Filed Under Sitcom
It seems inevitable for comedians to do something else but comedy at some point in their careers. The desire for approval is so great in performers, that comedy, which lacks awards and recognition much of the time, has to be foresaken to prove that the comedian has more skills than making silly faces, falling down on command and acting embarassed at the accidental inappopriate sexual comment. (This only applies to comedy performers. Comedy writers fortunately never get this urge, probably because the need for approval isn’t a part of their makeup. In fact, it’s often the opposite.)
So I get it the reports that Ricky Gervais has “quit comedy.” As far as I can tell, those are their words, not his. But in descriping the intentions of him and his writing partner Stephen Merchant after the second season of their sitcom Extras, Gervais said:
“This will probably be the last sitcom we do. We’d like to do drama… We’d like to do something with more weight, like The Sopranos maybe — not necessarily crime but something meaty. Revenge is the best theme.”
My thoughts: that’s awesome. I’d love to see what Gervais and Merchant come up with. They’re brilliant creators and I trust them to see what they could come up with.
What I’m disappointed are the terms “meaty” or ‘weight” used to describe drama and not comedy. Extras is easy to dismiss as flighty since it focuses on the entertainment industry. But the take Gervais has on the desperation to be seen and noticed has a great deal of relevance in a culture where increasing, all of us, thanks to reality TV, talking head nostalgia, blogging and YouTube are told we can have not just fifteen minutes of fame but fifteen minutes from others talking about our infamy and then another fifteen minutes from ourselves talking about others’ infamy. It’s a brass ring that so many aspire to now that Extras, though another comedy about entertainment, has something to say about life too.
But The Office I would argue is probably the meatiest show of the decade, more so than the Sorpranos because it’s about a world which most of us live in. We’re not mafia dons or molls, we’re trying to get by and find a way to do something for eight hours a day that we’d rather not be doing. Examining the depths of that and finding the little victories we have to escape it is far more telling to life. The Sorpranos, for all the darkness and desperation it shows, is escapism for most. The bloodthirsty audience desperate for the next whacking misses out on the message of how mundane crime is. They appreciate the sauce, not the meat. The British Office with all of its bits buffered by the sounds of photocopiers and telephones, we’re surrounded by the oppressive weight of a shitty, shitty job.
“Meaty” and “weight” have nothing to do with genre and everything to do with recognition. I don’t believe in awards for comedy… when you focus on deflating authority, you shouldn’t expect to be raised up just as high. But the image problem that drives great talents like Gervais to “quit” comedy makes me question that belief.
Louis C.K. recently debuted his stripped-down sitcom Lucky Louie on HBO. The show while receiving effusive praise in some corners, including this one, it evoked other outlets to sneer at its swearing and sexually frank look at married life. Barbra Walters even decribed the show as “unbelievably vulgar and racist” right before Louis CK appeared on the show. I talked with Louis CK about some of the critical reaction to the show, the broken trust of the laugh track and how “meta” concepts have come to rule comedy.
Is HBO happy with the show?
Definitely. With the ratings trending up and with the show having received a mixed but interesting reaction, we’re definitely waiting for good news. This week, if the ratings go up—that would be really great. But if they go down, we’ve got twelve weeks for people to get acclimated to this show. But because we’ve got lead press reviews that are good and a whole bunch of other shitty ones… we’re still 47% on Metacritic. We’re not bad. (Note: Metacritic users give the show 7 out of 10.) But there’s still people inside the LA Beltway who want the story to be that we’re getting killed, which just ain’t true.
Why would they want to see something like this fail?
Well, ask yourself why these kinds of shows have sucked for so long. All these people have taken part in it. They’ve all participated in it.
For so long, people have been talking about the death of the sitcom…
And yeah, they’ve enjoyed it. They like that. And part of the reason the sitcom is dead is because they don’t like stuff that’s different. They just don’t. They want to be able to identify stuff and say what it is. Everything that is popular in sitcoms has been a mystery to me completely. I’m just not a fan. So I’m really not surprised that I’m running against the grain with these people.
I remember reading an article about Frasier when it was going off the air – a very sad obituary from a TV writer who said that Frasier was such a smart show, and it was for the Mensa set. And he gave an example, where he quoted some line about a woman that Frasier thinks is very mean and he says, “Her idea of tough love is the Spanish Inquisition.” And they thought that was very smart—just because he mentioned something from history.
Filed Under Sitcom
Last week, The New York Times credited YouTube for giving a potential second life to a sitcom pilot called “Nobody’s Watching.” The show is about two midwestern slackers who tell a network they could create a better sitcom than the current ones on the air (namechecked as offenders are According to Jim, Good Morning Miami and Yes Dear, which substitutes for the word shit). The networks takes them up on that, setting them up to live on a sitcom set, secretly manipulating events to instead create a noxious reality show.
The show comes from Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs, and the influence definitely shows. The main characters feel a lot like J.D. & Turk, who frequently reference old sitcoms themselves, ‘cept these characters don’t have lives outside of sitcoms. Their enthusiasm for the form wasn’t infectuous to me, particularly when the show reaches for emotional moments. They work on Scrubs because of the wonderful contrast of inconsequential to life and death, but here when you’re dealing with a celebration of light and fluffy, I find attempts to tug our heartstrings cloying.
The whole pilot left me cold, but as a caveat, I’m biased against Hollywood crafting shows about themselves. If nobody’s watching, maybe it’s because whole swaths of people aren’t represented in any of the current comedies on television. Better to turn the medium outward rather than inward, as The Office, My Name is Earl and Lucky Louie do.
