Dying Is Easy. Comedy’s a Bitch.
by James Killough
We are developing a half-hour, single-camera comedy series for TV, so I’ve been doing research by finally watching Arrested Development, a show that ran for only three seasons with great critical acclaim but middling ratings on Fox. It has garnered such a cult following since then—it has a nine-point-five rating out of ten on the IMDb, something I’ve never seen before—that the network has ordered another nine episodes with the original cast, which will lead up to a feature film to be released in 2013.
Arrested Development is very good, but it isn’t nine-point-five great. I can only think that the inflated IMDb rating is obsessive fans clicking the ten-out-of-ten button over and over.
What is both weird and comforting to me is that the matriarch, Lucille, played superbly by Jessica Walter, is a caricature of my own mother, right down to hair bob and coloring. My mother is a bit more down-to-earth in an obliquely Melbournite way, and not an alcoholic, but in spirit she is the same woman.
Indeed, Arrested Development is a half-hour anxiety dream about families like mine, mashed with families I grew up with. It has a distinctly surreal, free-association style that feels like I’m trying to remember a dream when I recollect an episode I’ve just watched: impressionistic jumps of images and characters popping up and disappearing again in unrelated places, wearing completely different things, rather like sequences in Alice in Wonderland.
No wonder it’s a cult hit. Smoke a hefty spliff and watch a few episodes. It’s a trip, man.
With room for commercials, each episode runs around twenty-two minutes, but seems to pack a hell of a lot in there at a pace that doesn’t seem to rushed. Filmed in a handheld reality-TV style that would later become popular on shows like 30 Rock and Arrested’s direct, more successful descendant, Modern Family, there is no laugh track, as there is in multi-camera sitcoms. Instead there is a great deal of attention paid to the sound and music design, which is a far cleverer way to prompt laughs than popping them out of a can.
Most surprising is the series was developed, produced and narrated by Ron Howard, who seems to be a very likable guy, but who has to be responsible for some of the more anodyne Hollywood films in the past twenty-odd years. I wouldn’t exactly call Howard’s movies crap; they are always well crafted, pleasant distractions to numb your mind, best viewed on a little screen embedded in the seat in front of you. That he would make something so forward thinking and edgy, at times downright nasty, and participate in it so actively and eagerly is something of a revelation.
There you go: you think you know someone, and then he just pulls the rug from under your preconceptions. But it also bolsters my point last week about TV versus film: even someone with Howard’s standing in Hollywood is obliged to make well-crafted mediocrity for the big screen, but is allowed to express his truer voice through the small.
A subtle running joke in the first season is how lame Latino humor is. One of the Bluth family brothers, Gob (pronounced Job), is dating a Mexican telenovela star. At an awards ceremony she attends, they flash the five nominees for best comedy actor, all of whom are variations of El Chavo de Ocho, a freckled, red-haired character from Mexican TV, a little boy who lives in a barrel in an alley played by a middle-aged man. Despite its Beckett-like setting, El Chavo is distinctly unfunny, unsophisticated from an Anglo-American comedic point of view.
A basic example of soggy Latin humor is El Chavo’s most famous line, the stuttered “Don’t…don’t…don’t get angry.” And for some reason this is screamingly funny, every time. I can just hear my producer Lisa Katselas on the phone if I put a line like that in a script I wrote: “It just sucks, James. It’s just bad writing. You can do better than this. I gotta go, the babysitter’s giving birth in the living room.” Click.
I’ve never understood why it is that Anglo comedy is so much funnier than any other culture with which I am familiar. I speak three Romance languages fluidly, so it’s not like I’m missing something in translation or nuance. It’s the same thing with the French and Italians as it is with the Spanish: despite being just as humorous interpersonally as English-speakers, the performance of their comedy doesn’t touch ours.
If you take the train from Paris to London, you can see it in the billboard advertising as you dip into the Chunnel on one end and come out the other. French ads are sleekly styled, graphically arresting. The British grab you with wit, with double entendres, or taking the piss out of you and themselves. You are suddenly thirsty for a pint and some great conversation down the local pub, which you will get anywhere in the British Isles. In France, Spain and Italy you’ll get posing, maudlin philosophical discussion, or, in the case of Italy, mindless chatter about lifestyle and fashion; talking about anything substantive is almost considered rude.
Not that Britain is one long comedy routine. But even the most serious argument is punctuated with wry observations, and usually ended with humorous banter. This applies to most business meetings as well: you can never appear to take anything too seriously, even if it is. In this respect, Americans do not follow the motherland; one has to be very careful of too much humor in the workplace.
We Americans do tend to take ourselves more seriously than the Brits because of our Puritanical origins, I think. But we make up for it with our distinctive Jewishness, with the riotous self-deprecating kvetch. The collision between biting, sarcastic Anglo humor and Jewish vaudeville acts gave rise to stand-up comedy and improv, which in turn branched out into shows like Arrested Development, apparently developed largely through rehearsals, a group of stand-up comedians colliding with each other like billiards balls.
For my money, the funniest television I’ve ever seen is the early seasons of Ab Fab, mainly because of all the years I spent in fashion and magazines. I laughed until my sides split when I first saw it with fashion colleagues in the early 90s; we just couldn’t believe how spot on it was, that people we knew who took themselves so seriously could in fact be such hilarious clichés. An old friend of mine, who normally has a fantastic sense of humor, couldn’t watch Ab Fab because “it hits too close to home.”
Just like Arrested Development, Ab Fab has only gained in popularity since being off the air. BBC One is counting down the days until the broadcast of it’s new special on January 7, putting up teaser clips, which frankly look like some of the weaker, later episodes in the series, when it began to lose my interest. I’m not sure the upcoming Arrested Development could possibly live up to the monumental expectations being a cult classic has bestowed on it. That nine point five is an unrealistic mark to hit.
The reason a show like Everybody Loves Raymond is so much more successful than Arrested Development, despite not being nearly as clever or hilarious, is that Raymond’s working class family is more relatable to most viewers than the idiosyncratic spoiled rich Bluths. Just as Ab Fab is about people I know or have worked with, I also much prefer Arrested to Raymond because it is more about my one-percenter family: not only is the matriarch my mother, but I can be seen as the clownish, philandering older brother; my real brother as the sensible, long-suffering lead character, who keeps trying to run away; my sister as the charity-obsessed sister. I could deck many of us against the Bluths, but I might get into trouble.
As I approach my own comedy series, I need to keep in mind that producing a cult hit, deliberately or not, isn’t necessarily a good thing when you aren’t Ron Howard or Jennifer Saunders. IMDb ratings aside, a successful series needs to be as relatable as possible to as many viewers as possible; it needs to appeal to “the lowest common denominator,” as a Hollywood producer, who has since moved into new media, once told me.
Then again, in screenwriting class at film school they told me to be true to myself, so probably the best I can hope for is that elusive, misnamed “happy medium.”