Irreverence is not the same as comedy.
I have a follow-up post to my previous entry about Bud Selig, but it’s not quite complete. However, I find myself needing to get something off my chest before I can really focus on other topics, like school, or baseball, or that short story I have started over sixteen times now because I keep distracting myself.
I’m not a very big television guy. I used to be. Growing up I watched plenty of television and then some. Nowadays however, my television watching is fairly moderate. For one thing I am not much of a fan of the current level of writing that permeates modern television. I’m not very big on being treated like I am stupid. I don’t need writers explaining things to me like I am in a class of kindergarteners. Nor do I care for shows where common sense is simply tossed aside in such a reckless manner that those same kindergarteners are scratching their heads. (Yes, I’m looking at you Eric Kripke of Revolution.) However, there are certain actors that I like, so, when they get a show, I generally tune in to watch. One such actor is Tim Allen.
Last year, Tim Allen made his return to prime time television with his new sitcom, Last Man Standing. The show was a somewhat safe twist on the concept he had guided to success with Home Improvement in the mid-90s. In LMS, Allen plays Mike Baxter, a successful, conservative salesman in suburban Colorado. He lives in a nice house with his successful wife and their three daughters, the eldest of which has a young child, Boyd, from a teenage indiscretion. The wife is smart, witty, good-looking, and strong-willed. She is an independent woman. The eldest daughter, despite the complications of being an unwed mother of only 21 years, is level-headed and also pretty intelligent. She works to provide what she can for Boyd and is intent on bettering herself and also not letting her sisters repeat her mistakes. The middle daughter is a Kardashian groupie, complete with the looks to succeed in following the Kardashian success plan. She’s not overly bright, but she’s very adept at the things she sets her mind to, especially anything dealing with social media. The youngest, and most intelligent, daughter is making the transition from junior high to high school. Along with this change comes a transition from being a sports-minded tomboy to being a young, dress-wearing, boy-conscious woman.
The ingredients for the show were carefully cast, and the show saw some moderate success. The show was not the huge hit that Home Improvement had been, but in all fairness, it’s tough to expect any show to reach that level of success. However, this is network television we are talking about. Moderate success instead of overwhelming success kept the network from making any sort of decision on whether or not to renew the show for a second season until very late into the game. With no decision reached, the last five episodes of season one saw LMS limp across the finish line – still successful, but with ratings that had the network demanding a change. This is where things turned for the worse.
The show replaced the oldest daughter with one that looked 10 years older. They aged Boyd from toddler to kindergartener. They brought back Boyd’s father (but not the actor) to become a constant foil to Tim Allen’s character in the mold of Meathead versus Archie Bunker. They made the second daughter so dumb she didn’t realize she was trying to read a book upside down or that batteries were a source of energy. Even the wife is no longer a strong character. To top it all off, ABC moved the show to the farthest reaches of prime-time civilization – Friday evenings. The majority of the changes were made by a new show-runner, with input from Tim Allen, in hopes that the show could become a modern take on All in the Family.
Now, in his defense, Tim Doyle, the new show-runner, does admit that this show is not as good as All in the Family, but he is still dead-set on hitting what he calls “red meat issues.” He wants to expand the quality of comedy on television to include things that make the audience think instead of simply churning out relationship or parenting stories. I applaud him for wanting to raise general social awareness on hot-topic issues through television, but, as of six episodes into the season, it’s been made fairly clear that, not only is it not working, but the approach is alienating what little audience remains. Yet, Doyle and ABC actually seem surprised.
Let’s review, a show that started out as sort of a reimaging of a 90s sitcom is changed mid-run to be a modern re-imaging of yet another, completely different show that aired in the late 60s and early 70s. What could possibly go wrong in that scenario? Oh, that’s right – it’s the year 2012.
Even the edgiest network sitcom, pushing the bounds of political correctness to the extreme, will still fall far short of the crass, chauvinistic, racist satire that was All in the Family. The problem is, All in the Family only worked because it was “all-in.” There are people that love All in the Family, and others that hate it. But, regardless of where a person falls in regards to enjoying the show, there is little denying that All in the Family was a cultural icon that redefined network sitcoms forever.
Archie Bunker was hilarious. He was also the sort of character that would have the politically correct pundits calling for modern networks to not only cancel the show, but to issue formal apologies for the offensive nature of the humour. Yet Doyle seems to think that LMS can be a show in the mold of AITF, but simply not go so overboard with the characters. Unfortunately, the humour of AITF does not work at half-speed. Irreverence can be funny, but it must be sincere. I know, that sounds counter-intuitive. But it’s true. Comedies like AITF, or the movies of Mel Brooks worked because they knew exactly what they were doing. They knew they were offensive and brought a comic light to that fact. Comedy was used to increase social awareness of a number of issues while allowing the dominant hegemony to still have something to identify with.
The political correctness police would never allow such irreverence in today’s television. So, in order to appease them, the writers give us a hot-topic issue, or a racist issue and then proceed to make fun of it. But that’s a huge difference from the likes of Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. Those two made the issue part of the actual comedy itself. The issues were the vehicle through which the comedy was delivered. Now, comedy seems to try and heighten awareness by making the issues the focus of the comedy. So instead of the issues being a vehicle for the comedy, the issues become a target for the comedy. This has the effect of coming off as preachy and making the shows uncomfortable to watch for those that might be sensitive to an issue. One approach irreverently embraces a subject and shines a light on how backwards the world can be eliciting laughs and increasing awareness by using the hot topic as a vehicle for the comedy. The other approach is so careful to be sincere that it ends up being both unfunny and irreverent and eventually, driving away the audience.
It’s hard to make a statement is no one is paying attention.
Prejudice, class strife, poverty, political scandals, working poor, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, these are not topics to be made light of. The pain and suffering attached to these sorts of topics is real. Using these topics as a vehicle to express comedy for the purpose of entertainment however, does not make light of the issues. Rather, it raises the awareness of the issues by presenting them in a manner that does not drive the audience away. That is irreverently funny. Making fun of the gay rights movement, or any other hot button issue, on the other hand, is simply irreverent, and has no place in mainstream media.