Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Uh oh, another rant

As I figured, yesterday’s post generated a lot of discussion. Let me respond to one comment, from reader Jim, that I thought was particularly well written and insightful. Jim wrote:

The scene you described struck me, when I saw it, as belonging to that contemporary school of comedy writing that has no use (for) gags in a comedy scene. In fact, this approach to comedy avoids anything that might make the audience laugh out loud. Anything that could be clearly identified as "a gag." That's old-fashioned and hackneyed. To write this kind of scene, you never have your characters say or do anything that might come off as funny. Instead, the laughs are supposed to be inherent in the situation itself, not in how the characters react to the situation or how they deal with it. This style of comedy writing is all set-up and no payoff.

I do understand that writers want to avoid having their characters speak in zingers and one-liners. Too many sitcoms fall into that trap, and it's annoying. (My wife has been working her way through THE GOLDEN GIRLS lately, and I swear, that show needed a drummer just offstage, playing rim shots.) But, you know, it's entirely possible to have your characters saying and doing funny things, in finding funny angles to your situation, without everyone coming off like Morey Amsterdam or your script like an episode of I MARRIED JOAN.

Thanks again, Jim. Very thoughtful comment. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to use it as a springboard for today’s old retro guy’s rant.

I totally agree that filling a script with zingers makes a show feel tired and old fashioned. And trust me, there’s nothing harder to write. When you have two characters sitting at the breakfast table and there’s nothing going on but you have to give each one funny line after funny line, it’s torture. And unreal. And forced.

But that isn’t to say funny lines are to be avoided. There were funny lines in SEINFELD and funny lines in FRIENDS, and FRASIER and ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA and 30 ROCK. There are funny lines in ARCHER and BROAD CITY. Millennials will, in the privacy of their own homes, laugh at funny lines.

To me, when a writer is justifying not making a scene funny it’s just a smokescreen for lazy writing. The message I get is that he is incapable of writing a funny scene. He doesn’t have the chops to make someone laugh.

Anyone can come up with “inherent” comic situations. Comedy writers make something of those situations. Prove to me you’re really funny first and then discuss style.

Here’s what I find really perplexing? Why would anyone want to become a comedy writer if he’s embarrassed at making people laugh? If he thinks that presenting something genuinely funny is somehow beneath him, somehow compromising his principles? Why go into boxing if you’re opposed to violence? If you think sugar is bad for people why become a sous chef?

I’m sorry but to me, self-aware characters who observe situations instead of being forced to act upon them are dull and uninteresting. Irony is worse than “gags.” Equating situations with pop culture references instead of reacting with strong attitudes and emotions is a crutch.

Call me old and a hack and out of touch – that’s fine. I’m proud to be a COMEDY writer. I’m proud to have made people laugh for many years. I’m not saving lives but it’s a noble profession. I’m providing joy to millions of people. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to apologize for.

Baseball analogy (oh no!): There are some hitters who have “warning track” power. That means they don’t have the strength and ability to hit the ball far enough to go over the fence for a home run. Instead they hit long fly outs. Imagine these players saying, “Home runs are passé. Sure I could hit them, but I don’t want to. Home runs are showy and seriously, haven’t we all seen enough home runs? Why should I stoop to that level?” Turn on many of these new TV comedies. That’s what you’re seeing – 300 foot fly ball outs, except instead of the hitter being shipped off to the minors where he belongs, he’s pumping his fist in triumph.

There is but one truism in comedy -- regardless of the style, year, or sensibility:


It is not:





Jeremiah Avery said...

I agree with your "rant", Ken. When watching a comedy, I'd like to actually laugh (there's a shock!). Some shows use pop culture references as a crutch instead of writing something funny in the actual scene. That's a pet peeve analogous to shows or movies that play a song to convey an emotion/reaction rather than have the people actually act or convey things.

If I'm watching a show advertising itself as a comedy and I get non sequitur references and bland writing/performances, I'll change the channel and watch some "Seinfeld" or "Frasier" reruns instead.

