Friday, October 27, 2006

The Inexplicable Origins of Honest Laughter

In addition to the Frugday video twist and shout, there are two additions to your Son's blogroll. Steven Poole I got to know when he did some guest writing at Crooked Timber, and as we exchanged pleasantries, I happened to notice that the Son was on his blogroll. Now, I may not hold some fancy framed degree from one of those elite educational institutions that everyone drones on and on about, nor do I swan about the higher echelons of polite society, monocle in place, martini in hand. But damn it, I do know one thing -- if someone links to you, and you enjoy what it is they do where you are linked, then by God you better return the favor and pronto, or else consider yourself one of those odd little squiggly bits that get lodged in the hip pocket of an old winter coat that you've dusted off in preparation for the change in season. So, I've added Steven's site, and in an effort to be even less squiggly, I've included Lance Mannion, another Son linker, as well.

Like me, Lance loves sketch comedy, so our linking is a natural. Politically, Lance is a bit softer on the Dems than am I, but the power of comedy love can overcome pretty much any ideological difference, even in a midterm year. Plus, Lance and I are among the 12 people who regularly watch both "Studio 60" and "30 Rock," so our affinity on that front practically screams out for mutual linkage.

Of the two mock "SNL" shows, I must say that I like "Studio 60" more than Tina Fey's "That Comedy Girl" effort. While the sketches within the show within the show are amazingly sterile (so much for Mark McKinney of The Kids In The Hall overseeing that part of it), Aaron Sorkin clearly has affection for old comedy, as seen in last week's episode, with references to Abbott and Costello and the World War II-era musical/comedy revue "Tars and Spars," which featured a young Sid Caesar. If the mock sketch comedy is gonna suck tile, then I suppose obscure comedy references will have to suffice. Still, if Sorkin's going retro on that front, how about conversations about Fred Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Pigmeat Markham, John Bunny, Lucille Kallen, Bob Schiller, Nat Hiken, Thelma Todd, and Raymond Griffith? If nothing else, the "Studio 60" staff will be extremely knowledgeable about their comedy ancestors, even if they cannot conceive a decent contemporary sketch.

I sincerely doubt that Tina Fey, or anyone associated with "30 Rock" (with the possible exceptions of Alec Baldwin and Lorne Michaels), would know anything substantial about the above comics and writers. Fey's show is so lightly written that it merely drifts from scene to scene, unconnected to anything intellectually solid. In fact, for a project that's supposedly Fey's personal showcase, Fey herself is pretty beside the point. Baldwin and Tracy Morgan own "30 Rock" and bring to life whatever life is to be wrung from those weak scripts. I suspect that wasn't the idea going in, but who knows. And apart from me, Lance, and assorted comedy geeks here and there, I don't see what audience "30 Rock" is trying to reach. I did smile at the "parody" of the dorky writer and his sketch where guys in bear suits fight a robot; but this has been parodied before on "The Simpsons," and for Fey to jab at this kind of comedy is a bit disingenuous, given the nearly-identical bits she oversaw as head writer on "SNL." Perhaps she's purging herself of those comedy toxins. Next week: oral sex double entendres?

And speaking of "SNL," tomorrow's edition will be hosted by the first-rate English comic actor Hugh Laurie. This is a first for Laurie's generation, which includes Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmonson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Rowan Atkinson, and of course Laurie's long-time comedy partner, Stephen Fry. None of these talents has appeared on "SNL," which is probably a good thing, overall. The styles of comedy are too disparate, and in most cases, it's the Brits who are funnier and more inventive than the bears-fighting-robots crowd. Given the present sorry state of "SNL," I cannot imagine what shit they've shoveled onto Laurie's lap, but we'll know tomorrow night. I shouldn't watch, but I will, as the potential for extremely bad comedy is too great to pass up. Schadenfreude is one of my weaknesses, as well as my drag queen name.

Here are some non-"SNL" Hugh Laurie bits, the first few with Stephen Fry:

And then Laurie and Fry, along with Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnerny and Tony Robinson, in the final episode of "Blackadder Goes Forth," which took place in a frontline trench during World War I. Ben Elton's and Richard Curtis's script is savagely funny, absurd, and in the end, quite sad, as the reality of mass slaughter approaches the main characters. One wishes that a new "Blackadder" series set in Iraq would be produced, though it would be tough to keep the laughs coming in that God-forsaken setting. But then, as O'Donoghue put it, making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy.

And while we're on the topic of Brit comics on bad American TV shows, here's a little gem I found -- the Monty Python team (minus John Cleese) on "AMerica," ABC's precursor to "Good Morning, America." This aired April 25, 1975, when the Pythons were still unknown to much of the States. They are promoting the American premiere of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which they use as an excuse to overtake the studio. But note the terse expression on news anchor Peter Jennings's face. It's clear that he doesn't find the Pythons terribly amusing, especially given that he's reporting on the North Vietnamese about to enter Saigon, from which the US withdrew only 10 days before. There's an eeriness to those news segments about Southeast Asia, at that moment still reeling from years of US bombing. And of course in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge was just getting started on their rural project, the extent of which could not have been known at the time of this broadcast. But we here in the future know all about it, and it makes the Pythons appear clueless and callous, an unfair judgment given the context of their appearance. After all, what will the YouTubers of 2027 say about "30 Rock" when setting it against the mass killing of its time? Impossible to know, but just the thought that people twenty years from now might actually watch a show that few are currently watching is sad enough. Get a life, future people!