven Levitan with Just Shoot Me.)
Among other strategies - ironic distancing, and a "Festival of Humiliation", especially in The Office - the shows I watched Thursday leaned heavily on arcane, show biz references to achieve their comedic objective.
I heard a reference to Adrian Brody, a former Academy Award winner, who is not, generally speaking, in the forefront of most people’s consciousness. I heard mention of Ted Danson’s showing up at a roast for his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg in blackface, a semi-newsworthy occurrence that took place almost twenty years ago.
There was a passing Rodney Dangerfield reference, Rodney being a one-line comedy spritzer who, though he died in 2004, was born in 1921.
The common denominator here, I suspect, having no actual evidence, is that all these “jokes” make it into the script because they were “funny in the room.” That means the show’s writing staff thought they were funny. Since their comedic judgment is not tested by runthroughs or a “live audience” performance, “funny in the room” is all they have to go by.
The result of this lack of joke testing, in my judgment, is the concerning risk of “arbitrary-itis.” In the “funny in the room” universe, it could be Rodney Dangerfield. But it could just as easily be Henny Youngman. Or “Fat Jack” Leonard, for that matter.
This arbitrariness extends beyond why this arcane show biz reference and not that arcane show biz reference. In last Thursday’s 30 Rock, the Tracy Morgan character tells the Tina Fey character, “You have the look on your face my wife has when I tell her I want to retire and move to a lighthouse.”
Hats off for “clever and literary.” But in what way is that laugh-inducing? Is it because Morgan’s response is so universally identifiable? Are viewers across America hearing it and going, “Boy, do I ever know that look!”
It might behoove me at this point to offer an equally maybe even superior alternative, but I am not sure I do know that look.
I have written a lot for a person claiming ignorance on the subject, which is, unfortunately, often the case. I will now open the floor, not to questions, but to reader illumination.
Please tell me,
What is the comedy that replaced my comedy about?
And why do you find it funny?
I shall eagerly await your response.