Monday, December 12, 2011

Occupy Comedy!

Way back in the 1950s (think Terra Nova) the funniest and most prestigious television program was SID CAESER’S SHOW OF SHOWS. This was a live weekly variety show hosted by gifted sketch comedian, Sid Caesar. The skits were literate, sophisticated, and brilliant. The writing staff was the envy of the industry. Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner,and Neil Simon to name a few Gods. They won Emmys and their work was seen by millions of people each week.

Neil Simon then went on to write sitcoms, specifically THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW – to this day one of the funniest and smartest sitcoms in TV’s checkered history. It won Emmys and was seen by millions of viewers weekly.

And yet, for Neil Simon, and other A-list comedy writers at the time, he hadn’t yet made it. Why?

Because he hadn’t written for the theater.

TV was a stepping stone. But having a hit play on Broadway was the Holy Grail. That’s where the stature, and in success, riches were. (Larry Gelbart was once asked if you could make a living in the theater. “No,” he said, “You can’t make a living but you can make a killing.”)

Simon wrote COME BLOW YOUR HORN, got it produced on Broadway, it was a hit, and he never looked back. You know the string of mega-hits that followed.

As the 1970s approached (think Pleistocene Era), aspiring comedy writers still wanted to write for the theater first. Sitcoms were GREEN ACRES. They held very little sway over wannabe Noel Cowards.

There was a shift in the ‘70s though. Sitcoms got smarter. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, and (ironically since it was adapted from a play) THE ODD COUPLE raised the TV bar considerably.

So aspiring comedy writers (like me) wanted to do both. Broadway was still filled with wonderful plays by gifted playwrights. In addition to Simon there was Woody Allen, Herb Gardner, Chris Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, and others turning out inspiring work.

I bought a couple of volumes of Neil Simon plays and studied them voraciously. I still recommend those books to young writers. See how you can create distinctive characters and how they can move a plot along through hilariously funny dialogue. There’s pace and flow and heart, and it all seems effortless. Certain references may be dated but as a primer for good comedy writing early Neil Simon plays are still the gold standard.

As we segued into the ‘80s (read: Industrial Revolution) two things happened: Sitcoms continued to get more sophisticated and sitcom writers started making way more money. Oh yeah. And you won Emmys. This caused a shift. Suddenly, TV was favored and why not? More money and a much larger audience.  And Emmys.  Yes, you sacrificed creative control but if you worked on a good show surrounded by good people that didn’t matter as much.

So there were fewer comedy plays on Broadway and aspiring playwrights migrated out west. I would immodestly argue that the writing on CHEERS and FRASIER at its best was every bit as good or better than what was being seen on Broadway.

Come the ‘90s and fewer comedy plays were making it to Broadway. The economics of the theater were changing and big splashy musicals with recognized stars or well-known revivals were becoming the rage.

That’s alright. Comic playwrights still had a forum – television.

But what about today? There are precious few original comedies on Broadway. And even fewer sophisticated television comedies. Gone is FRASIER; the new heralded sitcom is 2 BROKE GIRLS complete with cum stain jokes.

Where can you go to write erudite comedy these days? Cable? Just saw an episode of THE LEAGUE with maybe twenty cum stain jokes. Features? The big holiday release is JACK AND JILL. Cum stain jokes would be an improvement.

FRASIER was not a niche show. CARNAGE was not a niche play. There is an audience – a large audience – that appreciates and wants sophisticated entertainment. And there are a lot of writers out there, lying in the weeds, who would be thrilled to provide it.

As we approach 2012, how about we begin a NEW era? Or at least go back to a better old one?  I'd hate to the think that the next Neil Simon will wind up writing questions for JEOPARDY.

37 comments:

Matt Tauber said...

I don't know if you read Mark Evanier's blog, but one of his pet peeves is who wrote for "Your Show of Shows". Gelbart wrote for "Caesar's Hour", which came later, and Allen wrote for neither. You can read more here - http://www.newsfromme.com/archives/2010_02_26.html#018577

Gregg B said...

I think some of the best comedy writing is going on in three shows:
"Louie", "Parks and Recreation" and "Community". Unfortunately because of their locations on low rated networks they are not getting the exposure they should be getting. "Community" might go the way of the dodo very soon. I would put these shows up against some of the best sitcoms mentioned in your post.

Rory W. said...

Are you and Earl Pomerantz colluding on your blog posts? He wrote a somewhat similar post today on the changing nature/appeal of TV comedy, also lamenting the shift from erudite to cum stain (http://earlpomerantz.blogspot.com/2011/12/response-to-mac.html).
I agree, though, today's comedies just aren't, well, as funny as they used to be.

