Monday, March 12, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #129: Comedy Requires Pain

Two surprising things happened last week:
  • Betsy and I dropped “Modern Family” from our DVR lineup entirely.
  • We realized that “The New Girl” had become our favorite network show. 
Mere months ago, “Modern Family” still seemed fresh, smart and sophisticated, while “The New Girl” seemed like a funny-but-terminally-silly trifle.  But that’s the wonderful/terrible thing about TV: it’s always changing.  Stasis is impossible.  If shows stop getting better, they start getting worse, and if they aren’t getting worse, they start getting better. 

What finally made us drop “Modern Family” was a repugnant episode premised on the horror of  three shrieking harpies all going through “mon-struation” at the same time.  But, in retrospect, another episode, a few months ago, while nowhere near as terrible, had revealed the heart of the problem. 

I had already been lamenting for a while that the show was getting more and more “sitcom-y”.  Then we got an episode in which Phil (Ty Burrell, the show’s best character), couldn’t reach his doctor on the phone, so he irrationally assumed that there must be bad news, and then spent the whole episode over-reacting and worrying, until the mix-up was finally cleared-up at the end. 

I kept shouting at my TV, why not give Phil an actual health scare: a real lump or an actual operation he had to have?  Making it obvious that his worries were hysterical was the “safer” choice, but the showrunners fell prey to a basic fallacy: they thought that if we got upset, we would be less willing to laugh.  Not true!  They wanted us to laugh at Phil for feeling false fear, but the stronger choice would be to dredge up our own fear of death, get us upset along with Phil for a moment, then invite us to laugh at our own fears as well as his...
So imagine my happiness when I saw last week’s “New Girl”, which provided the Gallant to “Modern Family”’s Goofus. Aimless slacker Nick (a great out-of-nowhere actor named Jake Johnson), who has no insurance, is forced to admit that he’s had a lump in his neck for a long time that he hasn’t let any doctor see.  It’s a grave situation, and the show doesn’t shy away from the horror and pain this causes for the whole ensemble. 

Sound dreadful?  Nope, it was hilarious.  What makes these characters lovable are their insecurities, so the more genuinely insecure they get, the funnier they get.  Even better, as we in the audience feel our own real emotions about the seriousness of the situation, that gives us license to laugh that much harder at the comedy, buoyed by the knowledge that the writers respect us enough to really feel, rather than merely setting us up for quick gags. 

Comedy requires pain.  Make us feel.  We’d rather laugh at ourselves than laugh at some hapless doofus. 


j.s. said...

Another excellent observation. I've been having this on-going argument with some friends of mine -- comedy writers -- about whether comedies require high dramatic stakes. And obviously I'm on your side. The higher and realer the stakes, the bigger the laughs will be along the way. Which puts me in mind of the highest stakes comedy there ever was: DR. STRANGELOVE.

My friends are found of citing films like ANCHORMAN that jettisoned a flat narrative in favor of nonstop gags. And sure a comedy has to be funny above all else.

But to say that a comedy doesn't need a good dramatic story or one with high stakes seems nuts to me. Would anyone say the same thing about a film in any other genre? Imagine somebody telling you that a thriller didn't have a very good story or high stakes but it was still thrilling... that makes no sense at all.

This is what the very best comedy writers understand intuitively. And why the best of them, like Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, have no trouble writing great dramas too.

Anonymous said...

Oh no, Matt! I'm going to have to go back and re-evaluate the thousands of posts I've stolen from your site in light of your extremely bad taste in comedy. OMG! Really?

Please, for your own good, delete that post!

A concerned reader

Matt Bird said...

I know a lot of people hate "The New Girl", but I maintain that it really has gotten good. My tastes in sitcoms have always been somewhat middle-brow, though: I'm still a defender of the first season of "Friends", though that pretty much decimates one's cool points. Don't worry, I also love "Arrested Development", "Louie" and "Community", like the good little hipster I am.

Greg Hatcher said...

Hey, WE like New Girl. I don't really understand why so many people have a problem with it. Yeah, everyone's prettier than they really ought to be-- but then, I never understood the all the superhot people on Friends having dating troubles, either. It's a TV thing.

But apart from Zooey Deschanel being way too cute for the dorky girl she's playing, we like it, and my 6th and 7th grade girls LOVE it. Though I occasionally wonder what kind of show it would be with an average-looking girl, or maybe even a somewhat homely one, as the lead.

Anonymous said...

I guess I should ask myself, "What would Phil Dunphy do?" He would just shrug it off. All is forgiven.

A concerned reader

Anonymous said...

I've never been able to understand the popularity of Family Guy. But its existence alone proves that there are camps of comedy.

I have a friend who saw an early cut of Anchorman. Not a single frame made it into the final cut. That would simply not be possible with a drama, or anything with a plot.

Likewise, movies like Scary Movie or Date Movie... I think they can only exist in a world that has no understanding of comedy. All I can say about the audience members that like them is... they think they're getting the goods, but they have no idea what they are missing out on.

j.s. said...

Well, Anonymous, ANCHORMAN is a special case. Because as I understand it, the story simply sucked, so what they did was life-saving triage, and I understand something similar is currently happening with THE DICTATOR. Which is not to say that they'd have had these problems at all if the story were better conceived and constructed to begin with. (Isn't that earlier ANCHORMAN cut available as a DVD extra now?)

Take it from Woody Allen, who started out making gag-a-minute films and transitioned into more dramatically fleshed-out comedic narratives. I was reading a book of interviews with him the other day where he stated simply that a strong story made it much easier to make a feature-length comedy funny, because the set-ups and payoffs are inherent in the structure of the narrative.

I'd argue that FAMILY GUY isn't even a string of gags -- which some of the classic episodes of THE SIMPSONS are -- so much as a string of pop culture references. A reference is not a joke.

FAMILY GUY is still almost funny enough every once in a while for me to sort of get the appeal, but the comedy phenomena that really need explaining are things like THE BLUE COLLAR COMEDY TOUR and Dane Cook. THE NEW GIRL is like your first Mitch Hedberg routine compared to that stuff.

Matt Bird said...

"How can you people eat? The Dufrains are missing!"

Hans said...

You used a Goofus and Gallant metaphor in your blog. Awesome.

Lex said...

Something else that kills comedy, are producers and writers who fall in love with their characters and trade-in comedic risk for a happy ending. It happened with US Office, and I see it happening with Parks and Rec.