Friday, September 30, 2011

"More Fall Season Frivolity"

This season, a comedian named Whitney Cummings has two sitcoms on the air, one – called Whitney – which she created herself and in which she stars – as “Whitney” – and another, Two Broke Girls, which Cummings co-created with former regular “Sex in the City” writer, Michael Patrick King.

First, I’d like to take a moment to imagine how that felt.

Whitney Cummings, calling her agent:

WHITNEY: Help! I just got two scripts picked up for pilots!

WHITNEY’S AGENT: That’s a “First Class Problem.” (Meaning, a lot of people would kill to have two scripts picked up for pilots.)

The Fall Schedule is announced. Whitney calls her agent again.

WHITNEY: Help! I just got two pilots picked up for series!

WHITNEY’S AGENT: That’s a “First Class Problem.” (Meaning, a lot of people would kill to have two pilots picked up for series.)

At this point, were I Whitney, I would drive straight to their office, to ascertain whether my agent was a recorded message.

Having one show on the air is a nightmare. Having two – there is no word for that. But if there were, it would come with a gun, and instructions for blowing your brains out. Or maybe that’s just me, projecting my personal fears onto a challenging but objectively manageable situation.

So, okay. A woman has two shows on the air. Curious, I decide to check both of them out. And, albeit with a shamefully miniscule sampling – I watched Whitney once and Two Broke Girls twice – and I will not be expanding that sampling, as I am unwilling to watch either show again – I am left, post facto, with a head-scratching observation:

The show that Whitney Cummings co-created seems, to me at least, to be superior to the series that she’s in. (Though Two Broke Girls’ second episode, penned by co-creator King, felt almost like a parody of a sitcom, with every second line of dialogue being metronomically and obligatorily a punchliine, whether King was able to come up with one, or not. I feared for the actors’ subsequent ability to look themselves in the mirror.)

That brackets part notwithstanding, what still remained was the following nagging question:

How is it that a comedian who, one might imagine, knows herself – her comic proclivities, her timing, her perspective on the world – ends up creating a series in which she appears that is measurably less satisfying than the one she co-created, but is not in?

(I don’t know you, of course, but you might find it enjoyable to play a game called, “The Germ”, as in, “What was the germ of the idea that triggered Earlo’s decision to write this post?” If you guessed that, in this case, it’s the nagging question posed in the paragraph immediately above, then you, my friend, are a winnah!)

What came to mind as explanations for why Two Broke Girls seemed to me more enjoyable than Whitney are three in number:

One: The Director

Two Broke Girls was directed by Jim Burrows, hands down, the greatest sitcom director that ever was. Jim directed my Best of the West pilot, making everything in the script work as well as I imagined it would, and adding underscoring bits of physical business that made some things work even better than I imagined they would. Though visually, one sitcom director is pretty much as good as the next one, when it comes to making the comedy feel organic, believable and attain its maximum comedic potential, the selection of the director makes an enormous difference.

Two: The Premise

Two Broke Girls involves a smart-mouthed, blue-collar girl thrown together with a pampered, rich girl who has unexpectedly lost all her money. Whitney involves a longstanding, stable relationship whose only problem seems to be that they’re not married, though it doesn’t seem to make any difference, unless one of them is taken to the hospital and the other one is barred from staying with them. You see the difference? One premise contains built-in conflict, while the other one purrs like a contented cat, with the occasional fur ball hiccup.

Now recently, a commenter spoke strongly against exaggeration, exaggeration, to them, feeling like tiresome, sitcom contrivance. To that, I respond with a quote I read somewhere that opined that, “Comedy is exaggeration, plus ten per cent.”

Excessive exaggeration can understandably make a sophisticated audience roll its eyes – unless we’re talking about Lucy, in which case, no amount of exaggeration seems too great and the results are always hilarious – but, Lucy aside, you do at least need that “ten per cent”; otherwise, what you’re watching is not comedy, it’s a documentary.

