Sunday, August 07, 2011

TV: Laughter becomes a comedy legend most

The 100th birthday of Lucille Ball yesterday had us reflecting on women and sitcoms. When Ball's sitcom I Love Lucy debuted in the fall of 1951, there were four networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and DM (DuMont). Out of 174 programs airing, I Love Lucy was one of only nine that women led -- the other eight were Beulah (the only other sitcom and the first starring an African-American woman, Ethel Waters but in the fall of 1951 Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniels took over only to be replaced by Louise Beavers due to health reasons), Burns and Allen (starring George Burns and Gracie Allen), Mama (a dramedy starring Peggy Wood), Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town (each week, Faye visited a different city to highlight its "wonderful" features), The Carmel Myers Show (a talk show hosted by the silent film actress), Leave It To The Girls (a talk show featuring a serious look at working women that was quickly changed into let's-laugh-at-the-girls; hosted by Paula Stone in 1951), Kukla, Fran and Ollie (Fran Allison stars with puppets Kukla and Ollie in this children's show) and The Kate Smith Evening Hour (her prime time variety show, not to be confused with her daytime talk shows also known as The Kate Smith Show).


Contrast that with this fall's prime time schedule. We're counting 97 shows on five networks (ABC, CBS, CW, Fox and NBC). That does not include shows on NBS listed as "Repeats." If you can't even name what show you're airing, we're not counting it. In fall 1951, women were the leads or on 9 prime time TV shows. This fall, they'll be leads in 25 prime time TV shows: 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly, Hart of Dixie, Body of Proof, Unforgettable, Ringer, New Girl, Patricia Heaton's The Middle, The New Girl, Revenge, America's Next Top Model, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Up All Night, Free Agents, Charlie's Angels, Bones, Parks and Recreation, Whitney, Nikita, Fringe, Harry's Law, The Good Wife, Pan-Am, Once Upon a Time and Desperate Housewives. While it's true that back then there were 15-minute programs airing (not anymore) and that there is actually less network prime time than there was then, we're still not seeing 25 (and we're being very generous in that count) out of 97 shows as something worth singing about.

And then we thought about the, yes, laughable Emmy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Comedy Series this year. No, we're not just rolling our eyes over Tina Fey who used the live episodes in the past season of 30 Rock to demonstrate she cannot act (cannot even handle blocking) and her performance is created in the editing room. We're also referring to the two Showtime nominees: Edie Falco and Laura Linney.

Now both women are great actresses. But they aren't nominated for comedies. In Nurse Jackie, Falco's dealing with a drug addiction and trying to avoid urine tests at work and, by the way, Showtime's original promotional material described the show as "a medical drama." Laura Linney's starring in The Big C playing a woman with cancer whose doctor's told her this season that the radiation treatments are not working and who has dreams featuring dead people chasing her, offering pithy lines like, "Slow down, sweetie, I can't run that fast I'm dead!"

Premium cable can do comedy (see Curb Your Enthusiasm) but The Big C and Nurse Jackie are not comedies. At best, they're very special episodes of Blossom. It's really not fair to allow Linney and Falco's dramatic turns to compete with comedic actresses. If you're going to do that, just have "Best Actress." But if you're going to have Best Actress in a Drama and Best Actress in a Comedy as categories, start honoring the latter by only including women in comedies.

For I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy twice. If she were just starting out with I Love Lucy today, chances are she'd be like Patricia Heaton (The Middle) and Courtney Cox (Cougar Town) -- a worthy nominee who instead got overlooked. And it's also unfair to the three worthy nominees: Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) and Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly). All three gave amazing comedy performances and now they have to compete with actresses who are scripted with dramatic scenes where they battle cancer and drug addiction and we're supposed to pretend it's a fair playing field?

Now it was bad enough last year when Edie Falco actually won. At the Emmys, there was a WTF buzz. Deservedly so. She should have been nominated . . . for Best Actress in a Drama.

