Friday, October 9, 2015

"Rebuttal To A Rant (Again)"

I do not want to do this.  But when a car goes by, there are dogs who reflexively react as if a starting gun went off and they chase it. 

I am apparently one of those dogs.

On September 29th, in his indispensible blog bykenlevine, Ken once again railed against the unfunny state of current situation comedy.  So irate was Senor Levine, he came at today’s substandard purveyors of comedy from contradictory directions:

One:  They lack sufficient talent.

Today’s shows are not funny because the writers don’t “have the chops to make someone laugh.”

And Two:  They may possess sufficient talent but choose deliberately not to use it, leaving Ken wondering,

“Why would anyone want to become a comedy writer if he’s embarrassed at making people laugh?”

Conclusion:  Either they can’t, or they won’t.  Common denominator:  They don’t.

Well… Okay.

Here’s where Ken and I agree.  Both of us have experienced the exhilaration of writing something that made the live studio audience we were filming in front of laugh so hard (their laughter sometimes topped by crescendoing applause) that it appeared they might actually never stop.  I’m talking nigh on half-a- minute of uproarious laughter.  (Although I was substantially less capable of that accomplishment than Ken was.  I did it a couple of times.  And they were memorable.)

Simply asserted: 

There is no current comedy that can elicit that level of hilarity.  (Or even close to it.)

In that way, Ken is absolutely on the money. 

If comedy is judged by the intensity of the laughter, today’s sitcoms are indisputably less funny.  And why shouldn’t it be judged that way?  Comedy success has always been evaluated on the basis of how hard the audience laughed, culminating with highest possible accolade:

“We killed them!” 
(See In This Context:  Monty Python’s “The World’s Funniest Joke.”)

A second point of agreement with Ken’s irrepressible rant:

“People want to laugh.”

It is then, however, that I turn the corner.

People want to laugh, all right. 

But they selectively decide what they prefer to laugh at.

Since I have presented my position on previous occasions, let me today approach it from a slightly different direction.  (Bypassing the historical overview hearkening back to the first laugh garnered around a cave fire when somebody farted.  You’re welcome.  Plus, I am not sufficiently recovered to do that.)

Cinematic evidence reveals that, over the years, entertainment, both comedic and dramatic, has evolved (not necessarily to its advantage) in an inexorably more realistic direction.  In my beloved childhood westerns, when a victim was gunned down, their hand flew directly to the spot where the bullet had ostensibly gone in, they went “Uhnhh!”, they toppled immediately to the ground and stopped moving.

That was “dead” in 1954.  No blood.  No pulsating entrails.  We got it.  You stopped moving – you were dead.  Next stop – Boot Hill.

At some point, however, that changed, the audience requiring – or possibly conditioned to expect – a more realistic representation of “dead.”  (Recently, however, “comic book” movies have provided a revisionistic interpretation of “dead.” But the disclaimer arrives with our understanding of the genre.  “We are depicting ‘comic book death’ here, not the genuine article.”)  For which there is always Martin Scorcese.

My argument today, is: 

The same thing happened with comedy.  It got progressively more real.  (Comparing two shows filmed in front of a live studio audience, The Dick Van Dyke Show is not as realistic in its portrayal of reality as Mom.) 

Ignoring the fact that the majority of today’s comedies are filmed “single-camera”, whose structural nature allows no place for the thirty-second outburst – or an extended laugh of any duration – and setting aside the fact that “single-camera” comedies exclude the rigorous joke-testing process provided by the multiple days of rehearsal that shows filmed before a live studio audience undergo – two reasons they are arguably not as funny – the point I am focusing on today is that a mini-movie’s (Read: “single-camera” comedy’s) sensibility feels realer than a mini-play’s (the artistic antecedent of the studio-audience situation comedy.) 

And with that preference in format comes a commensurate alteration in writing style.

Meaning (at the undeniable cost of greater laughter):

No “Big Jokes” (or traditional joke-writing structure whatsoever.)  No “accidental misunderstandings.”  No “mistaken identities.”  No comedic “reveals.”

Nothing, in conclusion, that would only happen in a sitcom. 

(Like you expect one thing and you get not something surprisingly different from what you expect but its diametrical opposite.)

As dependable as those comedic devices may be, they are incongruous with the template, by which I mean, not only the “single-camera” format itself, but the sensibilities of today’s viewership, most particularly, the younger viewership the networks are struggling hardest to attract, which prefers comedy more reflective of their everyday experience over the comedy – albeit brilliantly conceived and executed – of contrivance.

And that’s it for today. 

It is not, in my view, a question of writers being inadequately gifted or consciously squeamish about going for laughs.

