Monday, June 27, 2016

"Comedy In Theory"

NEW YORK magazine did a big article recently on today’s television comedies. It acknowledged that they were edgy, groundbreaking at times, and clearly the new trend. And the article gave them a label: CIT – “Comedy in Theory.”

It’s a fancy term for comedies that aren’t funny. And that’s my problem with them. Call them whatever you want – “Slices of Life”, “Dramadies,” “Label Free,” “Genre Stew,” "Out of the Box," whatever -- just not comedies. I myself watch and enjoy a number of them (I even LOVE a few like BETTER CALL SAUL). I appreciate their ambitious approach and willingness to blur genres and styles. I'm excited to see new things come along. 

Just don’t call them “comedies.” “Comedy in Theory” is a bullshit term. And it’s an insult to those who write “Comedy in Practice.”

Here’s why: Writing comedy designed to make people actually laugh is HARD. Much harder than a dramatic structure where you can sprinkle in a humorous line or moment now and again. It is a skill that very few have. I wonder how many writers of “Comedy in Theory” could even write “Comedy in Practice.”

Just because a show has a serious undertone doesn’t mean the writers can’t strive to make them genuinely funny. What’s a more serious backdrop for a series than MASH? And yet we went for laughs -- not wry smiles; not irony. And I may be biased, but I don’t think the comedy took away from the dramatic impact or diminished it in any way.   (Disclaimer:  I can only speak for the years my partner and I were involved.) 

One distinction the article tries to make between current comedies and current dramas is that dramas are story-driven and comedies are character-driven. Comedies today can just go off on tangents and explore behavior. Yes, it’s different from sitcoms past, but in many cases it is also lazy. Look at the classic comedies. Storytelling was not just important it was critical. We took great pride in devising stories that were clever, surprising, funny, and meaningful. It’s like “Comedy In Theory” gives you license to take shortcuts.

And again, you want to do a series that just explores the minutia of someone’s behavior – great. If you’re a good writer and you create a compelling character it might be a terrific show. Just don’t call it a comedy unless it really is.

Since it’s hard to classify these shows, the article points to the confusion that arises when it’s time to enter them for Emmys. And some switch back and forth depending on which category they feel they have a better chance of winning in. If they go for laughs like SILICON VALLEY or VEEP or KIMMY SCHMIDT they’re legitimately comedies. If they’re PETE AND HORACE or YOU’RE THE WORST they’re not. Hey, someone might have hummed a tune in an Arthur Miller play but he never entered it as a musical to win a Tony.

The article claims that since there is so much niche programming the standards are significantly lower for what is considered a “hit.” To me, this too is a cop out. They’re “Hits in Theory.” They’re a trend because there are so many of them, not because they’re so popular.

And what’s wrong with creating a legitimate HIT? Make no mistake, this trend is geared solely to attract Millennials. And a few may like YOU’RE THE WORST, while others don’t care for it. Same for CATASTROPHE, GIRLS, BASKETS, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and a dozen others. But I bet fans of all of those shows still love and watch FRIENDS. And by the way, FRIENDS goes for hard laughs, is character-driven, and has two to three clever storylines in every episode (and for the record, I had no involvement whatsoever in the making of FRIENDS).

Yes, I'm prepared for all the "Get off my lawn" accusations that will surely follow.  So to repeat -- it's not that I don't admire a number of these shows, just that they belong in a different category... in the same way that Denny's might serve spaghetti but doesn't claim to be an Italian restaurant. 

Signed,

Ranter in Practice

31 comments:

Jeremiah Avery said...

Well said, Ken. I get annoyed when I see "House of Lies" nominated for "Best Comedy"; Don Cheadle is a wonderful actor but the show and him aren't funny. A few quips here and there do not make a comedy.

Peppering dialogue with pop culture references and having an actor smirk a bit is lazy. I"m not prudish but when I hear punchlines that aim for the gutter, it comes across that an actual joke was unable to be written so they went for any sort of reaction. As John Cleese put it: "If people aren't laughing, it's not funny."

