Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Don't hail Brooklyn Nine Nine as the future of comedy yet: Straight-Man-Funny Man Dichotomy

Brooklyn Nine Nine is starting to get a little bit of critical steam now that it won the Golden Globe for best comedy.

Erik Adams at the AV Club just posted an article: Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn't TV's best comedy---But It's Getting there. In an effort to stop the  critical Brooklyn Nine Nine train from turning into a massive bandwagon, I'm going to put my foot in the ring and caution other critics to praise it as the next big thing just yet. I previously included Brooklyn Nine Nine on my 2013 list of shows that didn't measure up and I'll expand upon it here.

First, let's talk about the Golden Globes:
Anyone who uses the Golden Globes as a barometer for critical temperature should note that the Hollywood Foreign Press is composed of some 90-odd part-time journalists who only have the illusion of importance. The only reason anyone pays attention to them is because they finangled their way to a TV deal with NBC in the early 1960's (a contract that was dropped from 1968-1972 when the FCC questioned their voting procedures). If they line up with other awards, it's largely coincidence if you look at it statistically and in the case that the Golden Globes does something idiosyncratic, it should be taken as a fluke.

The Golden Globe nominees in the comedy film category have included Patch Adams, There's Something About Mary, The Tourist, Alice in Wonderland (the Tim Burton version), Analyze This and Sydney Pollack's highly forgettable remake of Sabrina. No one else has followed suit in honoring any of those films and I suspect no one has even rented these films from Blockbuster..errr, I mean Netflix

Adams also points out that it's rare for a show to dominate critical buzz early, but it's worth pointing out that 30 Rock (which really was a juggernaut in its first season), Arrested Development, Modern Family all won in their first year of Emmys eligibility, and the Office won in its second season after a first season that was just six episodes.

Now, let's talk about Brooklyn Nine Nine:

The show makes sense from a dollars-and-sense perspective. Andy Samberg is pretty hot coming off a highly visible 7-year SNL run and Mike Schur (Brooklyn Nine Nine's co-creator) was able to custom-cater a hit smash to ex-SNL cast member Amy Poehler's comic persona with "Parks and Recreation."

The problem with trying to do the same for Andy Samberg is that Samberg was never a particularly capable live performer (a decent impressionist at times, I admit) and that capturing lightning in a bottle for Samberg would involve taking over a great deal of Samberg's highly off-beat wackiness with him. To try to  put Samberg into any sort of straight sitcom is problematic from the start.

On top of that, Schur chose to make Samberg a cop, and not just a cop, but a homicide detective. Why they picked the most clich├ęd setting in TV show history as a vehicle for a comic actor who no one would ever picture as a police detective is beyond me.

Samberg is wacky beyond compare here and lacks a straight man to balance him out.

A straight-funny man dichotomy requires someone grounded in reality which is ironic because Greg Daniels and Mike Schur's first two series (The Office and Parks and Recreation) were known for their hyper-reality.

Take the example of 30 Rock:
Liz Lemmon is the straight man to everyone except in episodes where Tina is going a little bit off the rails and then Pete Hornberger acts as her straight man. As evidence of this, in episodes that don't feature Liz's neuroses, Pete has noticeably less screen time.

30 Rock tends to isolate their demented characters (the ubervain Tracy/Jenna duo, the ubermoral country bumpkin Kenneth, and the ubersnob Jack) and play them off the straight man. That doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't plenty of Tracy/Kenneth interactions but it means that the form of bizarreness is happening in isolation. When Tracy and Jenna are being self-centered showbiz type, it's usually countered with a strong balance by Liz or Pete reacting to Tracy and Jenna as if they're behavior is bizarre. Similarly, Liz (especially in Season 1) is highly stressed out by Jack because he's a bizarre boss making bizarre requests (like that episode where he misleads her into thinking he needs a great joke that night because he's wearing a tuxedo) is another example of bizarreness in isolation played against a straight man. In short, the straight-man-funny-man dichotomy on 30 Rock is one of very sharp contrasts (from 3 different sources) which is used to good effect.

Back to Brooklyn Nine Nine:
In Brooklyn Nine Nine, we have one character acting really bizarrely for a police detective rather than having a sharp contrast between him and the rest of the world, various characters like Boyle cheering him on and adding one liners on top of the mix, and characters like Diaz and Santiago who  join in sometimes and are sometimes dismissive of him for being an immature man-child. Boyle, in particular, is troubled, because he occupies an odd middle ground between class clown wannabe, shy guy, and straight man.

In short, there isn't a good distinction between the clowns and the straight men in this cast. Andre Braughter's character, Ray Holt, is a very grave and stern man. He almost works but a straight man isn't about being gravely serious to the point that where your grave seriousness is a comic trait.
A straight man, rather, is about bouncing off the funny in a way that establishes a comic baseline. Even if Holt were a perfect foil, so many of the characters are wacky, that it doesn't work. If we were to take Holt seriously, he'd have fired well over half the staff by the third episode which runs into the problem that we'd no longer have a show. 

On top of that, we'd have Chelsea Peretti who's a brilliant cloud cuckoolander in that she's so bizarre but she doesn't mesh well with the rest of the cast. The upside is that Peretti would kill on any other show with that character and I look forward to seeing that happen if this show gets cancelled.

What's the net effect of this? Som might point out that even if there's not a good straight man, characters are still saying funny things and since we're all still laughing, isn't that the point of a comedy? I'd argue it renders any attempt at pathos or sentimentality ineffective because I'm taken out of the realism completely which keeps it from being a show who's characters I want to follow week in and week out.

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