Pat Reeder said...

I opted for creative control over money and went into radio. Today, I co-write perhaps the only topical daily radio comedy service that references everything from Shakespeare to old Broadway musicals and '30s gangster flicks to British sitcoms to the periodic table of elements. The lack of cum stain jokes means we may not have as many affiliates as Opie and Anthony, but the subscribers who "get" us (and love having to look up the occasional obscure reference) have been with us for 19 years and panic if it doesn't arrive every morning. So at least I'll never get fired because Roseanne has PMS today.

benson said...

I used to think everything was cyclical, but now I'm starting to think maybe not. The people in charge (and maybe the bulk of the audience) seem to lean towards lowbrow, which is easier and profitable. Here's hoping a Grant Tinker or a Brandon Tartikoff (or their movie industry equivalent)comes along and resets the course for a few years.

wv: ovessers. Ovechkin's groupies?

JazMac said...

in a word, "web."

Matt said...

There is a place for The League. In fact, I find it very funny. But it is most definitely not a "smart" show.

I would love a return to smart sticoms like Frasier and Sports Night, Soap (slapstick but still pretty quick), Cheers, Becker, etc.

As we have seen with the reality age of television, TV execs see one thing show results and they then FLOOD the airwaves with carbon copies with a slightly different spin.

We need a variety. Don't go All Reality All The Time, or All Cumstain, or Ultra Highbrow. Give us a mix.

BellaVida Letty said...

I'm so sick of 'reality shows'. They are SO boring. The only shows I tune into regularly are Modern Family, 30 Rock & Hot in Cleveland.

I loved shows like The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, Good Times and the Golden Girls.

I don't think networks have the guts to go against sponsors and create that kind of content now. It seems the more brainless the show, the more its embraced.

I'm so bored with TV.

Ed Blonski said...

The Middle is a refreshingly smart piece of writing in a vast waste land of comedy TV.

Mary Stella said...

Funny timing. This morning I remembered that in the early days of reading your blog, you were involved in your play's production.

Why isn't the plural of Emmy Emmies?

Johnny Walker said...

An interesting experiment for those who haven't seen it: THE BIG BANG THEORY with the laugh track removed...

BBT - No laugh track

Some people complained that the pauses between dialogue (where the laughter went) was too Lynchian, so they did a tighter edit...

BBT - No laugh track, faster editing

Very interesting.

Johnny Walker said...

For my money the show is the same with the laugh track or without... not funny at all.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Johnny Walker: The problem with that clip, in both versions, is that comedy with an audience is different from comedy without. If there was no audience, the timing and performance would be different (as you can see even in scenes that are pre-shot without the audience). So removing the laughter is pointless; if they did it without the audience they would perform it differently.

Also, the problem with that concept is that it implies that the writers are getting away with something because the jokes aren't that funny in and of themselves. But the best jokes on a sitcom aren't funny on paper, they're funny because of who says them, the performances, the timing, etc. In context, "I just did" or "Oh, my God!" can be a better punchline than an elaborately-written joke. Taking away the audience laughter and the timing and everything else is taking away the context that makes the writing good.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I've always wondered if the decline in the prestige of the multi-camera sitcom has something to do with the fact that there are more would-be filmmakers than would-be playwrights in Hollywood now.

I was just reading William Goldman's book about the 1967-8 season, and one of the chapters is about Carl Reiner's second big project after The Dick Van Dyke Show, writing and directing a Broadway play called Something Different. Goldman says the play was funny but bogged down by plot problems (including an entire third act that got dropped) but it's clear that even though Reiner had been incredibly successful in television, even though he'd written a book and directed a film, Broadway is something else: the pinnacle, the most difficult thing he'd ever taken on.

Writing a play doesn't have the same kind of allure to TV writers today. Some of them want to write a musical, and some of them do (Book of Mormon) but the pinnacle of achievement today is to write and direct one's own feature film.

normadesmond said...

people are stupid.

once upon a time, they enjoyed expanding their horizons. now, they prefer to wallow in them.

Trina said...

TV in generally is not what it used to be. However, there are an occasional bright spot - like Community, Big Bang and HIMYM. They are rare though, and must be treasured! chinese baby boy names

BigTed said...

Where I grew up, there wasn't a lot of good theater, but the local library carried plays. I read George Bernard Shaw out of a sense of obligation, but I read the complete works of Neil Simon because they were so darn entertaining.

Frank said...