Jim S said...

One of the reasons I love The Dick Van Dyke Show is because it's about comedy writers. Characters would say funny things on purpose, and then the others would acknowledge that something funny was said and go on with the conversation.

But the show also had humor that came out of the situation. So when Mary Tyler Moore said Alan Brady might give his toupees away to needy bald people, (if you don't get that reference your life is incomplete), it can be seen as comedy coming from character and coming from the situation. Oh and it's very funny.

Anonymous said...

your post i spot-on except for one thing - your defensiveness about being old.
Now I am aware that in Hollywood and our society in general today the coin of the realm is youth.
But by being defensive about something on which you are 100% correct you demonstrate how the enforced obsession with youth devalues true talent (and certainly not only in show business).
Of course comedy standards change - young people will always laugh at certain things old people do not find funny, and vice-versa. But great comedy is what makes people laugh. Because a young person doesn't listen to Frank Sinatra doesn't make him a bad singer.
My kids watched a W.C. Fields movie with me the other day - W.C. Fields who was a generation before me. Yes it was slow to them and they didn't get certain jokes and references - but they saw why it was funny. And they remarked that in essence Larry David was an updated W.C.Fields, something that never occurred to me. What were Frasier and Niles but an updated variation of Laurel and Hardy?
Justifying material that doesn't make people laugh is an excuse for lack of effort or talent or both.
IF you try and excuse that by saying your older generation doesn't get it, doesn't change that.
Youth will always have its day- Hollywood has been proving that for over 100 years, but let's not lose sight of standards while we are at it.

J. Allison said...

People do want to laugh. There's almost nothing better than a fall out of your chair uncontrollable laughing fit. And we seem to have them less often as we age, unfortunately. I still remember laughing so hard in the movie theater while watching, "The Jerk" that I literally almost fell out of my chair. It's a fun feeling. So please, Ken and other writers, keep the laughs coming.

And if you have any recommendations for TV comedies, please list them! My wife and I are sorely missing Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, and The Office, all of which we've lost in recent years. We're watching Fresh Off The Boat and Last Man on Earth, both of which are pretty good, but we have no current comedy that we look forward to like we used to look forward to those other shows. Thanks.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Great answer "anonymous" above me.
When I used to watch SNL regularly I would think, "this skit is a funny premise but then it goes nowhere. Almost like they want the audience to fill in the jokes and the words in their imagination"

We watched "life in pieces". Bored us. Were we supposed to laugh at older people getting it on? Just because they're older? Boring.

Bill Avena said...

Off topic but I was disturbed when "The Daily Show"s premier was on every Viacom channel last night. Has that ever been done before?

Gary Benz said...

There is certainly a disconnect between what the typical audience expects and what they're given. Most in the audience want to laugh and if you doubt that watch the water cooler interaction the next day between two people who watched and enjoyed the same show. They repeat the funny lines to each other and laugh again. When you can't share laughs from a show it's generally because there weren't any to share. A comedy writer who isn't trying to get laughs is like an investor who isn't trying to make money. What's the point of the exercise then?

Johnny Walker said...

Interesting discussion over the past few days. I also hate the fact that everyone tends to fire off zingers these days. If CHEERS was remade today, it wouldn't just be Carla shooting insults at people, it would be Sam, Diane, Norm and Cliffy. Horrible. (That said, I thought the GOLDEN GIRLS could be wonderful.)

Outside of this, it sounds like millennials have turned away from anything that even resembles a sitcom, which is crazy. I completely agree with you Ken that a comedy should MAKE you laugh (whether you want to or not). Not smile, laugh. And there's tons of different ways of achieving this, from broad to subtle. If millennials don't like broad comedy, seeing (bad) sitcoms in the same way most of us here probably see Borsch-belt comics, that's no excuse for their replacement not being funny. There's plenty of hilarious shows and movies that managed to be "real" and funny (THE LARRY SANDERS and Woody Allen's best work both leap to mind).

The scene you described yesterday read like a "dramedy" to me -- not a comedy.

villagedianne said...

