Friday, October 27, 2006

Exercise

All my life, I've been fortunate to be effortlessly skinny. Usually too skinny; scrawny and gangly even. The kind of kid that adults like to say needs to "get some meat on his bones," as if I had any control over that. As if I would obediently start overeating or making weight-gain milkshakes from GNC.

But the important thing about being skinny is that I've always been able to look at obese people and sympathetically shake my head with an unearned sense of superiority--you know, the way Aaron Sorkin looks at Everybody. I treasure my skinniness. As the touchy-feely types might say, it is part of my Identity. I swore that though my skinniness came easily, I would totally start exercising if my body threatened to become fat.

Well, now I am in my mid-twenties and I am no longer super-skinny. My metabolism appears to have slowed a bit and I have ballooned all the way up to a weight that is roughly Normal. I suppose I still look okay, although my features are perhaps not as chiseled as they once were. But things will not stay this way forever, and so I must develop a healthier lifestyle. This week, I resolved to become more active.

The problem with exercising is that you are sore the next day and cannot exercise. My solution to this is normally to allow a month or so for muscles to recover before assaulting them with exercise once more. One must start slow, after all. However, I get the feeling that it will be difficult to get an exercise regimen off the ground this way.

One major barrier to exercise, for myself and most people, is a lack of time. However, this week I have also discovered that exercise takes place in a sort of time warp. I am surprised that Einstein never did any work on this. Consider the theory of relativity. Now imagine that not exercising is like traveling at light speed and exercising is like staying put on Earth. When you are exercising, a period of time that might be empirically measured as "five minutes" is subjectively experienced as "half an hour." In other words, you can easily make time for half an hour of exercise a day. Or at least, what feels like half an hour of exercise a day. I say, when you break a sweat and begin to feel winded, you have earned the right to stop.

I am relying on the theory (my own) that the difference between No Exercise and Some Exercise is more important than the difference between Some Exercise and More Exercise. The important thing is that I am trying.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I Think I've Got It

Much virtual ink has been spent in online debates between those who think that a show about funny people doesn't have to be funny as long as it has enough showoffy esoteric references to appear "smart," and those who see Studio 60 for the spectacular disaster that it is. Yet there is so much wrong with the show that it's hard to pin anything down; you could list things for hours and never finish.

But I think it all comes down to this--the essence of why Studio 60 does not work, why it can never work, why it is conceptually flawed at its very core: Comedy is about tearing down whatever's on the pedestal. That is the fundamental instinct of comedians. Putting oneself on a pedestal is antithetical to comedy itself, and nothing is less funny than a comedian who has put himself on a pedestal. Which is exactly what the characters on Studio 60 are doing all the time. This is why the sketches are not funny, this is why the characters ring false as comedy writers and sketch actors, and this is why the show as a whole is so deliciously irritating.

Let's hope they can keep it up.

Friday Night Lights

I've been meaning to post about how good Friday Night Lights is (full episode online here), but I keep putting it off. Now that Sarah H. has done so, I guess I might as well take my shot at describing what makes the show so good.

The biggest hurdle for many viewers is that Friday Night Lights is ostensibly about football, and people like you and me, we don't care about football. In high school, I went to maybe two or three football games, tops, and even then, it was only to hang out. I don't think I ever once paid attention to what was happening on the field.

But Friday Night Lights is about more than just football. It is about people who are under incredible pressure, who care about something deeply, and that is the essence of drama. It is quiet, subtle, oddly beautiful and achingly real. It captures the verve and spirit of a certain kind of American small town and its inhabitants with breathless intensity and authenticity. It does this without the sheen of Hollywood melodrama that coats the small town inhabitants of Jericho, and without sinking to the hamfisted stereotypes and condescending "sympathy" of Studio 60's take on the midwest. It is about small town life without looking down on small town life. This show finds real drama on a human scale, and makes you feel it; it makes it matter. Don't care about football? When the game rolls around on this show, you will.

I'm always a little reluctant to hit play on the TiVo, since I really have to brace myself to be absorbed into the show's world, but every time, it is exhilaratingly worth it.

Aw, heck. I like how Sarah puts it:

Here is what “Friday Night Lights” is like: it’s like some scientists took a gigantic bottle of Awesome into the lab and turned it into a TV show. I know what you’re thinking: it’s about football. And teenagers. Yes, but no. Not really. If you have eyes and ears and a heart not made of concrete, you should be watching this show. Actually, you should be watching it especially if you have a concrete heart, because it will BREAK IT AND REPLACE IT WITH A REAL ONE. That is how good it is.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Squelch Goes To Stanford

Thanks to Tom's tireless efforts, the immortal "Squelch Goes to Stanford" video has finally found its way online, where it will remain until a record company or clever computer program discovers it contains unlicensed music, which no doubt caused thousands of people to not buy a Beach Boys CD.

