Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Talking To Griffin, But You Can All Listen In"

I got a comment recently from Griffin.  The name is unfamiliar to me amongst my commenters, so if you’re new, welcome, Griffin, nice to hear from you.  And also – because with me after a compliment there is the inevitable “pull-back” – where have you been?

Consider this a follow-up to a post published on 3/9 entitled, “The Word That Effectively Ended My Career”, wherein I thought I was writing about lacking “edge” but I discovered in the course of writing the post that my career may actually have been curtailed due to – as hard as it is to believe – excessive optimism.  I was generically not dark enough.  Or, contrarily, I was too dark but unwilling to go there for my creative inspiration.

Asking a writer who lacks “edge” to define “edge” is like asking a blind man to describe the Acropolis.  Or something.  I am not exactly certain what “edge” looks like.  I just knew – and more importantly, my potential employers knew – that I didn’t have any.  

Also, Griffin, when you survey – as you do in your comment – the network television schedule looking for “edge”, being that network television is a commercially fueled enterprise where they are reluctant to offend anyone, you will at best find only “edge-lite.”  You want “edge” – basic cable.  You want more “edge” – Premium cable.  (You want “gross-out” – Howard Stern.)

Network “edge”, such as it is, is primarily located in the sexual arena – “Warning:  Adult language and situations.”  Virtually nothing on network TV reflects political, religious, gender, racial, nationalist or cultural “edge” – all are identity protected.  “Adult language and situations” unquestionably still offends some viewers, but a lot less of them than if you went after a religion or or did (even pretend) injury to an animal.

In England, it’s different.  Monty Python attacked everyone.  Nor did it spare the non-human.  Some beast was always flying through the air, or getting detonated.  In America, we are scrupulously careful around the sensibilities of the viewership.  Here’s an example of a kerfuffle I was involved in.  Tell me what you think about it.

I came up with this joke once for now Senator Al Franken’s short-lived sitcom Lateline.  Al’s character, “Al Freundlich” was talking excitedly about his wife’s spearheading an upcoming fundraiser:

“It’s for a new ‘Burn Unit’ at the Pediatric Jewish Hospital.  It’s for kids.  And you don’t have to be Jewish.  Just burnt.”

That was, maybe, my best “edge” joke ever, and NBC refused to allow us to use it because it offended…actually, I’m not sure who it offended.
Concerning sexual “edge”, to some degree because they are trying to attract a younger audience, the networks are gradually moving the “acceptability line.”  In other arenas – you will have to look elsewhere for the pushing of the comedic envelope.  By which I mean, not the networks.  And by the way, the networks’ efforts at sexual “edge”? – They are primarily for twelve year-olds. 

Griffin goes on in his comment to ask,

“What would you do to make one of your shows edgy?  I enjoyed Major Dad, for the most part, so how could it have become edgy and remain a family comedy?”

I believe I already answered the first question.  My natural sensibilities did not run in that direction – my point being, you can’t write it if you can’t imagine it.  As I had mentioned in the earlier post, I watched a colleague who was not inherently “edgy” try to force-feed “edginess” into his latest sitcom project, and it was excruciatingly embarrassing. 

You gotta stick to your “thing”, even if it carries you into retirement.  Not because of integrity – or not just because of integrity – but because “faking it” does not work; you will inevitably be exposed as an imposter.  And also get shown up by writers for whom “edginess” is their natural patois. 

And by the way, like the gunfighters?  Today’s “Emperors of ‘Edge’” should not get too comfortable because there is always somebody out there who’s younger… I mean, “edgier”… I mean, “edgier” because they’re younger, being less inhibited, and more generically “ahead of the curve.”    

Second question:  Or at least its implication.

Can a “family show” be edgy?

The short answer:  No. 

(Unless it is an animated show, or a show like Married With Children, which was basically a cartoon show with actual actors.  Animated “edginess” appears to be more acceptable – at least at Fox (The Simpsons, Family Guy), which was a latecomer to the network sweepstakes and was scrambling for an identity.  The other thing is, you will never have an animated sitcom star barging into the show runner’s office complaining, “My animated bar buddies think I’m an idiot.  Could you cut back on the ‘edginess’?”, so there is no trouble from the “talent” either.)

Why can’t family shows be “edgy”?  Because, the way Americans revere parenting – which they voluntarily turned into a verb – and the way they protect their children from danger – physical, psychological and entirely imaginary – where would that potential “edge” possibly derive from?

I recall a recent short-lived series entitled Up All Night, starring Christina Applegate and Will Arnett produced by the company owned by Lorne “I Built My Reputation On ‘Edgy’” Michaels that could not find anything acceptable in a family show context to be “edgy” about.  I mean, you would never hear – even in dark and frustrated jest and in no way intended to be taken literally – “If that baby does not stop crying, I am going to put a pillow over its face!”

Although what parent… up all night, and exhausted beyond belief… has not experienced the flickering image…?

That would have been “edgy”, but you cannot say that.  I didn’t feel great using it as an example. 

Conceptually, an American family show can be nothing except “soft.”  Why so?  Because Americans are “soft on the family.”  I recall watching the Modern Family pilot, wondering whether the patriarch (the lead actor from Married With Children) would remain antagonistic to the gay couple.  By the final fadeout, the character had melted like a Hershey bar in the Kalahari Desert.

In family shows, the “money” is – and always has been – on minor difficulties that work out in the end.  We may not always get along, but we love our families and would not imagine tinkering with their brakes.

You know, I may have more “edginess” in me than I thought. 

Although it is possible it is the wrong kind.

Thanks, Griffin.

Drop by anytime.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I am reminded of the folksinger Rosalie Sorrel's "Hostile Baby-Rocking song". It had a line about "This is the day we give babies away..."

The full lyrics are here:

I have just seen the first few episodes of FRESH OFF THE BOAT, and it seems to me this is the kind of show you could write. If you were Chinese...


Griffin said...

Thanks for answering my questions. I imagine you are edgier than you give yourself credit for. Earlier today, I recalled that you've written episodes for Cheers so I thought I'd investigate the edginess of some of those episodes (via Netflix), so I went straight to Sam's Women. While waiting for my Smart TV to engage, I went to IMDB as it offers so much trivia that I must look at it! And that's when I saw that the beautiful actress who played Brandee in the aforementioned episode, passed away in 1988, at the age of 32. And my interest immediately evaporated. The older I get the more affected I am by the sudden passing of someone so young - is that form of survivor's guilt? Maybe this weekend I'll check out Sam's Women and other episodes. For now, I'll mourn the passing of a lovely and talented young lady who was only just getting warmed up.