Monday, May 7, 2012

"Something's Different"

This is the post, if proof were necessary and it’s not – hence the subjunctive – of how comedically out of touch I am with the current…what they’re doing today.

Last Thursday, I watched the four sitcoms in NBC’s, if not ratings healthy then demographically appealing, eight to ten lineup – Community, 30 Rock, The Office and Parks and Recreation – and I have to say, except for scattered stretches during Parks and Recreation, I did not do a tremendous amount of laughing.

Today, more than usual, is kind of an interactive arrangement.  I need you – more specifically the “demographically appealing ‘you’”, if you’re out there, though I’ll take anybody – to explain to me what I’m missing.

Now, you might say, “Earl, it’s a new kind of comedy.  And since you’re old, it is entirely understandable you are not going to get it.”

To which, I’d reply, “Thank you” – because I’m a polite person and not easily offended, at least not in certain matters – but I would continue with this:

When I worked most successfully, during the 1970’s and 80’s, I imagine there were writers from an earlier era – most particularly the corps of left behind variety show writers – who would look at, for example, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and proclaim that it is not as funny as what they did, because, on the whole, Mary did not generate the tears-in-your-eyes hilarity of, say, The Red Skelton Show (1951-1971). 

What they wouldn’t say is, “I don’t understand what they’re doing.”  Because they did.  They just found it less funny.

Sitcom writers from an earlier era, say, writers for My Three Sons or The Andy Griffith Show, would also understand what we were doing.  What they would say is, “In our day, we were not permitted to do that”, “that” being portraying a single woman who dated various men, some of whom, it was suggested – “suggested” only, this still being the only-three-networks-“Standards and Practices”-controlled seventies – may possibly have slept over.

There was unquestionably a transition from the previous generation of writers to mine.  But the current transition is different, by which I mean, bigger. 

This is more like the “Big Band” musicians listening to 50’s “be-bop” and saying, “Why is that music?” or listening to 50’s rock ’n roll and saying, “Why is that good?”

I have the same type of question concerning the quartet of comedies I watched last Thursday.  

“Why is that comedy?” and “What makes that funny?” 

I sampled two hours of “quality comedy”, and rarely did the sides of my lips crinkle up, nor did I hear “Ha-ha” coming out of my mouth.

So what exactly are they up to?

I know these shows are smart, by which I mean cracklingly nimble-minded.  I have seen stupid shows, and these are definitely not them.  I have never looked at a script of any of these four series, but I bet if I did, I am almost certain I would find the spelling impeccable and the punctuation Ivy League perfect.

I understood the stories they were doing.  They were pretty much straight forward, with the exception of 30 Rock, which was apparently a parody of some reality show format that I have never seen, so I had no point of reference about what they were lampooning, and was actually confused. 

“Confused” by a sitcom storyline.  That, for me, is a new one.      

What throws me, if I may jump and head – jump ahead of what?  The stuff I don’t want to talk about – is the nitty-gritty of all comedies, the method by which these television shows get laughs.

Just like me in the seventies watching network variety shows and finding them broad and unchallenging, I can see how today’s writers (and audiences) might find what we did formulaic and tame, “groundbreaking” in their day, if you want to be fair about it, but still “Thanks, Grandpa, but we’ve moved on.”

The question is, “moved on” to what?  In all honestly, I have no apparatus for evaluating that “what.”  I understand jokes.  I am aware of how they’re constructed.  And I feel qualified in determining when I hear a joke whether or not I, at least, believe it is funny.  How? 

If I laugh, it’s funny; if I don’t laugh, it’s not.

The shows I watched last Thursday contain few if any – in the traditional sense of the word – jokes. 

(Other comedies, such as the Chuck Lorre stable of sitcoms – Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike and Molly – hew to the traditional template and are riddled with jokes, many of which are funny, though they do not make me laugh for other reasons, generally taste related.  I am not talking about them.  Modern Family, rounding things out, is what I’d call a “tweener”, stylistically updated, but relying on a more traditional approach, which is explainable by the fact that the show’s dual creators underwent extensive traditional sitcom format training, Christopher Lloyd with Frasier, and Steven Levitan with Just Shoot Me.)