Of course, many readers of this blog have already seen this video, assisted in its creation or even appeared in it. For those who have not, some important context:

This was created in the fall of 2002 during my four-and-a-halfth year at Berkeley. We managed to find a use for it by playing it during the "Laugh Your Axe Off Comedy Night," a campus event conceived to combine the usually antithetical forces of school spirit and comedy.

The video actually does an okay job of establishing the Squelch as Berkeley's humor magazine and the Chapparal as the Stanford counterpart. What's not set up so well is our "undercover" conceit, whereby we pose as Stanford students by repeatedly claiming to be Stanford students while distributing our humor magazine on their campus (Actually, we just wanted to unload a bunch of extra issues and had long thought that it would be fun to do so on the Chapparal's turf).

Another important piece of context is that 2002 would be the year in which Cal's football team, under the tutelage of new coach Jeff Tedford, would win its first Big Game against Stanford in something like a million years. This would end a losing streak that was longer than any current student could remember, a losing streak that somehow coincided with the school's refusal to fire coach Tom Holmoe, year after degrading year. Given the virulent Stanford-hate on the Berkeley campus, testing the spirit of the other side was an eye-opening exercise.

Anyway, if you like watching smug jerks with a camera attempt to make fools out of perfectly nice, unsuspecting people through obnoxious behavior and unfair editing, or if you'd like to see what I looked like a few years ago before I got all fat, here is the movie for you.



Even though it doesn't stand on its own very well and is perhaps not quite as funny as those of us in the video found ourselves at the time, I still like it. It has its moments, and it remains my only foray so far into the world of man-on-the-street prank videos. And, I think beneath the laughter there is an illuminating new perspective on the fascist jingoism of school spirit, and an important message for us all:

Stanford sucks.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Stuck It

Oh yeah, Stephanie and I watched Stick It last weekend with Mike and Crystal. Say what you want about it, but this is a movie that gets teenagers right: Sullen, smartassed, unfunny, obnoxious, and bursting with a wholly unearned sense of entitlement. If you are a teenager or if you hate teenagers, this is the movie for you.

If you are not a teenager but have no strong feelings about teenagers either way, this movie will make you hate teenagers.

There is very little gymnastics in the movie--every meet is glossed over with a brief montage that leaves you wondering who even competed, let alone who won. It's jarring, because when you're watching you think maybe it's a warm-up montage, and the next thing you know, the meet is over and you didn't see anything. Forget it. It doesn't matter.

Besides teenagers and teenager haters (henceforth "haters"), the movie seems to be aimed at gymnasts who feel that the gymnastics scoring system is arbitrary and unfair. In fact, the climax hinges on this point. The movie's attitude toward gymnastics itself is deeply ambivalent, and seems to be that gymnastics would be pretty cool if only judges rated you based on how wicked rad you are instead of how good you are at gymnastics. Teenagers can relate to this because they are also judged unfairly all the time. Who are judges to judge us, anyway? Stick It confirms what every teenybopper who ever defended a boy band has always said: Anyone who ever tries to judge you is really just jealous.

Stick It also falls into the genre of movies about a hero who, without even trying, is so naturally gifted at whatever that he/she is way better than all those losers who spent their whole lives "working hard" to "accomplish goals" and "develop skills." Said losers are invariably smug assholes, putting the audience in the strange position of rooting against people who care about things enough to earn what they get. This breed of hero's main problem is always getting everyone else to finally acknowledge how inherently awesome the hero has always been. See also: Lindsay Lohan in Herbie: Fully Loaded, the protagonists of High School Musical, and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.

Better than the movie Stick It is the commentary for Stick It, where writer/director Jessica Bendiger reveals that the secret to staying in touch with the teenage mindset is to be a forty-year-old teenager. Her voice is practically indistinguishable from the teen stars, and equally gushing over ridiculous things ("I love how you touch your chin here."). We also learn that star Missi Peregrym won the lead role by wearing camo pants to her audition, and refers to herself as "Missi P." The commentary is not worth listening to alone, but with a group of equally appreciative friends, makes for a highly rewarding experience.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rough Sketches

As usual, Studio 60 this week contained several scenes that were outright horrible, most notably:

- Using the journalist as a crutch to literally interview Harriet's labored backstory out of her in a scene that seemed to go on for hours.

- The jokeless return of the Nicolas Cage sketch.

- The obnoxious "Jenny doesn't have a baby" sketch.

- Harriet's bizarre, nonsensical, "I knock your socks off" line to Matt at the end.

- The journalist's nauseating speech to Matt about how when he works together with Red State Harriet to put on a great show, it's like they're uniting America.

