Friday, January 16, 2015


I really don’t get it.

This is not a clueless pose or a literary conceit.  It reflects a genuine confusion about something.  Which I shall explain shortly.  Though not before a digressive side-trip.

I received an iPhone5 for Chanukah.  This replaces my ancient flip phone – a similar model was discovered in the jacket pocket of Alexander Graham Bell.

“Oh yeah!!!

My new gift marks an undeniable step forward.  Now, instead of a phone that never leaves the house whose fees and charges were eighteen dollars and eighty-six cents a months, I have a fancy new phone whose fees and charges are…

Wait, this one is complicated.  Somehow, there’s this “Family Phone Plan” that my wife and daughter Rachel share that I was added to, and – get this! – by expanding the “Family Phone Plan” from two participants to three participants, the monthly fees and charges became…


(The iPhone5 itself was only ninety-nine cents.)

The result is that, instead of a Chanukah present that costs money, my Chanukah present actually saves money.  I am not sure that even qualifies as a present.  Although I did receive something.

I can imagine some future post concerning the fun and games associated with learning to use my new cell phone.  I can hardly await the excruciation… and then writing about it.  But that pleasure is for another day.  Today’s topic concerns the issue of evolution, which is progressive, contrasted with the evolution in comedy writing, which is…


And very arguably non-existent.

To wit:

In the technological arena… okay, I have an iPhone5, and already, there is an iPhone6.  In some way, or maybe multiple ways – all of which I cannot identify as I can barely consistently turn my iPhone5 on – the iPhone6 is superior to the iPhone5, as well as –  assumably – the four iPhones that preceded it.  I cannot imagine Apple’s latest “roll-out” ever being promoted as:

“New and Worse!”   

All technology, evolutionarily, gets better.  It does more things.  It’s easier to use.  It’s lighter.  It’s faster.  It’s sleeker.  It’s more compact if the earlier version was too big; it is bigger if the earlier version was too small.  Somehow, in some identifiable and highly marketable manner, the “replacement product” stands on the shoulders of its less formidable predecessor.  The original automobile’s top driving speed was once, like, twelve miles an hour.  Now it’s… I don’t know what it is.  You would never catch me in such a car.  And if you did, I’d be hollering…

“S-s-s-slow down!!!

You get the idea.  Technology is, invariably, “New and Improved”, the New Coke being an historical exception.  Overwhelmingly more often, new products are, in some way or other, identifiable advancements.   (Throw in also the highly innovative arenas of science and medicine.)

But not comedy writing. 

Specifically, as I know the most about it and therefore qualify as a reliable evaluator, situation comedy writing.

At this point, it would behoove me to access copies from my collection of TV Guide Preview Editions dating back to the 1957-58 season and regale you with list of the most universally recognized sitcomical classics, followed by a considerably longer list of subsequent silly sitcoms that demonstrably learned nothing for their illustrious predecessors. 

I cannot do that, however, since my TV Guide Preview Edition copies are now so old, and held together by only too staples, that if I pick them up, the covers fall off.  So now they just sit in a pile, and I look at them.  Kind of useless, isn’t it.  But hey, I’m a collector.  Drop by sometime, and you can look at them too.

Anyway, from personal memory…

The Phil Silvers Show (also known as You’ll Never Get Rich), The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All In the Family, Taxi, Seinfeld, to name just six of the generally acknowledged “Greatest Sitcoms Of All Time.”  (I am talking “mainstream” here, not “niche.”  I don’t watch “niche” because they are rarely my “niche.”)

I put it to you, kind sirs and madams but not the kind involve prostitutes.  Which subsequent sitcoms stood on the shoulders of these game-changing giants, elevating the form to still loftier levels?  Mr. Ed?  Gilligan’s Island?  Laverne and Shirley?  Two-And-Half-Men?

Remember, I am not talking about “popular.”  The shows I just listed were unilaterally successful.  I may even have included one of your favorites, and I defer to you entirely on “I loved that show.”  But “Those were groundbreaking sitcoms”?

They were the opposite - the iPhone6, followed by the iPhone2.

