Saturday, October 23, 2010

How 30 Rock Lost my Dad and the Implications Therein

First off, I finally got around to posting a new column at the examiner where I write about the film industry: Jackass 3-D: A Deserving Box Office Champ or the Decline of Civillization. Do please check it out, because that's my professional outlet and my job is to get readers on that site (not this one, even if I'm spending more time here).

Second, thank you to a number of friends who supported me and expressed interest in me when I told the news that I was being considered for an A.V. Club position.

I recently had the experience of watching 30 Rock a couple weeks ago with a somewhat culturally outdated man (my dad-a guy I love and apologize to in advance for ragging on) who was unaware until then that any good TV has come on the air since "Frasier" and "Seinfeld." His sensibilities were trained for laugh-track TV and I could tell that he was disoriented by the lack of a laugh-track and unprepared to give the show’s funny moments the benefit of the doubt unless something hit him in a familiar way as laugh-out loud funny. The end result was that he laughed less than I thought he would.

It was also a little bit of an off-week. When 30 Rock reverts to the same “Liz’s love life is awry” or “Tracy goes crazy” plots, the humor can get tired and stale. Last night was a better episode. Laughwise, it would have worked on my dad but it also would have worked on me (wait, it didn’t theoretically work on me, it did work on me because I was there. Sorry, getting my tenses confused) and rewarded me more on second-viewing. Last night’s 30 Rock worked in so many ways that it reminded me of that feeling I had in the first two seasons of watching a masterpiece unfold.

In the larger sense, I thought the “Reaganism” analogy was lame but the idea of Jack having a perfect day (without the term “Reaganing it” that they coined for this episode) lent itself to hilarity and two things about the episode felt inspired to me: 1) The way Jack fixed Liz’s psychosexual problem was so bizarre that it was more a satire on psychology than something to be taken at face value. It came off to me as a parody of the Hitchkock movie “Spellbound” but I have a feeling that the writers weren’t even thinking of "Spellbound" and were just going for general zaniness and 2) I loved the idea of rich movie stars jumping on board a scheme to rob Caravel ice cream of hundreds of dollars. It slowly pushed the boundaries of believability until it slid right out from under our feet.

But I want to focus more on the things I got when I viewed the show a second time. Some of those things were:
-“Let’s take a quick 500” which came off another zinger “Scripts get in the way of my process, Shawn. Let’s just shoot 100 of these and see what we get”: There is so much to admire things in these combined three lines. It demonstrates two of Tracy’s character traits extremely well: 1) He’s selfish and is a pain to everyone around him (his director is already bitter at him for messing up his last movie) but he’s oblivious to this trait which makes him likeable and 2) Even though he’s clearly insane, he has a consistency to it (if he needs 100 takes to nail one line, he’s going to also need 500 minutes of rest). I also love the way “quick” proceeds “500” as if there’s any way to “quickly” proceed about a stoppage of work that runs eight hours and fifteen minutes longer than the industry standard.
-“Could you put a human on the phone?” It took me until a second viewing to realize Kenneth was, in fact, talking to an animal. Humor really makes me laugh sometimes by getting me to ask hypotheticals. I’m right now thinking: Exactly how is an animal going to put a human on the phone and will that break Kenneth’s illusion that an animal can listen to him when the animal fails to abide by his request?
-Also on the hypothetical note….this one’s more obvious “You did it sir…a day of perfect problem solving….gifts have been coming in all over” This is funny because your mind goes to so many hypotheticals such as how people can be sending him gifts so quickly, how people can possibly know about his perfect day, etc…..
-“A couple hundred dollars [Is all you need]? I can help you out but first I’m gonna need $50 to get started” –Kelsey Grammar in a wonderful guest role
“Yes, you are the sexual equivalent of a million Hindenburgs, but….”-Jack, on a good day, comforting Liz
-“Forget it, I didn’t have a perfect day” –This wasn’t so much the line itself but the way Alec Baldwin said it with the gravity of Jack Bauer on “24”
-“Slip and falls”: The vernacular for the con-game Jenna and her mom used to play at grocery stores.
-“I don’t understand what you’re saying, but I like that it has the word ‘we’ in it” Evidently, this is all it takes to ask Kenneth to betray a moral code so strong that he was willing to shoot himself rather than adhere to lifeboat ethics.
-“I’ll do stuff with the dog, but I get to pick the dog.”–A soliciting prostitute who has her list of demands.

And most importantly this one because it leads to my next point:
-“I’m a real woman, not some oversexed nympho like those sluts from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’” 30 Rock often does this. They take a random sentence in the dialogue, play it entirely straight in delivery and put it in the context of an entire conversation or scene that isn’t particularly humorous except for one single substitution of one thing for another.

It’s almost as if they’re misleading you away from the laugh by stacking that one joke on either side with so much non-funny material. In the episode I saw with my dad, the A-plot was tied together with a dramatic confrontation scene between Jack Donaghy and a Queen Latifah’s congresswoman character. The final third of this line was the only humorous bit in the entire scene: “The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things, the next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas, the third generation snowboards and takes improv classes.” This was one of those things too subtle for my dad to get but I caught it.

This got me thinking: In order for someone like my dad (and he is a very smart guy, I don’t mean to be ragging on him so much) to be on board “30 Rock,” it would help if he got a lot more jokes on first viewing. Why would "30 Rock" want to lead its viewers away from the jokes? A laugh track would guide him towards the funny like a highlighted used-textbook might help a college student study.

Chuck Klosterman’s book “Eating the Dinasour” has an expose in it answering the question about why shows don’t use laugh tracks: It’s condescending to tell the audience when to laugh. It’s considered smarter and more sophisticated and that’s a good convention to follow. Shows that have laugh tracks tend to be “ghettoized” although there is room for a few of them on the schedule because occasionally older viewers (like my dad) like the nostalgic old-timey shows too.

Maybe it's important to consider that it's not pure nostalgia. In the interest of attracting a broad audience, laugh tracks have merit because they ensure that the better jokes hit their targets (AKA my dad). Remember that "30 Rock" is on a network that was so desperate to climb out of 3rd or 4th in the ratings that they displaced a third of their programming last year for a comic who by all accounts is mediocre simply because he attracts a broad audience. Having a comedy line-up entirely devoid of laugh track shows makes the lesser established shows ("Parks and Recreation," "Community," and "Outsourced") hard to distinguish from each other and sometimes invites unnecessary critical comparisons. I am actively rooting for every comedy NBC currently has to stay on the schedule so I'm not advocating going back to the drawing board. I am suggesting, however, that the newer comedies that might not be performing well in a critical or ratings sense, "Parks" and "Outsourced," do face unique challenges which we need to consider. I am also saying in the future: Don't rule out a show with a laugh track.

No comments: