June 20, 2006 | Comments ()

By Seth Freilich | TV | June 20, 2006 |


My original goal this week was to write “The State of Summer TV.” But I’m going to have to save my praise of “Rescue Me,” “Deadwood” and “Entourage” for another day (and if you missed the last season of “The Wire,” that should be on your Sunday night HBO lineup as well). Ditto for my borderline animosity toward “Windfall,” my indifference to “Last Comic Standing,” and my slight anticipation of “Rock Star” (July 5, CBS), “Brotherhood” (July 9, Showtime), and “The Office” webisodes (July 13, NBC.com). The reason for the change in direction is HBO’s other new shows, “Lucky Louie” and “Dane Cook’s Tourgasm.” As I was watching them both, sitting in a fluctuating state of loathing and boredom, I found my thoughts drifting to the nature of comedy in general and stand-up comedy in particular. So with this column as well as my next one, that’s what I’m going to be talking about, within the context of “Lucky Louie” this week and “Tourgasm” next week. It’s a little self-indulgent, perhaps, and you can feel free to flame me in the comments, but fuck it — it’s my column.

Now I’ll acknowledge right off the bat that comedy is subjective. To my mind, it’s probably one of the most subjective of the art forms. You need look no further than the just-vomited-on-the-public Nacho Libre. While I loathed it from the first moment I heard of it, I had several friends wildly anticipating it, and when I saw the trailer my groans were entirely outweighed by the majority’s laughter. Or take “Arrested Development,” which myself and others loved dearly, but which the vast majority of television watchers couldn’t give two shits about. So I acknowledge that I may not find funny the same shit you find funny, and vice versa. I just happen to be right, and you happen to be wrong.

… just kidding. Sort of.

Also, at the outset, let me make it clear that I don’t think comedy is easy. Comedic writing is fucking hard, be it jokes, monologues, stories, whatever. And pulling off a good comedy performance, either acting or stand-up routines, is just as hard (albeit for very different reasons). Back in my L.A. days, I was friends with a few low-low-low-level stand-ups and ended up going to several open-mike and low-rent comedy shows. Watching the amount of crap there, as well as watching the few folks with potential working to hone their material and approaches, really emphasized this idea. And then it was brought home, with an exclamation point, at the funniest comedy show I’ve ever been to. It was at an L.A. hole-in-the-wall that comedians often use as a testing ground for new material. Among others, that night I saw David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Doug Benson. In addition to doing some regular bits, they were all trying out new material, much of it still written on little notebook pages or cocktail napkins. And I specifically remember David Cross going through one bit that fell totally flat. I’m talking crickets and tumbleweed. And there are only about 50 people in this small but fairly well-lit place, so he can see every face staring blankly at him. He just looked at his paper, looked out at us, said “well that fucking sucked,” and crumpled up the page. So even for those who know what they’re doing and are good at it, it’s a hard process.

Louis C.K. is one of those comedians who have gotten good at stand-up. I’ve watched several of his acts on various shows, and he always has me in hysterics. So I was totally psyched over the impending arrival of his new show “Lucky Louie,” HBO’s first multi-camera studio sitcom. But while his stand-up is hilarious, and his writing chops are clearly top notch (he even has an Emmy under his belt from his days writing “The Chris Rock Show”), man alive does this show blow. And there are two reasons, I think, why it doesn’t work.

First, there’s the language. Now I’m certainly not a prude about language. It’ll come as no surprise to regular readers (or even just those paying attention to the cusses that’ve already flown in this column) that I’m often described as having a trucker mouth. In fact, my father even scolded me for cussing too much in the house at last year’s Thanksgiving dinner. So I’m not offended or bothered by the show’s incessant use of vulgarity, but it just doesn’t work. For one thing, it’s distracting as hell. While attempting to make their dialogue sound more “natural” because they can say “fuck” and “shit,” it all just feels overly unnecessary, indulgent and cheap. And it certainly doesn’t have to — take, for example, “Deadwood.” I can’t think of any show, ever, that’s had more profanity, but I love those cocksuckers’ dialogue. The language is used artfully, giving an ambiance to the setting and helping to define the characters. It adds to the show’s style. But with “Lucky,” it’s just distracting and detracting.

