Tuesday, August 07, 2012

yukking it up without television

I dislike television.  And I have disliked it enough not to have access to it for over twenty years.

As a result, I missed a few series that I may have enjoyed while they were being broadcast.  Frasier is a perfect example.

Netflix came to my rescue in Mexico.  I reserved some time for about three weeks to watch each of the episodes.  Eleven seasons of episodes.

Like most situation comedies, the best writing came in the early seasons.  And it reminded me how humor has changed over the years.  And what writers can expect of their audiences.

The first episode is devoted to introducing us to the characters and defining the tensions that will provide comic moments for us.  A recurring theme is Niles's professional disdain for his brother Frasier's psychiatric radio program.

At the end of the episode, they are reconciling in a coffee shop. 
Frasier: You're a good brother and a credit to the psychiatric profession.
Niles: You're a good brother too.
That is a classic humor devise.  The non-parallel response.  But I am not certain it would survive a current situation comedy.

Two years ago I was part of a live studio audience for the filming of a television comedy.  The hours-long process was fascinating. 

But I could not figure out why the production needed a live audience.  After all, laugh tracks easily let the dull know the appropriate places to laugh.

I had completely missed the audience's role.  We were there as a focus group.  To help the producers serve up buffet-style humor. 

The show was filmed joke by joke.  The first one was quite clever.  But it got very few laughs.

So, the director huddled with the writers and re-wrote the line.  A few more laughs because the joke was explained a bit more. 

By the time the process was done, the joke was fully explained and paroxysms of laughter convulsed the audience.  Even though the line lacked all humor.  Every bit of surprise had been sucked out of it.

That experience reminded me of a libertarian function I attended several years ago.  A long-time acquaintance, who ran for vice-president in 1972, asked me: "Steve, do you know how many libertarians it takes to change a light bulb?"

I responded: "No, Tonie.  How many?"

"None. The market will take care of it."

I chuckled. It was a good joke.

She then launched into a 5-minute explanation, beginning with: "You see, Steve, the joke is an example of the basic market principle that ... ."  And libertarians wonder why they are considered to be a bit humorless.
The first rule of humor is simple.  A joke explained is a joke strangled.

I recently re-enacted one of my favorite lines from MASH, written by the great Larry Gelbart.

Lt Col Blake has been transferred to Japan, leaving Major Frank Burns in command of the MASH unit.  As was his wont, Frank began issuing irrational orders. 
Radar: They aren't gonna like this.
Frank: I didn't come here to be liked.
Radar: You certainly came to the right place.
 The person listening to my story asked: "Why is that funny?"

Of course, I did not explain why.  What would be the point?

But I am convinced that television has had an adverse effect on the ability of Americans to appreciate humor.  Whether that is true of other nations, I do not know.  Even though some of the offerings from Britain and Australia is proof enough for me that the English-speaking world may be similarly handicapped.

Of course, I have the luxury of reading my humor.  Reading I can now do with the time I have save not watching television.


Francisco said...

I think Frasier was one of the best comedies ever.  I think the writing on the Simpsons was and is the best ever. Who else would come up with.. "Alcohol, the cause of and solution to, all of lifes problems".  Homer yes!

Steve Cotton said...

 You are correct.  The writing on The Simpsons was -- and is -- superb.  As in Marge's comment  to Homer: "Of all the stupid things you've one, this ranks right up there in the middle."

norm said...

Barny Miller, a show from the late 70s , it was set in a cop house in New York-something you might want to look into on the flix list. If you like deadpan lines, "Fish" had some great ones.

Steve Cotton said...

Television and I were friends back then.  I watched Barney Miller while I was in law school.  It was a clever program.  It would be interesting to read a study on the evolution of television humor.

John Calypso said...

I like ALL the jokes above - especially the one your friend did not get (out of Radar's mouth). You have to be in the right mood for television humor - and then there is some to fit nearly everyone's taste.

Steve Cotton said...

You are so kind.

min said...

I also dislike T V.
I don't like to  be sway by someones  opinion or idea.

Hardest part for me,speaking as Asian Female,
miscommunication coming from cultural difference.
Especially come down as humor.

I found Mexican is very similar to where I came from.

Daphne_Moon said...

Knowing that you haven't watched television in 20 years, I was wondering   how you knew about my connection to the Space Needle when I commented a few weeks ago.  Now I know!

al lanier said...

I didn't know Libertarians had a sense of humor.. I mean, can you imagine either Ron or Rand Paul doing stand-up? Or reading the Ayn Rand Book of Party Jokes? LOL


Steve Cotton said...

With the exception of PJ O'Rourke, I would be hard pressed to think of a libertarian comic.  (And, yes, I realize I just tacked the target on the wall.)

Steve Cotton said...

All humor is cultural.  And that is why most Americans are more bemused than amused about British humor.  Or would that "humour?"

Steve Cotton said...

I am recently schooled.

min said...

 Or twisted?

min said...

 I watch Louise C K(comedian) from Netflix.
His language is bigotry toward to woman.
I don't find it down grading toward woman.

Not all the them,few are really good .Just plain speaking,
gear toward every day forks.