Among other strategies - ironic distancing, and a "Festival of Humiliation", especially in The Office -  the shows I watched Thursday leaned heavily on arcane, show biz references to achieve their comedic objective.

I heard a reference to Adrian Brody, a former Academy Award winner, who is not, generally speaking, in the forefront of most people’s consciousness.  I heard mention of Ted Danson’s showing up at a roast for his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg in blackface, a semi-newsworthy occurrence that took place almost twenty years ago.

There was a passing Rodney Dangerfield reference, Rodney being a one-line comedy spritzer who, though he died in 2004, was born in 1921.     

The common denominator here, I suspect, having no actual evidence, is that all these “jokes” make it into the script because they were “funny in the room.”  That means the show’s writing staff thought they were funny.  Since their comedic judgment is not tested by runthroughs or a “live audience” performance, “funny in the room” is all they have to go by.

The result of this lack of joke testing, in my judgment, is the concerning risk of “arbitrary-itis.”  In the “funny in the room” universe, it could be Rodney Dangerfield.  But it could just as easily be Henny Youngman.  Or “Fat Jack” Leonard, for that matter.

This arbitrariness extends beyond why this arcane show biz reference and not that arcane show biz reference.  In last Thursday’s 30 Rock, the Tracy Morgan character tells the Tina Fey character, “You have the look on your face my wife has when I tell her I want to retire and move to a lighthouse.”  

Hats off for “clever and literary.”  But in what way is that laugh-inducing?  Is it because Morgan’s response is so universally identifiable?  Are viewers across America hearing it and going, “Boy, do I ever know that look!”

It might behoove me at this point to offer an equally maybe even superior alternative, but I am not sure I do know that look.

I have written a lot for a person claiming ignorance on the subject, which is, unfortunately, often the case.  I will now open the floor, not to questions, but to reader illumination.

Please tell me,

What is the comedy that replaced my comedy about?

And why do you find it funny?

I shall eagerly await your response. 


Anonymous said...

I haven't watched the Office or P&R but do enjoy 30 Rock.

I haven't seen that episode but I will take a stab at what would make me laugh at that joke from Tracey Jordan.

I think the basis of that joke is an oldy, character based. His character holds a gold medal in narcissism, so for him to even contemplate moving to a lighthouse and leading a solitary existence without any of his entourage(I am assuming that for the joke), is so far against his character, even though his character is delusional and would say such things.

Possibly also, with so many choices on cable nowadays, perhaps even mainstream is going niche??

Please, anyone, let me know if I am way off the mark in my take. Not American, so not trying to speak for you guys and girls :)


By Ken Levine said...

But Tracy's character says, "WHEN I tell my wife..." meaning this is something he actually DOES. Are we to assume he really says this to his wife? I don't believe it for a second. So it's not character-based. It's someone in the room pitching a way out joke, others laughing, and it going in the script.

To me it's the opposite of character comedy. It's sacrificing your character to get a laugh.

Keith said...

Strange, because I do think of Tracy saying that to his wife, and that's what I think is funny. His character, to me, is five-year-old in a man's body, who also happens to wield enormous power. I can totally see him (a five year old child) wanting to move into a lighthouse before his impulsiveness takes over and he...wants to become a farrier for Bill Shatner. Hey, maybe I should write for 30 Rock :) No, seriously.

Doug said...

Earl: I like everything from Andy Griffith to The Office, but much of what gets put out today leaves me cold.

The biggest problem is literacy. 30 Rock, as you intimated, at least appears literate. Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Bill Cosby and even The Simpsons (moreso in its earlier years) demonstrate literacy.

Now it seems like most shows just go for the lowest common denominator simply to stand out in an ever-increasing crowd; literacy be hanged.

