Getting Jokes: Coming up with Comedy

Growing up watching late night television, I missed most of Johnny Carson’s jokes. David Letterman was always my favorite. He was giddy and goofy, and I got it. His was also the first show I ever saw break form. From people hiding under his desk (an explanation of desk noise in response to a Viewer-Mail letter) to him barging into the next studio to ask someone a stupid question, Letterman was the first TV personality I saw feign spontaneity to create chaos. He was funny to me just making dumb faces and running stupid jokes into the ground. I loved it.

David Letterman

Neil Scovell wrote in 2012,

Today, viewers may regard Dave as a curmudgeon, reading a never-ending Top 10 List and rarely venturing from behind the desk. But back in the 80s, he was a master of remotes, audience interactions, and zany stunts. Head writer Merrill Markoe recently wrote me, ‘We set it up that we could use every part of the world if we could figure out how to get Dave to say yes to it. So the show took place in the studio, and in the hall outside, and in the rest of the building as needed, and the streets around the building and the rest of NYC as needed and even at home.’ It was controlled chaos as Dave would don a Velcro suit and trampoline onto a Velcro wall. Monkeys and Chris Elliot were allowed to roam all over the set.

The 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live and Letterman’s retirement have me thinking about coming up with comedy. Like any other form, it’s one you have to learn how to enjoy, what William Gibson (2012) calls a “steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve” (Distrust That Particular Flavor, pp. 58-59). What I find funny was largely defined by my growing up watching SNL and David Letterman.

Years ago, in a post-class discussion about progress, one of my classmates asked if things had gotten funnier. You know, things get stronger, faster, better, etc., he mused, so have jokes gotten funnier? The question stuck with me. I think my answer at the time was that it’s gotten more complicated to be funny. Not that jokes have gotten funnier, but that the funny ones have gotten more complex. My favorite jokes are the ones that cram entire worlds into epigrammatic phrases (e.g., Junior Stopka: “So, my niece is cheating on me…”). A quick comparison of say, a Bill Hicks bit with a Doug Stanhope bit, and you’ll see the difference I was talking about.

Getting the JokeI’ve been rethinking that idea lately. As weird as his material was, Mitch Hedberg‘s jokes pivoted on a simplicity that cannot be faked. The funniest bits, sketches, shows, and movies rest on simple premises (e.g., Airplane, Super Troopers, Party Down, “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger,” “Debbie Downer,” etc.). Farts and throwing up are always funny to me. Dave’s dumb face still makes me laugh.

As my dear friend Alysia Wood says, “Funny is funny.”

If you think explaining jokes ruins them, then Oliver Double’s Getting the Joke (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) might not be for you. If you’re not into the craft of comedy, the “mechanics and mysteries” as Double puts it, this book also might not be for you. Not since Richard Belzer laid it all out in his 1988 book How to Be a Stand-Up Comic (Villard) has there been a more complete investigation (over 500-pages’ worth) of what’s funny and what makes it so.

I’ve discussed the sense and science of comedy with many comedians. Most don’t like to talk about the craft, so I’m glad when I find someone who does. Lucas Molandes and I have been comparing notes for years and can always pick up wherever we left off last. I’ve spent entire nights talking about it with Alysia Wood and Drake Witham. Others have stopped talking to me altogether as soon as the topic comes up. Learning how the engine works doesn’t make you a better driver.

David Letterman said this week that Johnny Carson’s last show was historic but that he didn’t think his own would be.

Speak for yourself, Dave… Speak for yourself.

Twin Peaks: The Forest of Symbols

Setting the screen for shows such as Picket Fences (1992-1996), The X-Files (1994-2003), Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Veronica Mars (2004-2007), Pushing Daisies (2007-2009), The Killing (2011-2013), and games like Alan Wake (2010), Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991) was easily the oddest hit show in television history. Set among the trees and mountains of my beloved Pacific Northwest, the show hosted themes of dangerous dreams, reckless teens, and the paranormal, parallel, and perpendicular. With recently debunked rumors of its return and a Blu-Ray release imminent, it’s time to go back into the woods.

