Thursday, 23 July 2009

On Comedy: What Hollywood Thinks Is Funny

Nikki Finke got her dander up about the Fox Network's request that writers wanting to work on the upcoming Wanda Sykes Show, to provide try-out material for free. I have to differ with her, they can't use anything on air without paying for it, but they also can't pay several hundred comedy writers to submit test material.

I had a similar experience when I was in college. Word went out that a sketch comedy pilot was being put together. They had 6 performers, and were looking for around the same number of staff writers. After a round of reading some pre-existing material, they called in around 40 candidates for a final try-out. We were brought to a comedy club, met the cast, and were given the front pages of several newspapers, and given about 90 minutes to write something topical.

Since all the papers were going on about a study about the rise of girls belonging to street gangs, I wrote a piece called "Gang Violence Barbie." That piece put me over the top, and I was hired.

Sadly, the pilot never got beyond the script stage. The producer blew the budget on market research, hoping that it would give her the magic formula for a hit show, instead it turned what was a clever, if a bit scatter-shot, sketch show, into a sitcom about angels that didn't have any actual jokes in it.

The reason it became a sitcom about angels: Because of an ad campaign for Philly Cream Cheese that was very successful. In fact, that ad campaign is still running, sadly, its popularity sank our hopes for a pilot, let alone a series.

Anyway, I wasn't paid for the tryout material, because it wasn't going to be used. In fact, nothing anyone in the group was going to be used once the focus groups and marketing people were through rewriting butchering it, but that's not the main topic of this post.

What concerns me is what the
Wanda Sykes Show is looking for in the field of material. Take a look at what the memo says: (click to enlarge)

Now let's take a look at what kind of where they are coming from at some of the types of routines they're looking for.

- Shopping for a pet with Michael Vick.

That's like offering to take Charles Manson to a Hollywood Party. It serves no purpose, and what humor could Wanda Sykes extract from a pet store employee calling the police, because I believe that sort of behaviour would be considered a violation of his plea agreement.

-Trying to get Congressmen Peter King to cry about Michael Jackson at some sort of Michael Jackson tribute at a Veteran's Hall.

Okay, and how are you going to swing that? I'm sure Peter King would probably just tell you off and hang up.

-Get a walk through for a "gay exorcism."

Didn't Bruno already do stuff like this? Or was it Bill Maher in Religulous? And I think we know how that worked out for them. All I really see is Wanda trying to pick a fight with people most Christians consider as on the fringe, and attempting to paint all Christians as being like them. Now that's comedy.

-Look for the "Department of Law" Sarah Palin talked about.

Okay, now this is a bit of a stretch. We're talking about a slip of the tongue from a now former politician, being extended into some sort of major news story that can justify a full on comedy sketch. About 90% of people who don't view the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos as their only new sources probably never even heard of that gaffe, let alone what the sketch is supposed to be about.

Then there's the issue of relevance. Sarah Palin's run for the Vice Presidency ended in November 2008, and resigned as governor of Alaska this month. This show will probably be coming around about September-October 2009 at the earliest. That means any sketch done about it will be done about a year after she was nationally relevant news. That's a hell of a way to stay topical. I'll have more to say about this topic later, because it shows up again with...

-Inserting Wanda into a reverse of Palin's resignation explainer-- along with that creepy looking audience of five--

Okay, here's I guess is the point of the sketch, Alaskans are creepy.

Ouch, I think my side has split.

But seriously, this tells me a lot about the thinking, or lack thereof, of the people who are behind this show.

1. They think anyone who doesn't live in the Axis of Ego is somehow "creepy."

2. They have no idea of the law of unintended consequences.

As for #1, this is Hollywood we're talking about here, anyone over 35 whose face isn't frozen into a botox related grimace, is considered the odd one out. Add that the only "average people" who they meet are either serving them, or servicing them in one way or another, and you get a sense of humour that thinks mocking ordinary people for their ordinariness is funny.

Which brings me to #2, the law of unintended consequences. Sarah Palin, despite what the media says, is a very popular politician, with the compelling narrative of a working class background, becoming a small town mayor, taking on and beating a corrupt Republican political machine, to become a popular governor. She is also seen as the victim of a character assassination campaign unseen since HUAC. The more the media picks on her, making jokes about her and her family, long after the election, and even when she's no longer the governor of a relatively remote and underpopulated state, the more popular she becomes with the folks in Flyover Country. The unintended consequence is that such material, and its repetition, could put Palin in the White House in 2012 or 2016. I don't think Wanda Sykes really wants that, but since all she and the others making this show hear is that they're doing the right thing and "saving" the country, they honestly don't see it.

Another thing that sort of sticks in my craw is the claim that Wanda Sykes "speaks up to power without talking down to people."

I don't know, I caught her performance at the Press Club dinner, and aside from a few tepid jabs at the people who were actually in power, she spent most of the night going on about those who were out of power. Because she is a Hollywood person, no matter how much she may deny it, and in Hollywood comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable translates to: Only make jokes that won't endanger your invitation to next party at Spago's or your potential for an Emmy nomination.

She could rebel and make jokes about the people in power, but since the people in power in Washington, are very close to the people in power in Hollywood, that's just too dangerous to try. And when your act is basically being shrill and self righteous, you can't afford to do anything truly dangerous, because that won't get you your own talk/comedy show.

At least we can take small comfort that this show will probably last about a half hour longer than the show I worked on.

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