Saturday, May 2, 2015
TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #10: COMBINING OF SKETCH AND TALK, AND QUALITY ANALYSIS
Morning Class. Hey, now! I know it's been awhile since our last class, I know some of you turned in your homework's already, to the rest of you, pass it up, if you did it. I hope you did. And, you all know that this classroom session was shot to hell a few months back.
For those of you just joining, you're ten classes behind so you might want to catch up, but basically we're finishing up our section on Variety programs and I had separated that into two classes previously, one on talk show variety shows and one on sketch comedy variety shows and we were going to then discuss how both of those genres were combined to form the modern Primetime Variety Show. Until the Primetime Emmys announced, they're not two separate kinds of Variety. So, there goes that class.
(Throws away folder of notes into a nearby trashcan)
I know, I know, Whomp-wa. Well, it makes sense actually, part of the reason I thought they needed to be separated was because of how different they can be, so in that sense not that unforeseeable. The thing is is that Variety in some aspects is still a bit of a combination Talk and Sketch. I've probably mentioned "The Jack Benny Program" a few times, because it really is sorta somebody was just given a half-hour of television and carte blanche to do anything he wanted and he took advantage of it. On that show, much of the time, he used a more traditional Variety Show format where he would bring out a guest for that week, and there was always a guest star, and they would have a conversation about the star and maybe if they were a singer or a comic they'd perform a bit, and then, you'd see them show up in a sketch, oftentimes making light of their career in some way. It seems like the perfect bare combination of sketch and talk, and you still see variations of this, for instance, on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon", when a musical guest will perform a famous song of there's using classroom instruments instead of more traditional rock/pop instruments. (This is usually before they come out for the interview section) However, if you take a closer look at "The Jack Benny Program", you'll realize something else about those interview segments. They're not always interviews actually. In fact usually, they're just as scripted as the full-fledge sketch acts that are performed. Sometimes it's more obvious than others, and certainly if you had somebody like Bob Hope guest appearing, there might be more ad-libbing, but guest aren't always great at that.
Even on Variety Shows, today. Every talk show has a talent booker that does pre-interviews with all the guests on the shows to come with interesting topics of conversation that could make the guest look good, engaging, entertaining and keep the show moving. You ever notice how on "Saturday Night Live", how, when there's a host with only a limited background in comedy, especially if it's somebody who isn't an actor, perhaps a famous athlete, how they sometimes resort to doing the "Questions from the Audience" monologue? Yeah, that's not just an homage/parody of Carol Burnett that's done as a way to hide the host's lack of abilities and to move the attention onto their more seasoned sketch performers. This is why you'll notice that certain people will show up on those kinds of shows more often than others, some are more natural variety show guests than others. Smart celebrities actually prepare for it, Adam Sandler always does stand-up before being a guest on a talk show and actually hones the material that he'll talk about as a guest. It'll be a little different since it'll be told in a different context, but he's more-than-talented enough to adjust and improvise with someone. James Corden's introduced this more British style of a talk show structure, where instead of a one-on-one interview with his guests, he brings out all his guests at once and let them play off of each other as well as him. Graham Norton is probably the most famous for doing this across the pond, although Dick Cavett did that a version of this as well although when he did it, it took more of the form of a roundtable discussion, it seems more like "Washington Week" than variety. (Although Larry Wilmore's got some success at this so far.)