MTM, Newhart, Cosby, etc. could afford to be classy and literate because they didn't have AMC, Spike, FX, TNT, TBS, etc., etc., etc., competing against them. And networks could hang their reputation on shows like that while still feeding the hoi polloi dreck like Punky Bewster.

Now? Literacy? Who has time for literacy? It's a lot easier to do poop jokes because everybody understands those. It's just that once you've heard one poop joke, you've really heard them all. So then you have to start joking about every other bodily function. That was funny in 2nd Grade. (Or in your case, Grade 2, for our hockey-obsessed neighbors.)

Comedy is suffering (and so are most dramas) because nobody understands stories anymore. And that's because literacy is dead.

I don't mean the ability to read. That's alive, barely. But no TV show today would dare make a reference (as Cheers once did) to Anais Nin. Heck, you'd be lucky to get people to recall Mark Twain.

But the core audience for shows like Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men could probably wax poetic about Lindsay Lohan's probation officer.

nobody said...

these shows are cartoons, nothing more.

you know when a sitcom is on for too many seasons and the stories start getting more and more ridiculous because they've done everything else? that's the pilot for these shows, that's where they start.

it reminds me of your steve martin story. "what if we just have the character DO THAT". any line that sounds crazy or outlandish will be used, regardless of who is saying it because they are trying to top themselves. it's easier to do than the subtlety of character and story.

why do people find it funny? i really don't know. but there are a lot of (young) people who just like hearing pop culture references. if they hear something about saved by the bell or anything else from their youth, they enjoy it. it's not funny, but it's familiar.

i hate it.

PG said...

No can help. I don't watch any of these.....I can't take 30 Rock anymore and the others never appealed to me in the first place. No one is remotely likeable or even identifiable. I hate toilet humor and can't stand all the barfing, penis and vagina jokes. Boring.
My daughter collects old sitcoms on DVD.
Her fave:
Golden Girls
Don't give up, Earl. You are right...they are wrong.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you, Earl. They're not relatablably funny to most people, hence the relatively paltry numbers for 30 Rock, and other newer generation single cams. 30 Rock, in particular, sounds very "written" and in love with its own idiosyncracies. I did find, interestingly, that the two live shows were more enjoyable... and more reliant on an audience's response, by the way.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; of these shows all I can admit to having watched is 30Rock and then only a little. The vibe I get from 30Rock is that sketch comedy writer Tina Fey could not leave her roots behind her. The show looks to me like the fused a continuing story to a sketch variety show. Sure the characters have continuity in that they recur in each show, but they're all portrayed as very eccentric giving the creators the chance to have them play outside their character because, "they're so whacky anything can happen." That is, they're allowing themselves through the power of surrealism to have their sketch and eat it too.


Jaime J. Weinman said...

I think one word that's thrown around for this type of humor is "surreal." In a way it's a fusion of two traditional types of joke: the self-consciously witty joke, and the "character" joke where the character isn't aware he's saying anything funny. The characters aren't consciously making jokes, but the things they say are a little bit strange. Like the catchphrase "I want to go to there!" from 30 Rock. It's a good joke, an in-character joke, but it's not supposed to sound like a punchline and it's not supposed to sound like real conversation.

A lot of these shows are influenced by The Simpsons and that show in its prime had a lot of great examples of that kind of humor. Sometimes Bart would say things totally out of character to get a laugh (like suddenly becoming Cockney) and the fact that he was acting out of character for no reason was the joke. A lot of the modern single-camera shows are, or try to be, live-action cartoons.

I think some of these shows do this well, and others not so well, and it's hard to sustain this kind of humor for very long unless it's an actual cartoon. (And I think The Simpsons at its best balanced the surreal comedy with more observational, realistic humor.) But I think that's where a lot of comedy writing is coming from now: they want to have lots of jokes without making characters sound impossibly witty, so they go for a more surreal tone where the characters are unaware of the wit or wordplay of the things they're saying.