But it also had a few scenes that managed to buck the flaws that make the show so infuriating:

- The Nancy Grace sketch that parodies the Natalie Holloway story. The execution was a bit lame, but the idea is funny, on point, and something that a real network sketch comedy would probably never get away with. In short, it comes closest to realizing the smart, edgy satire that we've been asked to believe their show is capable of.

- The aftermath of last week's inexplicable boot-signing subplot gets kind of fun as Nate Corddry tries to cover for a PA. Amazingly, the scenes are kind of lighthearted and fun rather than ponderous, no doubt helped by Corddry's likable presence.

- We finally see Jordan dealing with network duties besides Studio 60. Some idiot pitches her a reality show about digging up people's dirty secrets, as if he wouldn't realize that is the last thing a person who has just been scandalized by her own dirty secrets wants to hear.

- Despite others' protests to the contrary, Matt cuts the Jenny No Baby sketch, insisting that it was not funny, but "almost funny." He's not wrong. The mere fact that the show is willing to call an unfunny sketch unfunny, roars of laughter from the fake audience notwithstanding, seems like a big step forward.

- Fewer self-important speeches overall.

The episode was still not anything special, and suffered from a curious lack of a story aside from the journalist going around soliciting exposition. But it also managed to blunt some of the show's worst tendencies. So, not good, but perhaps not quite as awful as I've grown accustomed to? I am disappointed. It was so crushingly terrible before that this move toward simple mediocrity is no fun at all.

And then there is Tina Fey's show, 30 Rock.

Comparing Studio 60 to 30 Rock is not only inevitable, but instructive. 30 Rock benefits a great deal from its not proclaiming that the sketches within the show, like the cat lady sketch we glimpse in the pilot, are God's amazing, hilarious, super-smart gift to comedy. Rather, the cat lady sketch is portrayed as a sketch that rightly bombs, something that the writers had intended to cut. And despite that, it is still something that could more believeably appear on a real sketch show than practically anything you see on Studio 60. The fact that it is terrible but believable makes it funnier. It spoofs sketch shows rather than humorlessly enshrining itself, which, as Studio 60 proves, is death to comedy.

Besides, the show within the show doesn't have to be good, as long as the actual show doesn't ask us to believe it is. You could make a very funny show about working at a terrible show. Studio 60 sets itself up for failure by insisting that the show is great when anyone can tell that it isn't. Really, it's too early to tell whether 30 Rock will slip down the same path. But so far it seems to know better, and the fact that its premise is all about the show being thrown into chaos suggests that the current approach will continue.

Sketches aside, 30 Rock is funny and actually feels more like being around comedy writers. Alec Baldwin is an especially reliable source of laughs. The cast are all pretty strong, though after seeing the original pilot, it's hard to get used to Jane Krakowski. But most of the changes made the pilot stronger. It should help once I see the second episode and don't have to feel so aware of which scenes are reshoots.

Hard Knock Life

Teasing a story on the growing trendiness of celebrities adopting Africans, CNN asks:

A mother or a motherland?

What a choice to make: a heritage or a home. African orphans need and want parents. Well-known White Americans -- Angelina Jolie and Madonna -- are looking to adopt. But the way those celebrities are adding to their families raises an interesting question: Is it OK for white families to raise African children? And if it is, at what cost to those orphans' identities?


Ooh, ooh! I know! The answer is: Who gives a shit?

Especially when the African orphans' answer is "I would feel happy [to be adopted by anyone]... because I have no mother," and the argument against is that "The whole issue of intercultural adoption, whether a white child in a black family or a black child in a white family, is a very controversial one."

Yawn. Call me when you are worried about something that matters. In the meantime let's go ahead and let Madonna save some kid from starving.

And by the way, where was this concern when Angelina was adopting Asian babies? I hope she knows to give Maddox little red envelopes on Chinese New Year or his life will be immeasurably poorer.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Surf: Up?

Surfing penguins? Okay. I guess it beats dancing penguins.

I am kind of surprised at how much I enjoyed this trailer for Surf's Up. The faux-documentary style and grainy, scratchy stock footage look great, right down to the faded color. And then there's the somber, totally deadpan voice-over interview, selling the whole thing without being too jokey.

Unfortunately, once we cut to present day it all looks pretty ordinary, aside from a nicely simulated handheld camera effect. I do, however, like how it ends with the claim: "A true story."

While Surf's Up bid at hipness feels more calculated than the old school song-and-dance appeal of Happy Feet, at least it is not so tiring and overeager. Still, by the time Surf's Up comes out, audiences will likely be sick to death of penguins.

