As a part of my studies in law school, I have read “The Path of Law,” a speech given by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In it, Holmes essentially revolutionizes then current legal thinking. He argues that the legal rules and concepts should be defined by their practical effect, not how their legal underpinnings, as all rules are rationalizations done by judges to justify their decision. Felix Cohen, in his essay “Transcendental Nonsense and the Functional Approach,” draws on Holmes’ thinking to conclude that a lawyer ultimately only has to consider two questions: how cases of a kind are decided by a court, and how, given societal values, should they be decided?
On Tuesday evening, on the train back into Queens, I was talking with Octavius about a comedy show we had just seen. We each gave our opinions on the performers, the jokes, the delivery, etc. And we explained to each other why we thought a particular bit did or didn’t work. As I stepped off the train, it occurred to me that we had just engaged in rationalization virtually identical to that seen by Holmes.
Now, obviously, there is far more general acceptance that comedy is a subjective experience than the law. Whether you laugh or not is a purely emotional response, and we accept that context is key. Yet, when a critic (and all performers are critics) reviews a stand-up album or episode of a sketch show or sitcom, they often seem to implicitly appeal to some higher ideal of comedy. A bit will be called “not funny” not because it just didn’t make the critic laugh, but because it was “too mean spirited” or “unoriginal”. But those terms are entirely contingent on the subjective experience of the reviewer. A critic will seldom, if ever, admit that they didn’t find something funny because they were having a bad day, or had been watching too much comedy too similar to that. In common conversation, such admissions occur more often, but ultimately we still appeal to some higher ideal of comedy. It is virtually identical to the legal thinking Holmes and Cohen discussed.
So, applying Holmes and Cohen style thought to comedy, I assert that there are only two questions a comedian should be considering: (1) will the joke get a laugh? (2) do you want to be the type of comedian that tells that joke? By this second point I do not mean you should justify your choices of joke by saying that you do “smart” comedy, or that you don’t do “reference” comedy. There are no good or bad comedic styles; choosing one will not make you a good or bad comedian. Rather, ask yourself if you want to perform in the clubs/media that those sorts of jokes get the best response in. Do you want to spend your time with the people who make those jokes? Answering those questions is how you will become a comedian that people like and that you like being.
Guys, I’ve kind of been obsessed with TV theme songs lately — the best of which, let’s be real, will always be this one:
The way the voice sighs during “takes everything you’ve got.” The way the logo appears and sparkles at the most upbeat moment. The way the actors’ names are superimposed over doppelgängers of the characters, as if they’re all just timeless descendants of the bar’s previous tribes. It’s also pretty catchy.
One of the reasons the Cheers theme song works, I think, is that it sticks to a theme, rather than trying to represent the more superficial elements of the show it introduces, such as specific actors. That’s a huge difference from something like, say, The Facts of Life, which tries to sum up what the show is with a lot of weird exposition (“There’s a place you gotta go/For learnin’ all you oughta know”) and awkward cuts to its cast silently mouthing various lines:
Unfortunately, this approach continued well into the ’90s (way after Cheers had shown how to do it right), but for some reason, they started eschewing the clips of silent dialogue for, instead, placing the characters into some setting separate from the show. Step by Step, for instance, put them in an amusement park:
Two things: filming the actors smiling at nothing at all for four seconds is much more awkward than showing a silent clip. Also, how adorable is Angela Watson?
I do kind of like later Roseanne‘s twist on the idea — showing its characters at various stages of their lives around the same kitchen table, which definitely supports that show’s premise of a working-class family sticking together even as the world constantly changes:
Then, of course, there was the Friends theme, which finally perfected this approach. It throws its characters around some fountain, shows us how they would genuinely interact with it (I love the shot of Joey on a pool floatie), and backs it all up with a song that defines the show without having to explicitly say, “They’re friends!” Beautiful:
Of course, there are lots of great sitcom intros even before Cheers (Green Acres) and after Friends (How I Met Your Mother and King of the Hill — heck, even Malcolm in the Middle — spring to mind), but TV themes have played a huge role in dramas, too.