I bet if they do a remake of Come Blow Your Horn it will be peppered with cum stain jokes as told by Russel Brand to Pee Wee Herman or vice versa.

Bruce B. said...

To expand a bit on Matt Tauber's comment and Evanier's blog; in Caesar's Hours, Sid Caesar's book, he explains that Woody Allen was introduced to him by comedian Milt Kamen near the end of the Caesar's Hour network run, and there's a photo in the book from that show of Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin and Woody with Sid in the writer's room. Later, Woody and Larry Gelbart teamed up (what a team!) to write a series of specials sponsored by Chevy for him. Shortly after that, Neil Simon wrote the Broadway musical "Little Me" for Sid, in which he played seven or eight different roles. It was a hit, but is seldom done since because so few actors could pull that off.

Word verification- pholo: Low comedy photo.

kingvermin said...

I wrote a late night theater show and it, um, bombed. It was not based on anything. Our company is known for musical parodies and mashups, and around here that's what the 'late night theater crowd' is drawn to. So we did our first show that wasn't based on anything directly (other than a few swipes at Roger Corman movies), our biased opinion was that it was a pretty solid show, but no audience to give the laughs we thought it deserved. We're doing a seasonal mash-up based on Night Of The Living Dead and it's bringing the people in. Oh well.

camillofan said...

GREEN ACRES had its moments. ;-)

Jaime J. Weinman said...

camillofan: "Green Acres" was brilliantly written, but it didn't have that reputation at the time, and it sort of embodied the reputation of the TV sitcom in the late '60s: appealing to older and rural audiences, with writing that sounded like old radio comedy (because the writers were radio veterans). Later on it was rediscovered as the terrific show it was, but few noticed at the tim.

Kirk said...

The 1970s, to me, was the Golden Age of the Sitcom. A while back, when you asked us to name our favorite sitcoms, 8 out of 10 on my list were from that decade (it should have been 9 out of 10, but I petulantly held MASH's last couple of seasons against it.) But then, I grew up in the '70s. Had I grown up in the 1980s, might I think that decade was the Golden Age? I would like to think not, but you never know.

I know theater mostly from the various movie adaptations. With that handicap in mind, and with all due respect to Neil Simon, it seems to me that the 1920s, '30s, and '40s was the Golden Age of Comedy Theater. The Front Page, Twentieth Century, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Harvey. Does it get much better than that?

DyHrdMET said...

I do think that the shows of yesterday are better than the shows of today. There's a few today that are good, but there just aren't as many as there used to be.

jbryant said...

I've finally caught a few episodes of The Phil Silvers Show on ME TV. Just stunningly good.

Doktor Frank Doe said...

The trouble with sophisticated content is there are absolutely no sophisticated buyers out there. As much as I love Two and a Half, it set the bar at a precarious level that to try and match or outdo it means they're producing pure pond scum crap.

I believe there IS an audience out there for sophisticated content based solely on the ongoing success of syndicated Frasiers, Cheers and MASH. Trouble is, it falls outside the sweet-spot demographic and those Inside the sweet-spot demographic are the dumbed-down America brought to you by your friendly fascist Gov't.

Johnny Walker said...

Actually I think there's a lot to be said for that little BIG BANG THEORY experiment. While it's true that timing would be different between lines, the line deliveries themselves would not (provided they didn't stop for audience laughter).

I personally prefer the version that hasn't been edited, because it flows better to me (for the most part at least), but one thing it highlights for me is this: Characters in sitcoms can get away with being real assholes, and possibly more so in multi-camera shows with an audience.

I personally have always found difficulty laughing at BBT, as I previously said. Laugh or no laugh track, my reaction is the same.

Mike said...

Biggest thing to blame is the lack of network or government censors, a move you applaud.

Chris said...

Here's a friday question: Since you don't like Michael Patrick King's 2 Broke Girls, what did you think of the show he did with Lisa Kudrow some years ago, called "The Comeback". I really thought it was brilliant. I also liked the 2 episodes he personally wrote in 2 Broke girls, so maybe it's the writing staff?

jcs said...

There might not be many good sitcoms out there, but I think there were some beacons of hope over the last 1 or 2 years.

"Party Down" was an excellent show with dark undertones. Unfortunately it never got the larger audience it deserved and was cancelled when Adam Scott left for greener pastures.

"Louie": Not every episode is well-crafted, but it has its own distinctive style and message. The cynicism on display, however, will unfortunately prevent higher ratings.

"Men of a Certain Age": Not a classical sitcom either, but excellent writing and believable characters who face realistic adversity. Highly entertaining, but again, not a ratings hit.