Welcome To The Party

Herbie the Love Blog reader and recent blogroll add Todd VanDerWerff has a blog called South Dakota Dark, full of excellent reviews and analysis of TV shows. He also has another blog, which he has politely requested that I link to, called The Adventures of Fatbot in the 21st Century. Much to the disappointment of fat robot enthusiasts (that is, enthusiasts of fat robots, not fat enthusiasts of regular robots), it is not about robots nor is it about diet and exercise.

Todd, a screenwriter, is secure and sensible enough to know that on the Internet, you are lucky if people are even willing to read your stuff, let alone steal it. Thus he has embarked on an experiment to turn the world at large into his personal writing group, by posting selected pages from his work for discussion and feedback. If this intrigues those of you who are writing-inclined, feel free to check it out and tear his stuff to shreds.

Excuse Me While I Kiss The Sky

I am still reeling. The strange mix of awe and nausea has not yet subsided. Please, please, view the trailer for the troubled independent animation feature, Tugger, sometimes also referred to by its longer, more self-explanatory title, Tugger, the Jeep 4x4 Who Wanted to Fly.

After you click on the video, it takes a while to load. Be patient. Leave the window open and click back over when you hear it start to play. You will be rewarded with one of the most jaw-droppingly awful things ever to be animated.

In it, you will witness Tugger meeting up with his parents, who, logically enough, are a pair of vintage gas pumps at a quaint rural filling station. They fret heavy-handedly about Tugger's unrealistic dreams. Tugger's buddy, who is either a radio or some kind of lunchbox, agrees with them. Tugger breaks into a painful and deeply embarrassing song to argue that he will fly, and frankly, I believe him. Because in a world where a gas pump can give birth to a Jeep, who am I to say a Jeep can't fly?

My mouth was literally hanging open in amazement. Or maybe it was partially a gag reflex. I don't know.

*CORRECTION: The gas pumps are not Tugger's parents, but grandparently types named "Ma" and "Pa," so you can understand my confusion. I no longer believe a Jeep can fly.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Stand Down

It may be too early to call it a curse, but both times I've attempted to publicize a stand-up appearance via blog or (ugh) MySpace, the result is a huge disaster.

Last time I tried it was when I was playing the Comedy Store Main Room, a show that if I am remembering this correctly, lasted about fifty hours and featured something like two thousand comics. The facts may dispute those figures but my feelings say they are true. I managed to get four people to come, but only sold three pre-sales, and the lineup preference is based on the amount of support (audience) you bring, so I went dead last, after severe comedy fatigue and a run of bad comics drove away every audience member save the four people I brought, and two other girls who were either extraordinarily polite to stay, or possibly mannequins. Based on the amount of laughter they provided I could go either way. By this time I could have cared less; I was exhausted by the wait, and performing to an audience I could have invited to my apartment and sold drinks to myself.

This time, I was back in my comfort zone--the Comedy Store Belly Room, where I have enjoyed two very solid shows, both of which I have posted here. The consistency of Belly Room comics is hit-or-miss, which is understandable. I booked the room without an audition myself. The first show I did had a streak of weak acts near the end, some very memorably bad. The second was consistently funny throughout, and even the obligatory screw-loose comic had a bizarre worldview that followed its own hilarious logic. I wish I could remember the exact wording of his joke where he speculates about how a chair feels about being sat on by a person with a stinky ass: "'I hope this guy doesn't sit on me too long.' ...I think that's what a chair would think." Or his bit about what it would be like if scientists never invented ice cubes.

Anyway, this Belly Room show... the crowd was small, which was not promising. The room energy was low.

I was feeling a little under the weather myself, and feared I might not be in top form. Even though I had second choice for what slot I wanted, I chose the second slot, even though the prime 3rd and 5th slots were still available. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

It didn't help that the MC and first comic had advanced degrees in Bringing Down the Room. The MC was the sort of female comic that gives female comics a bad name. Her routine was not so much about jokes as it was a bitter rant about how she is old and unattractive and can no longer get laid: A litany of online dating failure, rejection, and repeated interactions with the crowd in which she pleads for single men to sleep with her.

After seven minutes of uncomfortable silence and forced pity chuckles, the first comic took the stage and really upped the ante. Word of warning: when an inexperienced comic brings a guitar, pay close attention: You are about to see something truly awful.

This comic, also female, covered much of the same ground. While she was also desperate and undateable, she also threw in crazy, broke and unemployable. And she had a guitar, which she strummed aimlessly while shouting sample lyrics to songs she had "written." When her music called for an instrumental she would actually sing the guitar--"da da da"--while strumming, since it didn't seem like she could actually play, you know, music.

Much of her song was about how her ex-boyfriend would be sorry when she was famous. Personally, I think he'll be okay. But her gloating song lords her future success over him: "HA HA HA HA HA HA" she shouted in the most grating monotone you can imagine.

