Wait a Second!

No. 6 -- August 4, 1995

Who shot Mr. Burns? I'm sure you've probably heard or seen the commercials by this point. While I sorta hope they don't cop out and make it the obvious choice -- Smithers -- they can decide whatever they want. What's interesting is that it hasn't leaked out already. After all, since because of the animation, they do those shows way far in advance, so I'm assuming its already done and in the can.

And while I might trundle down to 7-11 and snag myself another Simpsons Big Gulp, I'm not going to give too much thought to the subject before the fall premiere. As long as it's funny. That's all I can ask from the people who produce the show: market it all you want to, just keep up the level of humour that makes it quite possibly the funniest sitcom ever on TV. Let me fill years and years of tapes that will make me laugh hard for the rest of my life. That's all. And no more slipping like the fifth season, which was too low on the multi-layered jokes and too high on the movie-parody-of-the-week factor.

Of course, as anybody who likes to make people laugh can tell you, everything else is easy, comedy is hard. Especially the character-driven, subversive humor that has long been the mainstay of The Simpsons. I mean, pound for pound, The Simpsons is probably the most hardcore lefty sitcom ever, and yet, they get away with relative murder. Maybe (probably) I've oblivious, but the controversy level surrounding it -- especially when compared to shows like NYPD Blue and Rosanne. Why?

One reason is the obvious (and is also their bane): as David Letterman once put it "It's a goddamn cartoon!" So Homer Simpson's naked form in the shower has less impact than Dennis Franz's.

The other reason, however, is a bit more complicated -- for all of the pro-worker, anti-nuclear power, drug references (my favorite running joke is all of the psychedelic experiences Lisa has had), pro-feminism, and plain old bleeding-heart liberalism that permeates the show, The Simpsons is, at heart, also a show about a family that loves each other. They run a beautiful balance between showing the very real affection between the characters and going for Waltons levels of sickly sweet pukiness. Its a tricky balance to keep -- you don't get the sense that a lot of other sitcom families really love each other as much as need each other for joke fodder. But as the family history has been fleshed out over the years in an excellent set of flash-backs and flash-forwards, they come across as true and complex as any fictional family you might name.

Of course, the fact they're "just" a cartoon works against them in other ways -- why else would they be ignored, year after year, when Emmy time comes around. While there are a lot of amazing sitcoms floating around right now -- The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You, Frasier, Seinfeld --, why does a lightweight show like Friends snag an Emmy nomination during a first year where they were obviously struggling to establish characters? And The Simpsons gets shut out again?? To me, it makes no sense.

I'm not totally dissing Friends here, because sometimes it's right on, laugh-out-loud funny (though not the jokes that depend on the word lesbian, or the antics of a monkey for their cheap laughs), but lets face it -- pop culture phee-nom that it is, they still haven't developed the characters deeply enough to get to the next level.

Of course, Friends is gonna come under some super-hard scrutiny from me. After all -- I come from the type of peer group that inspired the show, and some of it rings false. For example: we all, er, um, fucked each other. Of course, not everybody fucked everybody -- it wasn't the 60's. But if you have a group of young, reasonably good-looking people of both sexes with a lot in common hanging around each other, I mean, it ain't rocket science here.

The other, more problematic (though not really, I guess, as long as it sits ensconced at the top of the Nielsens, huh? I mean, they can do whatever they want as long as the nail the perfect demographic they must be getting) thing about Friends is the lack of depth to the characters. In the minds of the producers, they're still pretty interchangeable, as witness the recent promos NBC was airing for their new Thursday night series (and forget the fact that they've decided to move Mad About You to Sundays at 8:00pm against The Simpsons and Lois and Clark -- a move that is going to cause a lot of grief around this household, lemme tell you).

