Sunday, April 06, 2008

TV: Pulled Punches

In the 2007 fall season, CBS tried to connect with viewers via the sitcom The Class. The main problem there was that there were too many characters and too many storylines each episode. Their new offering has been The Big Bang Theory and it's really a story of pulled punches.

The mildly amusing sitcom revolves around egghead roommates Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) with Leonard attracted to the "babe" next door. The "babe" is named Penny and that appears to be all the thought that anyone's put into the writing of the role. Kaley Cuoco plays the part and she's not bad in it, she just has nothing to do -- over and over. The show features a Geek Chorus and no writing's gone into that either (they seem nothing more than echoes of Sheldon). Plot wise, you're likely to be reminded of Laverne & Shirley.

Galecki and Parsons offer the fussbudget theatrics some found interesting between Balki and Cousin Larry (Perfect Strangers) but that has a way of dying out quickly so, despite the fact that Galecki and Parsons currently essay it well, the show need to find something to revolve around.

With the exception of a party at Penny's (which existed to toss out the stale tale of her former boyfriend in conflict with Leonard), there really doesn't appear to be an outside world. Sheldon and Leonard apparently have few rent worries, let alone monetary concerns, since they're basically shut-ins in the on camera 'action.' Cuoco has demonstrated elsewhere that she can actually be funny and if the writers weren't so interested in merely offering "the babe," she could be a real asset to the show; however, the way the part's currently 'written,' Penny could disappear from the show tomorrow and have a new "babe" living in her apartment with no real damage to the show.

What you've got is a comedy that pulls the punches. Over and over. Where you should be laughing, you're either merely smile or stare blankly at the television. If you're merely staring, you'll have plenty of time to realize Suzanne Sommers was provided with far more to do on Three's Company and may grasp that Chrissy Snow was hardly a breakthrough role for women. As you realize that, you'll start to notice all the ways in which the show pulls punches and goes for the obvious (and done over and over) bit instead of offering anything truly creative.

The Big Bang Theory is far from alone and, in fact, last week it appeared everyone was showing up to demonstrate how they could pull punches as well. No one demonstrated it more than the running on fumes Saturday Night Live which thought the height of comedy was a bit about Roger Clemens going down a deer. Watching, we felt as though we were in back in junior high seeing would-be class clowns (too far down the rungs to qualify as actual class clowns) offer up their reinactments of SNL skits.

For those who don't follow sports (including us), Clemens is a baseball pitcher who has been accused of using steroids and he has denied (even in Congress) that he used steroids. Once upon a time, the previous would have been more than enough for Saturday Night Live to find a more worthy target but SNL has no perspective left and they only have one main target: Senator Hillary Clinton.

Saturday's show (which friends with the program swore we'd find funny) opened with Hillary and Bill Clinton discussing the release of their tax records. That wasn't news. That wasn't even good gossip. At times in the skit, that point was made with both of them noting that the monies they were paid for their books was hardly a secret but, in fact, well reported in real time. This was Saturday Night Live's return to live shows (after weeks of repeats following their return after the writer's strike) and it was a very weak show.

The skit in question was so weak that it had to fall back on 'jokes' from the 90s. And, watching that, we realized just how many punches SNL currently pulls. We realized, for instance, that Jeremiah Wright -- big news during their 'break' -- hasn't been a character on the program despite the fact that no other incarnation of SNL would have ever ignored him. We grasped that Michelle Obama seemed to have entered some sort of protective bubble that the spouses of would-be presidential candidates have never been allowed in before. And somehow, Barack Obama's embarrassing performance last week at a bowling alley wasn't fodder for comedy. Since when has any presidential candidate being wiped out in a sport by a child been something SNL shied from? The thing had comedy sketch written all over it. We grasped that so many punches were being pulled, in fact, that the one role Kenan Thompson is right for is being denied him.

In a bad skit, that was bad when The Red Foxx Comdey Hour did it in the 1970s (they poked fun at Farrah Fawcett's family, SNL poked fun at host Christopher Walken's family), Thompson showed up as an exchange student from Nigeria. The only laughs he got was for his entrance. (The lines weren't funny to begin with, in fairness to Thompson.) The only thing different about Thomspon was a wig he wore. The wig made him look exactly like Bambi supporter Donna Brazile. Last week, The New York Times offered a piece of garbage article about the alleged diversity now being offered on the chat & chews. FAIR, rightly, rejected that nonsense. (Audio commentary of it can be found via Friday's CounterSpin -- Peter Hart offers it in the first third of the program.) But despite SNL's fondness for serving up parodies of chat & chews, they've yet to let Kenyan rip loose as "I'll leave the Democratic Party!" Brazile. In fact, they've focused solely on men with the exception of Campbell Brown (played by Kristen Wiig) in one skit.

They did it again Saturday in a really bad spoof of Larry King that wasn't funny. Worse than not funny, they offered a performer (we'll be kind and not name) as Jimmy Carter who appeared not just unable to do Carter, but also afraid to take on the performance Dan Ackroyd once did of Carter. What was most obvious was, as with Clemons, why were they spoofing Carter to begin with? It was a nasty little skit (the 'message' was no one reads Jimmy Carter's books). And it was another yawn-fest made all the more appalling by the fact that, while the performer couldn't do Carter, he was perfect for John McCain. On the GOP side, there is no question who will be the nominee: Senator John McCain. When you've got a performer who can do McCain, why are you wasting him in bad Jimmy Carter bits?