The song sent mixed messages, though, since it eventually went back to describing how she is broke and desperate with no prospects or marketable skills, and ended with her screaming, "I'M HOMELESS!!" It was a special kind of terrible that will join the ranks of the bad comic horror stories.

So after seven minutes of a bitter, depressing MC and eight minutes of a crazy, depressing, sort of scary comic, and a couple more minutes of the bitter depressing MC introducing me... I'm on!

Now, I don't want to be a jerk and blame the room, and I'll admit that on a better day I might have been able to pull it off with a little more flair, but... it was kind of a cold room.

I veered dangerously close to actually slamming the other comics with an early joke: "You may not have realized we're inaugurating a new performance genre tonight: Stand-up tragedy." Without commenting on them personally, I felt their subject matter was fair game. That joke didn't do well, but I think I can forgive the crowd for being uncomfortable with it.

I wouldn't say I bombed. I got laughs--I dare say the first of the night--even a couple of big laughs, but I was definitely off a bit. A lot of stuff did not play as well as it usually does. A few jokes that are normally very solid got silence. I spent a lot of time reacting to the crowd and playing off their response, which I don't normally have to do, so that was good experience (if not a good experience). I moved the half-Asian stuff up earlier and did less of the random one-liners, which didn't seem to work as well, but given the crowd, who knows. Any dark jokes with depressing undertones tended to fail--my guess would be that it veered too close to home after the genuinely dark lives of the openers.

And that's what it's like to be a comic. But I've learned something important: Never advertise a show on this blog again.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Stick It

Killing time at Hollywood Video on my lunch hour, I was looking at the package for Stick It, the notoriously inaccurate gymnastics movie from the creator of Bring It On. It's about this badass delinquent girl who used to be a gymnast. When she gets arrested for damaging a housing development while BMXing, she is forced to go back into the gymnastics world. In the process, she teaches the other gymnasts the importance of having attitude and being X-treme.

Anyway, the tagline on the DVD is "It's not called gym-nice-tics."

That's so great, it kind of makes me want to see it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Bizarro 60

Me: How about a show where a group of fast-talking, highly articulate Christians weather attacks from a long-running network sketch comedy while their two star leaders coordinate protests and letter-writing campaigns? Meanwhile, less fundamentalist members within their ranks question the protests, offering a forum for our heroes to lecture everyone about why they are always right.

Mike: How about those fast-talking, highly articulate Christians never doing anything remotely Christian? Even though their entire lives are based around it? They just talk about being Christian and how important that is, while essentially behaving like non-Christians. ...Have you guys seen promos for some new show "Studio 60 on the Sunset
Strip"? It looks pretty good.


* * *

Studio 60 has become a show I love to hate. It gets so much so wrong, and is so consistently obnoxious, it makes me feel good to hate it. I like watching it just so I can find more to hate. Obviously, the show is aimed at people who like to pat themselves on the back and feel superior, so in a way, it's having the intended effect--it's just arriving at its goal from the opposite direction.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Publicity

The wait is over! I have been called into action!

This Saturday night, I will be performing at the Comedy Store in the Belly Room. 8:00. $10. I know, it is really short notice. Oh man, I hope I don't suck. Just kidding. I'll kick ass. Everyone always loves me and enjoys the whole night of comedy. Stop missing out. Come see the show that Aaron calls: "Something I hope to make it to next time."

I'll forgive Aaron because he writes for Friday Night Lights, which I watched last night. It was really good. What's your excuse? It's not like you write for some awesome new TV show.

Got plans for Saturday night? Call up the person you've got plans with and say the following words:

"Guess what? I have an even better idea! Let's go see my friend Kenny perform at the Comedy Store."

Then come see me perform at the Comedy Store.

Problem solved.

Ergonomical

What is it about sitting at anybody's desk other than your own that makes you realize how horribly the desk is configured? Right now I am sitting at a workstation that can only be called a travesty. Would it be an exaggeration to say it is the worst thing ever? Yes, but not a big one.

The mouse is way back on the desk and has no slack whatsoever, as its length is used up in its journey around the monitor, to the faraway desk hole, under the desk, and all the way back to the computer tower at my feet. To use the mouse, you must lean forward until your face is practically pressed against the monitor. Amazingly, the mouse has no scroll wheel. When a co-worker took control of my computer to show me where to find a file, she too was shocked at the mouse's immovability.

My phone is to the left of the computer, which means that to dial right-handed I have to awkwardly reach my right arm across my body. Initially the phone was propped up to be nearly vertical, which made dialing on the keypad at the bottom of the phone difficult, but I managed to adjust it so that the phone now reclines at a comfortable angle.

