Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Keeping It Real"

“Real people in difficult situations.”
That’s what I like in my stories.  In the first series I created, Best of the West, that’s what it was all about.  That and the contrast between the actual West and the West of the imagination.  Combined with my reaction to the seemingly trivial “Mary Breaks A Nail” storylines featured on the later Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes.  As well as my love of westerns and my committed intention to create a comedy homage.  Okay, so there were a lot of underpinnings to the series, but “Real people in difficult situations” was a primary underpinning.  Or at least one of them.

For my tastes, real is preferable to unreal.  (No “talking horse.”  No playboy bringing home a parade of women when there’s a “Half-a-Man” living in the house.) 

This brings up the unasked but nonetheless interesting question:

“Can a story ever be too real?”

Let me stick with what I know:  Half-hour comedies.  For those of you in a hurry, the quick answer to that question is,

“I think so, yes.” 


Now, for those of you still with us…

I recall an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show during its seventh and final season
which involved Mary dating (the considerably older) Lou Grant.  The idea seemed reasonable (and therefore believably real.) 

Mary and Lou were unquestionably fond of each other.  They had a substantial amount in common.  Neither of them was relationshipally encumbered.  And neither of them was getting any younger. 

So they went out together, and, in the climactic scene, they kissed.  And it was…

To say the least…

(SING-SONGILY)  “Awk-ward.” 

Both for the characters (who actually acknowledged that in the scene), but more importantly for me, watching it. 


(Is about all I want to say about it, concerned that the word “incest” might unpalatably pop up.)


I recall an early (Season Two, or so) episode of Friends involving the awareness that some “Friends” had more disposable income than other “Friends”, and that this impedimented the range of activities that the “Friends” were able to comfortably all do together. 

The observation was true.  (As in:  Real.)  Some “Friends” (the result of having regular jobs) had more money than other “Friends.”  The thing was, highlighting that unarguable reality led to what was not one of the series’s most successful episodes, ranking, truth be told, unhappily closer to the “not at all funny” end of the “Ha-Ha-Meter” continuum.  

Too real; not funny.  Because, (once again SING-SONGILY:)  “Awk-ward.”

Next… (and finally)

In an episode from a later season of Seinfeld, single and “getting up there” Jerry and George make a pact to both propose to their girlfriends, a pact Jerry backs out on but George – and he is not at all happy about “The Backout” – doesn’t. 

It was not unreasonable to attempt such an episode.  The premise is grounded in Jerry and George’s realistic awareness of their predicaments:  their advancing years and their obsessive pickiness, rejecting women with “Man Hands”, “Low Talkers”, women who ate their peas one pea at a time and their candy bars with a knife and  fork. 

The thing is, when before on Seinfeld had Jerry and George ever reflected a realistic awareness of their predicaments?   

When also, for that matter, did the “Friends” ever before talk about money?  (Where, if they had not been “Rent Controlled” and bequeathed to them by their familial predecessors, the apartments we see them living in would be barely affordable to the actors playing the “Friends.”  Okay, that was an exaggeration for humorous intent – the actors could buy the whole building – but the observation in question is nonetheless on the money.)

Finishing off the list, when did we ever hear it mentioned that Mary Richards and Lou Grant had deep but unexpressed romantic feelings for each other? 

I don’t know.  I was too young to…


Was that then a rhetorical…?


Why didn’t those shows “go there”?  Because, when the show runners had their wits about them – which was considerably more often than not – they knew better.  (Note:  Misjudgments of this nature are usually found early on in a series’s development when they have not yet solidified their “Voice” or in later seasons when they are demonstrably out of gas.)

But wait a minute, Earlo.  I thought “real” was “The Gold Standard of the Comedic Underpinnings.”

I’m glad you’ve been paying attention, but it’s not quite that simple.  Here’s the deal:

“Real” is “The Gold Standard of the Comedic Underpinnings.”  But real isn’t.

I’m a little confused by that assertion.

What I am saying is, every series creates its own distinctive definition of reality.  The show is real, but only to a point.  When “too real” interferes with the “series template” – introducing issues concerning aging, loneliness, an unsettling disparity of income– the comedy, by those series’s terms, becomes suddenly (SING-SONGILY for the final time:) 


Which is fine if you’re Louis C.K., but not for the shows I mentioned, and almost everything else.  On Louie, “uncomfortable” (first cousin to awkward) is the template.  (So wait, then, it’s not an exception.  You see what I did there?  I thought I was offering an exception and then I realized it wasn’t.  Which is better!  “No exceptions.”  Unless you have one.  In which I shall be more than happy to consider it.  The successful All In The Family was often funny and awkward; that’s the only one I can think of.  And besides, they don’t make that kind of show anymore.)

This is the first blog post I have ever ended with brackets.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I actually really liked that FRIENDS episode because I thought it tackled something that *is* real to people, and I thought coupled with the twist at the end it set up an interesting storyline. But that's me.

Re SEINFELD, I can feel my inner persnicket coming out to tell you that the person who ate the candy bar with a knife and fork was not one of George's or Jerry's attempted girlfriends. It was Mr Pitt, Elaine's boss. Granted, it caught on life wildfire all over the fictionalized New York (and apparently the actor in real life then had to deal with people bringing him absurd things with knives and forks), so maybe one of the copiers was a failed girlfriend applicant.

But Mr Pitt was the source.

I am rude enough to mention that but far too polite to offer to replace "impedimented" with "impeded". Or perhaps too admiring of games with words.


Frank said...

To me network comedy has been an all downhill act since Larry David left 'Seinfeld' as they're all so perfectly contrived and phony just like those rich Friends. Bring back shows like Taxi and make it real!

GC said...

Bonjour Monsieur Earlo,

I think, the Mary Tyler Moore episode is less awk-ward, because the writers didn't try to cheat. They established the situation as an awk-ward situation. It's more acceptable for me.

Friends did another awk-ward episode about Joey dating Rachel. And what about the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which Murray fell in love with Mary? Once again, the writers handled it masterfully, without cheating. I think, Married With Children looks like All In The Family, on his own way… Maybe?