The genius of Bill Cosby, Tim Conway, Carol Burnett and a handful of other comedians is not that their comedy is particularly revolutionary, but in their ability to find the humor in everyday situations and relay it in a way that is instantly recognizable to the audience, and invites us laugh along –while giving us the opportunity to share the laughter with the people we love.
Jerry Seinfeld is another one who seems to get it. In a new profile recently published in the UK’s The Guardian, Seinfeld compared himself to an elite athlete, denying himself the easy laughs in order to better his craft:
Keeping his act sex- and swear-free, the way he sees it, is part of this athletic challenge, since it denies him the easiest laughs: “A person who can defend themselves with a gun is just not very interesting. But a person who defends themselves through aikido or tai chi? Very interesting.” Likewise his focus on minutiae. “It’s so much easier when you’re talking about something that really is important. You’ve already got a better foundation than someone who’s bringing up something that does not need to be discussed.” Such as? “I do a lot of material about the chair. I find the chair very funny. That excites me. No one’s really interested in that – but I’m going to get you interested! That, to me, is just a fun game to play. And it’s the entire basis of my career.”
Several years ago, TV critic Tom Shales artfully picked apart one of an endless parade of nondescript NBC comedies that had recently debuted (it was called Cursed, later renamed The Steven Webber Show, if you’re curious) that was doomed to failure because of its formulaic writing, characterized by “a funny name for genitalia (‘Benny and the Jets’), a couple of racial jokes, a couple of gay jokes, and strategic placement of words like ‘butt.’ Put it all together and it spells ‘nap time.’”
So many TV comedies go down this same road, and share the same fate as the long-forgotten “Cursed.” Here’s my challenge to you: Sit down to a half hour of Dads or Two Broke Girls (if you can stand it) with Shales’ list in front of you and you’ll see how spot-on he really is.
The problem, of course, isn’t simply that TV comedies have become predictable and formulaic; it’s that overwhelmingly TV writers go for the cheap jokes, the obvious laughs. Insert a four-letter word or two here, some adolescent innuendo there, et voila: you have a script.
This approach to comedy might work well if your aim is to appeal to unsupervised middle schoolers or emotionally and intellectually stunted adults, but it leaves out broad swaths of possible viewers.
One of my fondest memories is of watching Bill Cosby’s Himself on television with my family when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I still remember my sides aching, and my dad, with tears streaming down his face, struggling to catch his breath between fits of laughter.
What makes that memory precious is not the program itself, or even the material; but sharing the experience with my family. And there are few comedians today who get that, but those who do are all but guaranteed success. Jerry Seinfeld appears to be one of the few who do.