But wasting 90 minutes was all they did. Thankfully, Christopher Walken did not sing and there was no production number in place of the opening monologue. However, the parody of menstruation medication, while funny, not only debuted on the Tina Fey hosted show, it was repeated during the latest break. So, in less than two months, Saturday Night Live viewers were given three opportunites to view that skit. Those flipping channels and coming across that bit last night, may have moved on quickly, saying, "Oh, honey, it's a repeat." We wouldn't have blamed them.

Not content to raid from the recent past, they also raided their own opening skit. Why open the show with the tax bit if you can't repeat it during Weekend Update! It was the lead in the 'headlines.' You also got bits about an outlet mall in Cuba, a pregnant man and, as already noted, Clemens giving a blow job to a deer. What the immensely untalented Seth and Amy fail to grasp is that Weekend Update, at its best, has always parodied the actual news -- not riffed on The Weekly World News. Seth is so unfunny on Weekend Update that a former SNL regular felt the need to call us when Weekend Update ended and explain he'd just realized whom Seth reminds him: Kevin Nealon. For those not watching SNL during that period, the big talk during this was exactly who could replace Nealon (Norm McDonald). He was out of touch, he wasn't funny, had a habit of staring into the camera waiting for laughs that didn't come (which wasn't played for comic effect, it was just fear). Nealon was 41 at the time and far from 'hip.' Seth is 34 and just as out of touch.

Weekend Update works best with anchors who are either news junkies off screen or flat out funny. Occassionally, they'll get lucky and find a performer who is both. What they have currently is neither in Amy or Seth. Add in a lack of perspective that leads to the Clemens 'bit' and you start to notice how many punches are being pulled.

Not just in Weekend Update, but throughout the show. Seth is a Bambi Groupie so Bambi skits aren't going to be written by him. That explains how ripe for parody Jeremiah Wright has still not been featured. That explains why so many skits about Obama have not been written. Fred Armisen has demonstrated he can do a dead-on parody of Barack. It's a pity that he will apparently never be provided with the material to go further.

Or do they think that viewers don't grasp that? Do they think viewers aren't noticing that Barack's manner of speaking has been captured by Fred but not notice that the Barack character exists in a vaccum? Do they think that viewers don't notice that Saturday Night Live is pulling punches? Is this how they intend to be 'cutting-edge' (something Lorne still thinks is possible, don't wake him)? By lampooning every rumor about Hillary, by including that into what Amy really wants you to believe is a character she's created (don't wake her either) while creating a 'safety zone' that must never be violated for Obama? That's not how you do comedy.

That is how you do weak sitcoms. But weak is all SNL has to offer. It's why they repeated the menstrual medication skit last night. It's why Amy thought she was 'pithy' in Weekend Update offering a joke about -- pay attention -- how tired Madonna is. No question, Madonna is tired. But what does that say about SNL? Weekend Update is doing a joke about someone they consider yesterday's news. Who is more pathetic? Madonna or Weekend Update?

Saturday Night Live is a pathetic show currently. You've got two performers perfect for parodies of Donna Brazile and John McCain who are stuck in parts they are all wrong for. You've got 'new' programs wasting time re-airing old bits. You've got Seth and Amy who think Madonna and Oprah are the reference points for Weekend Update. Most of all, you have writers who are scared to take on Obama. Comedy rule: You blink, you lose the laugh.

SNL better pray Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination because, otherwise, they've got nothing. NBC is carving out primetime hours next fall for the show, primetime hours to 'honor' their political comedy. They've got nothing but Hillary. They've got Fred who can do Barack wonderfully but they won't use him in skits. (He's appeared in debates, he's appeared in a Hillary fantasy. They've failed to create a framework for Barack himself.) They've got a performer who will be their John McCain guy (hopefully, they'll grasp that quickly). All they've got are tired, old Clinton jokes to offer with Darrell Hammond bringing back his 90s nonsense because Amy alone can't get laughs as Hillary. What exactly does SNL intend to contribute to this election cycle because when the network's craving out primetime space for you, they expect you to offer something more than old bits of Chevy Chase doing Nixon, Dan Ackroyd doing Jimmy Carter and Dana Carvey doing Poppy Bush. When we delivered this criticism over the phone to one writer with SNL, he told us that if Barack gets the nomination, pay attention to this, they can still get laughs. How so? They'll make a running joke of Amy trotting out (as Hillary) to say something.

Granted, he was physically tired (the show had ended it's live broadcast minutes before we called him) but we think that idea is pretty damn tired and pretty damn pathetic. We think it's pretty sad that the best SNL currently has planned for 2008 election coverage, should Barack get the nomination, is bringing in Hillary for laughs. We think it goes to the fact that they are pulling punches and we doubt NBC's going to be pleased should that be all that a primetime clip-show has to offer that can be filed under 'new.'

Friends with SNL took HUGE offense to our comments recently where we noted their 'imbalance.' We ridicule all the candidates, they insisted. In the words of Diana Ross, we respond, "I'm still waiting." When the calls came in insisting we had to "take a look" at the opening skit, we were told this was an example of what they do -- there would be jokes about Hillary and jokes about the media and they ridicule fairly. We watched, we didn't see it. Our point was and remains that they've created an off-limits, roped off section for Bambi.

That's the death of comedy. We'd explain that to them, but hopefully the lack of laughs throughout the broadcast got that point across. No one's staying home or up late night Saturdays to be mildly amused. Judging by the ratings for The Big Bang Theory, they're not rushing to their TV sets for that on Mondays either. Pull the punch, lose the audience.
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