Friday, December 29, 2017

The Relativity of TV Comedy

Ed Johnson-Ott of NUVO Newsweekly sat down recently with Christopher Lloyd of The Film Yap to talk about the state of television and streaming comedy. The following is a mostly complete transcript, absent a few off-color jokes and noisy bodily functions.

Ed: I am excited these days about the TBS program, “People of Earth.” A group of residents in Beacon, New York, are in a support group for people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens. They have been. While that’s going on, we go up into the sky and look at three alien races who are trying to take over the Earth. So we get the relationships and craziness down on Earth and the office comedy up in the sky. It’s wonderful, funny, weird, bittersweet. It’s all the things we’d say about “Parks and Recreation” and shows like that. It just got renewed for its third season and I hope it’s primed for a breakout.  It’s just quietly built a library of episodes and people can discover it when they’re ready.

Chris: A lot of people are calling this the second golden age of television, as long as you’re willing to expand the definition of what television is.

Ed: The revival of the comedy is really getting not as much attention. Shows like “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and “Review.”

Chris: I know about “Review” because you and other people are constantly telling me I look like the star, Andy Daly. I can’t compete with his dimples, but I think my hairline is stronger.

Ed: A little. You put that guy to shame, Chris!

Chris: So I will admit that as a dad with small kids and a guy with a full-time job and a robust side gig, I don’t watch nearly as much television, comedy or otherwise, as I used to.

Ed: That’s a shame.

Chris: It is, but I do watch some things, and I think there’s a lot of good stuff out there I’d watch if I had more time. I think what’s changed is our definition of television and what it means to be a fan of a show. Because the old days of the 37-episode season that came into your home once a week and only took summers off is gone. Even the shortened 22-episode standard is becoming an anomaly. So many shows are just 13 or even 10 episodes, so it’s less of a commitment. TV shows used to be a relationship; now it’s quick flings. I do feel more freedom to catch stuff that’s streaming or here and gone, like “Master of None.” I’m just not watching comedy shows like I used to with “Parks and Recreation” or “30 Rock,” which for me have set the standard in recent times.

Ed: What are some of your favorites?

Chris: Certainly those two. I liked the first season of “Master of None” a lot, and was gravely disappointed in the dreary, not-funny second season that just won an Emmy for writing for some goddamn reason.

Ed: What about “The Big Bang Theory?”

Chris: Never seen a single episode. Everything I know about the show says I would love it.

Ed: It’s a very easy show to watch. I don’t think in the beginning they planned to have stories. Instead they were just going to do the typical sitcom, but then the show took off. It caused a dilemma: “How do we fill this?” And that’s when the stories started becoming more complex. Meanwhile on the network you still have things like “Kevin Can Wait,” which is the old traditional sitcom that makes some people very happy.

Chris: Have you seen that? Is it as bad as it looks?

Ed: It’s just an old-fashioned situation comedy that does its thing. I noticed you didn’t mention “The Office.”

Chris: Oh yes, I loved “The Office.” I like it even more than the few episodes of the British version that I’ve seen.

Ed: The aftertaste of the British show changed for me once I saw that the public Ricky Gervais was uncomfortably similar to David Brent, his character on the show. His equivalent Michael Scott. I preferred the friendlier American version of “The Office” as well.

Chris: What made that show great was their commitment to developing those characters. It sounds cliché, but after the first couple of season you really felt like you were just popping into visit old friends and even interacting with people you didn’t like that much, but were familiar to you. Here’s my opinion that not many share: I still liked the show after Steve Carell left. No, it wasn’t as good as it was. But it was still a vibrant, funny show to me, with Pam and Jim taking over the lead spots and Andy Bernard kind of acting as the mascot.

Ed: The English woman, Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate), always felt wedged in.

Chris: Yeah, I think the last couple of years you had this parade of people coming in and out the door and not all of them stuck in our mind. For instance, I had really forgotten about the Nellie character. But there were enough of our touchstones left that these felt like guests who just came to stay a while.

Ed: Let’s look at it this way, what show that we really like or is just arriving on the scene is going to be really big: what’s going be the next “Seinfeld?” Obviously, “Big Bang Theory” is one right now, and it looks like it’s going to go on and on and on.

Chris: My response is I wonder if anything’s ever going to be as big as “Seinfeld” was, or “Big Bang Theory” is now. Because the platforms and the audience are just becoming more and more fractured.

