Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Funny and Not Funny

My good friend McBlog! and I are always down for a good pop culture discussion. I believe I blogged a ways back that we were in a golden age of television- at least we were before the writer's strike. We both feel as though there are a number of great shows on the air- shows that are thoughtful, well-written, and well-produced. Shows that have a lot more substance than what we've historically thought of as television fare. What amazes both of us is the utter crap that persists in the face of all the good television out there. Case-in-point is the supposedly most watched comedy in America, CBS's Two and a Half Men. We've both caught bits and pieces and neither of us can really make it through an entire episode. The problem is, after watching a gem like Arrested Development, or even a not-so-subtle, over the top wonder like It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, it's just plain hard to enjoy the traditional sitcom anymore. The snappy one-liners and the canned laughter just don't do it for us, not to mention the one-sided, uninteresting characters, the cliched plots, and the boring production value.

McBlog! and I were having an e-mail exchange last week when I came across a couple of dialog bits that oh-so-perfectly illustrates my point.

First, take a gander at this back and forth from the supposedly most watched comedy in the country, Two and a Half Men:

Charlie: I remember your high school friend Jamie Eckleberry. We used to call her Eckleberry Hound.
Alan: You used to call her that.
Charlie: I didn't name her that. I just spread it around. Hey, be sure to keep her off the rug.
Alan: Very funny. You know she's very successful in her field.
Charlie: Oh, how nice. She has a field to run around in!
Alan: This is getting old.
Charlie: In people or dog years? Look, I'll be nice. I'll say hello... then scratch behind her ears.
Alan: Are you done yet?
Charlie: I hope she looks fetching. OK, now I'm done.
[There's a knock at the door. Jamie enters, wearing a curve hugging dress and showing off lots of cleavage]
Charlie: [with his mouth hanging open] Woof!

Then, take a look at this bit from the final season of Arrested Development:

Michael: Her name's Rita. She teaches children at a private school and we're just having lunch.
G.O.B.: Oh, lunch? Well, better bring some dog food. 'Cause all the girls you date are dogs, and... dogs love dog food, right, Pop?
Larry (the surrogate, speaking for George Sr.): Shut up, you idiot. I’m trying to watch the game.

I think one of the stand-out aspects of the new breed of TV comedies- be it Arrested, or the Office, or 30 Rock- is the well written dialog and the realistic character interactions. In Two and a Half Men, Charlie's insults of Alan's former girlfriend are supposed to be funny- then the real kicker is supposed to be the girl showing up as a knock-out. It's a joke we've seen hundreds of times before, punctuated by Charlie's "woof."

In Arrested, with a similar joke about the lead man dating "dogs," the joke is really on Gob, both for making such a lame joke in the first place and for executing it more awkwardly. And while the Two and a Half Men joke doesn't provide us with any character or theme development, the Arrested joke provides us with both. In season three, Gob continually works for the approval of his father, George Sr., who continues to ignore him and/or call him an idiot. Additionally, Gob's awkward comment is met with a response from Larry Mittleman, George Sr.'s "surrogate," while under house arrest, who serves as George's eyes, ears, and mouth as George watches from his bedroom.

In other words, the Two and a Half Men joke is a perhaps too long attempt at wringing laughs out of a mediocre-at-best joke. Some of the comments themselves are clever, but the overall tone of the joke is lame and the ultimate punchline is expected. Meanwhile, Arrested provides us with humorous awkwardness, character development, and a bit of utter ridiculousness in a conversation that doesn't have to slow down to let the viewer in on the joke.

My point in writing is only to point out this fairly useful illustration. It's not that Arrested and similar shows don't go for cheap laughs- A comedy program can't help itself at some points. The point is that cheap laughs and cliched plots have traditionally been the realm of tv comedy, but the most interesting shows have moved beyond those traditions with a more interesting range of personalities, subtle character development, and jokes that zoom by at lighting fast speed. Shows like Arrested Development and now 30 Rock suffer in the ratings, not because of any lack of quality, but because of the slow pace at which many Americans are adjusting to television that actually has artistic merit. With shows like the Sopranos we've seen a shift in people's expectations of dramatic programming, but that same shift has been a bit slower when it comes to comedies. One thing is certain - Laugh track is dying off. And may we bid it a swift, yet painful death, as we welcome back the opportunity to decides for ourselves what is and isn't funny.


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