Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Humorist, Edition #2

In the inaugural edition, I discussed satire in the context mostly of sketch comedy videos, (as this post deals with filmed content and not written content, we can ignore the discussion of The Onion articles, though there are interesting things to be said in regards to one-off comedy articles vs. comic novels as well). Let's ignore for the moment variety television programs like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show that are a hybrid of sketch-like bits and other material and feature a recurring host- they are a strange breed that is outside of the scope of this discussion.

The three basic formats of scripted filmed comedy today are sketch comedy (by which I mean one-off videos that can appear either on TV or the internet), sitcoms (by which I mean half-hour comedic TV programs that feature recurring characters, settings, etc.) and film comedies (films in the comedy genre). I will examine these in the ranking order in which I believe they fall under the current economic arrangements and culture- at other times in history different formats have been better or worse and surely the rapidly changing entertainment landscape will bring many changes to these formats as well in the future. But importantly, some of the comments are about the timeless limitations and strengths of the different formats.

In my mind, the worst format in the present moment for comedy is film. Films are so expensive to make that they must be able to bring in large amounts of revenue at the box office, and the only way to do that is to appeal to the lowest common denominator viewer, or at least throw in a lot of material that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Undoubtedly, there have been some funny films made in the 2000s, including Wedding Crashers and Superbad. But as a discerning viewer, one has to admit that even these films were more rollicking fun summer laughs than great works of comedy. Most of the comedies of this ilk are not nearly as good as those mentioned, and even in these good ones, there were simply too many easy gay jokes, porn jokes, etc. to be considered truly exceptional. Most of these films substitute their stars' charisma and natural comic abilities for clever situations and witty dialogue- many of the Apatow ones are in fact largely improvised on set. To be sure, there have been fantastic film comedies in the past, from Annie Hall and other Woody Allen gems in the '70s to The Big Lebowski and Swingers in the '90s. But it seems that the independent film scene, which was so vibrant in the '90s, has calcified into a relatively boring art house ghetto in both comedy and other genres.

Film naturally as a medium sort of gravitates to a happy ending, which is often not what you want in comedy, because the viewer only gets to see these characters once for 2 hours. And the viewer cares about the characters; he sort of wants to know that it ultimately worked out for them. Whereas in television, you can have a character fail in 100 episodes and then achieve happiness/success in the series finale if you so desire, in film you have a deadline of 2 hours, making that particular finale very important to the viewer. This also can limit the amount of experimentation/weirdness you can do in films since so much is riding on these 2 hours financially and artistically that you may choose not to take a risk like, say the "Scott Tenorman Must Die" episode of South Park. Though viewers might be willing to watch 22 minutes of experimentation, perhaps 2 hours would prove too much. Of course experimental and brilliant film comedies have been made (as mentioned before), but the possible perils of this limited time format are compounded by the financial aspect of film today, whereby a "downer" film is more difficult to market to a mass audience than a film with a happy ending. In conclusion, brilliant film comedy is completely possible and has been done many times before, but the current economic arrangements and culture are not terribly conducive to producing it. As a side note of fairness to film comedies, they have the benefits of getting to know characters relatively well (as compared to sketch though not as well as television), realistically showing crazy scenarios thanks to the possibility of high budgets and filming in any location/having high quality special effects, and of allowing for lengthy and perhaps humorously complicated plots (as compared with television)- though again in terms of plot a mainstream film comedy will likely have a fairly conventional plot.

The middle format is sketch comedy. I discussed sketch comedy at length in my previous post so I will not go into too much detail here about what works in sketch comedy. But it is worth analyzing sketch comedy from the format angle. One of sketch comedy's strengths is that it is cheap to produce, and with little riding on any one sketch there is the potential for a lot of experimentation even in a relatively mainstream setting. As discussed previously, I think Mr. Show is the best sketch comedy show ever (and was on the margins of the mainstream on HBO), but I also greatly enjoyed the more mainstream Saturday Night Live of the early '90s. SNL has fallen considerably from that peak, but other shows like Human Giant on MTV have sprung up that are quite promising. Although Human Giant is not really at the intelligence level of Mr. Show, the kinds of offbeat skits on there suggest to me that there is not that much of a limitation from a business perspective as to what Cable TV networks will put on in the sketch format, and the aforementioned Colbert Report is extremely intelligent and has elements of sketch. So sketch is a promising format today, especially with all the internet outlets that produce dirt-cheap material and have no need to make money and can thus be as smart, outrageous, weird, etc. as they want to be.