The Black Lodge

How in the hell this show was ever a hit is one of its many mysteries. Twin Peaks invaded the living rooms of America just as the Zeitgeist was shaking off the awkward, neon discomfort of the 1980s. The world was “wild at heart and weird on top,” in the words of Barry Gifford, and even if everyone knew it, no one was saying it. We let Frost and Lynch make our unease explicit. Collective pre-millennium tension notwithstanding, our anxiety never really relented.

Incest and child molestation are as American as apple pie. Or should I rather say cherry pie, the dessert choice of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks? Leland Palmer is the all-American Dad if there ever was one, so it’s more than appropriate that he is the one to be possessed by the evil spirit BOB, and to rape and murder his daughter Laura. This deed is necessarily something of a ritual, the founding gesture of the American nuclear family. — Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols

twin-peaks-guideRitual abounds in Twin Peaks. Its liminality, the “between and betwixt” of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, is evident in Laura Palmer’s double life, “none-more-purposeful” (Neofetou, 2013, p. 77) Special Agent Dale Cooper’s limbo while investigating her death, the transubstantiation of BOB, and his toggling of Leland Palmer’s consciousness. The ephemeral existence of the Black Lodge is itself a flickering signifier of ritual. The coffee and doughnuts, the family dinner, even the recording and sending of messages are imbued with the gestures of ceremony.

The time of Twin Peaks wasn’t run by social media and cellphones. Secrets traveled via letters and landlines, diaries and cassette tapes. The latter of these played very important roles in the show and helped define the drama surrounding the two main characters. Laura Palmer’s secret diary and Special Agent Dale Cooper’s microcassettes respectively recorded the weaving mysteries of Laura’s short life and their postmortem unraveling. Both have been published as companions to the show. In addition, Frost and Lynch collaborated with Richard Saul Wurman to put together an Access Guide to the town of Twin Peaks. More than mere merchandising, these books prefigured the internet-enabled transmedia narrative of many 21st-century television shows.

Twin Peaks: Fan Phenomena

The newly published Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks, edited by Marisa C. Hayes and Franck Boulègue (Intellect Books, 2013), expands the between and betwixt of Twin Peaks-inspired writings by fans and crtics alike. It’s the first such collection aimed at fans rather than academics. For instance, In his Fan Phenomena essay, Andrew Howe catalogs the cultural artifacts of the series: posters, coffee cups, dolls, sculptures, and so on, while David Griffith confronts the show’s misogynist aspects with waves of feminism, what Diana Hume George (1995) facetiously calls a “double-breasted approach”(p. 109). Fran Pheasant-Kelly explores the physical spaces of Twin Peaks, and there are three Fan Appreciation interludes in between the essays. It’s a must for any fan of the franchise. Fan Phenomena collections are also available for Star Wars, The Big Lebowski, Doctor Who, The Hunger Games, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, among others.

Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks is yet another testament to the lingering legacy of Frost and Lynch’s vision of fucked-up family life as well as the power of good television.

References:

Frost, Scott. (1991). The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes. New York: Pocket Books.

George, Diana Hume. (1995). Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks. In, David Lavery (Ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, pp 109-119.

Lynch, David, Frost, Mark, & Wurman, Richard Saul. (1991). Welcome to Twin Peaks: Access Guide to the Town. New York: Pocket Books/Twin Peaks Prod./Access Press.

Lynch, Jennifer. (1990). The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. New York: Pocket Books.

Neofetou, Daniel. (2012). Good Day Today: David Lynch Destabilises the Spectator. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Shaviro, Steven. (1997). Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism. New York: Serpent’s Tail, p. 147.

Turner, Victor. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

von Gennep, Arnold. (1961). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In Medias Res: Shows About Shows

With 30 Rock coming to an abbreviated end in its seventh season, I’ve been watching and re-watching past seasons. A friend of mine once complained to me about movies and shows about making movies and shows, and I understand his frustration, but the media-making premise is solid. It has a lengthy history going all the way back to Shakespeare’s plays but also includes many classic television shows, from serious, news-room dramas like Lou Grant to silly comedies like Newsradio and WKRP in Cincinnati. The media made on these shows is only the anchor for the interaction of the characters, and as long as the characters are good, the rest is gravy. I mean, Party Down is about catering in the same way that That 70s Show is about the 1970s. Compare the latter to the short-lived That 80s Show, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. A good TV-show premise gets out of the way and lets the characters drive the narrative. Cheers isn’t bout the bar; the bar is only the setting, but there’s something special about the making of a show being the setting for another show.

