Sunday, April 22, 2012

Does Comedy Have To Be Funny? (part 1 of 2)

Fair warning upfront -- out of necessity, this post (and the blog in general) will focus heavily on the shows that take up the comparatively narrow sliver of time that I can give to watching any TV, let alone enough TV on a regular basis to form an opinion on any particular show.

This isn't out of principle, by the way, because I both love TV in general and also believe we're in a kind of Golden Age right now given all the high quality shows out there (see, e.g., Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Girls, 30 Rock, Bob's Burgers, to say nothing of the Christ-like return of Arrested Development from the grave), on top of the thousand-and-one different ways you can access content these days.  I'm nowhere near the 2.7 hours a day average that most Americans watch TV, apparently, so I can't go all A.V Club TV Club or TV on the Internet  about it - as much as I love those websites.  Professional writers likes the kind that post on those websites can do detailed comparisons of dozens of shows, current and classic, because it is their day job.   It's the dream, yes, but I have to work with the time I have.

 So with that background out of the way, let's get to the main event: Chevy Chase v. Community.  The quick-and-dirty is this: after three seasons of barely staying on the air despite abysmal ratings (ranked #97 out of 140 shows ranked in the 2009-10 broadcast season only to drop from such perilous depths to #115 out of 141 shows the following 2010-11 broadcast season), NBC has declined to pledge itself to a fourth season. Despite a furiously devoted fan base and a reliable stream of critical praise, the conventional wisdom is that "[t]he ratings have to increase significantly" to justify keeping this show on the air.

With the show on the brink, and fans like myself eagerly awaiting to see if Community will show the kind of gains that Seinfeld and Cheers experienced after less-than-stellar launches (or else join the fate of its creative godparent, ur-modern-"anti-sitcom" Arrest Development, and wilt on the vine after three short seasons), in walks Mr. Comedy himself, nominal cast member Chevy Chase with this zinger:
It’s just a f*cking mediocre sitcom! I want people to laugh and this isn’t funny.
That choice quote, which generated the most internet "ink", was part of a 3:41 minute voice mail to the show's creator, Dan Harmon. The fact that it became public exposes the mutual resentments that must have been simmering for some time behind the scenes (either that or Mr. Harmon has incredibly thin skin and a penchant for airing dirty laundry).  But I'm not here to talk insider-baseball, because THIS is the part of Chevy's rant that really caught my attention:
You've got two choices, one is storyline, the other is - you know, like everyone gives a [bleep] about the [bleep] story when they don't even know who the [bleep] characters are - or there is make people laugh.

Really?  Two choices?  We'll take it as a given that Chevy knows a thing or two about what makes people laugh - we're talking about the non-stop comedy machine of such runaway hits as Vegas Vacation, Karate Dog, and the inexplicably named Not Another Not Another Movie.  (Okay, fine, the man also gave us the original Vacation, Fletch, and ¡Three Amigos!  - let's just give him a lifetime pass and move on.)  Comedy is as comedy does, or whatever.  No accounting for taste.  However you want to put it.  Community makes me laugh at least, so there.

But why does it have to make us laugh?  Why is that the criteria?  Because it's classified as a "sitcom"?  (Though, apparently it's written in the DSM IV for TV critics that any critique of Community must include the expression "anti-sitcom" somewhere in the first few paragraphs - hey, even this post! Meta!)


It is 30 minutes long, so it's the typical sitcom length as opposed to the 60-minute length of your standard TV drama.  Its cast includes comedy veteran Chevy Chase alongside wunderkind newbie Donald Glover.  It's placed securely in the NBC Thursday comedy bloc.  And it's certainly pitched as a comedy by NBC, as best as they can while acknowledging that the cast is brimming with talent that transcends your typical sitcom roster:

(Oh yeah ... because the antics of Oscar-winning screenwriters are exactly who I want for 30 minutes of laughter.)

Judging Community by sitcom standards, it's clearly a failure, and maybe - possibly - for the reasons mentioned by Chevy.  If you assume people are tuning in for 30 minutes of laughter, it's hard to say that NBC is getting its money worth.  But if that's what NBC wanted, they've taken an odd approach to its Thursday night line-up, given the proven track record of its competition: Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men, and dozens of other hit (non-anti-)sitcoms are a proven formula that are ratings-making machines ... and there's no shortage of comedians out there who'd love to be the next Charlie Sheen.

I've gone on long, so I will pick up this discussion in my next post.  For now I'll leave with the question: can it possibly be true that "giv[ing] a [bleep] about the [bleep] story" is anathema to a good laugh?  Does a comedy have to be funny to be a success?

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