They are doing what they – and the contemporary audience –

Believe to be funny.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I read that blog posting of Ken's and I tend to agree with you: styles change. I think one element at play here is the fact that today's younger generation grew up watching THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and other classic comedies just as we (or I) did and, just as we do, they now want to see something different. Except there's the additional thing of wanting to see something that's different from their parents' generation, something that's theirs. In the 1970s, this was music: "our music" was rock (or, in my case, folk) and "my parents' music" was Sinatra (in my parents' cases, classical) and the stuff you wanted to get away from now you were a sophisticated adult in need of proving you were a sophisticated adult. Maybe in another ten years those same kids will, as exhausted parents, want to laugh broadly again.

Maybe the writers on these shows are as frustrated as Ken is.

The only network sitcom I really like right now is MOM. The other comedies (half-hour shows) I've liked in the last year have been TRANSPARENT and EPISODES (which I find hilariously funny). The first season of SILICON VALLEY was very funny, but the show really struggled in its second season, I think because after losing Christopher Evan Welch (who was the best thing in the show) the writers struggled to find a new structure that worked.

If you have not seen EPISODES you really should. Start at the beginning, though.


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The show that made me and the family laugh out loud the most last season was Undateable.
It returns tonight, and we'll see how it will do with completely LIVE season (vs. the just one they did back in the spring).

Two shows that used to make us laugh out loud were Big Bang and Modern Family but they seem tired. Not sure if it's the direction, acting or writing.
Any explanation because it's a palpable feel. It used to feel effortless and now it feels slightly forced.

What do you think?

Erich617 said...

Having been directed here from Mr. Levine's blog (though I believe Mr. Pomerantz and I have some mutual acquaintances), one point that I would like to add is that I think a third, let's say, language of television comedy has developed in the past few decades. I think the ur-source was THE SIMPSONS, and a lot of animated shows have adopted this style, though some live action shows have as well.

This language of comedy does have big laughs but it willfully disregards verisimilitude in a way that more naturalistic shows don't. It makes sense, of course, that this would start with an animated show. Animated shows also do not have a studio audience so in that way they are live single-camera comedies, and the audience has already suspended their disbelief to a certain degree by watching a cartoon.

I think the best example of this would be a moment in THE SIMPSONS where Homer is watching television and says, "It's a cartoon. It doesn't have to make sense." Then another Homer walks past the window.

Tina Fey has used this language of comedy on both 30 ROCK and THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, and both shows genuinely make me laugh out loud. I think that the reason this more absurd comedy is able to extend to live action shows without completely alienating the audience is that, when done well, the characters and worlds are consistent. Homer is always Homer. Tracy Jordan is always Tracy Jordan. And their worlds are very familiar to us but heightened and internally consistent.

This language of comedy might not lead to funny climaxes in the way that, say, "That's My Boy" or "Chuckles Bites the Dust" did. In that way, you might say it's less artful or less likely to create those huge moments of laughter with a live audience that don't seem like they will ever end. I think that comes from crafting a story rather than individual jokes and moments that are funny. But that third language of comedy does exist, I believe, and can be artful in its own right but doesn't seem to have entered this discussion thus far.

Frank said...

Maybe if highly paid network execs listened to Earl and Ken their comedies wouldn't all suck.

YEKIMI said...

Plus, I am not sufficiently recovered to do that.

Fart or laugh?

Canda said...

I've said before the internet and cell phone have created a more insular world. People communicate by text, more often than in person. I do the same.

This creates less of a live community feel, like being in a theater. Early TV assumed a community that wanted to laugh together. Now people watch on line, or episodes in bunches, so their communication needs are more personal. This tends toward wryness, wordplay, and other cerebral moments. TV reflects that.

Also, cultural references seem more rampant than they did in the Dick Van Dyke Show era. Tina Fey is the queen of the cultural reference, as well as the mockumentary, and steadfastly eschewed emotion on 30 Rock. It was "clever", and everyone enjoyed being part of the cleverness. It didn't require laughing out loud.

Tom said...

I think you've made a great point about modern audiences' impatience with contrivance, but I think that also dovetails with Ken's post. A good writer, basing his or her writing first and foremost from character will be able to put together a scene where the characters don't seem to be clumsily manipulated just for the sake of a gag.

That's one of my own pet peeves about some shows, where you see someone do something that really conflicts with how their character has been portrayed previously. I don't know if it reflects an overall lack of talent, of talent being spread too thinly, or of too much interference from network suits, but it really annoys me when I see it.

Having said that, I still prefer flawed shows that try for regular belly laughs over those who appear to be aiming for muted smiles with a side of snide condescension.

Mike Barer said...

Thank Ken Levine for sending me to your blog, I'll be back :)