The Two-Hour Witching Hour

Filed under Fun, Idea, Link, News

For some reason I’m really excited for Halloween this year. Perhaps it’s because Madison’s famously over-the-top celebration, which I’m most familiar with, was starting to crumble under the weight of concerns such as “safety” and “preventing property damage” (Truly, once tear gas is taken out of the equation, a street party loses its magic), or perhaps its because I had to skip it last year because I was moving and missed the one little public party in Helena, MT, and perhaps its because my birthday comes up two days afterward and this is kind of serving as a party for both. But whatever the reason, I am jazzed. This year is gonna be fun.

So I’m going to work hard the rest of this week to finish the inks and especially that promo image so I can enjoy spending time with my friends without suffering the guilt of the procrastinator.

But to return to the idea of somewhat seedy fun, I have to say “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is quickly becoming one of the best things on TV. I have watched this episode three times and could probably watch it three more:

(In case it doesn’t play on this site: http://www.hulu.com/watch/101903/its-always-sunny-in-philadelphia-the-gang-gives-frank-an-intervention#s-p1-so-i0 )
It got me thinking, though, about comedy and personality types: When I had hurt myself the other day and was lying around with an icepack in an embarrassing place, I decided to watch some TV comedies on Hulu that are not, shall we say, targeted to my demographic, for the purposes of both research and so I had something to grumble about besides how much pain I was in.

Now, this is just some inchoate theorizing, some off-the-cuff reasoning that’s definitely not ready for peer review, but it’s been turning over in my mind and I thought I’d expose it to the light of day and see if it rots or cowers back into the shadows. When I was doing sketch comedy, the other group members and I had a theory that people who decide to write comedy fall into essentially two types, which we termed “Theater Kids” and “Assholes.” Both those designations are a little mean, but I think they paint a richer picture of the kind of people I’m talking about. These two kinds of people have, of course, very different senses of humor and approaches to writing and performing it. I would use examples from stand-up, but I think this dichotomy is much clearer in “narrative” comedy like sketch or film.

When I was in Madison, our sketch group looked down its nose at another group composed of Theater Kids (though no doubt they decried us as terrible human beings) and we found their “constructive” approach to humor to be anathema to anything we considered funny or interesting, which lead me to think that this fundamental division in comedy writing, and perhaps ultimately in art in general, comes down to the idea of “positive and negative space” — When these Theater Kids wanted to make a point, they would have a character who explicitly represents that point make various “common sense” assertions, and try to derive humor from those being shot down by the old Screwed Up World – I would term this “positive space.” On the other hand we (And I use this term loosely because it was mostly me pushing for this, resulting in many arguments during writing meetings) would try to write a character that embodied whatever foolishness we wanted to mock, and would make them out to be someone contemptible and not to be emulated – What I would term “negative space.” I prefer this almost exclusively – Things going well, and people behaving well, are not, to my mind, funny. And often times not even interesting (This is why I have trouble enjoying film dramas – They’re rarely long or dense enough for me to become invested in the plight of the characters, while a good farce simply invites you to laugh at them, and by extension the world that causes them to behave that way).

The other notion that laid eggs in my brain was the idea of “backing down.” This is ultimately related to the “show, don’t tell” adage that every creative writing professor likely has tattooed somewhere on his or her body, with good reason: Action is what brings fiction to life – Talk on its own is an essay. This notion of “backing down” brings me again to the other shows I mentioned earlier, and why I like “Always Sunny.” One of the shows I looked at was “Glee,” a perfect example of, in this case literal, Theater Kid sensibility. The story was explicit in its moral intentions, using those “positive space” brushstrokes to convey a tale about a nice kid worrying he’ll be rejected by his peers, and then pulling through in the end. But what struck me even more was the way the comedy would often “back down” from an unpleasant idea, raising only the specter of it for laughs (“The teacher thinks we should cane students!”), as opposed to actually having the threatened event occur. I suppose this can be attributed to the “hardness” of a given story’s comedic universe, but there’s something that rubs me the wrong way about posing a “threat” to the audience or characters as a comedic end in itself, as opposed to actually having the thing in question happen. It’s already fictional, so this is like making it fiction twice over… On the other hand, a show like “Always Sunny” will delve into a comedic action immediately, with the words and explanation always playing catch-up. Obviously, since these examples are TV shows, budget, network standards, and the like are important factors, but it’s still possible to have something occur off-screen or otherwise be implied to have actually happened as opposed to merely rolling them out as concepts. Next time you’re watching a show or reading a book, take note of the times something occurs as an attempt at humor versus how many times it’s merely threatened in order to get a laugh. Ultimately, what I mean by “backing down” in comedy writing is best expressed by some cliched jokes: Think of characters making a dead baby joke versus actually having a baby die, or someone saying “I banged your mom” versus actually having the character do it. I guess it comes down to the old postmodern saw about the contents of a story being a commentary on the story itself. Or something…

I’d go on, or at least re-re-rewrite until it’s clearer, but it’s only a foggy notion in my head as-is, and I don’t want to spend all my time writing and none of it drawing, so I’ll leave this off here. I don’t have any answers right now, but hopefully some lines of thought will take this post as a starting point.

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