Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Wiser Voices"

I know it’s lazy, but sometimes “lazy” is appropriate, so I succumbed.  (What I am less proud of is how easily I succumbed.)

Comedy has changed.  Today, you whack a guy in the face with a giant powder puff, and the likely response is, “Is that supposed to be funny?”  Check the kinescopes,   (an ancient form of recording live television), if you can find them.  “The Powder Puff Bit” evoked peals of laughter in the early fifties on the Milton Berle show.

(I am thinking of a post deconstructing Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” routine, the funniest comedy sketch I have ever experienced, although its effect on a younger demographic would be... I have no clue because I am not one of them.)

Let’s “take it the other way”, as they say in comedy writing.  Forget about what the younger demographic – the only audience the advertisers care about – doesn’t like.  What kind of comedy do they respond to and what explains their defection from the kind that bought me a nice house and a ’92 Lexus?

My definitive answer to those penetrating questions:

I honestly do not know.

That’s why I recruited help to write about it.  (And not at all because I’m lazy.)

The following are extended comments I received examining a style of comedy that did not previously exist and the influences that spawned it.  These commenters can discuss this phenomenon better than I can.  If I understood it, I would still be doing it.  A little slower maybe… but I’d have a parking space on the lot.

Okay, kids.  It’s all yours.  (I’m taking a nap.)

This one’s from Carla:

“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 towards wryness, wordplay, and other cerebral moments.  TV reflects that.”

Also, cultural references seem more rampant that they did in the Dick Van Dyke Show era.  Tina Fey is the queen of 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.

And this one comes from Erich617, not one of my regular commenters but I am happy to have him, if only as a visitor.

“…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 in 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.” 

I thank both commenters for their contribution to my not having to write anything today and for their illuminating insights.  Their observations have helped expand my understanding of the way television comedy has evolved.  And, Erich617, there’s a reason the “third language of comedy” was not included in the discussion.

I had no idea it existed.

(So that’s why I’m not working.  I was speaking in hieroglyphics.)
Happy Birthday Milo, age 4.  I love that boy.  And I don't care who knows it!


Erich617 said...

Thank you so much. I have read the blog sporadically but have not posted before because I didn't have anything worth saying (though that doesn't stop most people on the internet). If it makes a difference, I'm not working either, so maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about. But thanks for the forum to share my thoughts.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

There are indeed way more cultural - or at least references to other TV shows - these days, which I don't always love (because they're also in-jokes), but understand because today's showrunners grew up on TV and they can assume their audiences did, too. I mind it less on THE BIG BANG THEORY, where the characters inhabit a culture full of comic book and science fiction that is deeply a part of who they are. I like it less on shows that relate the events in the show to similar events on earlier sitcoms, breaking the 4th wall. The Broadway show WICKED drove me mad with WIZARD OF OZ movie references; after a certain point it just all got too cute and self-aware.