I was wondering what you think of the latest incarnation of "The Odd Couple" starring Thomas Lennon and Matthew Perry? It can be a little uneven at times but I think this season was rather good and they did try to go for laughs - either via the situation of the scene or from character reactions. It reminds me of what I once read how someone described "Frasier" - "It's a sitcom for adults."

Steven said...

I always thought a more accurate title for Seinfeld would be Minutiae.

J Lee said...

To be fair, MASH in it's final 2-3 seasons seemed to, if not abandon comedy, at least fell into the trap where those doing the show placed a higher emphasis on the dramatic story lines in the episodes than they did on the comedy bits. Instead of having scripts where the occasional dramatic moments were there to ground the show in reality and keep it from being just a 'wacky military comedy' like some of the shows of the 1960s, the final seasons were more serious story lines with periodic (and sometimes perfunctory) moments of comedy. They lost the balance that made the earlier seasons of MASH so great.

I can't get into the heads of the current writers and show-runners, so I don't know if the current “Comedy in Theory” trend is because the staffs aren't talented enough to write truly funny comedies, or if they suffer from the long-standing problem of holding the belief that comedy doesn't get the same respect as drama, and therefore wanting to do something that does more than just make people laugh. Successfully mixing comedy and drama is really tough to pull off, especially if you can't get the audience to care enough about your characters to want to sit through watching extended dramatic moments in an ostensible comedy.

Joey Smallwood said...

I'm not afraid to say this out loud - I think Amy Schumer has jumped the shark. There, I said it.

1955david said...

Hello. This is a Friday Question. I don't know if there is a proper place to ask it however I'll ask here. This is a baseball announcer question. I watch and listen to a lot of baseball games and I wondered how the announcers, way up in the booth, can effortlessly call a pitch a slider or a two-seam or a changeup? Unless it's a monumental curve ball I cannot tell the difference. How do you tell the difference?
Thanks,
David

Stephen Robinson said...

"Comedy in Theory" reminds me, unfortunately, of Woody Allen's somewhat self-loathing dismissal of comedy as somehow a "lesser" art form. But instead of comparing his comedic work to Arthur Miller, he could have aimed for, say, Jane Austen as a goal. Her work was tightly plotted and, yes, funny.

I offen encounter aimless, plotless works that writers tell me are character studies, but the characters do nothing but nazel gaze and trade pop culture references. I think the distinction between character driven and plot driven is a big writer mistake. My favorite Hitchcock films were tightly plotted but driven by their characters and the choices they made. Few Hitchcock leads ended a story the same place they started it. And my favorite comedies are well -plotted and have stakes, sometimes even of life and death.

The classic structure of a comedy is adhered to well will prove funny. Jokes don't have to be one liners or even slapstick. Again, look at how Austen took the form in comparison to Shakespeare.

I don't watch a lot of comedy in theory because I find it fails to be as funny as some of my favorite dramas in practice: Glengarry Glen Ross and Goodfellas make me laugh out loud but are still perfectly executed tragedies. The Maltese Falcon has better jokes, I think, than a Judd Apatow film.

Dayhew said...

Orange is the New Black certainly not primarily a comedy, but holy shit, staying an ambiguous opinion about it and then praising friends makes me really question your judgment. You seem awfully biased towards multi camera comedies, whether they are stupid, like Big Bang, or genius, like Seinfeld and Ray.

Johnny Hy said...

Ken, have you watched Crazy Ex Girlfriend? My wife and I love the show and it's star Rachel Bloom. The bad news is we finished the binge watch about six weeks ago and are still walking around with the songs in our head because they are so funny.

Stephen Marks said...

Didn't we go through this back in the 80's with John Riter's Hooperman and Dabney Coleman's Buffalo Bill and Slap Maxwell, remember those hybrids? Didn't work. Like W.C. Fields playing Hamlet.

So I watched an episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC yesterday and who is dressed in full Marine uniform, thats right, Jamie Farr. In some kind of weird black hole of TV, Farr was in the USMC in 1965 to prepare for Vietnam, then 10 years later was in the Army for the Korean War which happened 10 years earlier. Frank Sutton, who played Sargent Carter, yelled and screamed all through the episode and every other episode then dropped dead in 1974 of a heart attack. No shit, TV killed Frank Sutton. Ken's book, Must Kill TV, should have Frank Sutton on the cover.

