Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"'Serious Comedy' Versus The Actually Funny Kind"

Sorry for so many posts on a similar subject matter.  I just go where my impulses take me.  I am eminently grateful that they are at least taking me somewhere.

The writer’s obsessing question is:

“What story am I going to tell?”

And, if you’re writing comedy, the immediate paralleling concern:

“How am I going to make it funny?”


If the story you choose to tell is a generically funny one, the second question has been automatically taken care of:  You just (as skillfully as you are able to)…

Tell that (generically funny) story.

(Note:  I am about, before venturing further, to discuss situation comedy stories that are generically funny, i.e., the kind I never favored and was incapable of writing.  Readers.  Do you know how agonizing it is to discourse upon matters you know virtually nothing about?  How uncomfortable and embarrassing it is, how torturously painful it feels to dive in, knowing the results will lack the clarity and persuasiveness of personal experience?  I am juggling in the dark here, people.  A little sympathy, tolerance and understanding, if you will.  Thank you.)

Moving on from the bracketed plea for forgiveness…

“Mistaken Identity.”  “The Practical Joke.”  “The Misinterpreted Exchange.”  To name but three such genres, because I cannot think of any more, though I am confident there are others.

Comedy premises that have you laughing from the get-go, mirthfully anticipating their hilarious resolutions.  Are these generically funnily-premised stories difficult to write?  Everything is.  But they enjoy the distinct advantage of radiating “funny signals.”  You know it’s a comedy, and you are pre-programmed to laugh.  And have been from the earliest days.

CAVE MAN STORYTELLER:  “So… Are you ready for this?…Zog steps up to this big…behemothyou know how he walks with that confident swagger… DEMONSTRATING ZOG’S SWAGGERING STRUT)… and he says, (IMITATING HIS VOICE)  ‘I am Zog!  Zog fears nothing!  (LEANING IN CONSPIRATIORIALLY)  The Giant Whatsit takes one step towards him (BARELY CONTROLLING HIS CHUCKLING DISDAIN)… Zog immediately drops his spear and runs away screaming “Help me!  Help me!”  Who knew that dopey Neanderthal could move that fast!”

And of course, Zog is standing directly behind him.    

The funny story (and situation) offers an advantageous “leg up” when entertaining an audience.  The “laugh inducers” are inherently built in.  You call a character “Jack Tripper”, and for eleven years, you just watch him trip.


To develop strategies for “comedifying” what are substantially dramatic storylines…

(I’m not saying it’s harder.  Yeah, I probably am.  Though I admittedly know better.  “Good” is good, in whatever genre you choose to write.  And, of course, vice versa.)

I was never drawn to the hyper-dramatic comedies, favored by the Norman Lear Company which did episodes on racism, the evolving roles of women and pregnancy ending.  To me, though such offerings were often interstitially hilarious – complements of some of the greatest comedy writers from an earlier era (Your Show of Shows, I Love Lucy) – in the final analysis, I did not enjoy being lectured to, and my ultimate reaction to those series was “Pasadena.”

As my career choices reflect, I was more personally attracted to the individualized, human foible storylines favored by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its similarly focused successors.  On the comedy/drama continuum, these shows reflected a stylistic middle ground, believable as everyday experience, situated somewhere between farce and hysterectomy.

Concerning my own output…

My first pilot, Best of the West (1981-82), contrasted between the West of the imagination with the West as it actually was.  The series’s most successful comedic moments played directly on that discrepancy.

Family Man’s (1988) pilot episode came from a story I was told by a woman I cared about who, at a party, had heard the party’s hostess assert, “Any woman who doesn’t work isn’t worth talking to.”  The Family Man wife was a woman whose job of choice was raising three children at home.

Major Dad (1989) was premised on the inevitable fireworks attendant to a “lifer” Marine’s marrying a left-leaning newspaper reporter with three daughters.

And Island Guy (circa 1996), a pilot I made but which did not go to series, involved the confrontation between untrammeled Polynesia and capitalistic USA.

None of these, as you can see, are “Two guys dress up in drag so they can live in a female dormitory.”  (Or a guy living with two women, hoodwinking their landlord into believing he’s gay.)  They are, for better or worse, “comedies of ideas.”

No judgments.  Everyone does what they do.  The only standard is how skillfully you pull it off.  (And the ratings, the audience’s preferences being a perennial confusion to me.)

My most clear-eyed self-assessment suggests an arguable imbalance in my recipe, the dramatic storylines overshadowing the comedy, producing a high-minded confection, lacking playfulness and fun. 

That was my combination, and I did pretty with it.  Though I was never the most popular ice cream flavor, I provided a highly palatable pistachio.

Today…well, the recent Emmy nominations, involving niche favorites (the contemporary television business model no longer requiring a mass audience) dredged up the question concerning the ever-increasing “blurring of the line” between comedy and drama.

But I shall defer such observations until tomorrow.  (As I have illuminated you sufficiently today.)

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

When you come to write those observations, I hope you can explain to me why NURSE JACKIE and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK class as "comedy" in this year's Emmy award nominations.