Until sketch comedy started breaking out into it's own new genre, well, not entirely new, but basically starting breaking away from the traditional talk or classic variety format, (By classical variety, I mean something like "The Ed Sullivan Show", which really was mostly a variety of different kinds of performers and performances) and just started very strictly focusing on sketch, the was always this combination of talk and sketch, some more sketch, some more talk, but both skills were basically needed. It's partly because of how "SNL" really inevitably ended up the last real variety show that showcase the sketch comedy, at least in America that the backlash to this primarily sketch-based programming started taking shape. There's definitely other influences, especially from other countries, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" for instance from England, and Canada had "Kids in the Hall" and "Bizarre" that would air on pay cable in America, but I think most would agree that the real first shot in this was actually "In Living Color". That one had guests performer, rarely if ever, did it have a host and the only musical performances it had were dancers known as the Fly Girls and they were marginalized as the show went on. It also showcase the Wayans Brothers, and Damon Wayans in particular, was infamous at that time for having been fired from "SNL", after switching characters during a live performance. The show also famously switched the typical predominately white cast format of "SNL" and went with a mainly African-American cast, but even more than that, what it really showed was that it was possible for more unique artists out there who might not be ready for Primetime, to create their own little niche of sketch instead. This is where "Key & Peele", "Broad City", "Portlandia", "Inside Amy Schumer"'s have come about and there were quite a few before too, especially in recent years they found a home on cable. Curiously except for "In Living Color" and for a while on "MADTV", this idea of more unique voices doing sketch, just didn't work on network television in recent years. It always had before of course, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Sonny & Cher, even Donny & Marie had success with their own brand of sketch variety and to be completely honest, those were the bottom of variety barrel, but "The Ben Stiller Show" last 13 episodes and frankly nobody saw them until they caught on years later and that's the most successful of this group. You remember "The Dana Carvey Show"? "The Paula Poundstone Show"? "She TV"? "Cedric the Entertainer Presents" "The Colin Quinn Show"? No? I guess you could blame those failures on the lack of publicity or frankly the fact that these shows weren't particularly great or even good, although I thought some of them were, but I think it was also difficult to publicize a variety show, particularly sketch, on Network, that's not on Late Night, at least anymore. Arguably, "SNL"'s most successful competitor was a show called "Fridays", that actually beat in the ratings in 1980, but when the show moved to 8:00pm after being bumped by what would become the show "Nightline", they fell off. That's the other way "SNL" changed the game, they didn't just go after a younger crowd and demographic, since they were edgier in their material and from there on in, sketch comedy itself is now regarded as an edgier form of comedy than the sitcom. It's always been satire, going back to Sid Caesar, but there weren't too many people who did imitations of Nixon, for instance. Even something like "Laugh-In" was silly and referential, while sketch became more confrontational than any other form of comedy. Dana Carvey can do a lot of voices, sure, but that's not really enough for an alternative to "SNL".
Well, talk, sketch, Variety, whatever you want to call it, how can you tell when they're good or not? And which ones are the best, or more importantly why are they the best? Especially with talk shows, it's a far more blurred line than ever, because there's more of them out right now. But let's approach it some other way. How can you tell when someone's a bad talk show host? Obviously some people are more adept at it than others. John McEnroe didn't last long, did he? You probably didn't know he had a Primetime talk show at one point, did you? Well, he's not overly charismatic, he's not a natural comedian, he's not known for interviewing people too often, although it is apart of his job when he's commentates sports, something he does know, but yeah, it's not that surprising he wasn't that good at it. It's a tricky thing to determine, 'cause everybody is different. People questioned Jay Leno's interview skills at one point early in his reign as host of "The Tonight Show", but even at his worst there's numerous differences between his interview skills and David Letterman's style of interviewing his guests. Leno became more adept according to most but neither approach is more or less correct than the other. A full set of skills is needed, knowing how to use them is second and then the third is probably the ability to mold and shape the show into their own. A representation of the host that's both natural and comforting that also fits the show's style and is entertaining. This rarely happens immediately. Even Carson's early months are painful to watch sometimes. It's a skill and it requires practice. It's a lot of preparation to make it look that natural, or in some cases, unnatural like Craig Kilbourn would go for at times. Meanwhile, sketch comedy might only require now a visionary and talented artists' mind, matched with a unique and singular vision. Hell, you can basically just get your friends together pretty much and now you've got a critically-acclaimed sketch show. That's why it's still hard to knock "Saturday Night Live" off it's pedestal. When Dave Chappelle quit, there was no more "Chappelle's Show". You can't replace him. This is why it's hard-to-believe in some ways that Sketch has managed to succeed in separating itself enough from Talk to warrant a new Emmy category. "Saturday Night Live" is not based around one person's unique vision. Yes, Lorne Michaels is still the man in charge and giving the show it's final say, but even he left for a couple years there, but now there's been numerous head writers and there's certain more-than-enough acolytes of Michaels out there to believe that if/when he does ever exit "SNL" that the show will live on in the current structure and format he intended, and that format is also intended to evolve over the years. The kind of humor in "SNL" in the late '70s is very different than the humor that they use today. With so many options, preferences, and styles out there right now, it almost has become a matter of preference. There's a reason why there's so many Variety Talk and Variety Sketch shows around and it's not just because there's more options and avenues out there for them to exist, it's that for the most part, they're funny. At the top of their game, good, in their own ways and able to carve out a spot that's a clear visual representation of their own image and the freedom to do, mostly whatever to them seems funny. It's a bizarre thing to really think about, but for the most part, these are all funny shows. Some more than others, I would question anybody's judgment who thinks "Mind of Mencia" was a great sketch comedy series, but even then, that's probably as great a depiction of his style of humor and strengths as anything else he could've done. (And lord knows what anybody saw in Tom Green that made him unfortunately famous.)