Bg Porter said...

Ken -- Was 'The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd' the first of these? Single-camera, character-driven instead of joke-driven. Certainly Jay Tarses has a long list of solid Comedy In Practice -- I wonder what his thoughts on how this has developed in the 30 years since my obsession with the young Blair Brown began?

Mike Schryver said...

I'd say Larry Gelbart's UNITED STATES was an early example of that kind of show. Much better written than the ones today, of course.

Ken Levine said...

Mike,

That's a PERFECT example. Larry Gelbart was one of the funniest writers ever, but UNITED STATES -- despite some very witty lines -- was not a comedy. It was fascinating but not a comedy.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I'd like to second 1955david's request about naming pitches from the pressbox (but never mind the "effortless" part).

I'll guess that the matter is much more clear for announcers who made it to professional ball - since they pitched and/or faced thousands of pitches along with all the talk and training that goes with toiling in baseball.

Still, the likes of Scully, Niehaus, Buck, Levine, and countless other professional announcers have figured it out without having to stand in or give in at the top level.

Once we were at a Cactus League game when my son was still in Little League and a less-than-passionate observer. I posed him a challenge and a ten-dollar bribe - call ten pitches in a row correctly - call it a fastball or a breaking pitch.

(we were sitting behind the plate slightly to the left)

About ten pitches in, at least three or four were not clearly one or the other - and this trend continued. I had to admit to Alex that the challenge wasa much tougher than I imagined. I don't remember if I coughed up the ten spot.

Covarr said...

I absolutely adore Orange is the New Black, but I certainly wouldn't classify it as comedy. Rather, it always struck me as a fairly serious show that typically uses humor either to keep the mood from getting too grim, which would make it tough to watch, or to create an ironic contrast so the dark parts feel darker. Certainly when a character is more fleshed out, it's much more impactful when they're thrown into the SHU or get into a fight or something.

The frustrating thing about these so-called "Comedy in Theory" shows is that by and large they're not dramadies or genre stew or anything like that. Most of them do purport to be comedies, they're just too scared or too lazy to actually go for laughs. You can get away with not going full-comedy when you're mixing in another genre, but when all you have is light humor, there's really nothing special or interesting at all.

What really surprises me, though, is how actors seem to be fine with this. I've found that when I act, the life blood of my performance is audience reactions. Even in rehearsals when it's just for a small audience of the director, my castmates, and maybe a stage manager or theater board member, those laughs are vital for keeping me at the top of my game. If a supposed comedy doesn't make people laugh, even if that was by design, the actor is pretty much screwed.

Which brings me back to Orange is the New Black (the same applies to Better Call Saul and several others). While that show makes me laugh from time to time, that's not why I nor most people watch it. This show is a drama, through and through, and confident in its identity as such. But it only works because there's no pretense of it being a comedy. That's why Cavemen didn't work several years ago; it was simply boring, relying far too much on concept humor and not enough on jokes. Everyone saw it for what it was and hated it, and I'm baffled to see other shows being lauded for making the exact same mistakes.

Earl Boebert said...

My wife and I have been rewatching the original Twin Peaks on kind of a nostalgia trip for back when it was an internet phenom (for those who had access then.) What I had forgotten was how funny so much of that show was, great actors in deadpan portrayals of characters who are totally detached from any reality you or I would recognize. And the donut display cracks me up every time they trot it out.

Sharon J said...

I'm right there with you, Ken. As I always say, my only criteria for a good comedy is to make me laugh! Go figure, right? It has nothing to do with the length of the program. JANE THE VIRGIN is an hour-long show (yes, I'm counting commercials). BIG BANG THEORY is a half-hour show. Both make me laugh because they're funny. I have no idea why the television academy continues to differentiate between comedy and drama categories based upon length. Makes no sense whatsoever.

sean said...

come on, Ken. you know comedy comes from pain. only difference is how it's dressed up.

blinky said...

You are spot on.
I still wonder how The New Girl got past the first season. I guess enough geeks liked the fantasy that Zooey DesChannel could possibly be their roommate. But IT WAS NEVER FUNNY. Top laugh: an iPhone cover with bunny ears. Hilarious!

michael said...

