Not so funny

Posted 12.01.09

Sometimes I wonder what's happened to comedy. I gave a great deal of thought to what strikes people as funny when I prepared a workshop on humor writing for the City of Ottawa in the spring of 2008. That sold-out event gathered a strange mix of participants, from a 16-year-old boy who admitted that he was there because his mother insisted (!) to a recent public service retiree who wasn't sure she could write for publication, a young man who was already having some success with a stand-up routine at comedy clubs, and an older man who has quite a few credits for writing for TV.

Fortunately, everyone (including the teen) enjoyed my presentation and the exercises I gave them. I then did versions of this workshop for Toastmasters and the Canadian Authors Association, and now sell the entire workshop on my website.

But I must admit, even after all this research and hearing the opinions of such a wide variety of workshop participants, I'm at a loss to understand what's happened to comedy on TV.

Clever situations and witty repartee seem to be in short supply, especially on sit-coms, where stupidity and sexual innuendo are paired with an annoying laugh track. There are some exceptions, of course, and we all have our favorites. 30 Rock wins Emmy Awards for good reason: the plots are clever and the dialogue sharp.

It amazes me, however, to see the scroll of writers at the end of most shows, not only of sit-coms but of the late-night talk shows. It evidently takes an army of diligent scribes to put together Dave Letterman's Top Ten List or Jay Leno's monologue.

Speaking of Jay, it appears his move to 10 p.m., five days a week, has not proved profitable for NBC. It's also created a scheduling problem. Some of the more adult-themed dramas and sit-coms are now aired much earlier in the evening. And Jay is finding it difficult to hold a prime-time audience. The writing seems forced, the situations silly.

In my workshop, I point out all the various types of humor, from silly slapstick and gross vulgarity, to the highest levels of subtle satire. Unfortunately, TV seems to rely much more on the lower levels. Even shows geared toward kids contain sexual overtones, and there doesn't seem to be a stand-up comic whose act doesn't contain four-letter words and references to sex, alcohol, or drugs.

I don't know about you, but I find this sophomoric. This is the kind of thing only kids find funny. Every parent has seen their kids through the ‘poop is hilarious’ phase. But even kids are no longer amused by poop. The playground is now rife with four-letter epithets and the idea that exposing oneself can evoke laughter.

Maybe I'm getting old, but I miss the wit and charm of Carol Burnett and her sidekicks. I miss The Golden Girls, and Mary Tyler Moore.

When I turn on my TV today, I often find myself asking, ‘What's so funny?’

Barbara Florio Graham is the author of three books. Check her website for the comedy-writing workshop package: www.SimonTeakettle.com/workshops.htm

Copyright © 2009 Barbara Florio Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/12.09