My favorite intro of all time — save Cheers — might be Freaks & Geeks:
In just 45 seconds, we learn all we need to know about the main characters, mostly by the way they react to the same situation — sitting down for a yearbook photo. Lindsay wants so hard to be jaded, but she can’t help but show up in a cute sweater and flash a genuine good-girl smile; Sam dresses in a suit and still awkwardly fucks it up; Daniel tries way too hard to buck the system; Neil puts on a show; Ken actually doesn’t care; Nick, wearing a t-shirt under a blazer, is probably stoned; Bill does what he’s supposed to do — smile wide! — and yet understands the futility of it all. All while Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” blares in juxtaposition, reminding us that this is a show about how we all do care about our reputations, almost obsessively, to the point where we’re willing to ignore our actual identities to control them.
There are plenty of iconic intros: The Sopranos, with its sweeping images of Tony’s New Jersey kingdom; Law and Order, with its unmistakable melody and stenciled portraits; LOST’s single, swooping title that still recalls the joys of discovering that show’s mysteries.
I am troubled, though, by a particular iconic intro, and that’s this one (BONUS: Enjoy the remixed bit at the end!):
Mad Men‘s theme song seems like the wrong choice to me. I don’t know what it is. I like the image of a faceless man falling down a chasm of meaningless advertisements just to land in his office chair — that’s pretty cool, and represents the show fairly well. But I don’t understand why the theme needs to be this electronica bullshit. I suppose, on the one hand, the ultra-modern song backs up the thesis that we can’t move forward with our lives if we keep running from our pasts — but then that just sounds pretentious, so I’m not sure it’s really trying to say anything. It just kind of looks cool and fits the visual style of the intro, rather than supporting any theme in and of itself.
Which is why Cheers still reigns supreme, I think, if only because it’s so simple: it says, flat out, “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.” Yeah. I do. And I know I’ll be there in just a few seconds.
Hey Gang, sorry I haven’t been around in a while. I’ve been busy continental US of A planting apple trees. I have a bunch of posts in the works, but here’s a mini one to satiate all you Octavius Devine-cravers.
Open Mics, if you’re not aware, can be the most miserable places on the planet. You have between 10 and 30 nervous (mostly) white (mostly) male 20-somethings testing out jokes on a stage for between 2 and 4 minutes. The audience is full of the other nervous weirdos, often too nervous and jealous to laugh. It’s a stressful situation.
And yet, they are completely necessary to the stand-up comedian. Like everything else, in stand-up comedy you need to practice your material before you can expect to be any good at it. And practice only counts if you’re on a real stage in front of real humans. The argument can be made that other comedians technically aren’t real humans, but still it is imperative that you get this stage time to work out your nerves, timing, and delivery.
So if you need to do them, and you also hate it when everyone there is a dick, why aren’t there Open Mics that foster a more supportive atmosphere? Well there are. But it’s hard for them to exist, because all it takes for a positive atmosphere to collapse is one terribly shitty person.
I’m specifically talking about a situation I had at the UCBeast a week ago. I did my set- fine. The guy who went after me had kind of a rough set, which is also fine, since it’s a supportive crowd that understands that everyone has bad days. But the next guy came onstage and not only commented on how the person before him was “not going to make it,” he spent his 4 minutes harrassing a girl in the front row and telling her she was an idiot. The whole crowd hated him, and by the end of his set the girl dissed him and we ended up cheering so loud and for so long that he couldn’t get another word in.
What is it that makes people feel entitled to be such jerks? You are on a stage, for free, and have 4 minutes in front of a very nice audience to say whatever you want and see if it’s funny. That’s amazing! It’s truly a great thing that so many places in the city are open for you to do that.
I know people who have quit doing stand-up because the Open Mics become so miserable. They become bloated with these guys who feel entitled to shit all over everyone despite the fact that every ounce of “power” they have was given to them for free by a supportive group of people.
So here is the point. First and foremost, if you go to an Open Mic, don’t be a piece of shit. Be respectful of the fact that this is free and the people there owe you nothing. Secondly, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel like one of these bastards is trying to ruin your nice time at an Open Mic, do your best to be extra supportive to everyone after him. Make sure his disease doesn’t poison your awesome attitude. And, best of all, if you go up after this guy, make sure you really rail him for being a complete crap.
Several times over the past weeks and months, people have tried to make conversation with me by asking if I am a Redditor. People need to stop doing this.