'Studio 60' cast

Aaron Sorkin’s only series not continued after its first season was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which ran on NBC for a twenty-two episode, single season in 2006 and 2007, the same season that 30 Rock debuted on the same network. In spite of Studio 60‘s win in the ratings, 30 Rock stayed on while Studio 60 wasn’t renewed. Watching the show, you can tell that it was very expensive to make. I’m only halfway through the season, but so far, I wish that they’d kept making it.

Studio 60 gave me a new respect for Matthew Perry. As writer Matt Albie, he only rarely pulls Chandleresque reactions to the situations he faces as the new head writer on the show. Little Sorkinian gems like the following exchange between Albie and Harriett Hayes (one of the stars of the show within the show and Albie’s on-and-off love interest; played by Sarah Paulson) give this show its shine:

Harriet: I got a laugh at the table read when I asked for the butter in the dinner sketch. I didn’t get it at the dress. What did I do wrong?
Matt: That’s one laugh out of thirty you’re going to get tonight.
Harriet: What did I do wrong?
Matt: You asked for the laugh.
Harriet: What did I do at the table read?
Matt: You asked for the butter.

Albie’s partner Danny Tripp (producer/director; played by the inimitable Bradley Whitford) is just so damn likable. Their struggles with standards and practices and network politics, as well as constant budget concerns, are tempered by the new head of NBS, Jordan McDeere (who is loosely based on Jamie Tarses, who was head of ABC while Sorkin’s Sports Night was on; played by Amanda Peet), who brought them back on after previous head writer Wes Mendell (their old boss; played by Judd Hirsch) melts down on air. The power dynamic is refreshing, as it is more complex than just Creatives versus Suits. The guys who run the show have someone in power on their side, and even though the hierarchy still includes the usual power struggles with higher-ups (most often with McDeere’s boss, Jack Rudolph; played by Steven Weber), it’s handled with more nuance than usual.

Power dynamics aside, equal time is given to the interactions between the writers, actors, producers, and assistants. The boardroom might determine a lot of the show’s conflicts, but live on stage is where it lives and dies (and I adore the Nicolas Cage bits). Behind these scenes is where the pressure builds.

Created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, as well as many more members of the team who brought us Twin Peaks, On the Air tells the story of the 1950s variety show, “The Lester Guy Show.” In true Lynch/Frost fashion, the pressure that builds while trying to put together a live show always blows everything sideways at air time. On the Air was only actually on the air (on ABC) for three episodes, though they filmed seven. Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan, who also played Dick Tremayne in Twin Peaks) is the washed-up yet spoiled thespian, who is immediately imposed upon by the dimwitted Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), who becomes the star of his show (a situation noticeably similar to 30 Rock‘s addition of Tracy Jordan to the cast of “The Girlie Show”). Special mention must be made of Buddy Budwaller (played by Miguel Ferrer, who played Agent Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks) as he is the foil to the show’s fun and few play that role better than Miguel Ferrer (see also his appearance as FBI Agent Bill Steele in season 2, episode 10 of Lie to Me). Overall On the Air as tedious as it is hilarious, and you almost have to be a David Lynch fan to like it, but like most of the other shows assembled here, it pays homage to the golden age of television as only Lynch and Frost could.

All of the above shows deal with a live television broadcast, whereas Greg the Bunny‘s show within the show, “Sweetknuckle Junction,” is prerecorded. This lowers the on-screen stakes a bit, but the Greg the Bunny is about the same things as the others: the behind the scenes drama and politics of making a TV show. Page One of all of these shows includes a major change in the cast. In Studio 60 it includes a change in the writing staff as Wes Mendell (played by Judd Hirsch) loses his shit on screen about censorship and such, setting the stage for the show’s on going strife with Standards and Practices. On the Air starts with the addition of Betty to the cast (see above), while 30 Rock of course starts with the addition of Tracy Jordon (Tracy Morgan) to the cast of “The Girlie Show.” And Greg the Bunny unwittingly ends up as the new star of “Sweetknuckle Junction.” Planting big changes on Page One is screenwriting 101, and these shows illustrate exactly why: They get us in on the narrative just as the characters are dealing with those changes; we’re invested in their story right from the start.