And then there's "BBT" and "Modern Family". Yes, they both have weaknesses and "BBT" hasn't had a great season so far.

I would love to watch more realistic sitcoms like "Party Down" or "Louie" where not everything turns out fine. I would like to see characters who do not seem to have infinite spare time and who cannot afford to socialise several hours per day.

VP81955 said...

Unfortunately, film comedy is tawdry these days because the prime moviegoing audience are teens and twentysomethings who only know the sensibility of beer commercials. The sophistication of Powell and Loy, Lombard or Grant is largely lost on them.

Perhaps we need an "Occupy the Multiplex" campaign (enter theater lobbies without buying tickets).

Franco said...

The trend(s) in entertainment is/ are disturbing and sad. I can't believe people would rather follow around via TV 6 or 7 morons from New Jersey than be entertained by a talented comedian/ writer, for instance.

It evokes many interesting and important questions about our culture and TV, not just the future of writers and other entertainers with talent.

cadavra said...

For me, The Golden Age was roughly the mid-50s to the mid-60s, but that's just me.

It should be noted, though, that back in the 50s, television sets were still high-end items owned mainly by richer (and by extension, better-educated) folks, and that's why you had not only "Your Show of Shows" but also the likes of "Playhouse 90" and "Omnibus." As the prices came down and almost everyone could afford a set, the upscale programming was gradually replaced by "lowest-common-denominator" shows. Make no mistake--there're some outstanding programs on right now, but they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. I mean, c'mon, are we really surprised that "Fear Factor" is not only back but getting solid ratings?

current mood: grumpy

Anonymous said...

Audiences that grew up on traditional sit-coms find them predictable, because we've seen so many. I tried to show my husband a couple of shows I enjoyed in the 80s, but they were just unwatchable today. You could see the plot twists coming a mile away, and anticipate most of the jokes.

But current shows that break the mold, like 30 Rock or The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, escape this problem, because you never know WHERE they're going. And yes, I consider them all smart and erudite.

Also, dramedies (other than MASH) barely existed on TV before this decade. For those of us who like dark humor, this is a Golden Age. Golden!

And there's more:

Topical humor that used to show up on, say, The Smothers Brothers, gets its own forum now on The Daily Show, Colbert, etc.

Cartoons have also gotten much smarter and edgier, as you know from THE SIMPSONS. SOUTH PARK may not be your cup of tea, but it's brilliantly funny.

I think we're living in a golden age of comedy. Just not the golden age of sitcoms. To insist that that's the one-and-only acceptable format is sort of like complaining that there was no comedy in the 1950s because vaudeville was dead.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

jcs: I also liked Men of a Certain Age, though I didn't really think of it as a comedy, more a meditation with comic moments (and tragic ones).

Speaking of Neil Simon: Britain's equivalent, I have always thought, is Alan Ayckbourn, who through something like 60 or 70 plays in a long, long career has documented the British middle class in a way the critics are finally beginning to appreciate (audiences and actors always loved Ayckbourn).

But Ayckbourn is a pure playwright: he is a master of stagecraft, and has done many clever things in his use of space and time on the stage. Some of his techniques seem cinematic - and yet his plays do not translate well to movies (and very few have been filmed) and to TV only if they're pretty much shot as stage plays (The Norman Conquests, Season's Greetings, and Absurd Person Singular were all well done by the BBC).

Ayckbourn manages to get an extraordinary amount of darkness into his comedy while still writing things that draw tourists in his home theater in Scarborough (and later crowds in London).

The cumstain school of comedy could learn a lot from him...

wg

Mike said...

What if they just stopped making TV shows? You still get reruns of old shows. Would people really miss anything? There has been 50 years of television and more. Taking the top shows of each era, would probably give you a lifetimes worth of viewing of things you haven't seen before.

Dale said...

Hello everyone. I recently found the site and have enjoyed reading very much.

I no longer watch TV, although I do watch TV shows on DVD. TBBT is quite funny, but I hear many old jokes from Frasier and Cheers in the dialogue. E.G. "I guess in India they just call it food" when speaking of Indian cuisine. I first heard that in Cheers, if memory serves....

TV is way too over the top for me today. Too in my face. Loud obnoxious commercials and presenters, shows etc. Reality shows, actors sitting around tables spouting their wisdom (hilarious). I can't stand it.

I have no solutions and I think there is no point in looking back to 'better days'. I think there is more escapism among the general public than before because so much is troubling. Wars, financial chaos, massive corruption etc. people want to turn off, and low brow humour makes that easier.

I hope things improve.