Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Why Don't You Teach Sitcom Writing?"

I am hoping to be relatively brief.  (Though, for reasons unknown even to myself, I probably won’t be.)

I do not consider it bragging to assert that I have the qualifications to present myself to any institution of learning – higher or lesserly accredited – as a legitimate candidate to teach a course, to either full-time students or “Extension” students at night, entitled,

“How To Write Successful Situation Comedies During The Mid To Late Seventies And Most of The Eighties.” 

Being brutally honest, I cannot imagine anyone seeing that class listed in any school’s catalogue and shouting, “Finally!  Just what I’ve been looking for!  I never wanted a career in the first place.  I just wanted to write like my favorite shows from the past.”

There are comedies currently on the air that, though I may admire their intelligence, reflect a defining sensibility I do not understand.  Sure, there are still joke-driven sitcoms similar to the ones I wrote but with an increased mentioning of vaginas, and I could probably teach people to write them, but I hate those shows, and would shoot myself before encouraging aspiring TV writers into that taste-ravaged inferno. 

So that’s out.

Leaving the more ambitious contemporary series that, though of undeniable quality, are alien to both my experience and my comprehension.  For example…

Recently, 30 Rock ended its highly praised but remarkably low rated seven-season run.  I am not a television historian, but I am guessing that 30 Rock may be, or at least is very close to being, the lowest rated long-running series of all time. 

TV powerhouse Lorne Michaels’ being 30 Rock’s Executive Producer made me wonder if, at least one of the reasons 30 Rock remained on the air despite its Mexican programming-equaling ratings might be that no one at NBC was brave enough to call Lorne up and tell him it was cancelled. 

Finally, perhaps, there was an executive who was leaving show business for an entirely different career, or being extremely ill had but a short time to live, who was pressed into contacting Lorne and informing him it was over.  

But that’s just conjecture. 

Maybe 30 Rock had sensational demographics, and everyone who watched it immediately went out and bought a Lexus.  Or maybe, the numbers were actually larger than those accumulated by the traditional measuring systems – as a result of people DVRing the show or watching its episodes on On Demand or on their phones – though I am not at all clear on, if these alternate streaming options (if “streaming options” is the term) elude traditional measurement, how then exactly are they measured?

But that’s secondary.  (Albeit naggingly so.)  The main point is, though I admittedly did not watch 30 Rock on a weekly basis, I did watch it a lot, and over that period categorizable as “a lot”, I recall only two jokes that really made me laugh.

The first joke, funny then but inaccurate in retrospect, involved a character before the 2008 election revealing that they would tell everyone they were voting for Obama, then go behind the curtain and vote for McCain.  That’s what smart people back then thought, or at least feared, would be the case.  Today that joke, which, at the time it was delivered, appeared searingly insightful, serves as a quaint reminder of the liberal underestimation of the American electorate.

             The second joke, which seems destined to make me laugh in perpetuity – I plan to laugh again when I mention it – involves the actor Oliver Platt playing a network film editor, who, when he is asked what he is currently editing, replies, “I’m working on a piece for The Today Show about how next month is October.”

Excuse me while I stop and laugh yet again. 


Okay, I’m finished.

I adore that joke because it’s about a show I’m aware of, and its point is how hilariously lame it is.  That’s why I laugh.  Because I’m familiar with the reference, and, through their sublimely selected example, I take joy in their skewering its banality dead center.

The rest of 30 Rock’s approach – and appeal – is fundamentally beyond my comprehension.   

I read a couple of thoughtful retrospectives published the week 30 Rock was ending, which I’d have saved for reference and quotation had I known I’d be writing this blog post, but I didn’t.  What that leaves me with is a barely adequate paraphrasing of observations I could not entirely follow concerning a show whose Cool Kids-appreciating deliciousness, for the most part, eluded me.

Basically, what the reviewers were saying, I think, was that 30 Rock made fun of things, then made fun their making fun of those things, while at the same time, taking the things they were making fun of seriously, thus reaping both satirical and emotional benefits at the same time, quoting one of the reviewers, though perhaps not precisely, “eating their cake and having it too.” 

What I guess that means is that 30 Rock worked on multiple levels, producing a kaleidoscopic result that is  “win” (on the satirizing), “win” (on their refreshing self-awareness) and “win” (in its emotional effect.)

An honest evaluation places my writing on one level.  Leaving me two levels short of the current requisite amount. 

This, in short – though not nearly as short as I’d have liked it to be – is why I do not – and will not ever – most likely –

Teach sitcom writing.


Canda said...

30 Rock in no way was an emotional show. They avoided real emotion at every level. If by emotion,
the critics mean someone was angry in a clearly satirical, or word-clever, way, perhaps. But the series at all times was definitely one thing - smug.

You, Earl, have written some brilliant and emotionally fulfilling shows, including the Goldfish episode on "The Cosby Show".That episode is timeless. All of 30 Rock will be beyond it's relevance in five years.

pumpkinhead said...

And so, if people who know how to write shows on the level of Taxi and Cheers don't venture forward to teach the next generation of writers how to do it, all they'll have to learn from are the vaginamongers. So there'll be no chance of smart comedies coming back. I did, however, enjoy saying "vaginamongers."

Kathleen said...

I loved 30 Rock, but I have found that I do not enjoy watching the reruns most of the time. I do, however, enjoy reruns of Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Frasier and more every time I see them. I feel the same about WKRP (one of my all time favorites) but unfortunately reruns are not being broadcast.