Greg the BunnySean S. Baker, Spencer Chinoy, and Dan Milano’s Greg the Bunny has had several incarnations as a public-access show (Junktape), short film spoofs on IFC, and a more recent spin-off on MTV (Warren the Ape), but the show they did for Fox is the real gem. Pairing their great puppet characters with humans played by Seth Green, Sarah Silverman, Eugene Levy, Dina Walters, and Bob Gunton, eleven episodes made it to air in 2002 (two more unaired shows are included on the DVD). If On the Air is 30 Rock on LSD, then Greg the Bunny is just plain high. Puppets in Greg the Bunny, though second-class citizens, are citizens nonetheless (a trope the writers use to great comedic advantage). The show is fun and funny and plays on its obvious classic forebears like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

Similarly, Studio 60‘s references to classic TV shows, including Lou Grant from Mary Tyler Moore (“I hate spunk!”) and actually including Ed Asner in a minor role on the show (as executive Wilson White), not to mention Judd Hirsch, and 30 Rock‘s parade of guest appearances (e.g., Carrie Fisher, Jennifer Aniston, Brian Williams, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Aaron Sorkin, Fred Armisen, Michael Keaton, Andy Richter, Al Gore, et al.), including Tim Conway as almost himself, make these shows each slices of comprehensive television. That is, their allusions are not only to other similar shows but also to their genres and the television medium itself.

With that said, I get the gripe of my friend about shows about shows. His beef is really about the self-indulgence of Hollywood and their losing touch with anything outside of the studio. There are plenty of other things to talk about with all of these shows, but I find it interesting when a medium has become declassified enough to be this reflexive. To varying degrees, all of these shows let us get backstage and right in the middle of things. We already deal in meta-media with shows like Talk Soup or The Daily Show and follow actor salaries and box-office earnings as much as we do plots and characters, but when we speak fluently in a medium such as television, it opens itself up to us in a new way. Once we’ve assimilated it into our media lexicon, we can explore its inner-workings in a way that was alien to us in its newness.

Party Down: Your Subtlety is Served

Upon the recommendation of my friend Chase, I decided to check out the Starz series Party Down. Unbeknownst to me, the show was created by many of the folks responsible for one of my favorite shows of all time, Veronica Mars. Realizing this, I blazed through the two seasons of Party Down in short order.

Party Down‘s namesake is the catering company for which the main characters work. Aside from the Team Leaders (Ron in Season 1 and Henry in Season 2), no one seems to care much about the job as they all have other more pressing concerns. Catering is the perfect slacker job for actors, comedians, and writers on their way up or on their way down, and Party Down is burdened and blessed with both. Each episode centers on an event they’re catering, a premise that allows the show to stay fresh even though its themes tend toward the familiar struggles of show business. Though there aren’t many changes, it also allows flexibility in the cast. Jennifer Coolidge and the inimitable Megan Mulally step in during seasons 1 and 2 respectively to cover Jane Lynch’s absence due to her Glee obligations. The show’s episodic nature also makes room for its many cameos and plot surprises.

The series casts Adam Scott as the failed actor Henry, Marin Starr as the condescending Sci-Fi writer-nerd Roman, Lizzy Caplan as the aspiring comedienne Casey (and Henry’s love-interest and impediment for most of the show), and Veronica Mars almuni Ryan Hansen as cool Hollywood bro Kyle, Ken Marino as bumbling bossman Ron, and Jane Lynch as aloof actress Constance. Other Mars regulars who make cameo appearances include Steve Guttenberg, Joey Lauren Adams, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Martin Yu, Michael Kostroff, Alona Tal, Ed Begley, Jr., Daran Norris, Ryan Devlin, and Veronica herself, Kristen Bell.

