Sitcom’s Great White Hope Gets Some Hype

Filed Under Sitcom

“The sitcom is in trouble” story is both true and in nearly as much trouble as the sitcom itself for one reason: it’s been written for the past five years. There are no more fresh angles. The articles are taking on a last gasp quality. Sunday’s New York Times paints Arrested Development as writers’ best hope at reviving the moribund genre. (And the reporter should know, being a sitcom writer himself.)

I think Arrested Development, though it hasn’t “found an audience” yet (except for highly educated people in a very important young demo like myself… but I guess I don’t count, do I?), has a lot going for it. Number one they seem to understand the comedy is pretty much the art of surprise. Take this quote from creator Mitchell Hurwitz, when he talks about the Sopranos as an influence:

“I love how sprawling it is. And how they can totally surprise you by, say, killing off a character. I want that freedom. We felt: `Wouldn’t it be great if we did a show that actually does change? Where people could die?’”

So many sitcoms rely on stories we’ve seen before. We know from the beginning how they’re going to end. You’ve seen this show before and you’ve seen it done better on Nick at Night. If sitcoms are going to survive, you need to have a sense that anything can happen. Anything.The article also touches on how Arrested Development, much like BBC’s The Office, is shot and paced to look like a reality show. All excellent stuff. But the article also mentions one more item that gave me insight into why the show works as well as it does. All of it’s writers came from multi-camera shows originally (the traditional style used from I Love Lucy to Friends). Yes breaking the genre is great, but only if you know how to build it again. If you know how to tell a story well and pace the funny faster. (Though Hurwitz asserts that multicamera shows get more jokes in every episode than single camera shows, I don’t entirely see it. Maybe he says that because some single camera shows tend to waver off into filmic territory, rather than using the multiple set-ups to create a frenetic gag pace).Fox is doing right by a good show for once (rest in peace, Tick, Greg the Bunny and Andy Richter Controls the Universe). Putting it on after the Simpsons (something Futurama never even got). Promoting it heavily. Getting out a Season 1 DVD right before the start of the second. Now people, do us all a favor and just watch the damn thing?

Posted by Todd Jackson at 12:29 AM | Comments (0)

This Land Is Our Land

Filed Under Funny 2.0

I’m sure you’ve seen the very funny cartoon done by the folks at JibJab that uses a parody of “This Land is Your Land” as a vehicle to have some fun with both candidates and, poignantly enough, imply a desire for bipartisanship in this election year. And naturally, somebody had to come along and try to spoil it.

The copyright holders of “This Land is Your Land”, Ludlow Music, Inc. (apparently a tentacle of The Richmond Organization) have threatened a lawsuit, claiming damage to the original song. JibJab has consulted the Electronic Freedom Foundation and their own lawyer. The obvious defense of this is fair use, particularly for satire and parody.

One of the first cases to set this standard was from Mad Magazine‘s “Sing Along with Mad” songbook, which published sheet music with new lyrics to songs such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “If You Knew Susie” (remade into “If You Knew Hitler” - the UGOI aren’t subtle). Lawyers for the Music Publishers Protective Association claimed that only copyright owners had the right to make parodies of their songs, suing publisher Bill Gaines, Mad and much of it’s editorial staff to the tune of $25 million in 1961, a dollar for each infringing song in the million copies that sold.

In the first trial before US District Court, the Judge found for Mad in all but two of the songs, the aforementioned “There’s No Business…” and “Always”, believing that those two were too similar in theme to the originals to be fair use. This wasn’t good enough for the music publishers who appealed and quickly lost their case entirely with the US Court of Appeals finding:

“We believe that parody and satire are deserving of substantial freedom - both as entertainment and as a form of social and literary criticism.”

The MPPA continued to push the case, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. The case made the satire and parody of song lyrics protected fair use. In my admittedly biased layman opinion, JibJab should have no trouble actually wining this case if it went to trial. But in some ways the damage has been done because of the need to retain lawyers to handle such a silly suit. Though I don’t think Weird Al is nervous about his next parody album, it could make some people blink before creating funny works of all kinds… simply because they may not have the funds to retain the lawyers they would need to protect their rights. And even in corporations, there are few maverick publishers like Bill Gaines who would fight back to protect the right to parody or satire anything. The lawsuits they might draw just makes it too prohibitive.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 01:29 AM | Comments (0)

Pilot Season: Brilliant and Airing

Filed Under Improv, Sitcom

Comedy nerds will rejoice to hear about Trio’s first original comedy series Pilot Season (read the release here). Pilot Season will be about the people who struggle to try and get something of quality on TV every Spring. And fail. Though I’m over TV about TV, with talent the calibre of Sarah Silverman and David Cross involved, I’m interested. Plus I enjoyed the original movie the show’s based on, Who’s the Caboose. And they’re shooting it mockumentary-style, so hopefully we’ll get some Office-influenced uncomfortable moments in it. Trio’s pairing the show up with its next “Brilliant but Cancelled” month (something Pilot producer Sam Seder creator knows about with perennial Other Network fave Beat Cops). Mark your calendar or TiVo for September 6.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 03:15 AM | Comments (0)

UnFriendly Work Conditions?

