The (seemingly) inexorable direction of comedy:
You start with “baggy pants” comedy and proceed to “comedy with a wince.”
This “Progression of Choice” deliberately engaged in in the pursuit of unvarnished candor and “Going for the Truth.”
Call it “Honest Comedy.”
In opposition to the highly exaggerated, the formulaic and the contrivingly insincere.
The question is,
Just because it is labeled that way – by purported experts, pundits, and the practitioners themselves –
Is it really still comedy?
The official answer to this question is “Yes.” “Official”, meaning the shows are classified as “Comedies” in the context of Emmy consideration.
Though I am not entirely sure why.
As with many crusdades, the march towards the comedically “more real” begins with honorable intentions. The audience goes,
“A man whose uncle is a Martian at a time when there’s a protest against a war and racial tensions in the ghettos? I’m sorry. We’re ready to move on.”
So they do. CBS cancels, as one observer ironically described it, “Every show with a tree” – The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction – replacing them with grittier, urban comedies, more reflective of our rapidly changing cultural landscape.
All in the Family, tackling the social issues of the day. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which a single woman ventures to “make it on her own”. Good Times – the day-to-day struggles of minority poor people. The Jeffersons, an African-American success story, but he has a chip on his shoulder.
The progression is towards “real.”
Although hardly, at this point, “real real.” Their imperfections notwithstanding, the characters remain “television nice”. Archie Bunker may be a bigot, but he clearly adores his family. Though he disagrees with his “meathead” son-in-law about everything, Archie still provides him with free lodging and you feel, deep down, he’s just a wounded softy.
The new programming is, what most viewers would consider, a step forward. Still a sitcom, but truer to life.
Than, say, an astronaut married to a genie.
Eventually, however, time matzahs on. The audience tires of social protest, and the individual takes center stage, some of them, unlike the characterizations of Yesteryear, not entirely likable.
I believe that the testing of the pilot delivered that verdict unequivocally about the characters on Seinfeld.
The times, however, especially with younger viewers, had demonstrably altered, Seinfeld proving that, the “sample-testing system” notwithstanding, being “not likable” was hardly an obstacle to phenomenal success.
Following this advancing continuum, the audience comes to appreciate – and ultimately demand – at least somewhat unlikable characters in their comedic entertainment. Compared to his television predecessors, Raymond is less than the ideal husband. Elaine dumps a spectacularly attractive boyfriend, fearing that his face has been disfigured after an unfortunate mountain-climbing mishap. The Friends were not always that friendly.
The continuing direction of comedy? A descriptive I read recently concerning the then incendiary persona of (now retired) David Letterman.
Letterman was never a phony. Revolutionary to the talk-show milieu, Dave treated his guests the way we treat people in actual life – some of them we like, and some of them, we like less. Before that, talk-show hosts pretended to like everybody. Giving Letterman’s distinguishing approach the sense of a breath of fresh air.
I am scoring at home here. And on my scorecard, “Genuine” equals “Honest.” And “Honest” appears to mean “Harsher.”
It’s like this concept I have always wanted to but have never been satisfyingly able to write about.
Why do we think that people are telling “the real truth” when they are drunk, rather than merely a less socially acceptable truth, the implication being that the socially acceptable truth is automatically a lie?
I am not convinced that the less palatable “Truth of Inebriation” is indisputably more honest. To me, it is just meaner. The things is, when “nice” is perceived to be synonymous with hypocritical, what else are we to believe?
Anyway, back to television.
On it goes, TV comedy becoming grittier and angrier. (Because you can never go back. Although some network is rebooting Full House and another, The Muppets. So maybe you can.)
Stops along the “Grim Comedy” continuum:
The Office – a workplace living hell.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, wherein comedy is served with an inevitable cringe.
Louis C.K. and his unapologetically amoral adventures.
And arguably Darkest (tied with the now defunct The Comeback):
A series I have recently begun watching on ON DEMAND and was actually the impetus for these ramblings,
The show’s premise: A television pairing – based on demographic necessity – of an over-the-hill comedian, played by over-the-hill comedian Billy Crystal, with a rising but as yet still unformed comedian, played by Josh Gad.
Almost documentarily real.
And for me,
Sometimes funny, reflecting the ever-narrowing dividing-line between laughter and pain. But at the end of the day – which, come to think of it, is actually when I watch it – The Comedians is literally agonizing to sit through.
Though the show it is conceived, packaged and is loudly touted as…
“The season’s most audacious new comedy.”
What a concept.
Billy Crystal selling “redundancy.”
“Come on, Earlo. It’s real!”
I know. But is it comedy?
No question. The “Make it real” crusade began as an admirable undertaking.
But what exactly is its comedic “end-game”?
I mean, when you have taken it to the limit,
Where do you take it after that?