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The Evolution of Comedy Marches On - A Rebuttal

When you get five minutes, take a couple of those to read critic Neil Genzlinger's rant about the End of Comedy in the New York Times.

In the piece, Mr. Genzlinger takes new sitcoms from this fall to task, comparing their comedic styles, subjects and premises to those of the past to conclude that we've come to the "End of Comedy". To begin, comedy as art includes not only half-hour television slots, but plays, movies, stand-up, music, improvisation, sketches and commercials - not to mention written forms including comic strips, essays, columns, books and blog posts. And that's just a few of the easily described forms which leaves out things like the Onion, "The Daily Show", dramedy and other commentary-based or cross genre creations which defy category. I'm sure I'm forgetting or don't know about something, point being "End of Comedy" (yes, it's capitalized in the piece) is rather hyperbolic, especially if one focuses on just one form. Genzlinger's larger theme is that "television comedy has ceased evolving."

To make his case, Mr. Genzlinger cites four specific points of failure for the new fall sitcoms of 2011. Each features an episode of a new show paired against an episode of an old program. Below is a point by point rebuttal.

"1. GUESS WHAT? WE HAVE GENITALS" In this first section, he argues that simply saying "penis" or "vagina" isn't funny and there seems to be a "barrage" of it on television today. He goes on to say, "there have always been genital references on television; it’s just that the people making them in the past (besides needing to please those censors) knew that subtle is funnier than brazen." This discounts the societal realization that these words are just words and in fact are the most sterile terms for the anatomy to which they refer. The sitcoms of the mid to late 90's, figured this out and quite to their credit used the terms brazenly to point out the absurdity of their previous censorship. It's the abuse of this satirical concept that Mr. Genzlinger is reacting to, not the terms themselves. Too many poor writers do, in fact, overuse the brazen style to compensate for bad ideas or to grab attention. Note though, that in the opening sentence of his piece -  a strong, attention-getting two sentence paragraph - Genzlinger complains that actress Zooey Deschanel said "penis" and he didn't find it funny. Perhaps that's because he missed the point of the bit. In the episode of "New Girl" he cites, the humor comes from Deschanel's character's reluctance to use a sterile, non-sexual term to describe a sterile, non-sexual situation. She's ascribing the censorship and the supporting characters are pointing out the absurdity - not subtle, but not brazen, really quite brilliant.

So in this first point, it's not the lack evolution of comedy he's lamenting, it's the forward motion, the change, the... evolution.

"2. TECHNOLOGY EXISTS TO MAKE US LOOK STUPID" The second point focuses on "man-against-machine" setups. To illustrate the point that in past shows "you could make a satisfying extended joke out of characters' inability to master technology", Mr. Genzlinger cites an episode of "Gillian's Island". Let that sit a moment, "Gilligan's Island". Perhaps one of the least satisfying shows on television in it's day and certainly not worthy of historical comparison. When the "The Dick van Dyke Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show" were setting the stage for the great sitcoms of the future and raising the bar for grounded, funny characters, "Gilligan's Island" was lowering it right back down again. But to the point, Genzlinger suggest that the physical humor of Gilligan breaking the radio by mistake is a large pay off, but Tim Allen's new "Last Man Standing" character's inability to integrate into the digital age is "tired". Conceding that "Last Man Standing" is poorly written and cast, the relationship of 50-somthings to their computers, cellphones, mp3 players and plugged-in children is one that many 50-somethings and their kids identify with. Each new Facebook, Google, and Twitter and each new iPhone, Kindle and tablet provide our society with new operations to master. Why shouldn't some people have trouble adapting? And isn't that more satisfying than a bunch of clowns, stranded on an island just beyond reality trying to complete a task only a handful of real people could do anyway?

Again, Mr Genzlinger's point seems to be not that comedy is not evolving, because clearly even the terrible "Last Man Standing" is closer to their audience than "Gilligan's Island", but that comedy is not the same as it was in the old days.

"3. PARENTS+KIDS=WAR" Just as in his previous argument about technology, the parent(s) vs. child(ren) premise has changed. Genzlinger freely admits that "what in 1958 occupied 25 minutes is now condensed into 15 seconds." But does not address how or why that's a bad thing. He cites an episode of the milk-toast, toothless "Leave It to Beaver" as a paragon of family warfare comedy. Really though, the wars did not even begin until 1987 with the premier episode of "The Cosby Show" which is not acknowledged in the piece. The pilot gave rise to a new type of family sitcom, where the parents struggled to keep control of their household from the advances of their growing, maturing and often scheming children. Sure, the Beav was mischievious, but at the end of the day he was still on the Cleaver team. For the Huxtables, two distinct teams existed fighting realistic (if very upper middle-class) battles, each side as willful as the other. The stakes have been risen since "Beaver's" heyday and absolutely if a child faces reverse psychology as in Genzlinger's example from the new "Reed Between the Lines", she won't be manipulated so easily. It's worth noting that in that "Cosby Show" pilot, "Reed's" patriarch Malcolm-Jamal Warner was the child in the largest battle fought that day.