I think this space could be greatly improved if one were to put the phone on the right and use the extra space to slide the monitor/keyboard left, thus freeing up slack for the mouse. But the person who really has this job will be back in two weeks, so this is not my decision to make.

Another incovenience: The networking program interferes with the use of the Alt+Tab shortcut.

It's funny how such a big deal is made of ergonomics, but most workspaces are still arranged with no regard for comfort whatsoever. (Maybe that is why Experts are always making such a big deal about ergonomics.) I know I do my best with my own desk at home, and still fall short in several ways. I suppose that is how it is for everyone, but when you sit down at someone's desk without their awareness of the compromises they've chosen to live with, the flaws are so much more glaring and illogical.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Why Are All American Girls So Rough

On Friday, Lydia came to town and adventure followed. Actually, Lydia's flight was delayed, so adventure arrived first.

The plan was to meet up with Lydia and Cynthia for tea at the American Girls Place at The Grove. Apparently having a tea party is a really big deal, involving firmly scheduled seating times and reservations in advance. Cynth had made the reservation, for which she had actually been charged a fee, so when the vagaries of air travel threatened to interfere, I was sent ahead to confirm the reservation.

Fortunately, I was already in the vicinity. I had arrived early with the vain hope of getting some work done beforehand. There I was, sitting in the Farmer's Market Starbucks, scouring newspapers for stories I could pillage for comedy material and wishing I had gotten a larger cup of refreshing shaken green tea lemonade (with sweetener), when Cynthia called with the urgent news that I would be the one responsible for securing our place at the tea party. Heavens!

At the appointed time, I crossed the threshold from the cramped, greasy, authentic charm of the Farmer's Market to the calculated, greedy, soulless charm of The Grove. There, in the storefront once occupied by the loathsome FAO Schwartz, stood the American Girls Place. I had to admire the name. Right away you knew that it sold American Girls merchandise, and that it was a place.

I stepped inside and found myself inside another world, a world that was wholly alien and more than a little unsettling. It was like Narnia, but girlier. (In case you haven't lived, American Girls is, at its core, a line of dolls based on girl characters from representative eras in American history. Once exclusive to catalogs, American Girls have since constructed a great and terrible empire.) Immediately I felt ill at ease. After waiting for other customers to finish, I stepped up to what I seem to remember was a concierge desk of some sort (a concierge in a store? I can't be remembering that right). I mentioned the tea party reservation and they directed me upstairs.

I ascended the escalator and passed through a long hallway of dolls, which included miniature "sets" of each girl's natural habitat, complete with "windows" displaying period-specific looped-video views of the "outdoors" as displayed on a sideways flatscreen TV in a window frame. Finally I found myself surrounded by mothers and young, doll-clutching girls.

What was I doing here? There was not a man in sight. At least, not one who didn't work in the store, which, as far as male employees were concerned, seemed to employ exclusively young black men who were presumably very secure about their masculinity.

Lydia called and assured me that her friend Katie would arrive soon. But Katie was not there yet, and as the seating began, I was terrified of being a lone adult male sitting at a table sipping tea by myself in a room full of little girls.

  
Imagine a posh Victorian parlor colored in a Victoria's Secret palette and you will have a good idea of what the room looks like. It reminded me of that secret club at Disneyland that you can read about on the Internet now. Upon entrance, a staff member asks "How many dolls?" then grabs the appropriate number of miniature chairs off a shelf. These chairs attach to the edge of your table so your dolls can enjoy tea with you. They even have little cups, albeit little cups with holes in the bottom, I suppose to alleviate the choking hazard for really stupid girls, and increase the spilling hazard for girls who insist on pouring their dolls real tea.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The important thing is that Katie arrived, with three genuine American Girls in tow. We answered "Three," and sat down with three dolls in adorable chairs hanging off the edge of our table. They were Molly, Kristen, and Felicity, if I remember correctly. Felicity was the prettiest.

I was relieved to have a companion, although I'm not sure a twentysomething woman toting dolls made us look any less crazy. We made conversation and had some tea and crumpets (well, not crumpets, but whatever the things are that they serve at tea), and repeatedly assured the staff that we really were a party of four and the other two would arrive at any minute.

Meanwhile, what seemed like every little girl in attendance celebrated a birthday. At one table, a mother stood up to take her daughter's picture, and as she leaned over the table, exposed the top of her thong. She was young and fit, but still, what kind of a world is this? Imagine growing up in an era where your mom wears a thong to your birthday.

  
Lydia and Cynthia finally did arrive, about forty minutes late. They were thoroughly impressed with the sumptuous atmosphere. I was thoroughly impressed with Lydia's Lolita sailor suit. I felt that the outfit offered us a good shot at justifying our presence by explaining that Lydia was in fact ten years old, perhaps with an affliction of the sort Robin Williams suffered in Jack. Or, if she preferred, we could tell the staff that she had wished to be Big. Lydia refused to go along with any story that somehow implied she was retarded, so it was abandoned.

