When I attend to an e-mail concerning a post I wrote entitled “The New ‘Funny’” (3/25/14), my desk will be entirely clear. It is not that big a desk.
A commenter by the name of gourdcranium took keyboard to computer screen to disagree with my “dubious assertion” that
“…audiences today wouldn’t respond to joke–driven comedy. I think if the next Frasier arrived on the scene tomorrow, it would find a substantial audience though admittedly an audience old enough to vote which may be too old for the networks.”
Where do I start with that?
First of all, Mr. of Ms. gourdcranium answered, or at least blunted, their own assertion with the qualification that that the theoretical “substantial audience” that would amass to watch a Frasierly-comparable comedy would indisputably be an older one, “indisputably” because nobody assiduously following these matters would disagree with that assertion, most particularly the networks, who have proven consistently that they have no interest in such an audience, with the possible exception of CBS, about whom David Letterman, in the course of a “Branding Competition” bit concerning that network’s upcoming season’s schedule once quipped, “CBS – Your grandparents like us. Why don’t you?”
It is consequently no surprise or coincidence that the Chuck Lorre stable of hit series are all broadcast on CBS. However – and I assert this without specific evidence; it is merely an educated hunch – although ABC’s Modern Family has approximately half the audience that The Big Bang Theory has, I would bet a shiny new nickel that buying a thirty-second commercial “spot” on Modern Family is considerably more expensive than buying a similar “spot” on The Big Bang Theory, the disparity explained not by the size of the audience (which actually trends strongly in the opposite direction), but by Modern Family’s audience’s superior desirability to the advertisers.
So there’s that. Joke-driven comedies, as reflected by the disparity in their commercial value are considered – not by me but by the marketplace – to be retro and, dare I say it, along with their audience, a dying breed.
Which was specifically what “The New ‘Funny’” was talking about – and if that was not accurately delineated in the post, the fault lies entirely with the writer and nobody else.
For thirty years on the network level, I was a successful writer of television comedy. Then, due to the confluencial changes in the audience’s tastes in comedy and to the burgeoning “Demographic Revolution” (in which audiences were adjudged valuable not – or at least not exclusively – by their volume but by the presumed intensity of the viewers’ attracted to the show’s buying interests – my services became in increasingly diminished demand, until it was time to go home and write a blog.
This – or at least the “changes in the audience’s tastes in comedy” component – is, as I alluded to in “The New ‘Funny’” hardly a contemporary phenomenon. American comedy has been continually evolving, from baggy-pants vaudeville through The Red Skelton Show (1951-1971) to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which brings things up to date, if by “up to date” you mean the late 1970’s.
Though I perhaps would have preferred that it had, comedy did not freeze at the precise point where I was good at it. Instead, tastes in comedy continued to evolve, ultimately “evolving” me right out of the business, as it had inevitably booted out the departing cohorts of once “hot” comedy writers who preceded me.
Unlike, England, where the theatrical offerings – and this phenomenon is reflected in English television as well – can simultaneously accommodate (as they did during the time that I lived there) a variety of comedy genres from classical Feydeau farces (A Flea In Her Ear), to ingenious Shakespearean re-imaginings (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), to broad sex comedies (Brian Rix’s Let Sleeping Wives Lie), American comedy, like American everything-else in my view, adheres inflexibly to what I call the “Gunfighter Mentality”, where one genre stands triumphantly alone, while their sadly slower adversaries lie still and lifeless in the anachronistic dust, this (quintessentially American) Darwinian fashion process (it's about restlessness, competition and selling) prompting the “What’s Hot and What’s Not?” columns in every magazine in every doctor’s office I have ever waited in.
If America favors series filmed in front of a studio audience, then you will see virtually nothing else on the airwaves. (When shows of that configuration ruled to sitcom roost, the only sitcom not filmed before a live studio audience was M*A*S*H.) If, however, the “Fashion Wheel” turns and “What’s Hot?” moves on to shows that are filmed “single camera” without a studio audience, then the few remaining series filmed in front of an audience devolve almost immediately into the Nehru Jackets of situation comedy.
Why did “single camera” sitcoms become popular? One, digital technology made them cheaper to produce than they had previous been, elevating that format to a fiscally viable alternative. Two, the audience got tired of the less naturalistic-feeling “joke-driven” format. And three – and who knows what order these should really be in – TV writers, whose heroes tended more towards Judd Apatow than Neil Simon, favored the movie-inflected format over its stodgy and stagy theatrical counterpart.
(And I frankly, at least in spirit if not in physical collaboration, am with them. It seemed strange to me that my bosses insisted upon reality when it came to character and motivation and then would go, to me, incongruously “the other way” with their insistent formula joke-constructed dialogue. It did not make consistential sense to do that. Or make me many friends for mentioning it.)
Although, “The New ‘Funny’” never suggested that the joke-driven format could not at some time in the future generate a popular success, my intention, clearly a failed one with gourdcranium, was to assert that no such series could ever again represent the cutting edge of half-hour comedy.
My experience is that trends in comedy almost never proceed backwards. (Laugh-In was a memorable exception, but the show augmented its vaudevillian hi-jinx with colorful miniskirts and lightning-fast editing.)
If trends in comedy did, in fact, revert to their earlier incarnations, the Red Skelton writers would be happily rising from their graves and driving excitedly back to the studios.
And I would be enthusiastically right behind them.