I do not want to do this. But when a car goes by, there are dogs who reflexively react as if a starting gun went off and they chase it.
I am apparently one of those dogs.
On September 29th, in his indispensible blog bykenlevine, Ken once again railed against the unfunny state of current situation comedy. So irate was Senor Levine, he came at today’s substandard purveyors of comedy from contradictory directions:
One: They lack sufficient talent.
Today’s shows are not funny because the writers don’t “have the chops to make someone laugh.”
And Two: They may possess sufficient talent but choose deliberately not to use it, leaving Ken wondering,
“Why would anyone want to become a comedy writer if he’s embarrassed at making people laugh?”
Conclusion: Either they can’t, or they won’t. Common denominator: They don’t.
Here’s where Ken and I agree. Both of us have experienced the exhilaration of writing something that made the live studio audience we were filming in front of laugh so hard (their laughter sometimes topped by crescendoing applause) that it appeared they might actually never stop. I’m talking nigh on half-a- minute of uproarious laughter. (Although I was substantially less capable of that accomplishment than Ken was. I did it a couple of times. And they were memorable.)
There is no current comedy that can elicit that level of hilarity. (Or even close to it.)
In that way, Ken is absolutely on the money.
If comedy is judged by the intensity of the laughter, today’s sitcoms are indisputably less funny. And why shouldn’t it be judged that way? Comedy success has always been evaluated on the basis of how hard the audience laughed, culminating with highest possible accolade:
“We killed them!”
(See In This Context: Monty Python’s “The World’s Funniest Joke.”)
A second point of agreement with Ken’s irrepressible rant:
“People want to laugh.”
It is then, however, that I turn the corner.
People want to laugh, all right.
But they selectively decide what they prefer to laugh at.
Since I have presented my position on previous occasions, let me today approach it from a slightly different direction. (Bypassing the historical overview hearkening back to the first laugh garnered around a cave fire when somebody farted. You’re welcome. Plus, I am not sufficiently recovered to do that.)
Cinematic evidence reveals that, over the years, entertainment, both comedic and dramatic, has evolved (not necessarily to its advantage) in an inexorably more realistic direction. In my beloved childhood westerns, when a victim was gunned down, their hand flew directly to the spot where the bullet had ostensibly gone in, they went “Uhnhh!”, they toppled immediately to the ground and stopped moving.
That was “dead” in 1954. No blood. No pulsating entrails. We got it. You stopped moving – you were dead. Next stop – Boot Hill.
At some point, however, that changed, the audience requiring – or possibly conditioned to expect – a more realistic representation of “dead.” (Recently, however, “comic book” movies have provided a revisionistic interpretation of “dead.” But the disclaimer arrives with our understanding of the genre. “We are depicting ‘comic book death’ here, not the genuine article.”) For which there is always Martin Scorcese.
My argument today, is:
The same thing happened with comedy. It got progressively more real. (Comparing two shows filmed in front of a live studio audience, The Dick Van Dyke Show is not as realistic in its portrayal of reality as Mom.)
Ignoring the fact that the majority of today’s comedies are filmed “single-camera”, whose structural nature allows no place for the thirty-second outburst – or an extended laugh of any duration – and setting aside the fact that “single-camera” comedies exclude the rigorous joke-testing process provided by the multiple days of rehearsal that shows filmed before a live studio audience undergo – two reasons they are arguably not as funny – the point I am focusing on today is that a mini-movie’s (Read: “single-camera” comedy’s) sensibility feels realer than a mini-play’s (the artistic antecedent of the studio-audience situation comedy.)
And with that preference in format comes a commensurate alteration in writing style.
Meaning (at the undeniable cost of greater laughter):
No “Big Jokes” (or traditional joke-writing structure whatsoever.) No “accidental misunderstandings.” No “mistaken identities.” No comedic “reveals.”
Nothing, in conclusion, that would only happen in a sitcom.
(Like you expect one thing and you get not something surprisingly different from what you expect but its diametrical opposite.)
As dependable as those comedic devices may be, they are incongruous with the template, by which I mean, not only the “single-camera” format itself, but the sensibilities of today’s viewership, most particularly, the younger viewership the networks are struggling hardest to attract, which prefers comedy more reflective of their everyday experience over the comedy – albeit brilliantly conceived and executed – of contrivance.
And that’s it for today.
It is not, in my view, a question of writers being inadequately gifted or consciously squeamish about going for laughs.
They are doing what they – and the contemporary audience –
Believe to be funny.