Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Of TV and Comedy, Pratfalls and Walnuts

[Edited to add, months later:  Apparently I'm the only person on the planet who didn't know what "jumping the shark" means -- I could have trimmed this post considerably by simply using that phrase.  Live & learn, I guess.]

My husband Carl watches reruns of Family Matters in the mornings. The sound effects are unmistakable -- the dulcet tones of Urkel and the audience members with their high-pitched "Woooooooooo!" every time two cast members kiss or even make reference to the topic of sex (in this case, the key word was "lipstick." Whatever...).

Hearing those sounds this morning gave rise to a lot of random thoughts about comedy and TV.

First, comedy. In college, I dated a magician. He made some extra pocket money doing kids' shows, dressed in either a satin cape or a clown costume, depending on the gig. While "Felix" couldn't have survived without the kids, he generally played to the parents, who usually hung around to watch. For example, he'd ask an audience member for a napkin: "Please, not one from your plate. I need a clean one. A sanitary napkin." Yuk, yuk. Felix looked, and felt, a lot older than he was, and his frame of reference was Borscht Belt comedy. He liked to keep things on a fairly sophisticated level. But one day, in the middle of a show, I saw Felix trip over a microphone cord and go sprawling on the stage. He was unhurt. Later, he told me how humiliated he felt. But what struck me was how the kids went wild. They'd been fairly bored up until then. I encouraged Felix to do more of that, and he reluctantly agreed that it was a formula that worked. Of course, it worked better for the clown than the guy in the cape.

I see physical comedy as something you fall (no pun intended) back on. It wakes up the audience and keeps them focused. They may not care that much to hear what you have to say, but they will pay attention to see what you're going to do.

A classic TV show in the 1970s was, of course, All in the Family. The phrase "social relevance" will have to be included in any discussion about this Norman Lear sitcom. The show was originally conceived to make you think while you were laughing. Unfortunately, toward the end of its run, I noticed it inching away from thinking in favor of the chuckles. In nearly every episode, you would see Archie and Meathead trying to get through a doorframe at exactly the same time. They seemed to be "channeling" Laurel and Hardy, or Ralph and Norton from The Honeymooners. It was an easy laugh, and it was used entirely too often.

Physical comedy, or slapstick, is a subset of "broad" comedy, which includes catch phrases, mugging, "signature" gestures and the like. Examples would include Jackie Gleason shouting "To the MOON, Alice!" at Audrey Meadows; Desi Arnaz telling Lucille Ball that she had "some 'splainin' to do," Lucille Ball responding with her trademark "Waaah!" and Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford, clutching his chest and advising his departed wife Elizabeth that it was "the big one" and that he'd soon be joining her.

I find it interesting that such activities get a hell of a lot more mileage on TV than they do in real life. Carl has gotten into the habit of greeting me, Elmer Fudd style, with "Hewwoe," and I'm fast approaching the point of demanding that he knock it off or else. It's too easy to watch a TV show pull in laughs, Emmys, top ratings and advertising dollars, and assume that our dear ones live their lives just waiting for that "pet expression" of ours. It's deflating to discover how wrong that assumption is.

Still, broad comedy has an expiration date and a life span.

Take, for example, Good Times, Lear's spinoff from Maude. As detailed in Wikipedia, the show was conceived as a somewhat realistic look at the lives of African-Americans in a housing project. It originally centered upon Florida and James Evans, the hard-working parents of three teens.

Too soon, however, Jimmie Walker's character of J.J., and his ubiquitous "Dyn-o-mite!" eclipsed any serious situations and the actors' efforts to portray them. John Amos exited first. Esther Rolle took off an entire season; by the time she returned, the show had worn out its freshness and its core audience had grown up and moved on.

Similar fates awaited two other shows, which had little in common. Family Matters was an updated and sanitized version of Good Times -- stable African-American parents attempting to raise three children with the right set of values. Darius McCrary's Eddie Winslow character could easily have become the next J.J., but instead settled into a semi-forgettable state, once Jaleel White knocked on the door midway through the first season and introduced himself as Steve Urkel.