Why must we worry so much about labels? Yes, it would make critics and awards work harder, but so what? Jay Tarses is one of my favorite writers. I don't care if it is the comedy of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and OPEN ALL NIGHT or the whatever of DAYS AND NIGHTS OF MOLLY DODD and BUFFALO BILL. His work nearly always is entertaining no matter what the label.

I find todays sitcoms, especially those that use the set-up then joke, then repeat, to be predictable and boring. I am finding my humor fix in the light dramas such as SyFy soon to be forgotten WYNONNA EARP.

I don't care if it is a comedy or drama, just that it is entertaining.

Andrew said...

The discussion here reminds me of this wonderful video, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bryan Cranston, and Aaron Paul in a pawnshop. Bryan and Aaron try to convince her that "you know what they say, comedy is easy, but drama is hard." Julia responds with "drama is a cinch."

http://www.indiewire.com/2014/08/emmy-watch-julia-louis-dreyfus-bryan-cranston-aaron-paul-star-in-hilarious-academy-parody-video-239706/

sanford said...

The article was on the Vulture site.

Pat Howard said...

I agree I've watched these shows waiting to laugh an it never comes

solarity said...

LAST MAN STANDING is a great example of comedy in practice. A throwback family show that is actually laugh out loud funny on a regular basis.

Donald Benson said...

I find myself thinking of "Extras", Ricky Gervais's follow-up to "The Office". It often pushed cringe comedy to the point of discomfort.

The series finale went beyond that, becoming a grim parable about celebrity culture (a cheery ending appears at the last possible moment). Yes, there were laughs, but they tended to be bitter. Comedy?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'm still stuck on the claim that YOU'RE THE WORST isn't funny.

wg

George Adelman said...

Personally I usually love the standard multi-cam sitcom formula. It's very easy to let the laughs flow in a situation like that. Although for some reason I've never been able to catch onto Friends- Lord knows I've tried but I get bored and find a lot of the show to be absolutely cringeworthy.
In its prime, Raymond felt less like a sitcom and more like a hilarious Edward Albee play. It didn't seem like there was too much plot involved- just a small inciting incident that would send the characters spiraling outwards and into each other.

Todd Mason said...

Interesting set of examples at the end...I like YOU'RE THE WORST and CATASTROPHE a lot, think BASKETS has moments but it gets on my nerves, and can't stand the rest of them, very much including FRIENDS.

UNITED STATES was interesting to see, but my enjoyment of it was somewhat crimped by how angry my father was getting while we were watching it because It Wasn't A Comedy...

Oliver said...

I was about to ask the same thing about as Johnny Hy about whether you've seen Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It's essentially a premium cable dark "comedy" but with actual broadcast-style hard jokes... and comedy songs! The songs are way better than they have any right to be, and the show pushes what you can do on broadcast to the limits. It's brilliant, even if no-one watches it. I hope Rachel Bloom wins an Emmy, she's amazing - acting, singing, dancing, writing and song-writing, she can do it all.

Tom Galloway said...

Rachel Bloom had previous experience writing comedy songs. She first came to some degree of recognition with the hysterical and witty "F*ck Me Ray Bradbury" back in 2010. Which was nominated for a Hugo Award in the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) [yeah, it uses "Dramatic" but not in the drama vs. comedy sense but basically "something performed" in that live comedy bits, record albums, radio plays, plays, and of course by far the most frequently nominated, tv episodes and movies] category, the Hugo being one of the generally considered top two science fiction/fantasy awards. She did attend the World SF Convention where those Hugos were given, and in my couple of minutes of personal contact and general reports came across quite well (heck, perform Seasons of Love in Klingon, as she did, and you'll have the audience eating out of your hand. Of course, this was an audience at the tail end of a dance DJed by Dr. Demento himself) She did perform it to Mr. Bradbury, who's said to have loved it.

skippy said...

i'm not ken, but i'm rooting for the new odd couple. i hate to say it, the writing is the worst part of the show, but i love what perry & lennon are doing with the characters, as well as the other character actors. but in terms of ken's original premise of this piece, at least those writers are attempting to write jokes.

ScarletNumber said...

Horace and Pete, not Pete and Horace.