Watching this show in conjunction with Veronica Mars highlights not only the strengths and differences of the cast but the writers as well. Rob Thomas, Jon Enbom, and Dan Etheridge had major hands in both, and the series each require a light touch in different ways. Party Down hovers around hearty issues but mostly deals in hilarity. Veronica Mars flirts with funny at times, but the overall focus is firmly serious.

While the entire cast is stellar, special mention is due of Ken Marino. His depiction of the smarmy Vincent Van Lowe in Veronica Mars was one of that show’s many great performances. In Party Down, he plays the insecure Team Leader, Ron Donald. The characters are as similar as they are different, and his shift from one to the other is remarkable. Whereas Vinnie was a cocksure, legend-in-his-own-mind P.I., Ron is chasing the dream of being his own boss by running a “Soup ‘R Crackers” restaurant franchise. The shift is worth mentioning because Marino pulls it off so effortlessly. The two characters are similar enough that a lesser actor could have played them both without much changing, but Marino plays them both with such subtlety that distinguishes the two with slight but noticeable differences.

All of this good stuff in another cancelled show… Will television ever allow shows of such cunning complexity to grow into their own?

———–

Here’s a clip in which Constance (Jane Lynch), Roman (Martin Starr), and Kyle (Ryan Hansen) discuss why Baretta was called “Baretta” [runtime: 1:33]:

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Nubile Noir: Veronica Mars

One writer described Veronica Mars during her pre-fandom days as “outrageous,” writing that the writing was “clunky,” the one-liners too “crisp,” and the teens too “clever and in charge.” The show was saved in her book when someone called it “camp.” That made it all click for her. I only take issue with that designation because I have a narrower definition of camp (I immediately think John Waters), but by her estimate, if Veronica Mars is camp then so are the Scream movies. The thing she’s referring to is the over-the-top, in-your-face stance of the show. It’s not as if Andrew WK wrote the dialog, but you know everything is not this well-scripted IRL, and dramatic events don’t self-organize into perfect act breaks. Well, that’s probably because… It’s a fucking TV show!

With that said, it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever indulged in. Kristen Bell’s depiction of Veronica Mars is more than enough to carry this show, but the inimitable Enrico Colantoni (Just Shoot Me and Flashpoint; as her dad Keith Mars), Percy Daggs III (as Veronica’s sidekick Wallace), Jason Dohring (as complex pretty boy Logan Echolls), and Francis Capra (as bad boy Weevil) as well as minor characters like Tina Majorino (Napoleon Dynamite; as the aptly named computer wiz Mac) all do major heavy lifting.

Annoy, little blond one! Annoy like the wind! — Logan Echolls

Rob Thomas (not to be confused with that lame Matchbox 20 dude) put this show together during a five-year dry spell in what had been a flood of good fortune in Hollywood. According to Neptune Noir (Benbella, 2007), the critical essay collection he edited, it saved his career and his soul.

The series so far (I wanted to wait until I watched the whole thing to write this, but I’m only on the second season, and I’m convinced. I also wanted to wait until I finished the book, but the book keeps spoiling the series!) mixes elements of Heathers (snarky, dark humor), Twin Peaks (the haunting of the show by Lily Kane, just as Laura Palmer did in Twin Peaks), 21 Jump Street (whip-smart whippersnapper detectives), American Beauty (stereotypes on the surface, crazies underneath), and several other teen dramas and comedies. The writing is razor sharp, the plot twists are white-knuckled, and the characters are as multidimensional as they are memorable. It’s everything I want from a TV show or a movie.

And speaking of, the way we watch hath changed. If it weren’t for the streaming of TV online, I wouldn’t know the first thing about this show. This is important for a show like Veronica Mars, which is available on Netflix Instant, or other cult favorites like Twin Peaks: The ratings don’t matter online. A show that critics loved but mass audiences barely got can thrive in the minds of millions through internet-enabled rediscovery. In the case of Veronica Mars, this is good.

So, while I’ve never owned a television, I do love the medium done brave and done well. And Veronica Mars is a prime example of that. I am hereby recommending it to you.