Baby Golda was crying inconsolably.
Anna said, “Dad. Tell her a joke.”
I turned to the squalling infant and said,
“The doctor gave me six months to live. I told him I couldn’t pay the bill. He gave me another six months.”
And would you believe it?
She just kept on crying.
Okay, so it didn’t work.
But it does work as an opening to this post.
As a quintessential “old-time” joke-for-the-sake-of-a-joke. (As well as an overlaying “joke-on-a-joke”, distracting an anxious new Mom with its absurd inappropriateness. Thatpart worked pretty well, taking her mind of “Why is she crying?”) (For a second-and-a-half.)
Here’s the thing.
For reasons I do not understand, as they advance further in their successful careers, writers of comedy seem to believe they will achieve immortalizing validation only if they eschew the perceived disreputability of comedy for, if not full-out drama, works that are generically dramatic, laced with a more naturalistic brand of comedy, a long way from the outright silliness they once doled out to delighted audiences, hungry for a laugh.
It’s like they think that only by writing “seriously” will they escape the derided “Kids’ Table” and earn respect as legitimate Hall of Fame artistes.
(Note: This phenomenon is not dissimilar to comic actors who aspire to non-comedic Leading Man (or Leading Woman, Amy Schumer) portrayals. It’s like they believe comedians never get dates.)
Some writers are content driving successfully in their own lane. Using myself as an example, I may write more about ideas that interest me than in my sitcomical heyday, but that’s notbecause I think dealing in interesting ideas is more mature and respectable. It’s because there was no place for those proclivities in network TV.
No way would you ever discover a sitcom logline announcing: “(THE SHOW’S LEADING CHARACTER) ponders whether he believes things because they’re true or because they insulate him from the intolerable randomness of life. Madcap hilarity ensues.” I’m scared to offer that type of material up even now,so you will not be seeing that post. Until I cannot think of anything else to write.
WhateverI write, I inevitably honor the comedy.
“Best-of-us-all” Neil Simon’s career took a dissimilar trajectory.
Simon’s consummate joke-writing ability put him on top, both in television and on Broadway. Although his early plays were always about something– Come Blow Your Horn (1961) was about “coming of age”, Barefoot in the Park (1961) was about newlyweds, The Odd Couple (1965), about the newly divorced – but in all of them, “fast-and-funny” always came first.
Only Little Me (1962) – a musical “vehicle” for his former boss, genius comedian Sid Caesar for which he was less than a creative instigator than a reliable “hired gun” – was total unabashed foolishness. Which is why it remains memorable to
me to this very day.
Caesar, as World War I prisoner-of-war Noble Eggleston, opens a gift parcel from his girlfriend-back-home and says,
“Oh! She made me some socks. (AFTER A BEAT) No, they’re cookies.”
That one still makes me laugh. As does – from the musical Sweet Charity (1966) for which Neil Simon wrote the book – attempted suicide victim Charity Hope Valentine is fished out of the river, a concerned crowd gathers around her unconscious body and one of them says,
“She looks dead to me. Does she look dead to you?”
To which another of them replies,
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before.”
I have seen almost all of his stage plays. I defy you to find anything equally “agenda-free” funny in any of his later productions. (Including the ones that won major awards. Especially those ones. To which I proclaim, “Why did you encourage him?”)
Simon’s subsequent efforts became progressively anchoringly “true to life.” But at the price of cathartic explosions of unrestrained laughter.
Do people need my permission to change?
“What if they don’t know where you are?”
Okay, then they can change.
But don’t ask me to be happy about it.
Some may attribute my prejudiced views to creative “arrested development.”
Maybe they’re right.
Though my interpretive leaning is otherwise.
Comedy is a magically bestowed “gift.”
Why throw it away so you can put on long pants?