“The pipes, the pipes are calling”
April 8, 2009
The Los Angeles Times is reporting today that of the 71 scripted pilots that are contending for spots on the broadcast schedules of five TV networks, 33 are half-hour comedies. The television industry evidently thinks we need a good laugh. How many good laughs we’ll actually get remains to be seen. The kind of writing that has characterized shows like “Taxi,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” and “The Bob Newhart Show,” is hard to come by, and many television series are obvious at best and vacuous at worst. I wonder if folks more than 50 years from now will enjoy re-runs of “Surviving Suburbia” the way they do re-runs of “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners.” In fact, I wonder if folks next week will watch an original episode of “Suburbia.” Chuck Barney, writing in the San Jose Mercury News, said it for me: It’s not that this is a horrible show or even the worse sit-com on ABC. “It’s just that it has no real reason for being. It’s a series that looks and feels like hundreds of other sit-coms, with the same kind of tone, the same forced one-liners and the same ridiculously annoying laugh track.”
Why has television comedy declined so much? It might have something to do with the form. A couple of playwrights have told me that they wouldn’t write sit-coms no matter how much it paid, because they refuse to force a story into a shape predetermined by the schedule of commercials. I wonder if it also has to do with the backgrounds of the producers, writers, and actors, many of whom have grown up in television. I was talking with Marlo Thomas last week about her upcoming appearance at the George Street Playhouse, and that naturally evoked some conversation and even more memories of her father. Danny Thomas had a genius for humor, but he also had a chance to refine his technique in nightclubs, on the radio, and in movies before he ever went before a television camera. He understood comedy – understood that it had to have structure, consistency, and an underlying sympathy – all of which were factors in the success of his own show, “Make Room for Daddy,” and in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” which he later produced.
Marlo Thomas – who has her own package of insights when it comes to entertaining people – opens at George Street next week in Arthur Laurents’ new play, “New Year’s Eve.” She told me her father used to say, “Do you know what I would have been if I hadn’t been a comedian? A pain in the ass.” ”And I think he really meant that in the deepest sense,” she said. “He would have had no outlet. He would have been a butcher driving everybody crazy trying to make jokes about the lamb chops.” That compulsion to be a storyteller – as opposed to the compulsion to fill a half-hour time slot at the expense of some nearly bankrupt auto manufacturer – may have been more at work in those who created television programming during the medium’s first three decades than it is now.