UPDATE: Embarrassing photos added.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Sit, Calm

Gosh, spend a week actually working on a script instead of a blog, and look what happens. No, really, it’s great to have such a devoted fanbase. I’ll assume that Kelley speaks for everyone.

To go back and touch on the bleakness of TV comedy, Entertainment Weekly has this here feature speculating on what the problems with sitcoms might be, as surmised by a network exec, an actress, and a writer. Let’s take a look.

The Network Executive

I think the orgy of success that happened in the '80s and early '90s ruined comedy. As comedies like Seinfeld and Friends dominated the airwaves, it led to this spending spree on TV writers. Low-level writers on any comedy staff were getting multimillion-dollar deals. And if you made a list of all those deals, almost none of them amounted to anything. As comedy became more important, more executives got involved [in the creative process], which has been incredibly unhealthy. I also have seen a real lack of creativity on the writers' part. If you go back, comedy was truly born on the streets, with a real kind of immigrant sensibility. Sitcom writers were the least educated of the bunch, which led to comedy that had guts. Now you have lots of overeducated young guys, who don't have a lot of life experience, making lots of money.


Okay, that hurts. The thing about comedy writers being immigrants from the streets feels a little overly mythologized, but I don’t doubt there’s some truth to it. Even so, you take his description of the comedy writers who ruined comedy, drop the “making lots of money” part, and you’ve got me.

They go from the dorm room to the comedy room.


Oh, if only. But this isn’t quite fair. I mean, come on. I had an apartment.

I also feel the talent agencies are filtering what the networks hear. If you want to sell a show to CBS, then you need a fat guy with a pretty wife, set in the middle class.


Oh, like The Class, or How I Met Your Mother?

For NBC, it better be young and hot and set in New York.


Like My Name is Earl? Or The Office?

And your ABC show should have a bunch of precocious kids in it.


Like Ugly Betty?

I’m not sure if he (or she, but I'll keep writing he) wasn’t really thinking very hard when he said this, or if his conception of network brand identities really is five years old. Maybe he's just describing the atmosphere that led to the initial wane of sitcoms, but the networks have obviously changed tacks since then and things haven't turned around yet.

The networks are complicit in all of this, not really pushing any of the writers for fresh stuff. And it just has reached a tipping point where the audience has said, ''We've had enough.''

The Actress

Look back at The Honeymooners. You really don't need more than a room with four people who are related in ways that bind them together. I've seen sitcoms in their first seasons rely on very empty jokes that were not character-related or plot-related in terms of telling a story about something real. Even if you have the most charismatic, fabulous star, if the writing doesn't spring from a true consideration of how people relate to one another, it's not going to fly. Our attention is so limited these days.... I don't care how jazzy [the show] looks, how much it goes on location, I don't care about stunt casting! If writers don't put in a fun mix of characters, I ain't gonna watch.


She is pretty dead on, actually. And the value she puts on a “fun mix of characters” gets at something else that I think contributes to the downfall of sitcoms.

Reality shows, when they’re good, are pretty funny. As Crystal mentioned at some point in some old post I can’t be bothered to find, reality shows, with their colorful idiot characters, fill a lot of the void that people used to fill with sitcoms. And the naturalism of behavior found on reality shows makes it that much harder to flip back and watch a stagy looking sitcom. This may be one reason why The Office is doing okay—its mockumentary format is perfectly suited for capturing many of the strengths (or at least the look and feel) of reality shows and importing them to the sitcom format.

It doesn’t help that many new sitcoms, especially multi-camera shows, seem to have a problem creating characters that act like human beings. This is partially due to the writing, as the actress above claims—when you have shallow, non-character-based jokes, just to fill out the three-jokes-a-page quota that’s become so ingrained in the multi-camera format, you inevitably force out some unnatural clunkers. But just as culpable are bad direction and bad acting. Compare a new multi-camera show with a classic multi-camera show like Frasier or pre-season 8 Seinfeld*. On older shows, even when someone delivers a punchline, they say it like a person would. Actors on too many newer shows seem so hyper-aware that they’re on a Sitcom that they start saying everything in Sitcom Character. Exaggerated delivery, overemphasized sarcasm, a hold for laughter so practiced it’s practically ironic—it’s like they hate sitcoms so much they’re turning their show into a parody of a sitcom. Sitcom acting doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t. And, while I’m still not sure just how much influence a director has on the acting in a sitcom, I would think a good one would try to do something about that.

