GIVEN THE DEPRESSING economic news that drips out each morning, the impulse to find consolation in comedy should be stronger than ever. Yet to underscore how deficient programmers have been just scan the People’s Choice Award favorite new TV comedy candidates: CBS’ struggling “Gary Unmarried” and the more deserving “Worst Week,” NBC’s dismal “Kath and Kim,” and MRC’s already eighty-sixed “Valentine.”
If Big Laughter were a commodity, President-elect Barack Obama would convene an emergency summit. Yet there are recent rays of hope, including steadily growing tune-in for CBS’ consistently clever “The Big Bang Theory” and modest improvement by “30 Rock,” which finally appears to be transforming its various accolades, big-name guest stars and Tina Fey’s ubiquitous Sarah Palin impersonation into tolerable lead-in retention from “The Office.”
Another welcome respite from the gloom arrives this week courtesy of Ricky Gervais, whose HBO standup special “Out of England” premieres Nov. 15 — perfectly capturing the Brit’s droll brand of comedic self-absorption.
Gervais, with partner Stephen Merchant, also wrote, directed and produced two of the finest comedies of recent years: “The Office,” which hatched that rarest of birds, a laudable U.S. spinoff; and “Extras,” a riotous look at a wannabe actor, which closed on a surprisingly poignant note, indicting both reality TV and the public that consumes it.
Those creative triumphs notably came under the British system, which allows an auteur to meticulously craft a limited series and ride into the sunset. Both “The Office” and “Extras” generated a mere 12 episodes over two cycles, plus an extra-long finale special. (Gervais says he’d like to squeeze in another “Extras” encore, his movie schedule permitting.)
Either way, they’re spared this “Churn out 100 episodes so KTLA and WPIX can syndicate this stuff until we’re old and gray” nonsense. And as networks flail about for lifelines, maybe that’s one answer.
GERVAIS MAINTAINS he simply couldn’t imagine producing a show under the American system — which, he thinks, explains why his shows succeeded, infused as they were by a singular, guiding voice.
“The reason ‘The Office’ worked is that it wasn’t compromised at all,” Gervais said. “It was about mood — we didn’t pander to this ‘two jokes per minute’ nonsense. … If we had sent a script (instead of shooting a demo), that would still be in someone’s drawer.”
Gervais’ hands-on style also rejects the idea of assembling a writing staff — an approach he compared to buying a model airplane kit, then letting somebody else put it together for you.
“The alternative is to have other writers and producers, and that’s not an alternative to us,” Gervais said. “The more people who are involved, the more homogenized it becomes” — a diluting process that he sees in the glut of theatrical romantic comedies, where there’s “another one every six weeks.”
Without sounding unpatriotic about it, the Brits have done a better job with comedies lately, where a series creator’s latitude to nurture concepts and characters is more reflective of the creative evolution that’s occurred in TV drama.
“Just because it’s a sitcom doesn’t mean it can’t have drama, it can’t have character development. … It can’t have those ambitions,” Gervais said.
THE PROBLEMS besetting sitcoms have accumulated over time. A dearth of hits has deprived newcomers of established lead-ins — forcing ABC to creatively use “Dancing With the Stars” to prop up “Samantha Who?” Big premises mostly fizzled, and primetime real estate has been ceded to reality TV — where, adding insult to injury, the dysfunctional family and fish-out-of-water templates are often transparently patterned after old sitcoms.
Finally, fragmentation has wielded an inordinate toll on comedy. Nothing is more personal than what strikes someone as funny — and disparate audiences can gravitate toward narrowly tailored niche material, blunting the likelihood of mass-appeal hits.
All this provides an incentive to look at the British model to jump-start things stateside. In “Extras,” Gervais’ character Andy Millman eventually found success in a low-brow comedy — which of course made him miserable — where he incessantly repeated the catchphrase, “Are ya havin’ a laugh?”
Right now, we could clearly use one. Maybe it’s time to cut U.S. comedy writers loose and see if they can rise to the challenge.