Sunday, June 3, 2012

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

In the first part of this post (which it feels like I wrote forever ago), I ended with the question whether a "comedy" can be successful when the story takes precedence over the laughs. The question was inspired generally by my love of the so-called "anti-sitcom" Community and specifically by an epic (and private) rant by (anti-)cast member Chevy Chase.  Here's a choice quote:
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.
Indeed, who does give a [bleep] about the story?

In the many weeks since that last post, both Community and Parks and Recreation seemed to embrace that question directly and forcefully, and in very different ways.

As a preliminary matter, let me say upfront that narrative and laughter aren't mutually exclusive in general.  Some of the best narrative-driven dramas out there also have incredibly humorous elements, from the genre-blurring Buffy the Vampire Slayer to deadly serious fair like The Sopranos, Deadwood and Six Feet Under (yeah, I watch a lot of HBO).

But in these cases, I think it's fair to say that no one measures a mob family drama by how often they laugh, or criticizes a gritty western for the hit-to-miss ratio of its jokes.  The metrics are different for 30-minute shows on network prime time, for the simple reason best articulated during a dinner conversation I had the other night about the merits of HBO's new show Girls (and whether it's funny enough):  "It's a 30 minute show, those are the comedies, while the dramas are an hour long."  I can't argue with that, or at least that we've been programmed by decades of television trends to treat 30 minute shows as comedies, and as sitcoms specifically (i.e. "situation comedy", or "a genre of comedy  that features characters sharing the same common environment, such as a home or workplace, accompanied with jokes as part of the dialogue").

But starting with Community, a show that's lived its entire existence under the threat of cancellation, it's clear from a cursory glance at a few of the final episodes of the season that Community is better described as a laboratory for experimental storytelling than anything approaching  a conventional "sitcom":

  • Ep. 16, "Virtual Systems Analysis"- Annie enters a "virtual reality" room (or "Dreamatorium") created by her roommate Abed to kill time, only to end up delving deep into Abed's subconscious fears while also confronting Annie's own refusal to let go of the past.
  • Ep. 17, "Basic Lupine Urology" - In an episode-long spoof of Law & Order, Troy and Abed play the role of street-hardened cops investigating a sabotaged biology project (ultimately resulting in the death of a minor character in a meth explosion).
  • Ep. 20, "Digital Estate Planning" - The gang plays a customized video game in order to win the inheritance left by Pierce's (Chevy Chase) deceased father ... which, may sound the most sitcom-y of all the episodes I just described, until you realize that the show is rendered almost entirely in 8-bit-style animation.

Now, you might be thinking, "Come on, spoofs like the second (and, arguably, the third) episode you describe are classic comedy fodder, and even the the Dreamatorium is a sci-fi joke that's played mostly for laughs."  It's true that, for example, the A.V. Club hailed "Basic Lupine Urology" as "really [bleep]ing funny".  My argument is not that these episodes are unfunny - though, I might argue that an episode based entirely on video games from the 1980s is aggressively unfunny to people who didn't grow up playing Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.  In any event, the point I'm making is different, that to commit to a 30-minute episode that (a) brutally deconstructs the psychology of a socially awkward character, (b) mimics, beat-for-beat, an episode of Law & Order or (c) enters a video game, with its own complex set of internal rules that ultimately reveals the complex relationship between Pierce and his father (and his racist father's surprise miscegenist tendencies) requires putting the story ahead of any particular joke the writers might want to tell. 

To give just one example, "Basic Lupine Urology" ends with the apparent death of Starburns in a meth lab explosion - a turn of events which is actually a significant plot point for what happens over the rest of the season.  And yet, as an episode-closing moment, indeed the "punchline" of the episode, how could that possibly be considered funny unless you were already aware that nearly every episode of Law & Order ends exactly the same way?  (In fact, if you really want to enjoy the episode, you couldn't do better than to study the many L&O tropes documented by various sites out there - that or just watch all 10,000+ episodes of Law & Order since it began airing during the first Bush administration.)

If you need another example, look no further than Ep. 14, "Pillows and Blankets", which is also an episode-long spoof, this time of Ken Burns' style historical documentaries.  From the maudlin fiddle soundtrack to the narrator's deadpan delivery, the episode barely even pretends to offer any conventional "jokes".  If you judge the episode by the number of times you laugh out loud, then the success of the episode probably depends on how much you've donated to PBS pledge drives.  If you judge the episode in comparison with other shows doing episode-long spoofs of somber civil war documentaries ... then it stands alone.

But what other show could even attempt this?  Regardless of whether or not it's funny, comedies provide the kind of leeway for writers to take their characters outside the bounds of reality or expectation.  If the core essence of humor is incongruousness, then the 30-minute "sitcom" format is the perfect opportunity to re-imagine the show as an episode of Law & Order.  Try pulling that off on Sopranos or even such humor-heavy dramas like Revenge or Breaking Bad and you will have a whole new definition for "jump the shark."

So maybe the answer to the question, whether a comedy has to be funny, is all too obviously subjective to address ... but we can say that a comedy can experiment in ways that a non-comedy cannot without betraying itself.

Again, I've gone long, so it's time for another break before I dive into Part 3 of this two-part series, in praise of the decidedly unfunny (but essential) Parks and Rec, and what may be the best political commentary I've heard in any venue this year.

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