Thursday, September 29, 2005

The essence of funny

Many topics, when discussed by an American and a European, have the potential to lead not only to misunderstanding, but to all-out conflicts. These include George W. Bush (perhaps less than others, because most Americans who dare venture out of their land are of the sort that hang their head and apologize), that version of Rugby where you can pass forward and people wear half their weight in kevlar, and the handling characteristics of the Dodge Viper.

But even in this fine company one topic stands apart. And that is American comedy.

America's undying efforts to export its mass culture have led to the current state of anything popular in the States being taken over by Old World networks. I do not need to prove to anyone that the trend has reached epidemic proportions, with things released on an unsuspecting public which should not be. Survivor was actually invented by the Swedes, and while we're going to have a long, hard talk with them about it, we can't really grumble too much. But now one of Small Country's two major networks has produced a local version of The Simple Life, and thus a new low has been reached in television history.

Some American exports have enjoyed their well-deserved success in the Old World (mainly The Simpsons), but this is a rare occurence. Unscrupulous promoters attempt to run anything that was popular in America; unfortunately for them, we have been spoiled rotten by British comedy. From this stems the theme of many an altercation between folks from both sides of the pond:
I'm sorry, but Family Guy is desperately unfunny.

It is a show beloved by the absolute majority of US residents. I can recognize why that is - it's based on mixed metaphors, subtle references and distinctive characters; and in American TV, anything not obscene is considered intellectual. The trouble is, it isn't properly good. The techniques involved have been proved to produce results, but they are used without much talent; it's like a 10-year-old's first effort to make British comedy. While Family Guy does exceed comparable US cartoons by a comfortable margin, it cannot escape the national tradition. The authors attempt to produce comedy by a brute-force assault on social conventions; the show is not exactly obscene, but it centers on flaunting its disregard for propriety, and this in itself is not enough to make it funny. Family Guy is unable to reach escape velocity, and is thus still closer to South Park than My Family.

No matter how much Americans try, they keep tripping over themselves. Team America was the best effort in recent memory, and they still couldn't help themselves, making the lead character throw up for minutes, The Fast and the Furious style. Considering the radical Dicks and Pussies monologue, and the gem that is Derka Derka Mohammed Jihad, the disappointment can hardly be measured.

The overwhelming majority of American comedy is sitcoms. This may well be the fundamental flaw: relying on the situation to make comedy. When Americans do a show about nothing, they put the characters in contrived circumstances and expect Jerry Seinfeld to pull the show out by the bootstraps, inflicting mental pain on the audience until they concede. When Brits do a show about nothing, they get Spaced.

Not that Britain doesn't have a lot to answer for, comedically. It may seem to be the land of great comedy, with even the figure-obsessed field of automotive journalism enriched by stars like Anthony ffrench-Constant, former CAR Magazine contributor Alexei Sayle, and the inimitable Jeremy Clarkson; but it can, and does, produce thorough crap. But while we can still trace the roots of (fairly) modern efforts like Black Books to the all-time masterpiece that was Yes, Minister, it is in an entirely different league.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This probably is an internal culture thing, but when you watch U.S. politics on U.S. TV, you don't get discourse. You get talking points and people trying to complicate issues in the hope that you'll give up trying to follow it and just nod your head.

The topical humor of South Park, and to a lesser extent Family Guy, comes from the fact that those shows take the opposite approach. They'll take a complex issue, or one that's been made artificially complex, and simplify it into sledgehammer form. Then they'll write "symbolism" in big block letters on the sledgehammer and hit you with it.

And though I'm making fun of it, it's not without its charm as a comedic style; humor is about dichotomies, and representing an issue as serious and complex as stem cell research using a fat kid who wants to grow them into a fast-food restaurant is about as dichotomic as it gets.


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