Thursday, March 12, 2015

"The Mysterious 'Funny' Question"

A writer gets hired on Saturday Night Live.  They must think he has something, right?  Lorne Michaels is nothing if not a consummate evaluator of talent. 

Indiputable Evidence:  He liked me.

The new writer serves on the show’s writing staff for one season.  There is no indication he was a malingerer, that he did not submit an amount of material comparable to the other writers.  Nor, since he had a background as a “standup”, can we assume that he did not know his way around comedy, and since SNL has the capacity to juggle a substantial variety of comedic approaches, you would think that, in one way or another, his contributions would fit.

And yet, that entire season, the writer does not have a single piece of material accepted on the show.  Nothing he wrote gets produced.  Not a comedy sketch, not an original character, not a pre-filmed commercial parody, not a one-liner on Weekend Update.


Which one would have to admit is a failing report card.   

Well, whattayagonnado?  Nobody bats a thousand, by which I mean Lorne.  The man can pick ‘em, but even the best picker comes up with the occasional dud.  The writer in question, however, did considerably worse than Lorne did.  The writer in question batted “zero.” 

“O”-for the entire Saturday Night Live season.  (Including reruns, where, if his material was not broadcast the first time… do I really need to finish this?)

It occurs to me that you may be ahead of me on this one, this anecdote being not entirely unfamiliar.  If you are ahead of me, be patient, for the sake of the people who are not ahead of me, and to preserve the illusion that I can actually surprise. 

Before my “startling revelation”, let me assert that if Saturday Night Live sets the standard for what’s funny, a claim that can be challenged but not readily dismissed, and a writer pulls on “O-fer” (a zero batting average) on that show, it would be within the bounds of reasonability to conclude that that “He-could-not-possibly-have-done-worse-Saturday-Night-Live” writer...

Was not funny.

And here comes the “turn”…

That ignominiously disastrous former SNL comedy writer, of course – though not “of course” to the people who had not heard about it – was Larry David.

Now considered to be one of the inspired comedic geniuses of our time.  (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm.)


How did that happen?

How did Larry David go from “could not get a single thing on the show” to the co-creator of arguably the greatest network half-hour comedy ever, plus an HBO cable series that, though it often made me cringingly uncomfortable, a lot of other people absolutely revere?

More succinctly, how did Larry David go from “Not funny” to “Hysterical!”?

Did he suddenly one day like a bolt out of the blue figure out how to do comedy?

Did his miraculous transformation occur after attending a “We-Can-Make-You- Funny-Even-Though-Acclaimed-Comedy-Mavens-Have-Told-You-That-You’re-Not” seminar?

Was there an SNL conspiracy afoot, “Gaslighting” Larry David into believing he wasn’t funny when, in reality, he actually was? 

Maybe he inadvertently affronted the show runner.  You know Larry David – the man can be abrasive, hilariously abrasive more often than not, but injurious nonetheless. 

Perhaps Lorne Michaels took umbrage at one Larry’s throwaway insults and secretly instructed his underlings, “He gets nothing on the show, I tell you.  Nothing! 

Being the “Lord of Late Night” does not protect you from hurt feelings.  Maybe this was simply his revenge.


Maybe comedy, its landscape these days being fragmentedly subjective, and one person’s “Not funny” is another person’s “Hilarious!”

Of course that was always the case to some degree.  One audience might adore Jack Benny, but not Jackie Gleason. (That audience would include me.)  Still, I understood why Jackie Gleason was funny.  I even laughed at him sometimes myself.  (When he wasn’t yelling, or threatening to hit his wife Alice so hard, she would wind up on the moon.)

By meaningful contrast, in a forum wherein all or at least the majority of comedy genres appear to be welcome and they seem to know a thing or two about comedy…

Larry David was adjudged unequivocally “Not funny.”  (Note:  I would kill to read some of his SNL submissions.)

I was originally planning the write this post differently, wherein, you will not be surprised to hear, I would appear more centrally.  I would begin by reporting how long it took me to acknowledge – even to myself – that I was a writer.  (Almost twenty years.)  As for the next “comedy writer” acknowledgment considering the question, “Are you funny?”,

In the face of the Larry David experience and my ongoing reservations on the subject…

I am still not entirely certain what that means.


Canda said...

I guess the times dictate who will be funny and who will not. Steve Martin wasn't funny in the 60s to people, who wanted more political content in their comedy, but once the post-Vietnam era happened, people were ready for "The Wild and Crazy Guy".

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I was going to say something similar: that you can be very funny and yet have your material not fit the context, whether that's the show's style, the available cast, or the times. Larry David has a very distinctive voice, and both SEINFELD and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM are written in it. SNL has a different voice...would be my theory, anyway.

I agree with you about the cringiness of quite a bit of CYE. Nonetheless, I have liked some of it very much, most especially the SEINFELD reunion season and the Producers season.


craig said...

not to be "that guy", but larry wasn't there during the lorne years. so it's all ebersol's fault!!

but i've often wondered about this too. they couldn't do much with chris rock either, or jb smoove - and if you've ever heard the sketches he wrote that got rejected, well, it's hard to fathom.

meanwhile, a lot of people i consider to be not funny get tons of material and air time. i think maybe snl is a special case though, a weird environment that isn't necessarily friendly to a certain kind of comedy brain. and they do love their harvard men...

craig said...

also, big fan of your blog, earl!!