Once more, comedy evolves, but Mr. Genzlinger yearns for an older time.

"4. EEK, A BABY" In the strangest of his categories thus far, Genzlinger argues that the competent and entertaining "Up All Night" is not funny enough because it refuses to act out baby spit-up jokes the way "Third Rock From the Sun" did years ago. He buttons his section saying, "The difference? Taking the time to find the unexpected perspective, something the new comedies rarely do." This is a case where the premise clearly escapes the critic. "Up All Night" is not a baby sitcom or as in "Third Rock", a baby episode, it's a couple sitcom which includes the given circumstance of a baby. The premise of the show is a couple adjusting to their new responsibilities as parents. It's a given that babies spit-up, cry, eat messily and do other gross and annoying things. This show explores how that changes an adult's life and spousal relationship; an "unexpected perspective" in a world used to the base, gross-out humor of baby episodes.

A clear and welcome evolution.

"5. CLODS IN THE WORKPLACE" What can be said about this? As long as there are people in workplaces, some of them will be clods. And as long as there are clods in workplaces on television, people will relate. Mr. Genzlinger, here contents that all workplace jokes have been done and so "all you have to do these days is make a passing reference to it." Essentially, as before, shortening a well known dynamic to a short line. That is evolution. Even if his example "2 Broke Girls" doesn't figure out how to take that to the next level, someone will. Just as "The Office" rejected convoluted phone answering gags  and opened workplace comedy to the awkward stillness that can exist in our real offices, someone will reveal another layer.

The emptiness we may feel watching some of the new sitcoms this fall is not new. Each year sitcoms vie for a piece of our time. Some are good, many are bad. Some programs will change the paradigm, and others will wilt from memory even as they churn out episode after episode. This is the thing that has never changed. But comedy continues to change and some shows will live on and some will not. Survival of the fittest - the very definition of evolution.

This post originally appeared on Stuff Smart People Like. Subscribe to the Podcast.


  1. Great piece Dean. I couldn't agree more. I'd say this has been a weak year for entertainment in general -- especially movies, but also for Television.

    If the writing seems rote, blame the economy. People are spending less money on entertainment and I think this has caused the entertainment industry to rest on their laurels more so than in the past. Again, with respect to movies, there have been a record number of remakes and sequels this year -- a direct product of the risk averse nature of the industry. Television shows probably have the same issues, even if they manifest themselves in different ways.

  2. Yeah, I think you're right about this. We like to think that the past had good wholesome, quality television, but I think part of the reason we forget how fluffy past television can be is because empty or poor shows don't last long. I seem to remember people saying the "end" was reality TV shows at one point. TGIF was pretty godawful television, for as much as I watched it when I was a kid.

    Feast or famine on quality sitcomes, year-to-year, is the norm; my biggest disappointment is that a couple of shows I thought were pretty good (Rules of Engagement, Community), got knocked around. Which leads to an important point: shows aren't just created and promoted; to a certain degree, they can be reflective of popular sentiments. As Ed says, the point is to be risk averse, and in entertainment you do that by trying to follow what's working.

    That being said, by any standards "2 Broke Girls" and "Whitney" are godawful, unfunny shows.

  3. I'm really glad you brought up "Whitney". One thing (among several) I opted not to include was the idea that her character and Deschanel's "New Girl" were both doing an "aren't-I-cute" act. While I disagree that Deschanel is doing that, I can see how one can interpret it in such a fashion. But for Whitney Cummings to be described that way is just off and maybe (and I hesitate to throw this word around) sexist. Cummings plays her character straight and dry, even when the situations get farcical. There aren't a lot of woman-lead sitcoms and to place two vastly different performances into a single category like that really rides that line. It's like comparing JD from "Scrubs" to BJ Hunnicut from "M*A*S*H". One's goofy and the other is a more cerebral and sardonic. No one would place them in the same category. So perhaps sexist, but definitely wrong. None of this is to say that "Whitney" is good. It's not.