The thing that hurts shows like these, especially when compared to a behemoth like "SNL" in particular for sketch is that since they are the visions of a particular comic mind(s), they then end up becoming dated rather quickly. Satire itself is pointed and much of it at the culture and events of the time. Out of context that doesn't mean these shows, especially some of the more political ones, they don't always hold up over time. This is one of the reasons why "The Carol Burnett Show" still remains relevant, she's funny, but she's not really satirical. Mostly, she's famous for doing parodies of movies and broadway shows and most of those are still relevant in our culture. There was a character-based humor in that show's sketches. "The Family" sketches, that some of you might refer to as "Mama's Family", the sitcom that was spun off from those sketches, there's not an actual joke written in them. Sure, Tim Conway might always improvise something, but the humor comes from the characters and the situations, what they do and how they react. They play it seriously and it comes off as funny. (If somebody would tell Michael Patrick King that that's how "2 Broke Girl$" should work,- uh, nevermind.) Because she was able to be hilarious without going after the more obvious political and cultural characters of the day, her show holds up more. More than any other genre really, Variety, both talk and sketch, are time capsules, representations of the moments when they were occurring. Doesn't mean they aren't still funny and sometimes the comedy can transcend the time period, Dana Carvey still performs George Bush, some 20+plus years after his presidency ended, but it does mean that the material has a tendency to exist in a vacuum. Have any of you ever heard of Vaughn Meader? Probably not, but he became one of the most famous people in the world because of his comedy album "The First Family", last I checked, you can listen to it on Youtube and it's in the National Recording Registry. The whole album is of sketches where he played President John F. Kennedy and it took place inside the White House. He was renowned as having the best Kennedy impersonation ever and for a couple years he was the biggest star in comedy. Then, well, you can figure out what happened from here. After Kennedy's assassination, he spent much of the rest of his career aimlessly trying to seek out that fame again through numerous other avenues, and none of them particularly succeeded. Not only was material dated, but now it was tragically dated and nobody wanted to listen to it. Only really recently has his comedic genius really been rewritten into the comedy history books as we're not far enough away to look back at his most famous works. It's still incredibly funny if you ever want to give a listen and I highly recommend you do, but this is the risk you take regarding sketch comedy, especially satire.
It's cliche to say, but the best barometer of comedy, especially variety sketch and talk, is, well, timing. After you realize how talented you have to be to pull it off with even a modicum of success and eliminate those who aren't capable of doing it, everything else is timing. Remember how the Hugh Grant interview turned the ratings from Letterman to Leno, he had the perfect guest at the perfect time and with Leno as talented as he is, he didn't let the perfect timing slip by. This is why "Laugh-In" wouldn't work now, but did work then. Arsenio Hall tried again recently to recapture what he had in the late '80s and early '90s, but the timing was not there anymore. Maybe he lost his touch a bit, but still, that's why there's so few Johnny Carson's out there and why there's a bunch of Dennis Miller's. A lot of "Mr. Show"'s but just one "Saturday Night Live". Hell, "Sabado Gigante" finally got canceled recently, one of the last remnants of the classical variety structure on network television, sure Spanish Language television, but still.... Some are time capsules, others are mosaics of modern recent modern history, like a bound collection of a news magazine one of those ones that the library has with every copy of Life or something like that.
Alright, I know hasn't been a normal class and we've been way late with everything, so no homework tonight. Study up for the test. If you want extra credit, take a variety show, talk, sketch, classical, one that didn't last too long or hasn't lasted that long, if you want to do a modern one and talk about why it didn't or whether it won't or maybe it will, have the long-lasting legacy of say Carson, Letterman, SNL, etc., or ponder a show that could've had that legacy and ask why it didn't. Again, that's if you want extra credit. Keep an eye on your e-mails and Facebooks and whatnot and I'll let you know what we'll be studying next class.
Alright, see you all next class. (Tug on ear)