The great and very short-lived sitcom Frank's Place, relied more on funny situations than on jokes, but had a lot of action and great payoffs at the end. Also no laugh track. It was too ahead of it's time and would have lasted longer on cable, but cable wasn't developing it's own shows back then.

Friday Question: Ken, have you seen Frank's Place, and what are your thoughts on it?

blinky said...

Lazy writing on The New Girl is why I gave up on it after one season. They seemed to think that Zooey Deschannel is cute enough to carry the show with funny props like a cell phone cover with bunny ears.

MikeN said...

Ty Cobb did exactly what you said. One day he said I'm going hit home runs today since you make such a big deal out of it, and went out and hit 3 home runs.

Anonymous said...

Sous chef just means assistant chef, and lots of them will think sugar is bad for you and try to make different meals. Even worse I had a bakery that made their frosting really bland, saying they thought the frosting should enhance the cake not replace it. Instead it got thrown out.

Elf said...

For Bill Avena: I believe Viacom did that recently for the premieres of the Jim Gaffigan show and the other show that followed it.

Diane D. said...

I couldn't agree more about filling a show with zingers; it's annoying and it does feel out-dated. BUT when the zinger is clever, hilarious, and surprising, it can produce that splendid burst of laughter that we crave. Perfect example:

Diane: "Oh, I get it, you were angry because she thought of you as just stud-service."
Sam: "No……I like that."

It was't just me. There was a huge laugh from the studio audience.
There is even something more you get from that kind of reaction, you feel a sort of kinship with the person/people who created the moment and those who have a similar sense of humor.

Erich617 said...

I have written my share of comedy in the past 10 years, a good amount of it performed before live audiences. I certainly am not afraid of adding funny lines (at least I don't think that I am), but I think I might have an answer to your questions (sorry if they were meant to be rhetorical).

First, a lot of comedy writers and performers at the moment have a background in long-form improv. One of the key tenets of improv is to avoid "making jokes" because it essentially stops a scene in its tracks. Each line or move in an improv scene should add information or give the other people in the scene something to respond to, which a one-liner doesn't.

One of the reasons that improv works, I believe, is because the performers are creating it extemporaneously, and we know that. People will say ridiculous or silly things without even meaning to. In fact, they might be trying as hard as possible to play the scene earnestly but still say something that comes out strangely. The best move another improviser can make is listen, acknowledge, and ground that. If you ever listen to the Comedy Bang, Bang! podcast, this is something that I think Paul F. Tompkins does really wonderfully.

What this does, of course, is create fun, often absurd situations. But the absurdity is based on something strange that happened and the fact that it was then grounded in reality. When you are writing, you also create fun situations (like you described in your original post), but the audience isn't watching you do it extemporaneously, so you as a writer have to make decisions to create a funny scene.

In both improv and scripted comedy, I would say the goals are similar: create funny scenes grounded in reality that are organic to the characters and heighten out of proportion. However, an improviser might be more prone to see how the scene develops rather than attempting to add obstacles. Additionally, improv is performed with a live audience the performers can respond to. Once you get a laugh, you know which direction to go. With single-camera comedies, you lack that feedback.

I think that this lack of feedback also creates a certain fear of failure. It might not be that writers don't want to add funny lines. It might be that they don't want to add a line they think is funny only to have it go down like a lead balloon. Audiences can sense the structure of a joke and know when it's not funny. If you never try, you never risk that failure.

I would argue that the "solution" (if there is one) is to take some of the tools of improv to create scripted scenes. For example, I wrote a scene for the ABC Diversity Showcase (November 10, El Portal Theatre!) that needed to have just two characters. Since it is a talent showcase, I wanted both actors to have lots to do, so I created a scene where the characters' behavior heightens off each other. I won't go into the details, but I picked the most inappropriate situation, began with a small but noticeable pattern of behavior then escalated it. I honestly don't think it has any jokes that follow a set-up/punchline form, but the dialogue becomes more outrageous as the scene progresses. The difference is, of course, that I knew the game of the scene before I started writing, so I could get right to it rather than letting it develop organically.

darms said...