It's interesting, as one sitcom producer noted to us Saturday while we were calling around for reactions for this piece, that the quality of acting doesn't really matter. For example, he thinks Falco's been "spotty" in the second season of her show and can't believe she got a nomination. Linney? "I haven't been so depressed after watching a 'comedy' since The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd." So why the nominations?

Because of the Water Cooler Set. 12 writers, 9 producers all swore it was because of the United States no longer has TV critics, they have a Water Cooler Set that's not interested in what's funny, just in what they hope is 'edgy.' The consensus was that the Water Cooler Set can't judge funny because they're scared to go against the pack. Boo-hoo. Poor little cowards, trying to be edgy and uptown and repeatedly glomming on broadcast network shows that don't last the season because they can't deliver the ratings. But they deliver the buzz and that's what gets the word of mouth going -- especially for those who fill out the ballots for their spouses.

When it's not about the whole industry but about actors deciding on acting (Screen Actors Guild Awards), life gets a lot harder for non-actresses trying to pass for comedic ones (no nomination for Tina Fey) and for dramatic actresses trying to pass for comedic performances (in other words, Linney got no nomination). Edie Falco got nominated.

But she lost.

To Betty White.

In a country that really appreciated what Lucille Ball accomplished -- demonstrating women could be funny and that the country would watch funny women -- Betty White would be the subject of a lot of entertainment pieces right now. But, again, we no longer have TV critics, just the Water Cooler Set. And they can tell you all about Louis CK -- except, of course, what a homophobe he is (using the term "fa**ot" repeatedly on his show was your first tip, your second was his passionate defense of Tracy Morgan's homophobic remarks).

But they can't tell you tht Betty White may have one of the biggest achievements in comedy.

In 1951, Betty White got her first Emmy nomination (national nomination). In 1952, she won a local Emmy the live -- and then local -- Life With Elizabeth (which had started as comedy sketches for KLAC's Hollywood on Television). Life With Elizabeth would go on to be a nationally syndicated sitcom. How long ago was that? Two years after Betty White was first nominated, one year after she won an Emmy, Lucille Ball would win her first Emmy (Best Comedienne).

Fifty years after her first nomination, Betty White back in the Emmy competition, up for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy.

Who does that?

No one that we can think of. Imogene Coca didn't, Sid Ceaser didn't, Milton Berle didn't. There's no one from that era that can pull that off but Betty White. Even her friend and colleague, Cloris Leachman -- the Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn of TV with 8 prime time Emmy wins and one daytime one and, this year, up for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy for her role on Raising Hope -- doesn't span that many applauded years in television. (Cloris first gets nominated for an Emmy in 1972, for Best Supporting Actress -- Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- and she wins on her first nomination.)

And Betty White's nomination underscores the problem with TV comedy today. It's not just that Betty White had to go to cable with her show, it's also that the channel she went to doesn't get watched by the Water CoolerSet (though millions of others do watch). Hot In Cleveland airs on TV Land (and streams online at TV Land).

While the Water Cooler Set ignores it, this is the show that Betty won a SAG Award for (Best Supporting Actress) and was also nominated with her co-stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.

If the country had TV critics, not only would the show be noted, but it would be noted that on this 100th year of Lucy, four women got a nod for comedy ensemble. It would be noted that Hot In Cleveland continues the ground breaking that I Love Lucy did fifty years ago.

Not only was Lucy the star, but she had a best friend, Ethel (Vivian Vance). They were a comedy team, one of TV's first female comedy teams. Many have followed including Laverne and Shirley, Christine and Barb, Cybill and Maryann, Mary and Sandra, Nell and Addy, Fran and Val and Mary and Rhoda. But Lucy and Ethel remain the template. Hot In Cleveland expands the comedy team from a duo to a quadruple.

All four actresses are allowed to shine and strut down comedy avenue.