Two Broke Girls may display too much over-the-top exaggeration – the girls do keep a large horse in their backyard – but, on its primary outing at least, Whitney, to my sensibilities at least, offers less than enough.

Point Number Three: Acting Chops

To me, comedian Whitney Cummings is less interesting playing herself than actors Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs are playing made-up characters. Why? Because “being” is not acting, any more than “showing up” is doing stuff. The actor’s training and experience is different from the comedian’s, which, with notably exceptions like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, revolves less around sustaining a character than on a hit-and-run bombardment of a series of jokes.

Whitney Cummings may well get better at playing herself, but someone else will have to tell me if she does. I will not be revisiting her show, nor will I be checking back on Two Broke Girls. Unless someone explains to the co-creator that a joke and a good joke are not the same thing.

By the way – in case you are ready to consign me to the “grump” pile – the TV comedy that makes me laugh more consistently and my loudly than any other on the air?


Family Guy.

So I do like something.

On the other side of the coin – it’s not really the other side of the coin, I’m just trying to pretend it fits – the explanation for why I am out of the sitcom-writing business entirely?

The “Viewer Rating” assigned to New Girl, a sweet but innocuous new entry on Fox:

“S”, for “Intense Sexual Situations”; “L”, for “Strong Coarse Language”; and “D” for “Intensely Suggestive Dialogue.”

I am unable to do any of that.


Pidgy Gordon said...

I, too, gave them a try and came up empty. Both shows reek of desperation and very old jokes in racier language.
Then, I turn on Modern Family and have to grab my inhaler!

Mac said...

I think "Family Guy" has a fair bit to answer for, having raised the bar with it's adult themes and language etc.

I wonder if other sitcoms are going down the sexual-jokes route, because they see them working on Family Guy. The difference is that Family Guy has brilliant writers who don't just settle for sex jokes, they try to make them smart jokes as well - and they frequently are.

I don't imagine most people are even that offended these days, provided there's a warning that it's adult content, so their kids don't see it. I think people just get bored with 'adult' jokes that put the word "vagina!" where a punchline should be.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; I just can't find "Family Guy" funny enough to enjoy it. I do snicker from time to time but I find the cruelty of the characters to be too much for me. Call me sensitive, I don't mind. I always see the crude or mean (or both) punchline that's coming with their set ups. I find the reliance on the off-colour or offensive joke to be lazy or sophomoric.

I'm sure the creators would claim it's a satire, but to me it's more sophomoric than satirical. I'm just not getting it. Yes, I do see flashes of insight in it from time to time, but the grinding meanness dulls my appreciation of those bits. I only watch it with my daughter as she's a fan.

The sit-coms I enjoy the most right now are "Big Bang Theory" and "Phineas and Ferb". Yeah, BBT is predictable in spots, and does go the adult route, but many times it gets entirely loopy. Lorre sure likes him "a fish out of water", eh? I find "Phineas and Ferb" witty, clever, and engaging. It's a gentle but surreal romp through summer vacation. It's upbeat, doesn't rely on adult humour or themes, and is very rarely mean let alone cruel. It does repeat its catch phrases and jokes over and over, and has a most improbable set up, yet always makes me laugh. It's more slapstick than originally written - the sort of thing you can do with a cartoon - but the exuberance of the characters makes it fresh for me.

Just my $0.02,


john brown said...

Any comedian who is the star of a sit-com would do well to follow the example of Bob Newhart and Jerry Seinfeld.

Surround yourself with talented actors who can carry you. Don't be afraid to let the others get the laughs.

Joe in DC said...

I saw the Jim Burrow directing credit go by on the Two Broke Girls pilot and knew I was in for a treat -- thanks in no small part to your pointing out his work in the past. Thank you for that. (Meanwhile, Episode 2 is still on my TiVo.)

Bradley said...

Both stink, but if she had the choice to star in either project, boy did she make the wrong decision. Whitney reeks of a vanity project, while 2 Broke Girls has some semblance of a story at least. What I can't stand is how much both rely on sex jokes. The whole clam chowder running gag on 2BG turned my stomach.