Why don’t the cutting edge situation comedies, like advancing technologies, trigger progressive improvement in the form, rather than standing alone as passing Blips of Genius?  I cannot honestly tell you.

When I recently unveiled this query, an intelligent and insightful friend opined that you cannot compare technological (or scientific or medical) creations with artistic creations.  In contrast to the former, artistic innovations progress from no earlier template, emerging instead from the unique and non-transferable sensibilities of their creators.  This explains, according to my friend, why an artistic “leap forward” can be succeeded by leaps in every possible direction.  Including backwards. 

Point taken, though I am not entirely convinced.  You have to be aware of creative backsliding, don’t you?  That the established standards are not quite being lived up to?  And what about the audience?  Why don’t the people, in their viewing selections, which ultimately determine the networks’ decision-making demand better? 

You know, in the arena of dramatized violence, if the filmmakers suddenly turned squeamish, eschewing blood spatter and pulsating entrails, the audience would never sit still for this disappointing reversion from the graphic gorefest.

“What is this, the fifties?  We want the ‘dying’ to be real!
Where is the paralleling outcry about comedies?

“We have seen honest comedies.  Grounded in character.  And believability.  And identifiable situations.  Oh yeah, and they were hilarious.  We get glimpses of such offerings on occasion.  And then they disappear.  Wha’ hoppin’?”

You go to bed, it’s a gourmet confection.  Turn the page, and you’re back to Twinkies.

It’s perplexing, I tell you.  I’m in a business that does not consistently move forward.  (Unless saying “vagina” in prime time constitutes “forward.”)  Nat Hiken, Carl Reiner, Jim Brooks, Larry David – they all undeniably advanced the ball.  Then they passed and…

ANNOUNCER:  “What the heck’s goin’ on out there!”

Any ideas about this?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think there has been evolution in comedy, but the direction has been to cross boundaries and cross-fertilize with drama. The last few years, the best laughs on TV the last few years were on THE GOOD WIFE. TRANSPARENT is both deeply serious and very funny (though not consistently either). BREAKING BAD was hilarious a lot of the time.

Among pure comedies, ISTM that the evolution has been to focus on characters that used to be the butts of the jokes: BIG BANG THEORY's four geeks, for example. There's also been the weird, unpleasant, and hopefully short-lived trend for mockumentary style (THE OFFICE, VEEP, PARKS & REC) and self-consciously ironic (SUBURGATORY) comedies, which I have not personally found all that funny but do represent efforts to move the form in new directions.

Ken Levine has argued that what's wrong with comedy now is network interference, where the suits insist on signing off on every decision - scripts, casting, probably costumes. Quite likely. But if you don't do niche you're not going to see where the interesting things are happening.

I would, btw, suggest you take a look at TRANSPARENT. It's very much comedy of character. You can only get it on Amazon streaming and you have to be a member of Amazon Prime. Someone in your house has probably already signed you up for that. But don't watch it on your new iPhone. You want to see every detail of Jeffrey Tambor's face!


Wendy M. Grossman said...

P.S. If you haven't seen EPISODES, it's wonderful. And funny. And character-driven. You should identify.


john brown said...

There should be a CSI: Hollywood that investigates who killed comedy.
I'm sure it will lead to a corner office with a great view.

Canda said...

Niche comedies exist because we have niche audiences, due to the internet. Internet stars become stars because they have a following, not because they are necessarily "quality".

There is less of a "community" watching television, except for major events like the Super Bowl. People are turned inward toward their mobile devices.

So, there is little desire to "share" laughter. In fact, most modern one-camera comedies eschew jokes.
Unfortunately, they go for pop culture references, or word play that seems very written.

Network executives continually fail, because they insist on shows that look like the demographic they want, but instead reflect them - upscale people living in cities, who live in fashionable apartments, work in trendy offices (often having to do with social media), and eat in hip restaurants. They tend to have little spiritual content, and are heavy on angst and neurosis, or people simply saying their problems out loud (or through voiceover), which requires little need to show or write character reveal. They tend to have little that is emotionally satisfying.