Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Different Strokes"

To be distinguished from Diff’rent Strokes, an early eighties sitcom of the same name but with an apostrophe and Gary Coleman.

Writing in his essential blog a while back, Ken wrote a post in response to an L.A. Times article concerning why there have not been any hit sitcoms over the past few years.  In fact I believe that’s what he entitled it, except that, forming it as a question Jeopardy-style, he flipped the “have” and the “there.”

Ken’s analysis was comprehensive and, as usual, on the money.  However, I do have one minor quibble.  Minor, in the sense that you have this tiny bump on your overall immaculate and pristine skin surface.  But the bump itself is in need of further investigation.

I will not bother detailing the elements of Ken’s dissertation as to why there have been few new hit sitcoms lately that I agree with.  Network interference, an imitatively unhelpful “herd mentality”, deliberate niche audience targeting, hiring less experienced writers because they do not have any writing credits from the seventies, et cetera.  Not implying that the “et ceteras” are unimportant, I am simply ready to move on. 

To, as we lightheartedly like to call it,

“Quibble Time.”

To no small degree, my disagreement with Ken derives from a delineating difference in our personal characters.  As reflected in an expansive range of accomplishments – as a disc jockey, baseball announcer and award-winning television writer – Ken advances through life believing that anyone can do anything they put their minds to.

My perspective is considerably more pessimistic.  Specifically: 

No they can’t.

“Recent sitcoms are not funny,” asserts Ken, rationalizing why these new offerings have consequently not become hits.  Venn Diagram:  “All successful sitcoms are funny.”  “Recent sitcoms are not funny.”  “Recent sitcoms are not successful.”

(That “Venn” fellow really new his potadahs.)

Ken then goes on,

“It almost seems as if producers are avoiding big laughs, as if they’re embarrassed by jokes.  You want to be the next ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Cheers’ or ‘Friends’?  Stop looking down your nose at laughs.  Stop being ironic and quirky.  Be FUNNY.”

Where do I start here?  Okay.

Fred Astaire could not dance like Gene Kelly, and Gene Kelly could not dance like Fred Astaire.  Though both of them were sensational dancers, it was not like they had a choice concerning their differing approaches.  Their style was their style.

“Fred, could you be a little less graceful and a little more athletic?”



“No, and get away from me or I’ll ‘high-kick’ you right in the face!”

No reasonable comedy writer (if there is such a thing) deliberately tries to avoid big laughs.  Each simply has their own unique strategy for eliciting them.  Ken and I frequently participated in the same rewrite sessions.  I could never come up with the kind of inspired comedics pitched on multiple occasions by Ken.  And, I would humbly suggest, vice versa.  Still, we both, I would assert, made substantial and productive contributions.

You do what you do in the way that you do it.  Even the three mega-hits – Seinfeld, Cheers and Friends – that Ken singled out (or more accurately tripled out) elicited their laughs in distinct and different manners.  Few comedic moments could be grafted from one of those hit series onto the others.

Your comedic “Voice” evolves from your innate sensibility.  Seinfeld’s, for example, deriving from both Jerry’s and Larry David’s delight in life’s most miniscule observed moments, produced this brief exchange between Jerry and George I saw recently on a rerun.

Elaine is calling someone on the phone, and to fill the “hole” of her dialing and her waiting for the phone to be answered, Jerry casually turns to George and says,

“I’m thinking of getting a yo-yo.”

To which George thoughtfully replies,

“I can see that.”

This comedic interlude could not play successfully on any other sitcom.  If it were written into a draft, it would invariably be cut for time, or for not being particularly funny.  I, on the other hand, found their exchange natural, unforced, believable and hilarious.

Exemplifying that not only does the writer have a specific sensibility.  So does the audience.  And that sensibility is constantly evolving.  (Or maybe more accurately, fragmentalizing, for want of a real word that I can’t think of.)  

To some, a joke formatted in the traditional setup-punchline “delivery system” feels generically contrived, and for them, it will never be funny.  No matter how funny it is to those untroubled by that format. 

What I am groping to communicate at this juncture is that “funny”, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Cannot be

Universally defined. 

Conclusion In Rebuttal To Ken’s Blog Post:  It seems to me that it is not a question of “avoiding being funny” as it is a question of avoiding being “jokey.”   Though, admittedly, there is a “chicken and egg” element in such matters.  Do you dislike “jokiness” because you can’t write jokes?  Or do you not write jokes because you dislike “jokiness”? 

In the end, the resulting consequence is the same.  Paraphrasing that memorable showstopper from the 30’s…

They won’t joke.

Don’t ask them.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think you've made an important point here (and is sort of what I thought in a muddled way when I read that posting of Ken's).

I agree about "jokey", also. I note that in my real life when talking to individuals I have come to really dislike it when people tell jokes - that is, tell stories that are not about themselves and not spontaneously generated out of the conversation but programmed jokes that they have told often when they want to "entertain" someone. That's not a conversation, that's a performance, and I'd rather have a conversation. Spontaneous wit is a different matter; I reserve my greatest (comedy) admiration for people who can be artlessly funny in response to what's said without a script.

People have, I guess, always wanted to find authenticity; in the current era, that seems to mean breaking any form perceived as artificial to search for real meaning - or to use the artificial form but only if you show that you know it's artificial, and you're above it. Something like that. Except for Chuck so many ways.


canda said...

In my opinion, there seems to be a propensity towards "cleverness", not jokes. Cleverness means that many characters in one-camera sitcoms featuring youthful casts (which predominates the sitcoms on and being developed), usually speak in well-written, hip, often cynical, wordy quips that reek of Writer's Hand.

Their "dazzling" repartee often sounds like it would read well on a page, but not when spoken by two human beings. Thus, early cancellations follow.

The amount of voice-overs used (which Ken Levine also complained about) immediately takes you out of a scene, and makes the characters less real. By not letting the characters reveal themselves, you're signifying that you don't believe your characters are complete.

In modern sitcoms, very little time is allowed for the characters to breathe, or react, because wordplay continues to crash rapidly line after line, with no pause in-between. Where there might be a natural pause, the scenes quickly jump-cut to the next scene. And no-one ever tries to leave a scene on a great joke, as was the case for years in sitcoms. Often scenes end with no joke at all, but a thought. And we aren't allowed to contemplate the thought, because we immediately go to commercial or the next scene.