Urkel was so different (in more ways than one) from any other character on the show, it would have taken some ingenious script writing to elevate the rest of the cast to such a level as to keep them in the audience's sights. But this being prime-time TV in the 90s, such was not to be. Again referring to Wikipedia:

As the focus of the show began to center more and more on Urkel (and occasionally his alter-ego, Stefan), other original characters were shunted to the periphery. By 1993, Judy (Jaimee Foxworth) and Rachel (Telma Hopkins), left the show. The producers admitted that they did not think audiences would notice Judy's disappearance [emphasis mine], which is why her absence was never explained. Later episodes even have the Winslows acknowledging they only have two children, not three. Waldo was said to have gone off to culinary school. Richie started to appear less once 3J was introduced, and disappeared by the last season. Carl's mother, Estelle Winslow, was gone by the last season as well, due to aging (she was 85 in the 8th season). Jo Marie Payton-Noble, the original Harriette, left in December 1997 because she was unhappy with the emphasis placed on Steve Urkel and his sub-characters.

Due to some complicated horse-trading between ABC, its parent company Disney, its production company Miller-Boyett, and CBS, which acquired it toward the end of its run, Family Matters went out with barely a whimper in the summer of 1999.

As detailed in a New York Times article:

Shortly after ''Family Matters'' was canceled, Mr. White told a reporter, ''If you ever see me do that character again, take me out and put a bullet in my head and put me out of my misery.''

A fine epitaph for a character who brought belly-laughs to so many (including me, I'm not too ashamed to admit).

Urkel hooks us, I think, because he possesses a combination of "special talent" -- brains, personality, viewpoint -- combined with a misfit quality that helps the audience pity him, and breathe a sigh of relief at being "just regular folks after all." In addition, you tune in to watch Urkel because you never know quite what he will do or say next. Or, if you can guess it, you still want to see how far he will take it.

These traits are shared with the infamous trio known as "Larry, my brother Darryl and my other brother Darryl," who rose to fame on the CBS sitcom Newhart in the late 1980s. What better formula for fascinated incredulity than the retiring, inarticulate but dry-witted Bob Newhart, his warm and elegant wife, played by Mary Frann, and the rustics who surround them as they attempt to make a success of their bed-and-breakfast establishment. In my opinion, Tom Poston, as the befuddled George Utley, could have carried the comedic counterpoint quite adequately on his own, but the producers felt they needed more.
And so, Larry and his brothers, like J.J. before, and Urkel a few years later, gradually sucked most of the meaningful wit from the show until it wore itself out and was cancelled. Aided by the "live audience" feature, every appearance of the witless trio was greeted by applause, stomps and whistles, until it got so you didn't much care what they said -- you knew that whatever it was, it would simply garner more of the same. Despite the increasing reliance on physical comedy that All in the Family descended to toward its end, that show thankfully never gave birth to a character that managed to kill it from within.

I must add, however, that in the last years of that show, one could almost hear a stage whisper of "Go for the laughs -- more! More!" as Jean Stapleton strove to dumb down Edith's character beyond all reasonable expectations. By the time she left the show, Edith had about as much intellectual spark as the bedroom slipper that Archie wept over after becoming a widower.

One show that managed to hang onto its dignity was The Dick van Dyke Show, which spent five successful years and became a perennial classic with very little broad comedy. The "Walnuts" episode is the one most viewers remember the best, but that bit of weirdness was the exception. Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Richard Deacon (as the butt of Amsterdam's bald jokes) and Anne Guilbert as the ditzy neighbor Millie, were the only departures from the largely cerebral humor that relied on actual situations and dialogue. For physical comedy, you had to make do with the iconic opening shot of Van Dyke taking a header over an ottoman.

Such a show would never survive today. In order to succeed without a J.J., an Urkel, a Larry or a Darryl, it would require at minimum some partial nudity or not-quite-self-mocking gay jokes.

Broad comedy is, I suppose, like candy. We crave it, we delight in its unabashed, uncomplicated cheerfulness, but ultimately reject it once we get our fill and admit that it's doing little to nourish us.

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