Sunday, February 06, 2011

Winter TV Show Update: Five Sketch Shows and Three New Shows

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My critique of various new TV shows:

1. With The Onion News Network, I thought it was odd that the pilot didn't put up the show's strongest material first. The first episode consisted of a 3 or 4-minute bit devoted to the guy who made the hand job and a white woman who will be tried as a black. The first segment is overly crude and the second is too oddly specific. Having seen and laughed at so many of their videos over the internet and you have to ask yourself how a creative time with such a higher rate of hits then misses can make such big mistakes in choosing material for its pilot.

The second episode got slightly better but the snow in New Orleans joke was overdone. The bits about congress forgetting how to pass a bill and escorts needed for women in the army were both hilarious but in two different ways: The former was more goofy and brash while the latter was a subtle bit of sharp satire that passed itself more as news. When the Onion writes a really memorable article or makes a really memorable video clip, it's the kind of thing you remember for days on end and tell everyone you know about. I also particularly enjoyed the bit on Martin Luther King's to make people sort of equal and have institutionalized racism rather than outright racism.

The show is smart to come up with a distinct format that runs from episode to episode. The anchor is memorably passive-aggressive and the guy working the infographic is clearly below her in the pecking order. There's also usually one running news story that the show goes back to two or three times; the closest thing they have to a motif. The anchor's passive-aggressive personality doesn't seem like it builds up towards a larger payoff. It's just a way to sprinkle the script with more laughs per minute and it's already run out of gas by the third episode.

Fans of the web videos will also recognize some of the same features. There are the cheery morning hosts (think a female and male version of Kelly Ripa) who act cheery when they're not supposed to. In the last episode, one of the reporters covered a town stoning of a teenage couple who's annoyingly affectionate and decided to join in. It was a pitch-perfect sketch with a very subtle escalation from normality to insanity (that's the key to a lot of sketch comedy).

There's also the "In the Know" panelists which takes the same kind of skewed off-center perspectives that characterize the Onion and put them in round table debate form. The internet versions of this involve five people and usually run a minute or two longer which allows the sketches to fully flesh out and escalate. Unfortunately, the "In the Know" segments are too short to get to that level.

2. Onion Sports Dome-Unlike Onion News Network, I feel like Sports Dome hit the ground running when it aired. It's the same creative team as ONN and the same style of comedy, so if I had to come up with a reason why one works better than the other, Sports Dome follows and parodies a single format very closely whereas ONN is simultaneously parodying the McLaughlin Group, morning talk shows, the CNN news desk, Fox-style infotainment, and more which requires a more delicate balance. Also, Sports Center and the greater realm of sports reporting in this country is just an area of humor that desperately needed its void to be filled.

3. Portlandia Fred Armisen and Carrie Bowenstein's brilliant new sketch series has much more in common with the Onion's TV shows than I would have originally thought. Their material has already been tested out on people through the internet and they stay well within the lines of parody much of the time. Their target is yuppie culture which is most exemplified by Portland, Oregon. I already read Stuff White People Like and would have thought that there wasn't much you could do that hasn't already been done with this theme, but Armisen and Bowenstein have an even sharper eye. It's as if you're looking at the culture through a microscope with a higher power of magnification. The sketches also are very well-structured as stand-alone pieces. The two sketches with the feminist bookstore owners are examples of how well the annoying cashiers can keep the sketch's momentum going so well with a sort of circular conversation that gets funnier as it goes along.

4. Funny or Die Presents-This came out last year but I watched my first episode very recently and found more of the sketches missing than hitting. Come to think of it, that's very true of the website as well. It's a lot more die than funny. Additionally, it's often the case that when it's funny, it's specifically because of the presence of a celebrity. Funny or Die, the TV show, is devoid of celebrity cameos and highlights the show's inconsistency. I fully disclose that it's based entirely on one episode, but that was the pattern I was seeing.

And lastly, one show that's not new, but I wanted to use as a basis of comparison.
5. College Humor Show This TV series was from 2009 and failed after a 6-episode run but the website's video section is as strong as ever. From a sketch-writing perspective, is strong. Their sketches are sharp, well-structured, escalate well with twists and turns, etc. The website's staff is also prolific producing a volume of quality sketches on a weekly basis that rivals Saturday Night Live. That being said, I feel like for such a large cultural force, there's very little commentary about this comedic institution. There's probably over 1,000 times more commentary on the internet written about SNL's failures than there is for I'm not sure if I'm that person considering I'm going to limit myself to a few minutes on a work break, but....

Still, there are two key problems to College Humor as a brand:
1. They haven't expanded their budget. They still shoot sketches in their office and their attempts to expand outside of their office in select sketches usually don't convince you that they're in an authentically different place. Sketches shot in an office with little or no illusion that it's somewhere else are reminiscent of the Sweded production trend that came out of the movie "Be Kind Rewind." Ironically, if you look at the credits section, you'll see that they have a crew devoted to the production: The short films have directors, production assistant and even a DP so they seem to take themselves seriously as film makers.

2. With the exception of Jake Hurwitz and Amir Bluminfeld when they're making their Jake and Amir skits,'s Hardly Working series doesn't care about establishing characters. There are about 8 or 9 regulars to the collegehumor series and they all pretty much have the same character traits. Dan Geurwitch is slightly nerdier than the rest but that's only if it serves the sketch. Considering Jake and Amir were able to make strong characters, it's a shame that no one else really has that skill.

Coming up....
Retired at 35, The Cape, Off the Map, Bob's Burgers and Mr. Sunshine

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