The story holds up the fact that the pilot has received over 300,000 views on YouTube as an example of how shows might find new life thanks to the internet, circumventing bad decisions by network execs. But the pilot is actually broken into three segments online and only the first has 350,000 views. The later two, as of right now, have 115,000 each. Not exactly retaining viewers. If the networks ever get net savvy, they might wonder why over two thirds of the viewers of the first part didn’t watch the other segments. YouTube thus might be as much of a curse as it is a savior, an online version of the focus group testing that show creators oh-so-love.
You can watch all three segments of “Nobody’s Watching” after the jump.
Filed Under Sitcom
More about why I think Louis CK’s new show for HBO is a fantastic sitcom:
You don’t see much of him as Kim’s brother “Jerry” in the first two episodes - just the wonderful contradiction of him as a cheerfully ratty lowlife holding a juice box at the birthday party that opens the first episode. His appearance in the fifth episode is killer. He guides Louie through a series of absurd exercises to get him in shape, including climbing wire fences in front of “apartment buildings and rehab centers.” Every moment this jittery weirdo is exercising, more than willing to de-pants himself to show how fit he is. So much fun.
Like Everybody Loves Raymond, Louie and Kim have a kid but it doesn’t swallow the show. Even better, the kid acts like a kid, rambling on and on at times, often met with a bored “that’s nice, Lucy.” Even better, she’ll inadvertently embarrass her parents and not in convoluted sitcom ways, but just by simply yelling “I don’t like black barbie!”
One of the great reasons why the ratty setting, cracking walls and dingy appliances work is that the show is a traditional sitcom. Any kind of discomfort we might have about being with these people in a place that’s not entirely pleasant is diminished because we’re behind that fourth wall. Television executives are anxious to make every place in a comedy look safe and happy, but they forget we the audience already know we’re safe. We’re home watching TV. We can have all the comedic tension of being in an awkward uncomfortable place but we’re not stuck in it.
Filed Under Sitcom
I’ve been fortunate enough to see three episodes of Lucky Louie and I’m impressed. It’s not so much a reinvention of the sitcom but a updated return to greats like All in the Family or Roseanne. Here’s part one of the things I think this show does right.
Much is going to be made of Lucky Louie using swears, more than really should be made. The characters toss them off casually and there’s no emphasis on filth for filth’s sake. None of the swearing is excessive, it’s actually honest. It’s not just how a man who works at a muffler shop would talk with his weed-dealing friend, it’s how almost everybody talks. It’s jarring but not because it doesn’t fit the scene, but because you’re not used to seeing it on something that looks like a traditional sitcom. Americans say “fuck”, “shit” and “Jesus” (and not in the reverent way) and it’s time the three camera sitcom format used those words.
The first episode of Lucky Louie revolves around money - an issue that central to so many marriages. Louie even tells his wife he’s unwilling to have sex with her because he’s “aware her pussy is a chamber of financial ruin.” The trend towards sitcoms revolving around glamour - where the viewer has no idea how they afford where they live or sometimes even the main characters are just rich - destroys such a mine for storytelling. It’s a whole avenue of human experience that’s completely ignored almost everywhere on TV (save strangely for cartoons like The Simpsons). We shouldn’t be wishing we were the characters in a comedy… we should be laughing and cringing at situations that are so close to our own lives.
To see for yourself, watch the first episode here.
Filed Under Sitcom
From across the pond comes news of the early 90s britcom “Joking Apart” coming to DVD thanks to a fan’s efforts (and money). Created by Steven Moffat, prior to his success with Coupling, the show darkly plays with the divorce of a stand-up comedian and his wife (with one of the issues being, according to a fan website, that his constant attempts at humor have become grating).
Craig Robins, the fan who put up the money for the DVD rights, is apparently a TV editor himself, so the whole package will still be well-presented. Not that a fan outisde of the profession couldn’t put together something equally as well, considering the tools that are available now.
As I’ve never seen Joking Apart, I can’t attest to its quality. But any premise which sounds less than wacky sounds intriguing enough for me to give a go. My theory: if it’s not obvious where the humor is going to come from, the surprise of the jokes will land that much harder. I’ll definitely scour the web to see if I can find a clip or two (or episode) to test it.
I imagined that this would happen eventually, but always expected it would be for a cult sci-fi show first before a comedy. Inspired by this, perhaps a well-to-do fan might want to buy up the rights for making DVDs of The State, The Dana Carvey Show or perhaps seasons 2 and 3 of the Upright Citizens Brigade. Here’s hoping.
Filed Under Sitcom
Variety reports that creator of “Arrested Development” Mitch Hurwitz will not return as showrunner for a fourth year. Though as many point out, Fox still hasn’t officially cancelled the show, the main hope for it continuing was a deal for two more seasons on Showtime. Their main condition was Hurwitz coming along. With him saying no, it’s likely the final stretch of episodes burned off for the Olympics will be the last seen.
The pressures of maintainly the quality of a show that’s so tightly plotted, edited and layered must be enormous. I’ll miss what he, his writers and the amazing cast did, but really the finale capped the series so perfectly, I couldn’t see how anyone would want to crack it back up again. When you think about Michael walking away from his family in the last episode, you can’t help but think Hurwitz was telling us his intentions from the beginning. The story was told.
I’d be curious to see a feature film of “Arrested”, as Hurwitz suggests. But I’d prefer to see a brand new show from him. He’s a creator to follow. Hopefully the conversations with Showtime were friendly enough that they’ll offer him a chance to do something else that he’d be willing to do that could fit into their budgets. Whatever the case, Mitch, thanks for making something truly great.