Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"The Time Factor"

In some old Woody Allen movie, comedy was defined as being “Tragedy plus time."

But recently, watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda on METV – a station flacking medicinal products to people of my demographic – it appeared an addendum could be appended concerning too much time. 

Thirty-five years after their initial airings, these episodes of shows I once admired – admittedly not the series’ best, but certainly representative – seemed to me to be considerably more forced than funny.

In the Mary offering, Murray, who’s been married for eighteen years, is tempted by a flirtatious divorcee.  In a private conversation with his boss Lou Grant, crashed by the egotistical and far from brilliant anchorman Ted Baxter, Ted opines,

“Anybody who’s been married eighteen years and hasn’t fooled around just isn’t normal.”

To which his boss gruffly replies,

“Ted, I’ve been married twenty-six years and I’ve never fooled around.”

To which a fearfully backpedaling Baxter replies,

“Sure, Lou.  Twenty-six years.  But not eighteen years.”

That joke, though possibly laugh-inducing, makes absolutely no sense.  Even exiting the mouth of an imbecile, which Ted Baxter was portrayed to be in the series.  Even from an employee who realizes he has egregiously overstepped and is desperately trying to recover.

What it is, fundamentally, is a joke for a joke’s sake.  “It’s time for a joke, so here it is.”  A rhythmic routine that was the sitcoms of the day’s obligatory M.O.

And that’s what makes them feel dated. 

They don’t do that anymore.  In fact, they barely do what would previously be defined as jokes at all.  Jokes, by their nature – the way they are necessarily assembled – do not sound natural.  They may start out sounding natural – meaning, unless the show is really terrible, there is a natural-sounding setup.  But what inevitably follows is a punchline, a payoff, a “blow”, making you retroactively realize that that natural-sounding setup was not natural at all, but was strategically selected to fool the audience about the fact that a joke was about to arrive.  Hence, the surprise, and hence, the laugh.

Whatever they do in comedies today – and I am not the best person to delineate what that is, as I do not regularly watch these shows and I rarely laugh when I do because, I suspect, they are not written for me – they deliver their material conversationally, rather than in the form of a modularly-constructed series of jokes.  Comedies that do the latter scream “Old.”  Even the new ones. 

We are dealing with chronology here.  Television sitcoms derive from radio sitcoms, which, in turn, derive from vaudeville sketches.  The common denominator in all three is joke-telling.  You may pretend – to a greater or lesser degree – that something real is going on.  But the stacking up of consecutive “joke hunks” promotes a different message.  To wit:

“We are simply going for laughs.”

Credit where credit is due, however.  Mary and Rhoda’s none too distant predecessors included a man married to a witch, an astronaut involved with a (voluptuous) genie, a guy harboring an uncle who’s a Martian, a fellow in possession of a talking horse, and a son who’s departed mother returns, reincarnated as a car.

Mary and Rhoda are more real than any of those.

And occasionally, if not unilaterally, more truthful.  In their more realistic, character-driven storytelling, in their naturalistic, “regular-people”-looking casting, in their acknowledgement of ethnicity – although the actors playing the characters “Rhoda” and her mother “Ida”, who are ostensibly Jewish, are actually Italian.  (This is partially made up by for the fact that the actor playing the character Columbo, ostensibly Italian, was actually Jewish.  Go figure.) 

In addition, series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show would regularly delight its audience with startlingly truthful observations, like when the perennially weight-challenged Rhoda confronts a cupcake and says,

“I don’t know whether to eat this or to apply it directly to my thighs.”  

You’d never hear anything like that on Gilligan’s Island.

And that is what I as a faithful member of the viewing audience waited for and went nuts about, partially, at least, because the delivery of these gems eschewed the traditional laugh-inducing format.  (Later, Seinfeld would make virtually an entire series out of that.)

I tip my hat to the great joke writers of yesteryear.  At their best, their verbal contrivances could comedically “kill.”  Starting out, I tried hard to reproduce their tried-add-true writing style.  To the best of my recollection, the closest I ever came to attaining that classical arrangement was this:

It was in an episode of Taxi.  Through a complicated turn of events, Tony realizes that boxing an opponent who is way above his ability has caused him to fight to fight better than he had ever fought before.  Alex chimes in in agreement.

“I know what you mean.  When I play with an “A” tennis player, my game immeasurably improves.”

To which Elaine chips in:

“I find it’s the same way with sex.”

ALEX:  You get better?

ELAINE:  They do.

There you have it.  Totally structured.  But still funny. 

The preceding was never a natural style of writing for me.

Though to be honest, I was unable to discover a superior approach. 
I thank yesterday's commenters for their feedback.  I deliberately do not check how many people read this for fear of finding out how many don't.  Those generous words of support are encouraging and reassuring.  It's nice to know I'm connecting with some people out there.  

As for "Anonymous's" interest in my "Senior Show" chronicles, sometimes in my stories, I do not appear at my best.  This is not just a matter of youth, as in the "Peter Pan" experience where, at age 13, I put my own needs ahead of everyone else's, I, at times, continue to behave selfishly, ineptly and inconsiderately to this very day.  To paraphrase Descartes:  "I embarrass myself, therefore I am."

If I only wrote stories in which I display exemplary behavior, my archives would be considerably shorter.  I'm a person, and I mess up constantly.  Sometimes, at least, I believe these make for interesting stories. 


Canda said...

I find today's sitcoms to be too often clever wordplay, not natural, that is no less unreal than what you're criticizing, Earl.

As for the Ted Baxter joke, I think that was his attempt to somehow placate his boss, but not being smart enough to do it.

Frank said...

Great Elaine joke!

Thomas said...

As a Brit, it's always been very clearly an American style to have characters deliver punchlines. In The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will constantly gets to say punchlines to the audience - and this is simply the style of the era in American writing. The Brits often have fewer jokes, but the jokes we do have attempt to fit naturally and do not require a witty character to deliver them.

Food for thought.