Perhaps you've seen this spot? Its where the guy who plays Chandler -- you know, the one who is smart -- is theorizing on why some series hit big. His point was that they have one-word titles, like "Friends," "Seinfeld," and "Er," whereupon he is informed that its "E.R.," not "er" and general hilarity supposedly ensues. (Actually, it might have, since last week, while I was having lunch at Round Table, I heard one woman describe this commercial to another in glowing terms.) But this bugs me, because you'd think they'd have the guy who plays Joey -- the one who is the dumb guy -- be the butt of this joke. Its almost as if they wrote the spot for his character, and at the last second, he couldn't do it (though I don't know why, since these people should be praising Allah for not landing on yet another failed Fox sexcom -- or even worse, the WB), so they just said, "Ok, lets just get the one who plays Chandler -- nobody will know the difference." Either way, it goes to the heart of why Friends might stay loveable but lightweight: they're aiming at situation-driven humour, rather than character driven humour.

There's nothing wrong with situation-driven humour -- thats part of why they are called "Situation Comedies." Something funny happens to someone, and they spend the next half hour resolving it against all kinds of comic obstacles, wrapping it up with warm fuzzies just before the last commercial. But the thing is, any character can be put into a funny situation -- the pet monkey is going into perpetual heat, ha ha -- and which character it is just doesn't matter. And neither do the characters, in the long run, because they're all just interchangeable parts. They never go beyond the impression they give off. And if Friends wants to be more than just a flash in the pan -- they're going to have to do a better job of deepening the cast beyond the dumb one, the smart one, the lonely one the spacey one, the spoiled one and the serious one.

Now compare that to the character-driven humour of The Simpsons. What has made The Simpsons so funny for so long is that besides the core family, they have a deep well of great, complex characters (as represented in that fast pan in the opening credits) to draw from: Krusty, Grandpa, Principal Skinner, Patty & Selma, Mr. Burns, Apu, etc. These people all have histories -- they aren't just two-dimensional caricatures aimed a getting a cheap laugh at the expense of some other caricature. (Ok, technically, they are two-dimensional characters, but they're three-dimensional two dimensional sketches.)

Look at Seinfeld. It hit the ground running with a purely character-driven concept, and even though they've all fallen into the some wild situations, the situations have all grown naturally from the character's personalities, rather than happening to them. Big difference: things happen to people on Full House, but Kramer and George create their own hells. That's why they could even parody themselves with Jerry and George's pitch to NBC for a series about nothing.

Look at Mad About You or Frasier, and most especially The Larry Sanders Show. These shows are almost totally character driven. If Paul and Jamie weren't truly funny and real, it would just be Bridget Loves Bernie for the 90's. Besides, Helen Hunt, 'nuff said.

While Frasier is sometimes a little bit more traditional -- especially when they bring in ex-Cheers cast members (being surprised by an ex-love as you're trying to develop a new one is Standard Sitcom Plot #5A) during sweeps week -- they often give the usual conventions an evil twist. And good lord, it's smart. Any sitcom that uses a double-entendre based around Rachmaninoff as a throwaway joke has something extra going for it. (There was also the episode where Niles carries a bag of flower around the entire time to simulate the responsibility of having a baby whereupon he dreams that bag of flower is stolen, and he is receiving muffins in the mail.)

And Larry Sanders is the reason I pay extra for HBO. Last night's episode about Artie letting off steam was almost on another plane -- that vaunted area where only the best M*A*S*H episodes ever tread. In essence, it was about a lonely aging -- stuck -- man getting drunk by himself, and yet, because of how well we know the character of Artie (and another tour de force performance by Rip Torn), it was side-splittingly hilarious. The middle section, where Artie, having borrowed Hank's karaoke machine to sing show tunes to an empty sound stage only to be surprised and befriended by Nicolae, the new janitor, had me laughing out loud from start to finish.

All of these shows depend on memorable characters that have had a lifetime of experiences before we intersect with them, so the comedy comes from them, not too them. It will be interesting to see if Friends figures this out in the upcoming season, just as it will be interesting to see how many GenX-oriented knock offs show up on the fall schedules.

But I guarantee you that it will be more fun to find out who shot Mr. Burns.

This space is available for advertising. I am so ready to sell out to corporate America for some decent money. Even NBC.

Love,

     Jim

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This rant written on 03 August, 1995.
I was listening to Teenage Fanclub -- Grand Prix and
Hole -- My Beautiful Song as I wrote it.