Saturday, August 06, 2011

[TV] Comedies Tonight

Comedies Tonight: Consider Seinfeld the mold-busting, outside-the-box, ur-comedy. Here's where some recent comedies exist in relation to it.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia -- Seinfeld, if it was populated by degenerate douchebags. It's many years into its run and is getting a little long in the tooth, but at its best it's a good as obnoxious cretin comedy can be. Danny DeVito remains one of the most unfairly unheralded comic actors in history.

Workaholics-- Seinfeld, if it was populated by pathetic weenies dimwits. Or maybe it's more like The Office if all the characters were given lobotomies. Or maybe it's just a serialized combination of The Jerk and Dumb and Dumber. I gotta bet one or all of those descriptions was use to pitch this show. Is it odd I would find such a show funny? Not really. As with the Always Sunny... guys, the hapless characters make you drop your guard and the timing, with a certain ad-libbed feel to it, is good for drop dead guffaws.

Wilfred -- Kind of an anti-Seinfeld. The main hobbit from Lord of the Rings is a suicidal depressed nebbish. His hot neighbor has a dog, which everyone else sees as a dog, but he sees as an adult man in dog suit who pretty much takes over his pathetic life and shows him how to live. Essentially, it's Mr. Ed, if Mr. Ed was an id manifestation and a drug fiend. Not Seinfeld at all, just run of the mill episodic sitcom, lots of toilet humor, and a lesson in every episode -- pretty standard stuff except for the dog gimmick. Its value comes from relieving you from ever watching Lord of the Rings again without picturing Mr. Frodo bonging himself silly next to a guy in a dog costume.

Louie -- Seinfeldian in that it stars a stand-up comic and is often bookended by shots of his live performance. I suppose it is also related in that it can be a strange sort of comedy of manners, although from a more personal perspective than a social one. Some people rave about this. I'm not so sure. It's less outright comical and more intriguing. It's like someone took the "it's funny, because it's true" aspect of comedy and went whole hog on the "it's true" end of things. Which makes it almost more of a dramedy. I'm really not sure what to make of Louie. At times cerebral, at times farcical, at times surreal, at times dull. It's rarely flat-out funny, but it is oddly fascinating.

Curb Your Enthusiam -- Seinfeld Part 2. (If you didn't know, Larry David was one of the producers of Seinfeld and the original model for George Castanza.) I can either love or hate this show. When it narrows it's scope and focuses intensely on Larry David's neuroses it gets tedious. This season, I'm loving it. It's getting ensemble-y as Larry's friends kind of take larger roles now that his divorce is done. It makes you realize how much he brought to the table with Seinfeld. In fact, his Curb ensemble has many similarities. He's George, of course. His buddy Jeff is roughly Jerry. His insane "urban" houseguest, Leon, is Kramer. Richard Lewis is, effectively, Elaine. Funkhouser is roughly Putty, in my estimation. Honestly, at its best, Curb... matches Seinfeld and kind of makes you wish they had kept going after all. At its worst it's just a bland exercise in discomfort comedy, but this season has been one of the best.

Archer -- Absolutely hands down the show that makes me laugh the most (which is kind of the main point of comedy). An animated super-spy agency satire. Ungodly comic timing, especially from H. Jon Benjamin as the voice of Sterling Archer. Also, a show that's not afraid to make obscure allusions and count on the audience to get it. For example this exchange:
Cyril: I'm not sure that's technically irony.
Archer: What? This is like O Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby and named it this exact situation.
Or flat out comedy:
Cyril: Will I get to learn karate?
Archer: Karate? The Dane Cook of martial arts? No, ISIS agents use Krav Maga.
Cyril: Krav..?
Archer: We've got an ex-MOSSAD guy, comes in on Thursday.
Cyril: Neato.
Archer: Yeah, Tuesdays he does a really rigorous spin class.
This will lose everything in the translation, but if you see the scene, you will have witnessed perfect comic timing:
Archer: Shut up, I have to go. And if I find one single dog hair when I get back, I'll rub sand in your dead little eyes.
Woodhouse (Archer's butler): Very good, sir.
Archer: I also need you to go buy sand. I don't know if they grade it... but... ... ... coarse.
That last one may be one of the funniest exchanges in comedy history. I could quote these guys all day. Nothing really to do with Seinfeld, except in the "nobody hugs, nobody learns" sense. Just funny, funny people turned loose on funny, funny scripts.

So what have we learned from this brief survey? Not much. I was looking for a common thread that might define the current fashion of comedy and I don't see one. For quite a while now, traditional gags and sketch comedy have been out of favor. Comedy has had a tendency to be some combination of potty humor (especially in the movies) and situation discomfort. But while the above shows contain elements of those two, there is something more there. Absurd narcissism is big too - there's a fair amount of goings on where the comedy stems from self-absorbed characters debating the meaningless aspects of their own concerns while disaster and drama sweep around them. And of course, irony; we still live in a hyper-ironic age (like O Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby...). There is nothing earth-shattering about these shows but they are at least creative, some uniquely so. If there is no game-changer here, at least nobody is operating off a formulaic concept. The state of TV comedy is sound and promising.