Dunno but a classic example (IMHO) is the MTM episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust" - it's based on a funeral, what could possibly be funny about that? Except the episode is (again, IMHO) hilarious. Maybe that's why I do not care what passes for 'comedies' these days...

Canda said...

Two things that hurt scripted comedy shows. One, you tube stars cheapen real actors, and people who record their funny actions or rants, are more interested in recording themselves than actually writing FOR an audience. This becomes the norm for performance, and everyone who has an iPhone or camera, joins the party. There is no STANDARD. Just people enjoying themselves. Quite often it's narcissists playing off of each other.

Two, political correctness has made everyone guarded, and you are constantly self-censoring. Quite a good article on how this is limiting ideas in higher education in a recent ATLANTIC MAGAZINE issue.

As for pop culture references, what relevance will they have when seen 20 years from now?

willieb said...

Sometimes a writer will take the term "situation comedy" too literally, and think a funny situation is enough,ignoring your favorite facet of comedy writing, Ken, which is character -- how do the characters react to that situation? The trend on shows like "The Office" and "Louie" is to let the character twist in the wind for awhile -- sometimes that's funny, but a lot of times it's just plain uncomfortable. The funniest sequences I saw on "The Office" were almost slapstick: Dwight's fire drill that had people climbing into the ceiling or Kevin slipping and sliding on a pot of chili he dumped on the floor.

gottacook said...

"...to me, self-aware characters who observe situations instead of being forced to act upon them are dull and uninteresting."

Yes, but on Almost Perfect I recall David Clennon's character fitting this description: a self-aware observer of situations. Of course, because he was played by David Clennon, this worked just fine.

Ken Levine said...


Great comment. Thanks. And I agree that UCB style of improv has influenced today's young comedy writer. But a couple of things:

I've done improv since 1979. Funny lines work. Improvisers who can do them -- on the spot yet -- are beloved by audiences.

But a funny line is not necessarily a "joke." It's a line that's funny because of the character, his attitude, and the situation. Were it in writing on a script page it probably wouldn't get a laugh.

Lazy and less talented writers use this thinking as an excuse. Again, I say to them: prove to me first that you CAN write funny. Then I will grant you that your minimalist style is a choice.

And finally, if you're a comedy writer and can only write in one very narrowly defined style for one very specific demographic good luck having a thirty year career.

Thanks again for some great observations.

And to Anonymous (please leave a name in the future),

I mention the age as a disclaimer because anytime I even remotely criticize current trends I get a barrage of "get off my lawn" responses. So I'm saving them the trouble.


Ken Levine said...


I beg to differ. David Clennon's character on ALMOST PERFECT was passionate about authenticity. He also lived by his own code. He came at every situation with a strong attitude. It may have been laid-back but he was firm in his beliefs.

Offering a perspective to the situation is different than just observing and identifying it. That's self-awareness.


VincentS said...

I think you hit the nail right on the head with your baseball analogy, Ken. As Alfred Hitchcock said, "Drama is life with the boring parts snipped out." In all kinds of story-telling it's essential not to bore your audience. Yes, the high-points, be they dramatic ones in a drama or comedic ones in a comedy, must come out of plausible behavior and situations, they must be given with full commitment from the writer with a HEIGHTENED sense of reality. I'm sure when the first cavemen came back after the first hunt they omitted all the long hours they slogged through the brush searching and waiting for their prey and went straight "for the kill," as it were, in telling their tale.

Peter said...

What Ken said!

I totally agree. I think a lot of the recent trend was spawned by The Office in the UK. Now, that's a show I did like but the use of irony, awkward situations, long silences and facial expressions has inspired the tendency towards "comedies" which don't make you laugh but instead are more preoccupied with being hip. That approach suited The Office but it now seems to be the template for writers who, as Ken says, want to seem cool but actually lack the skill to be funny.

