Friday, February 15, 2008

Dying is easy, comedy is hard. (Why do you think everyone dies?)

The Writers Guild of America's strike ended on Tuesday after more than three months. The previous strike, back in 1988, lasted five months. When that strike was in its final weeks, three Saturday Night Live writers were in Chicago performing a sketch-comedy revue called Happy Happy Good Show at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater. Below is a review of the show by Tom Valeo, from the July 15, 1988, issue of the Chicago Reader:
If any television executives see Happy Happy Good Show, they may decide to let the writers' strike go on forever.

Created with the help of three striking Saturday Night Live writers—Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel, and Bob Odenkirk—this comedy revue is remarkably unfunny. Almost nothing works. Almost everything is either facile or outlandish—or both.

One prolonged skit, for example, involves two southern crackers who sit outside a gas station making fun of all the big-city types who drive in expecting big-city services. One man wants to pay for his gas with a credit card; a woman needs a part for her Saab. The joke is that these two men are sitting in front of a gas station that has been transformed into a minimart capable of supplying anything—even the kosher pickled herring requested by an Orthodox Jew. That's not a bad premise for a satirical sketch, but the way the sketch is executed here is decidedly unfunny.

But if you want really unfunny stuff, try this: a lawyer described as having a "sharp legal mind" turns out to have a head shaped like a wedge.

After several skits like this, I began to suspect I was witnessing a pioneering experiment in comic minimalism—no jokes, no wit, no surprises. The audience certainly greeted the material with the respectful silence usually reserved for baffling artistic innovations. Maybe we were merely failing to respond to some major advance in the history of humor.

Alas, I'm afraid we were merely failing to respond. Our reaction was reflected in the face of Dave Reynolds, who, in a series of sketches, plays a director auditioning performers who are amazingly untalented. One is a ventriloquist, played by Smigel, whose routine consists of mumbled small talk with his dummy. "Sure is hot out." "Yeah, it's hot." Another is a teacher, played by Debby Jennings, whose twitches, nervous chatter, and momentary trances ("The children say I've gone to Jupiter when I do that") are perfectly mimicked by a student, played by Rose Abdoo. As he beholds these performances, Reynolds's face reveals astonishment, combined with intense politeness, as though he doesn't want the auditioners to know how pointless their stuff is. His expression could be applied just as well to Happy Happy Good Show.

Actually, the performers themselves are pretty skillful. They're just stuck with unfunny material. (Of course, they created the material, but that's another matter.) In one skit, Hugh Callaly, a veteran of the long-running revue All You Can Eat and the Temple of Dooom, does a fine impersonation of Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry. The setup just isn't very clever: As Detective Stone, Callaly pushes his way into a restaurant and tries to spoil the dinner of a mobster suspected of murder by showing him photographs of the mutilated victim. When that fails, the detective brings in a decomposing leper for the mobster to stare at. It's an outlandish premise, to be sure, but unfunny

In one of the audition segments, Bob Odenkirk and Conan O'Brien are wonderfully manic as "bithespians" who team up to give a single performance—O'Brien does the visual aspect, while Odenkirk provides the vocals. Jennings has a great face for a comedian, and Rose Abdoo actually is a wonderful mimic, just like the student she plays. She does a "completely gratuitous" impersonation of Audrey Meadows playing Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners, and she's terrific.

Happy Happy Good Show is a vivid demonstration of how elusive comedy can be. Some of the skits, when described, sound potentially funny. The Dirty Harry segment, for example, has promise, and Callaly returns later as a eunuch who shows up in an office one day intent on protecting "the women of the harem." Such setups invite improvisation, but two skits in the show ridicule that very technique. In one, the Impets, "the world's only improvisational puppets," perform improv games that bring to mind the ImprovOlympic, developed in Chicago by Charna Halpern and Del Close. (The host is a puppet called Delkie who, like Close, has a chronic smoker's cough.) Ironically, the spoof works best when it resembles the ImprovOlympic the most.

The other skit is a savage put-down of Second City, in which O'Brien portrays a performer soliciting the audience's help in developing a character known as Spoon Man, who talks like a pirate and holds a spoon over one eye. He chooses the most prosaic answers imaginable to the questions posed by the audience: "Where did you get your spoon?" "At the Spoon Connection." In between questions he says things like "This is really helping me build my character." When he's finished, he removes the spoon, drops out of character, and thanks the audience sincerely for their help. "I'm going to go backstage now and write some of this down," he says.

Now, Second City is certainly ripe for satire. The revues have lapsed into a predictable formula, and the use of improvisation has become self-conscious and stale. But the bitterness of O'Brien's spoof undercuts the humor, and makes the skit look like the expression of a personal grudge.

Even worse, the skit is unintentional self-satire. The prosaic answers that Spoon Man gives to the questions are as obvious and unfunny as much of the material in Happy Happy Good Show. The revue, like Spoon Man's character, needs a lot more work before it can become even remotely humorous.
The reason I posted that review is because I've written and performed sketch comedy myself in Chicago. It's not easy, and I doubt it's any easier in any other city. But Valeo's review proves that even the best sketch writers struggle—O'Brien made a comment on a Saturday Night Live retrospective last year that no matter how rich or famous you become in comedy, you still feel miserable when one of your ideas bombs—and you're not going to be able to please everyone all the time.

But I have a feeling that because O'Brien, Odenkirk, and Smigel were already SNL writers when they did this show, the audience was less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. If in fact the audience wasn't laughing, that is—some critics like to project their own opinion onto everyone around them. I know I find a lot of things funny that don't make me laugh out loud, but the goal for any comedian is to get laughs to come out of an audience member's mouth, not stick the thought "That was funny" in his or her brain without converting the thought into a laugh. (Don't deny that analyzing comedy in this fashion is always good for a chuckle or two.)

Comedy nerds will recognize the big names in Valeo's review, but they might not know that Dave Reynolds cowrote Finding Nemo (2003) and The Emperor's New Groove (2000) and has "additional material" credits on other Disney and Pixar movies like A Bug's Life (1998), Tarzan (1999), and Chicken Little (2005). And Rose Abdoo costarred in the short-lived CBS comedy Johnny Bago in the summer of '93. Robert Zemeckis directed the pilot episode, which had the same inventive comic energy of the films he cowrote with Bob Gale (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, Back to the Future), before he started saying "But seriously, you guys ..." with films like Contact (1997) and Cast Away (2000). But that's another topic for another day, of course.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting.

    yeah, i get the feeling from that review that the reviewer is a tool. i may be biased just cuz i know how hilarious those guys are, but the more i read reviews, the more i realize a lot of classic old-school reviewers are tools. And his writing sounds like a grumpy old guy, equivalent of "back in my day, funny people would ________"