Friday, August 17, 2018

"Atomic Comedy"

I’d love to show you the video, but I can’t find it.  How’s that for a ray of encouraging sunshine?

There are certain approaches to comedy that, more than others, tickle my particular funny-bone. One, is impeccably executed physical comedy.  (See: A Buster Keaton short, where, stationed at third base when has never seen baseball before, Keaton sensibly dives away each time the ball whistles in his direction.)  (That is not the video I can’t find.  But I’d be unlikely to find that one either.)

The second form of comedy that inevitably gets to me is a style of comedy connected to music.  (See:  Leslie Nielson, playing an umpire desperately faking the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner” in one of the Naked Gun movies.)

The third type of comedy I enjoy is what I called in the title “Atomic Comedy.”

I was reminded of this delicious genre of comedy in the context of Friends, which I was talking about yesterday but cannot currently recall why.  (“Does it matter?”  “No.” “Then keep going.”)

Unplanned digression…

This should probably be twoposts but I shall combine them into one. No.  I’ll keep them two posts.  Although the second one may not merit a full blog post.   Or even the first one, for that matter.  Yes it does.  At least I’ll give it a try.  And deepest apologies for exposing my chronic uncertainty in public.

Okay, where was I?  Oh yeah.

If you notice – maybe less so today, but certainly in myday – sitcoms almost always included a character one can gratefully describe as “The Comedy Writer’s Best Friend”, being an easy character to write because there are totally unguarded boundaries as to what it is acceptable for them to say. 

Such characters can, in fact and practice, proclaim virtually anything.  And it does not necessarily have to make sense.  (Which is precisely what makes them funny.)
(And why they were created in the first place.)

Consider “The Innocent.”  (“Georgette”, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) Or the congenitally “ditzy” character.  (The patented Gracie Allen.)  Remember the drug-ravaged “Reverend Jim” on Taxi? (“Whaaaat… do-o-o-o-oes… a-a-a-a…ye-e-e-e-llow… li-i-i-i-i-ght… meeeean?”)  

Then there are the characters naturally authorized to speak freely (“Mork from Ork”, a confused visitor from another planet), or any character over eighty (“Sophia” in Golden Girls, “Mother Dexter”, a character I created on Phyllis) backed by the justifying “I’m old, and I don’t give a crap!”

(By the way, that was the second post idea I was going to write, which is now gone, as I have little else to say about it.  Oh well, I guess there was just one.) 

The character on Friendsfilling this identifiable category – along with “Joey”; the show actually had two of them – was “Phoebe”, a “ditzy”, New Age-y, child-woman, cleared to blurt whatever arose in her unfiltered, free-associating mind.

Oneelement bubbling out produced “Atomic Comedy.” 

What is “Atomic Comedy”? I’m not sure; I just made it up. But this example – the one I can’t find – involves a dazzling moment when the character – a step or twenty behind the curve – suddenly realizes something everyone else already knows and takes comfortably for granted.

Why is that funny?

Because the “startling revelation” materializes before our eyes, an unusual occurrence on television (with the notable exception of “Lucy.”)  Jokes are generally carefully crafted.  You laugh at the cleverness, but their deliberate premeditation deprives them of the incendiary explosion of“Now!” 

The example from Friends…

Phoebe and the “Boyfriend of the Episode” are standing outside the coffee shop, locked in serious conversation.  Suddenly, she catches sight of the coffee shop’s name, prominently painted on the window.

Remember, this is, like, “Season Eight”, or something.  The emporium’s punning “joke name” has long ago been assimilated and laughed at. It’s called “Central Perk”, a play-on-words on New York’s Central Park.  Not a huge laugh, perhaps, but it’s okay.

In this, literally, illuminating moment – considerably “after the fact” – the light finally goes on in Phoebe’s uniquely oriented head, and she casually responds,

“Oh, now I get it.”

And, as she comes to that belated realization, the audience watches it happen!

And, myhead at least, went shatteringly “Ka-boom!

“Atomic Comedy.”

I checked Lisa (“Phoebe”) Kudrow’s background and my suspicions were confirmed.  She began her career at The Groundlings, an L.A. improv comedy school that supplied talent to numerous sitcoms and variety shows.  (And, I believe, still does.)  In my view, that sublime sequence could not have been executed as truthfully by a regular actor.  Improv actors are skillfully tutored to do “Now!”  

(Although the line itself was certainly scripted – actors do not create their own material; if they did, I’d have gone home a lot earlier – the scene-ending “capper” may well have been suggested by the actor.  Exiting into the coffee shop, Phoebe, catching sight of its painted moniker, reacts again to its humorous intent.  

(Again, to me, better than a joke.)

It is rare when such blissful sequences occur.  Even Saturday Night Live reads for cue cards.  But that was a special one.  And, like an avid ornithologist sighting an exotic bird species,

I thought I would draw it to your attention. 


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I have no problem with the character that can say anything, although this can get overused (Jack *and* Karen on WILL AND GRACE; Anya on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER...) French Stewart on 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN and Andy Dick on NEWSRADIO were pretty entertaining.

What I *can't* stand - and what there is mercifully now much less of than there was in the 1980s and 1990s - is the Village Idiot character. Joey on FRIENDS was often like this. Woody on CHEERS (Coach on CHEERS, too, but at least he had the excuse of having had his head pummeled a lot). The Village Idiot always seems to me an indication that the writers think that a lot of their audience is so dumb that they need a really stupid character so they can feel superior. Stupid is just not funny to me.

Ed Norton on THE HONEYMOONERS had some of that - but he also had street smarts. And he was played by Art Carney. So: OK.


JED said...

I never watched Friends. I'm not sure why. Now, though, with your mention of the "Atomic Comedy" scene and a mention of other scenes on Ken Levine's blog, I think I'm going to try it.