And if you had TV critics today, they'd wonder why that was. Specifically why Valerie was so funny on One Day At A Time and is so funny on Hot In Cleveland? And if they asked that question, they could explore how Sydney destroyed her sitcom career. How and why. Because CBS was doing the same thing they did in the almost spin-off on One Day At A Time that the world's now forgotten about.

No, not the talked of spin-off of Barbara (Valerie) and her mother Ann (Bonnie Franklin) and not the filmed pilot where maintance man Schneider ends up taking care of his young relatives. There was another option. And it was folded into several episodes of One Day At A Time. It was to be Barbara and Mark (Boyd Gaines) and wacky roommates including Eight Is Enough's Susan Richardson as Eloise. But it just wasn't funny. They not only didn't make for a pilot (the two episodes), they were among the worst of the series.

The problems were the same in both Sydney and that planned spin-off: Valerie wasn't allowed to be funny. In the two One Day At A Time episodes, funny bits go to the new guys (Thom Bray and Jerry Houser) with any left overs tossed to Susan Richardson. In Sydney, there was also fear of Valerie being funny. She's not a kid anymore, CBS felt, she can't be wacky. (Valerie was 15 when she started playing Barbara Cooper.) You had a natural comedienne. Someone who could make audiences laugh. And CBS was repeatedly afraid to use that gift.

And the story of CBS' Fear Of Valerie Bertinelli really is the modern story of women in comedy. Ask any of the women who've made you laugh in the last 20 years and most of them will be able to share a story. Roseanne can tell you all about how, before she took control of her show, all the funny lines were going to other characters even though her stand up act was the basis for the show. At least she was on ABC. If she'd been on CBS, she would have gotten the axe regardless of rations (as many women went on to find out). Ask Cybill Shepherd about CBS telling her what was and wasn't appropriate for a woman to do on TV -- over and over they told her. Over and over she fought. And when she won and the audiences loved the moment CBS tried to kill, it just made the network all the angrier at her. Not only had she done something they thought wasn't 'feminine,' but the audience had loved her for doing it. Go back even further and ask Cher to tell you about CBS, about when she did a solo variety show between her two Sonny & Cher variety shows. Things that were fine and dandy -- lines and costumes -- when she was a married woman were suddenly forbidden on her solo variety show. CBS was forever worrying about lines and costumes not being 'appropriate.' Talk to those working on The New Adventures Of Old Christine and ask about how CBS was forever whining, "Does Christine have to do that?" Yeah, because it's funny, the show's a sitcom and she's the lead character.

What is so revolutionary about Hot In Cleveland is that no one has to be pretty and sweet. Not even Valerie's character. She gets in the mix, with a glued-on beard one episode, groping a female rock star another, breaking up with her son's girlfriend via text (while posing as her son), and on and on. Valerie being funny isn't an obstacle to overcome, it's the reason she's on the show. And Wendie Malick was hilarious as Nina Van Horn (Just Shoot Me!) that it was painful to watch her on Jake In Progress as the writers did nothing with her character over and over. Big Day offered her even less of a character but she flooded the role and had you believing that the show might take off (it never did). As the one-time soap opera star Victoria Chase, Malick's striking comedy gold in every episode. Jane Leeves will forever be Daphne Moon, the character she played on Fraiser, but we always thought she was allowed to show off her chops better as Blue on Throb ("That's not Carly Simon, it's Mick Jagger!"). Blue was more central to the action and so is Jane's new character Joy who has a love-hate relationship with Betty White's Elka.

And we're back to Betty White. From 1952 to 1955, she did Life With Elizabeth. White had no female co-stars. In the 70s, she found new applause and recognition as Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, following that in the 80s with the female ensemble of The Golden Girls. Now she's in all new female ensemble and still winning laughs and applause. To be a comedy legend, and Betty White is one, means you do things that shock, that stun and that never stop being funny. Lucille Ball understood it and that's why she remains America's beloved Lucy, all these years and years later.

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