I can still remember lines from Cheers decades ago and that's because funny lasts! Whether it's Diane screaming "People people, work with me, work with me!" or Sam returning to the bar to find Gary has had the middle of the bar bricked up and he says "See now, that, that's not right."

Calvin said...

To paraphrase: "I don't write jokes. I write about people in funny situations." - Larry David

I think both sides of the argument can agree that Larry's done and is doing something right with that philosophy.

gottacook said...

Ken - regarding David Clennon, I see your point. He was marvelous, in any case. (I'd never seen him do outright comedy, before or since.)

H Johnson said...

Aaaaahhh. what are you people talking about?

Ken, I think you are right about the show (scene) you reviewed yesterday, and your rant today is is a continuation of your correct opinion. But me thinks you are delving too deep.

That show stinks. Period. It wasn't funny. Not because of any high minded principles either. It just didn't make me/you laugh. What is really funny is the defense of calling a spade a spade. Can't you just see the meeting where the suit, after having seen the show, says "That's not funny, no one laughed" and the writer, always quick on his feet responds "Exactly, that's how it's supposed to be. Hip people will realize the situation is uncomfortable so we don't need to make them laugh, that's so last generation". The older executive, not wanting to seem...older, says "Right, right. Genius!".

Look Ken, you know funny. You're not old. Stick to your guns. Comedy has never changed. If it is funny it makes us laugh. That's all. There is all kinds of funny too. Punch lines are not always "zingers", hell they're not always verbal. But they always make you laugh.

Keep up the good fight. All us smart folks are behind ya.


Kosmo13 said...

In recent years I've revisited some of my favorite sitcoms and found that the characters who regularly deliver snarky, smart-aleck one-liners now are just as likely to seem annoying as funny. Instead of laughing at those characters now I just want to tell them to shut up.

I concluded maybe I'd overdosed on that sort of humor or outgrown it or something. Then I revisited classic Marx Brothers movies and saw Groucho Marx being the character who regularly delivers snarky, smart-aleck one-liners. It is still hilarious when he does that sort of humor. Now I think whether that sort of humor is still funny has more to do with the practitioner than the material.

Anonymous said...

Ken Said:

"I’m sorry but to me, self-aware characters who observe situations instead of being forced to act upon them are dull and uninteresting."

Um... didn't you just describe the bulk of Bill Murray's career?

He's the pioneer of the "meta character." He's responsible for all the meta, "too cool for school" crap we have today. Without Bill Murray, we'd never have had "Community."

What comedy movie has Bill Murray been in where you believed the "character" he was playing gave a shit about anything but commenting on the stupid premise his character was thrown into? Every scene he's in is like a collection of Bill Murray soliloquies commenting on the situation he finds himself in, making it funnier because of his detached commentary.

True, Bill Murray is an exception of someone who can pull it off because it's just inherent in his approach to comedy, but since his success, many of our sitcom writers and comedy actors are doing some version of him, because silly and detached commentary on what's funny is funny... to them.

– Morrie

Stephen Robinson said...

I disagree with the idea that "political correctness" is hurting today's comedy. The classic comedies of my generation at least -- CHEERS or TAXI, for example -- were pretty much what we'd consider "politically correct" today. Yes, Sam and Louie made lewd comments about women but only a degree dialed up from the leering of early Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. There was very little ethnic humor. You're more likely today to have a sitcom in which a character like Louie constantly makes racist jokes at the expense of his coworker Jeff. There was also very little political humor -- we didn't know if Sam voted for Reagan or Mondale or at all. Diane's liberalism was more a send up of intellectualism more than political party (though she did delight in briefly meeting Gary Hart), and Rebecca Howe, especially in her first season, could have been a easy source of Reagan conservative references (sort of like Jack on 30 ROCK) but again, the series went for more universal satire ("snooty business woman").

Stephen Robinson said...