I recently watched a great BBC show that someone chopped up and put on YouTube, “Ricky Gervais Meets Larry David”. One of the many things Ricky and Larry talked about was the use of vulgarity in comedy and how good comedy shouldn’t always go for the crutch of the automatic laugh that comes with a “shit” or “fuck.” Sure, there are times they go for the cuss-related laugh — for example, they discussed the hilarious season finale of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where Larry’s new restaurant turned into maelstrom of vulgarities thanks to the new chef’s Tourette’s Syndrome. But going that route is the exception to the rule on “Curb,” which actually makes it funnier when they go there. When a show’s dialogue is simply littered with vulgarity for no apparent reason other than that because it can be, as it is with Louie and Company, its actually pretty grating. “I can cuss? Well, wait till these fuckers see how much I can throw into a 30-minute show. Fuck yeah. … cunt.”

The second, and larger, problem with the show is its overall feel and structure — its vibe. It comes off like quick and cheap skit versions of his act, and everything is getting lost in the translation. The “plotlines” themselves, like this week’s “my wife doesn’t orgasm,” are tired and have been rehashed an innumerable number of times. So they feel like nothing more than a vaginal receptacle within which he can insert the penile jokes from his act. And those jokes, while often downright hilarious in his act, fall like dead weights within the context of the show.

Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David did an unquestionably incredible job of creating a show that retained and was truthful to the nature and tone of their acts while being an independent and quality show in its own right. Ever since, comedians and the networks seem to think that any stand-up can readily and easily be translated into a successful sitcom, which we have learned time and time again simply isn’t true. “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” (while I never loved it, it certainly was a hit) are the exceptions to the rule. For every “Home Improvement” (not really a good show, but don’t forget that it was a big hit for a while there and, admittedly, it did an excellent job of morphing jailbird Tim Allen’s act into a workable, though repetitive, show) there are a dozen steaming piles of “Norm,” “Titus,” and “Boston Common.” And “Lucky Louie” fits squarely within that latter category.

One of my favorite stand-ups, Patton Oswalt (who appears on “The King of Queens”), has discussed the issue of comedians and sitcoms and has said that for him and his friends, the sitcom isn’t the goal, it’s simply a means to allowing them to continue doing their stand-up (by putting money in their pockets and giving them wider exposure). I have absolutely no problem with that, even if you want to call it, to some degree, selling out (though I would differ on the point). But what I do have a problem with is that I think many folks over the last decade have gotten involved in stand-up not to be stand-ups, but to land a sitcom. I’m particularly reminded of the loathsomely unfunny Dat Phan, winner of the original “Last Comic Standing,” who didn’t try to hide the fact that this was exactly why he was doing comedy. This type of mentality hurts the quality of the sitcoms that ultimately get stuffed down our throats and it especially hurts the quality of stand-up comedy. While these folks may work on their stage presence, delivery and charisma (where and when they actually have some form of these things to work on in the first place), they neglect their material.

I’ll again turn to Ricky Gervais, who told Larry David about going to see an L.A. comedy show the night before their interview. He was struck by how interchangeable each comedian was. Everyone used “what the fuck?!” as their repeated punchline, and the general gist of everyone’s act was “my ethnicity is fill-in-the-blank, and my parents didn’t want me to be a stand-up comedian because … retch.” Now, the notion of mining your own personal history is certainly an important component of good comedy, but you’ve got to make it unique by inserting your perspective and giving the story a voice. And that’s one of those things about comedy that I was specifically referring to when I acknowledged just how fucking hard it is to do well. But those with sitcom glints in their eyes skip this necessary and often grueling stage of the process. I don’t necessarily think they’re lazy (not all of them, anyway), I just think they’re taking the easy way out because the endgame has changed. And that’s certainly not their fault. That’s the damn networks’ fault for plugging it into our heads that “stand-up comedy equals sitcom.”

However, there’s hope on the horizon. If you look over the sitcom landscape, with the exception of “Everybody Hates Chris,” the crop of the truly quality shows aren’t coming from the “based on my act” angle, they’re coming from the angle of plot and characters and good fucking writing. “Entourage,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” and “My Name is Earl” all come from this place, and that’s certainly an encouraging trend, both for sitcoms and, ultimately, for stand-ups. In fact, when HBO advertises “Lucky Louie” as “the death of the sitcom as you know it,” I don’t think they realize how prescient they may actually be.

Next Week: With Dane Cook as our tour guide and, if we can overcome the boredom, we’ll delve a bit deeper into the world of stand-up comedy and hopefully come out relatively unscathed.

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Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He lives in Washington, D.C., and couldn’t be happier that summer “intern season” is finally here.







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Two Tragedies of Comedy, Act I

"Lucky Louie" / The TV Whore

June 20, 2006

TV | June 20, 2006 | Comments ()



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