I am not a “Redditor”. I am not a “lurker”. Please stop asking me if I am. Please stop asking me if I know how the site works or how it is organized. I do not know these things. I have little interest in learning these things.
I am not against Reddit. It seems like a fine site and an interesting community. I have on occassion enjoyed the fruits of that communities labor, in the form of funny pictures and memes. I have nothing against the Internet in general. It is a fantastic tool, a way to connect people in new and exciting ways. I have a Facebook account, and am on Twitter. I will talk to people over those media. I have sites that I regularly check out, and I enjoy them.
But if we are talking, in real life, and you start talking to me about the Internet, I will leave. Please only talk about the Internet on the Internet. If you talk about it in person, the conversation is always the same.
A: “Hey, do you go to [Website]?”
A: “You should! It’s really [funny/useful/smart].”
B: “Ok. I’ll check it out.”
The conversation always goes that way because I am not on the Internet when we are talking in real life. If I wanted what that site had to offer at that moment, I would be on that site instead of talking to you. When I am on the Internet, feel free to send me a link to the site. I might click it and check it out, because if I am on the Internet, I am clearly looking for something on the Internet. Maybe that site is it.
Also, talking to me about Reddit or any site is just a stupid move, conversationally. If I were a Redditor, what would we have to talk about? I already know about Reddit. As I am not a Redditor, we have nothing to talk about, because I do not know anything about Reddit.
So, don’t talk to me about the Internet. Instead, listen patiently as I detail the plot of episodes of my favorite sit-coms. That’s conversation.
Before I begin, I want to say I love modern television. The last few years of TV have been far, far better than TV had been 10 years ago. But TV 20 years ago? That shit was off the hook. Check out what was going on:
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was in its last season; the last episode was May 22, 1992. Johnny Carson was the absolute king of late night; as good as Conan O’Brien, David Lettermen, and even Jimmy Fallon are, they are nothing compared to Carson. Virtually everything we think about late night talk-shows came from him.
Seinfeld was finishing it’s third season and would start its fourth in the fall. To put this in terms useful to people who don’t obsess over Seinfeld: this time 20 years ago was the two-part episode with Jerry having a crush on Keith Hernandez and George pretending to work for Vandeley Industries. The season ends with Kramer going to Los Angeles. Sure, maybe not the best season of Seinfeld, but probably the one that ensured it would be a pillar of pop culture.
The Simpsons was on the same time frame as Seinfeld. Again, in practical terms; this week 20 years ago was the episode where Homer and Lisa bond over Lisa’s ability to predict the outcome of football games. Every episode this season was funny but still sweet. Again, I am willing to concede that later seasons were overall better (though I’d say it’s more contentious than Seinfeld), but this season was fundamental.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was also on the air. Holy shit was there a lot of good TV on back then. Specifically, though, 1992 was Joel Hodgson’s penultimate year. Whether you prefer Joel or Mike, you certainly will at least accept that Joel got better as time went on — thus, this was Joel almost at his peak. Two of my favorite episodes were from the summer of 1992: Attack of the Giant Leeches, and The Killer Shrews.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was in its 5th and 6th seasons in 1992. This period included some of TNG’s most though provoking episodes, like the one where they discover a lost Borg that develops its own personality and they have to deal with the question of whether one life is worth sacrificing to destroy the Borg. To be fair, it had some of their most ridiculous episodes, including a lot of bullshit with Deanna Troi, but that’s pretty endemic to the show.
Though it had been on the air for years at this point, Saturday Night Live in 1992 featured the talents of Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, Adam Sandler, Kevin Nealon, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Victoria Jackson (in her last season), and Mike Meyers. Again, there have probably been better seasons of SNL, but holy shit is that an awesome cast.
Meanwhile, other shows on the air included Roseanne, Full House, Family Matters, The Wonder Years, Home Improvement, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Matlock, Cheers, with MacGuyver and The Cosby Show finishing their runs. THIS IS NOT EVEN A COMPREHENSIVE LIST OF THE GOOD TV.
So, suck it, TV today. You will never live up to what you were 20 years ago. Probably unfair, but there it is. The solution to that is clearly for today to get better TV today. Let’s get on that, everyone.