The biggest series of the 1990s were arguably FRASIER, SEINFELD, and FRIENDS. I'd guess the latter two were the more influential on the types of series that came afterward. It is shocking how so many of the copycats didn't *get* what made those shows successful: No, you need more than just six good-looking people drinking coffee. No, your characters can't just be unlikeable assholes. I suppose it makes sense to swipe what is "new" about a series without delving deeper into what is consistent in its style that makes it work like other classic sitcoms.

The three shows I mentioned all had laugh-out loud moments, either great jokes or marvelous physical comedy, or inspired comedic situations. Someday my son will wonder why his parents shout "PIVOT!" when trying to move furniture and we'll sit him down to watch an old episode of FRIENDS.

Anonymous said...

This may be a small sample, but I think it supports your view very well.

I was watching a MASH episode last week. My 11 year old son started watching it and within about 10 minutes (after numerous bouts of laughter) he turned to me and asked "Dad, what's this show!?".

I replied very simply "MASH". He stayed for the rest of the episode and thoroughly enjoyed himself. It ended, he went off. As it happened another episode came on straight after that one. I yelled out that there was another one on. He ran back into the lounge room like I had just said there was a lolly buffet on in the room.
MASH now has a new fan.

We have several seasons of MASH on DVD. They are all in my 16 year old daughters room. She became a fan a few years ago as well.

So yeah, small sample size, 100% success rate. I don't think irony has that sort of track record.
PS: this was in Australia, so it's an international sample as well.

Cory said...

I think the explanation is that set up/punchline jokes require taking a risk. You're saying to the audience "here is a joke." If that joke falls flat it's quite noticeable. It's a lot easier to use joke-like sounds, catch-phrases and funny reactions because there was never a promise of a payoff. There was no risk. If a funny face doesn't get a laugh then that's fine, you weren't trying to be funny anyway.

Mike said...

I'm naming this genre of comedy "Daria television" after the cartoon of the same name. Just hope we never encounter "Ren & Stimpy television".

Recently a showrunner of Daria television posted a comment explaining it all, although, perhaps tellingly, I've forgotten the name of their programme. Perhaps the comment could be dug out or up?

I disagree with Ken:
a) Comedy has the most scope for experiment.
b) The fundamental requirements of American network television are: slick, bland & engaging, not funny.
c) The purpose of American network television is to fill in the gaps between the adverts. If the focus groups and the ratings companies say that Daria is hitting the demographic that conventional shows can't reach...

Having said all that, I'm not familiar with Daria television. The nearest example I can muster may be the very successful Him & Her (UK, 2010-13). The theme tune is one of Ken's favourites: Lulu's Boom Bang-a-Bang.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Perhaps every generation gets the crappy television that it deserves.

I say that because, like Ken, I'm old. I remember a lot of bad television. Bad in different ways from today's bad television, but still bad. The last 50 years is littered with disastrous shows, which just makes good television such a treat.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"There are some hitters who have “warning track” power."
I think the MLBPA has banned that term. Now it's "gap-to-gap power."

To steal from the theme song of SPEED RACER (the TV series in the late 60s). Go old retro guy. Go old retro guy. Go old retro guy. Go!

Ed Dempsey said...

Given your previous posts about network notes, I'm curious to here your take on this recent post from Cory Edwards about the creative process.


Love what ya' do. Thanks for the great read and insight each day.

Mark said...


You should rant more. That was a great post!

Tom said...

I have to agree with Ken on this one. Every generation that comes along tends to think that it's more worldly and sophisticated than its predecessors (and in some ways, with the increased pace of life, ubiquity of technology and less rigid moral standards they may well be right) but this generation seems both more jaded and arrogant than the last by a long shot.

Gen X may have thought baby boomers to be old, stodgy, and uncool, but they weren't so jaded as to even reject laughter. Yes, some setup/joke styled programs can be stale, but it's likely to be more a symptom of poor writing and execution then an overall indictment of the style in general.

DrBOP said...

The Ironic Irony of Ironic Irony......up the freakin' yin-yang......and don't forget that many of these younger writers went through post-post-post-modern communications courses......NO cause and effect, ONLY audience re-interpretation......EVERYthing is an ironic reference to a reflection of past meta-selves ad-freakin'-nauseum.....