Ed: Remember, “Seinfeld” did it without an ongoing storyline. Maybe “Veep.” I’ve never seen it. Never seen “Silicon Valley,” either. I don’t think they have ongoing storylines, either. And those have been around for a while. “Veep” is going into its seventh and final season.

Chris: That’s one thing I do appreciate about the modern TV game, is that shows don’t constantly stick around way past their sell-by date. I’m thinking of even big monster shows like “Friends” and “Frasier,” which were really good for a really long time, and then just kept going a couple of years past their natural end point. People got hooked on their million-dollars-an-episode paydays.

Ed: I think “Frasier” went so long that it kind of circled back to itself. I wasn’t sure what was going on with “Parks and Recreation’s” ratings. I think people are now rediscovering it on cable reruns.

Chris: Yeah, “Parks are Recreation” and “30 Rock” I think are great examples of shows that would rather bow out at their creative peak than stay around too long. They offered Jerry Seinfeld literally nine figures to do a 10th season, but he knew it was time.

Ed: I do think “Parks and Rec” suffered when they spent a little too much time celebrating the small town America eccentricities. They had all the eccentrics in there and they had Chris Pratt. He’s a big reminder of why we all liked it. By the time they were getting all their tributes and getting ready to go, it was time to go.

Chris: What about “30 Rock?”

Ed: Everything went perfect with “30 Rock” from what I could tell. I was really curious about “Young Sheldon,” the spinoff with the Jim Parsons character as a 9-year-old that’s now debuting. I just don’t know about that. It’s not going to be an audience and a laugh track. It’ll be a one camera show, and won’t have any of the people looking the way they did.

Chris: That sounds interesting but also scary.

Ed: They’ve got to flesh out the other characters really quick. It’s going to have a 9-year-old and his sister, his mother and the unhappy father. We hope for the best.

Now, if you were going to binge watch, what we you line up to watch in terms of comedy?

Chris: It’s tough to say. I know a lot of people like to revisit their old favorites they’ve already seen, but I’d much rather encounter stuff that’s new to me and comes highly recommended. If I were to wander backward, I’d probably go with “Big Bang.” Or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which gets a lot of praise from people I trust.

Ed: “Review” was about the host of a TV show who reviewed life events. I think it only ran for three seasons, and then came back with a three episode arc to wrap it up. What made it work was you saw the ramifications of everything he did. And this guy was totally committed. If it was a fatal disease, he was into that. It was this headlong impulsive rush to have him do things that nobody in his right mind would do. He ruined his marriage, he killed his father-in-law. But it’s one of those things people would look at it and say, “This is just grim and weird.”

Chris: What’s weird to me is the definition of comedy has become very fluid. You see a lot of dramatic and even tragic stuff in what is, quote unquote, a comedy. Like “Better Call Saul,” which to me is ridiculous to call that a comedy. Or even “Louie” some of the time.

Ed: I know what you mean. It’s an outright comedy at times. But some episodes are so serious and terrifying.

Chris: Yeah, I remember the episode of “Louie” where he loses his daughter in the subway. And it’s just a frantic father searching for his kid, with Louis C.K. looking utterly terrified. And that was the whole episode – not even an attempt at humor anywhere in the mix. And to me that’s off-putting.

Ed: Comedy is so hard to define in terms of the popularity and appeal of it. Aside from a few shows like “Friends” or “Big Bang,” comedy is so relative. Can you convince someone to watch comedy? I know I never had any luck with getting anyone to watch “Parks and Rec.”

Chris: You did with me!

Ed: That’s good. It’s hard to tell somebody why a particular flavor of something tastes good. I’m just asking everyone who reads this to watch “People of Earth.” The first season was the perfect season for a show. The second season, what I’ve seen I’ve loved. I think it’s going to be around a long time.


  1. There are a number of great shows these days, and you are right, it is sort of a golden age. But there seems to be no single definition of television, or comedy for that matter. I know people dislike it, but Brooklyn 99 makes me laugh out loud. And both Fresh Off the Boat and The Goldbergs really know how to mine the past few decades for real laughs. Adam Goldberg's use of his own childhood videos as plots for the show is genius to me. But, since both of those shows appear on "network" people tend to dismiss them as not edgy enough.

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