Typing Faster

November 2, 2009

The Three Building Blocks of Comedy and the Decline of 30 Rock

Filed under: 30 Rock, Craft, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 6:36 pm

So I stumbled across this interesting meditation on the elements of a successful comedy, and how they relate to shows like 30 Rock and Will & Grace. Anyways, the article’s stuck with me, and I figured I’d share some of it here with you fine folks.

The three building blocks of comedy that they mention are pretty self-evident (and really two of the three are the building blocks of any scripted show). The building blocks of comedy are “…the premise and the plots that stem from it, the characters, and the jokes.”

What? Premise, characters and jokes? Pretty darn obvious isn’t it? Thankfully the article doesn’t stop there.

A show needn’t have all three of these things functioning at a high level to completely work, but a show with say, a really solid premise and plots, but predictable joke-writing, will eventually stop seeming funny, no matter how well-crafted the plots are.

It’s a question of shelf life. Comedies (and dramas to a lesser extent) can’t exist indefinitely without the audience becoming so inured to the rhythms of the show that it starts to lose a lot of its comedic (or dramatic) potential. If you know what joke’s coming it’s not as funny.

How does one extend the shelf life of your series? With strong fundamentals. You can get a show on the air with two of the three building blocks, but if you want it to last you need all of them to be strong.

The longer a comedy is on the air, the more used to its rhythms the audience becomes, which either results in episodes that are boring and predictable, or a creative staff that goes out of its way to keep from falling into a slump, only to succumb to other pitfalls. Recent examples would include how The Office went astray by making all its characters into big, goofy caricatures in the late episodes of its third season and early episodes of its fourth season, or how Curb Your Enthusiasm could never find solid footing in its often-muddled sixth season. But worse is when a promising or even terrific comedy chases itself into oblivion, like Entourage did after its second season, or Roseanne did in its last three years.

So what does this have to do with 30 Rock? It hasn’t been on the air all that long, and I don’t think anyone thinks its pulled an Entourage quite yet. A lot of people would argue that the fundamentals of the show are strong, so why bring it up in the context of this article? 30 Rock‘s safe, right?

Well, no, not really. The numbers for 30 Rock have never been great. It’s a niche show, and a very funny one at times, but it has yet to break out in a big way. And let’s face it, it’s been more than a little inconsistent ever since it came back from the WGA strike. In short, what this article does is try to take a peek under the hood in an attempt to evaluate the state of 30 Rock‘s fundamentals. What if they’re not as solid as we think they are?

You can coast for a while on great joke- and gag-writing, especially if you have a cast that’s good at delivering those jokes. A good example of this is the now seemingly inexplicable early critical smash Will & Grace. While a lot of the appeal to critics early in the run of that show had to do with just how fresh and groundbreaking its premise seemed at the time, it’s easy to forget that in that show’s first two or three seasons, the jokes were pretty tight. The show’s writing staff was good at coming up with killer one-liners, and the core cast members were all great at delivering these overtly campy punchlines. But all Will & Grace‘s characters were broad types, designed solely to be as big and goofy as possible to wring the most laughs out of every line. None of them felt recognizably human very shortly into the run of the show, and their relationships were just as strained. As mentioned above, all comedies eventually become predictable to their audience, simply because we begin to understand the rhythms of the jokes being told, so once the show reaches a point where we can essentially predict what the next line is going to be, it behooves a series to have strong characters and character relationships to fall back on. Will & Grace didn’t have this, and when the jokes began to become predictable, the show rapidly fell apart and revealed what had always been an empty center. (Weirdly, a very similar thing happened to Family Guy.)

Which brings us back to 30 Rock. I highly doubt 30 Rock will ever get as bad as Will & Grace eventually did, if only because the low ratings practically guarantee its cancellation if the critical community and Emmys ever turn on it in a real way. And unlike Will & Grace, 30 Rock has two and a half well-developed characters to fall back on at any point. Liz Lemmon (Fey) is a subtly new and different take on the career-oriented woman who still wants to have some sort of life – a type pioneered by Mary Tyle Moore in the 1970s – while Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is a coolly ruthless suit with a host of neuroses he somehow keeps perfectly buttoned up. Both of these characters are so consistently written and portrayed that writers as good as the 30 Rock staff would be able to write funny scenes between them in their sleep. In addition, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) is fitfully a well-drawn character, when the show is interested in providing some sort of basis for his outright lunacy. His impetuous childishness becomes much more interesting in the face of the fact that he’s a dedicated family man, but the series loses sight of this far too often, choosing instead to make him a manic man-child.

30 Rock quickly learned early in its run that its premise – woman tries to keep things rolling along backstage at a sketch-comedy show – was inherently limited and turned more into a show about people trying to survive working at a network where the mood is frequently apocalyptic. This was probably the right move. But it ended up stranding a lot of characters who no longer served the same purpose under the new premise. Most notable of these characters is Pete (Scott Adsit), a very funny guy who frequently has nothing to do. Also problematic: the awfully written Jenna (Jane Krakowski), who spends most episodes trying to oversell ridiculous material. Rather than develop the loons Liz and Jack work with into actual characters, though, the show chose to leave them mostly as one-dimensional joke machines, like the characters on Will & Grace. In season three, when the show apparently realized it couldn’t live on Liz and Jack scenes alone, the series split the two characters up and sent them into storylines with the show’s various other players, but because of the disparity in development levels between the characters, this often resulted in some weak storylines where, say, Frank (Judah Friedlander) would suddenly be looking up to Jack for no apparent reason. The show has also mostly forgotten many of the bit players in its large ensemble, unable to find space for them in its new premise.

So as it starts its fourth season, that’s where 30 Rock finds itself: in danger of turning into a slightly funnier Will & Grace. (The similarities between the shows don’t stop there either. Both have over-relied on guest stars to patch over poor storylines, and both have been warmly embraced by the Emmys and the mainstream critical community.) There are still plenty of laughs to be gleaned out of the show, especially when Liz, Jack, or Tracy are around, but simply because the show has been on long enough now that the audience can predict its rhythms, it sometimes seems like a series trying desperately to find another gear and failing. 30 Rock is still nowhere near a bad show, but it risks turning into a show where one-dimensional people spend a lot of time shouting at each other.

I’m not sure I’m completely sold on the articles argument, but I’m definitely leaning that way. I’ve felt that a lot of the supporting cast on 30 Rock could use a little more depth, and I definitely think that the shows’ premise has evolved since its premiere. Whether or not it’s going to wind up as the next Will & Grace I dare not speculate. Either way I found the article to be an interesting read (though this post is a bit of a ramble…apologies), and hopefully some of you will feel the same way.

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