......but this too shall pass......just not quickly enough.

Anonymous said...

@Tom: Every generation that comes along tends to think that it's more worldly and sophisticated than its predecessors

It was probably unintended but your use of the word "sophisticated" harkens back to its earlier meaning and is perfect in this situation. As practiced by the Greek Sophists something sophisticated was logic intended to make something that was not true appear to be true. Sophomores - students just beyond freshman who appear to be more worldly than they really are.
In this case, making something appear funny that is really not.

Texas Annie said...

Best two days of writing and comments EVAR! Keep ranting Ken.

VP81955 said...

Sometimes a writer will take the term "situation comedy" too literally, and think a funny situation is enough,ignoring your favorite facet of comedy writing, Ken, which is character -- how do the characters react to that situation?

"The Jack Benny Program" on both radio and TV was character comedy, which is why it's so timeless.

Andy All-Caps said...

I beg to differ.

There is a whole genre about feeling superior to mere gags. Awkward comedy also plays better with young female audiences who are the holy grail for advertisers.

Andy All-Caps said...

I beg to differ.

There is a whole genre about feeling superior to mere gags. Awkward comedy also plays better with young female audiences who are the holy grail for advertisers.

Mike said...

I see no-one's using the phrase Daria television yet. Never mind, give it time... I'll check back in again tomorrow.

chuckcd said...

I will take the new "Muppets" show over a show like "Life In Pieces"
any time! Actual jokes that make you laugh out loud.

VP81955 said...

Perhaps the feeling of superiority stems from the Ivy League background of so many of these writers -- if you've ever seen one of their schools' halftime shows, the "we're better than you" smugness is annoying, albeit occasionally clever. Gags? They're so state U-ish.

The Sioux City Commune said...

Ken, I cannot thank you enough for that baseball analogy. It describes what I've been feeling about all the poor writing I see on the screen these days but haven't been able to articulate with a solid analogy until now.

DrBOP said...

Simply to add to the conversation, and just in case you missed it :


and there's a letter from one of the Muppets writers in retort.

Andy Rose said...

That New York Times article touches on exactly what I was thinking... that today's anti-joke mentality in some writers' rooms is just an extension of the "I'm not here to make people laugh, I'm here to make them think" attitude that some less funny stand-ups have. But I also think these things go in cycles. Much like punk led to New Wave led to 80's synth pop, and grunge led to modern rock led to 90's guitar pop, comedy tastes are cyclical.
Shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H and Taxi gave way to less gritty substitutes like Benson and The Cosby Show. Which gave way to pathos-free yuck-fests like Alf and Full House. Eventually more adult comedies came back in the form of Seinfeld and Friends and Cheers... funny shows that lacked the social conscience of the 70s.
And of course it's ultimately a matter of taste. I felt that latter-day Daily Show episodes all but abandoned comedy in favor of Stewart rants that often barely had punchlines, but apparently most people still loved the guy.

cadavra said...

Before "Daria television"--there, it's been used!--I coined the term "smugcom" for those single-cam series that were joke-free, and were merely attitude and assumed hipness and characters who were just unlikable jerks that we were supposed to laugh at. I'll go to my grave wondering what people see in the Judd Apatow school of "comedy." In fact, TRAINWRECK was the first movie in years I walked out on (though I gave it a full 90", with 35 still to go). Any two minutes of any BILKO episode has more genuine laughs than Amy Schumer will ever generate with her endless stream of dick jokes that aren't actually jokes.

Barnum said...

I think it's just a case of different generations finding different things funny. I'm 30, and when I go back and watch the sitcoms of the late '80s and early '90s (Full House, Family Matters, Horsin' Around) it's all I can do to make it through an episode. I've laughed MUCH harder at the dry snark in Daria and the absurd sadness of Always Sunny In Philadelphia than I ever did at Steve Urkel knocking things over and then delivering a catchphrase. Comedy has gotten a lot less broad, and I see that as a very good thing.