But now let's take a look at sketch as a comic format, forgetting any business concerns or today's reality. It allows for experimentation (in addition to the business reason discussed above) because five minutes or less is not much time to have to "put up with" a strange premise/character, the fact that the audience doesn't care much about these characters they just met means more weird/bad things can happen to them, and the conventions of the sketch format are less set in stone than in sitcoms or films. This possibility of experimentation is a great aspect of sketch comedy. But one of the downsides of sketch is that the extremely limited time frame of five minutes necessitates characters who are one-dimensional - there is no time to build a three-dimensional character. This fact leads sketch characters to overwhelmingly be celebrities/politicians, fictional characters from existing media (in a satirical take on them), or new fictional people who have one strange characteristic (the Kristen Wiig Target Lady or whatever). Now of course all of these types of characters have yielded great skits over the years, but their very one-dimensionality leads to a bias toward broad comedy that pervades, say SNL today, and requires great discipline to overcome (see Mr. Show). But let's for the sake of argument say sketch is being done at its highest level. It is amazing, funny, clever, etc. Yet ultimately I would argue that when you think of the funniest experiences in your life, they involve people who you know very well (whether you like them or not doesn't matter). And that is because in addition to the cleverness aspect of great humor, there is a sort of emotional/human component that involves your understanding of a three-dimensional human being and his/her personality, and how this piece of dialogue or action relates to that person's personality and worldview. I will discuss some examples in the sitcom section below, but suffice it to say that in sketch, you are dealing with one-dimensional characters that lack that sort of extra human element of personality and emotions, and this is a disadvantage of the format relative to film and sitcoms. You sometimes see a recurring character in multiple sketches, and these extra exposures sometimes allow the characters to become three-dimensional (though not always).

Finally, there are televised sitcoms. Let me begin by saying that sitcoms have traditionally been a terrible medium- boring, milquetoast, predictable, middlebrow. But from the '90s to the '00s, the sitcom has had a rebirth both in America and in England, and now is in my opinion the best comic format. From a business perspective, sitcoms are less expensive than films, which means that on the macro level of the show, more risks can be taken. Moreover, there are now several outlets such as HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central that are both relatively mainstream and have a business model that allows them take risks in terms of comedy (British TV has several quality channels and has less of a business-perspective because it is state-run). Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Extras, which are very financially successful, have a level of intelligence to their comedy that just seems impossible to do in a financially viable way in film today because of the inability to play to a (quite substantial!) niche educated audience and make money in movies. The TV audience is more fractured than the film audience, and TV costs less, which allows for smarter comedy targeted at a smarter audience. Even mainstream networks such as NBC and FOX program smart sitcoms like 30 Rock and The Office and Arrested Development that are critically acclaimed and are hits among the smart set, and do fine financially though are not commercial juggernauts like Everybody Loves Raymond. And as with sketch, each 22-minute episode of a TV program is not nearly as important financially as a 2 hour film, which allows for more experimentation in terms of weirdness and unhappy endings.

Before we get to a macro perspective on sitcoms, a brief history lesson is in order. It seems to me that the two primary reasons most sitcoms until the '90s were middlebrow were that the monolithic dominance of the three major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) meant that all shows had to appeal to the broad middle-of-the-road, and the shackles of the three-camera format. The 3-camera format refers to a show in which all action takes place in one or maybe two locations, and the action is filmed simulatenously by three cameras (in front of a studio audience), which the editor then cuts between as the scene progresses. Think of the bar in Cheers, Archie Bunker's house in All in the Family, the apartment in Friends, etc. Having only one or two locations severely limits the comic possibilities of these characters and the people they can interact with- it was used primarily for technological reasons and because it was extremely cheap. There was also a sort of smart, hip counterculture that went mainstream in the late '80s and early '90s in a way that it wasn't before, though this sort of intimately tied into the beginning of the fracturing of the monolithic media culture that dominated postwar America. The show that first really broke from the monolithic media culture, tapped into the hip counterculture, and freed itself from the shackles of the 3-camera sitcom was The Simpsons in the early '90s. It was on the innovative fledgling FOX Network, it was written by smart young writers and its cartoon format allowed for infinite settings and infinite characters. Seinfeld also broke the mold in terms of intelligence and although it was sort of a 3-camera sitcom with most action taking place in Jerry's apartment or Monk's Cafe, it very frequently filmed on "the street" (a backlot fake street) or in other indoor locations like restaurants or offices and including many side characters just like The Simpsons. These shows gave way to other groundbreaking shows in the '90s like The Larry Sanders Show on HBO (which you all really should see). The Larry Sanders Show was pioneering in that it was a single-camera sitcom, meaning it filmed like a movie would, with one camera and no studio audience, a format that allowed for many different locations and setups. The show included real-life celebrities poking fun at themselves in a fictional world, making Larry Sanders the antecedent to Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras. It played to a hip niche audience of a substantial size but not massive, just as HBO's comedies do today, and was very smart.