Filed Under Comedy Writers, Sitcom

To write comedy, do you have to have an uncensored environment? That’s essentially the question that’s being put before the California Supreme Court in a harassment case involving some of the Friends writers. I absolutely fall into the idea that it’s a creative necessity to be able to say anything, because that’s how you find laughs. What makes funny stuff is usually inappropriate stuff that makes people feel uncomfortable. Saying them out loud, creates laughs. And a show like Friends, which is so focused on the sexual behavior of the characters, it seems impossible to work in an environment where talking about sex would be verboten.
 
But reading the description of what the plaintiff says went on (via The Smoking Gun), it sounds like a lot of it crossed over into the personal, and rather pedestrian, fantasies of the writers on staff (sex with cheerleaders, C’mon?). Although arguably, talking about turning Joey into a serial rapist is a creative process decision (and might explain the sudden move of the character to LA in Joey). This document, of course, only shows her side of the story. What really happened is probably someplace in-between. 
 
It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out. I imagine a plaintiff win could mean a lot of repression in writing rooms. For a rather amusing anecdote about an uncensored environment, one that doesn’t cross over into the personal and done purely to relieve creative tension, check out this Louis CK description of a late night writing session at Conan (4th Item down).

Posted by Todd Jackson at 12:20 AM | Comments (0)

Audiences: Necessary Evil or Just Evil?

Filed Under Improv

Another thing I wonder while watching Crossballs: was the audience told what they’d be seeing? Do they know the show is a satire? It seems like it can take a while for the audience to laugh (that may just be because something wasn’t all that funny). But that might also be because they don’t know they are allowed to laugh. (The decision to have an audience is also curious… is it a variation on the laughtrack idea, i.e. those at home won’t know it’s funny unless we have people laughing?)
 
Are they buying this as a cross between Jerry Springer and Hardball? Or are they in on the joke from the getgo? It seems like it wouldn’t be hard to inform the audience what’s going on… it was done for Superstar USA if I recall. I’d love to hear from anybody who’s been to a live taping of Crossballs.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 06:17 PM | Comments (0)

Crossballs: Over the Top? Or is “The Top” over? Discuss.

Filed Under Improv

Despite complaints from the left and the right, I have a hard time seeing anyone who appears on the show Crossballs getting all that upset. Mainly because I can’t believe they would still buy the show as real after seeing some of the exaggerated positions the fake guests take. On a show about vegetarians/animals, Matt Besser appeared as a German concerned about the purity of the German Shepherd breed. Incredibly funny and completely over the top. Though I saw a couple of smiles from the real experts, it appeared to be more from disbelief in the person rather than the context. They’d continue to debate despite this and other rather obviously demented positions.

I think Crossballs gets away with this because the host Chris Tallman is so willing to play the straight man to all of this. Any time one of the other players on the show makes an extreme statement, he’ll pipe right in with a “You’re wrong” or an “Are you serious?” that assures the real guests that they have another reasonable person in the room.

Suckers.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 12:33 AM | Comments (1)

I Love 2001!

Filed Under Humor

Announcer: 

So you think you’re an aughties - a zeroties - the ohties - oh, whatever - fan?  OK, Osama but are you ready for this jelly? It’s “I Love the 2000s” and this is 2001! The terror! The TV! The Taliban! The flicks! The fundamentalist Muslims! A totally scarring year that gave us these burning questions:  Why do other countries hate us so much?

Mo Rocca: 

Could be decades of exporting a culture full of values our foreign policy doesn’t even come close to emulating. Or maybe they just didn’t like Rush Hour 2.

Announcer: 

How did Saddam Hussein found Al Qaida?


Hal Sparks: 

He planned 9/11 with the help of the WWE’s Iron Sheik and Jafar from the movie Aladdin.

Announcer: 

and… How newsworthy is it if it only makes the crawl?

  Michael Ian Black: 

Those tickers are very effective. When I am trembling in fear on my couch, I need to know that sales of American flags are up 85%. (pause) I need to. (pause) Desperately.

Announcer: 

The answers to those questions, plus   Who sent the tabloids anthrax if it wasn’t J. Lo?  and… Did irony really die or was it just cryogenically frozen until the nostalgia clip show could be invented?  Because you love the 2000s. Because you’re still having sex with firemen, this is 2001!

Posted by Todd Jackson at 07:37 AM | Comments (0)
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