Now, I don’t think multi-camera is the problem. It’s more an issue of perception, where the familiarity of the format has given viewers the idea that it’s boring and old hat, when really the problem is that they have not found anything they like there lately. And, as hinted in my previous paragraph, that familiarity also often leads writers into a rut. But if writers can get past that to create a good multi-camera show, I think it could get viewers. Maybe not as many viewers as the hit multi-cam shows of yore, but it could do all right.

But quality is not the only issue. How I Met Your Mother is probably the best multi-cam on TV right now, and it deserves to do better. It’s easily a better show than Friends, in my opinion (whatever you think about Friends, it didn’t break the mold, but it filled it capably and people loved it for that). But it is only mildly successful, ratings-wise. In the single camera arena, The Office and My Name is Earl are both excellent shows, yet they too are only hit shows when compared to other comedies.

So this is why it is disingenuous to say that comedies are failing because they are not funny. Sure, a few punching bags like According to Jim are still out there, so people can still feel clever making hackneyed fat-guy/hot-wife observations, but even the best, funniest comedies remain shows that relatively no one is watching. Comedy is not dying because the shows are not funny. The top rated comedy on TV is Two and a Half Men.

…which I would gladly work on.

Actually, I think the continued success of Two and a Half Men, while baffling, is instructive. If we could crack the mystery of this show, it might tell us something important.

But first, let’s see what the writer has to say.

The Writer

I think networks and producers think the one-camera sitcom is the solution to their problems. [EW 101: Popular single-camera comedies include My Name Is Earl and The Office; multi-camera comedies are more traditionally filmed and have a laugh track, like Two and a Half Men.]One producer actually told me you don't have to be as funny if you do an hour-long, single-camera comedy. So I'm thinking, That's great. Not funny for twice as long! The networks think the audience won't laugh if there's no laugh track. But we still do! The funniest movies we go to have no laugh track and somehow we find them funny. Single-camera comedies are not edited properly. They think a fast pace is all that's necessary and it's not. The production schedule on a single-camera show is so grueling because they're making little movies every week, so there's no time to worry about the content or the jokes.


This is true sometimes. Everybody Hates Chris is a fine show, but it’s more warm and pleasant than laugh-out-loud funny. Earl used to be this way too, but it’s grown—the show regularly stretches to break out of its list-item-of-the-week format, and now has a naturally quirky, meandering vibe that’s genuine, unpredictable, and often hilarious.

There are exceptions like The Office, but I would say that's about it right now. As for multi-camera comedies, the networks seem to care less about story, character, and content and more about style. They think the look of the show is more important. And everything seems to be pitched at a younger audience. Take that CBS sitcom The Class: There was a bidding war for that show because it came from a Friends writer and everybody in it was 28. Shows that deal with really old people — like anyone over 40 — are not wanted. Twenty Good Years is an exception; I hope it's good. I'm rooting for it.


I'm rooting for any comedy, myself. Unfortunately, based on the pilot I saw, Twenty Good Years came off as a perfect example of the sitcom as self-conscious, unintentional parody, as described above. Partly that’s just because John Lithgow is such a ham, but the writing fell prey to the same syndrome. I hope it gets better.

Let’s look back at Two and a Half Men. It may have the same old multi-camera sitcom rhythms, but what it does have is a talented, charismatic cast with chemistry, who can deliver lines in a natural yet funny way. It has a simple, easily accessible premise (The Odd Couple with a kid). It offers jokes that are easy to understand, clever enough to not be stupid, and clearly recognizable as actual jokes. (That the jokes are uncomfortably crass on an increasingly frequent basis is something we will ignore for now.) Its stories are simple and usually confined to one or two sets. And finally, it has a distinctive underlying thematic vision (all women are either controlling bitches or idiotic sex objects, but either way they will manipulate you and ruin your life, so it is better to use and discard them like so much Kleenex tissue than to fall into their trap by attempting to treat them like humans). Okay, so that last part probably isn’t crucial. Or maybe it is. Who knows?

Is the lesson of Two and a Half Men that it’s not all that complicated? While people may crave increasing complexity in drama like Lost or 24, that hasn’t extended to comedy. Laughing, presumably, ought to be easy. Maybe people just want something that’s easy to watch and easy to get into.

Then again, the simplicity formula hasn’t worked for Fox’s ‘Til Death or Happy Hour. I would argue that the acting on both those shows could stand to be more natural, too, but I don’t think that’s why they’re struggling.

I don’t know, okay? These are thoughts. When I finally crack this nut, you’ll know, because I’ll be too famous to talk to you anymore.

*In seasons 8 and 9 the acting got more broad, cartoonish and unnatural, more like what I'm describing is wrong in newer sitcoms. The change coincided with the departure of Larry David and the show's shift to goofier and more surreal stories.