So now let's look at the sitcom format from a macro perspective, regardless of finances. It has the strength of allowing for experimentation because each episode is only a small part of the whole series, so if something doesn't work out it is not a big deal (as opposed to an experiment not working in a 2 hour film). Similarly, there is much more potential for characters to fail in various funny ways at the end of an episode since they can ultimately succeed in the finale if need be, whereas in film (as previously discussed) there are all sorts of pressures militating toward a happy ending. This is really a crucial difference, for you would not see the sort of failure one sees Larry endure on Curb, Mark and Jez endure on Peep Show (a brilliant British sitcom you should all watch) or Michael Scott endure on The Office in nearly any comic film put out today. This lack of pressure to have things resolve neatly for our main characters is extremely liberating, as it opens up many possibilities for the kind of awkward, idiotic, or antisocial behavior that is behind many comic situations. It also adds a sort of cosmic humor element to shows, as we see, e.g. Larry David go through so many tribulations to accomplish some goal only to be right back where he started at the end of the episode. Try to think of a successful comedy movie you saw in the last five years that had that element in it- not too easy. Sitcoms also allow the viewer to see characters in a wide variety of situations and interacting with a wide variety of people over the course of 100 episodes, whereas you might like characters in a comedy film but wish you'd seen them in more circumstances - and the predominance of the single-camera in quality sitcoms is creating ever-increasing possibilities for locations and situations for sitcom characters to find themselves in. Think of some of the crazy scenes on Job's houseboat in Arrested Development or even the bizarre street scenes in the outer boroughs on 30 Rock (which is shot more like a 3-camera sitcom to a large extent but has more sets and like Seinfeld often leaves the usual sets)- and animated sitcoms like South Park open up infinite comic possibilities. These scenes could all happen in movies, but now they can happen in TV too. In a different way, sitcoms also have the benefit of being such a length that they have some 'breathing room.' Whereas in a 2 hour movie or a four minute sketch, there are a lot of time pressures to cram something crazy or important (plotwise) into every scene, any given scene in a 22 minute show that is part of a 100 episode series can afford to take its time a little and let the characters breathe.

I want to finally get back to this idea about how knowing three-dimensional characters adds an extra element of humor lacking in sketches. Think of Liz Lemon in 30 Rock wearing a t-shirt promoting "The Benefit For Pediatric Restless Leg Syndrome" and then offhandedly telling the do-gooder Jon Hamm love interest character that she "forgot I was even wearing this thing, I have so many charity T-Shirts..." This scene is funny because we know that Liz Lemon is actually quite a selfish character who doesn't do charity work and is putting on an elaborate, badly performed ruse because she is desperate to date Jon Hamm. The fact that we know Liz and her trouble with men and her thinking she supports good causes but never doing anything for them makes this a funny scene beyond what is just being said. Or think of the episode of Curb in which Larry gets into trouble with a maitre d after he does not "stop and chat" with him on the street. First of all, you would probably not find that kind of precise, minute social commentary in a sketch or a film because of the time constraints. Secondly, much of the humor comes from our understanding of Larry as a guy who does not put up with social graces he doesn't agree with but still sort of craves affection from those around him and does not understand why he doesn't receive it. In these and many other examples, scenes that are not only funny to watch on the level of cleverness also have an extra level of humor to them from our understanding of these characters' three-dimensional personalities, needs and insecurities. As with any art form, there is a fundamental aspect of "why do I care about these people?" that sitcoms satisfy more than sketches or films, which to differing degrees do not allow for us to know/care about the characters as well as sitcoms do. In big ensemble casts like Seinfeld and The Office and The Simpsons, the recurring side characters become well-formed personalities as well, so that you really understand Newman or Dwight or Moe and get the subtle humor in their interactions with the world at large.

So that's the situation as it stands right now from my perspective. Could things change in the entertainment business to alter the rankings? Certainly. But it is important to keep note of the structural aspects of each format as well, since they are pretty immutable. Until new hybrid forms of film/TV/sketch arise...

4 comments: (Tom) said...

Art house ghetto! (Tom) said...

One more comment (this is a test!!!)

Mulatto Jesus said...

I don't think Scott Tenorman Must Die was necessarily experimentation. I can't help but think Trey and Matt knew it would be well received. After all, it was pure genius. That said, I have no idea how this comment fits in with the rest of the post. It was too long to read.

Anonymous said...

Daria, also not bad, no?