Archive for Friday, June 1, 2007

Where did comedy go?

June 1, 2007


"TV's Funniest Moments" (7 p.m., Fox) counts down the 30 most memorable and amusing clips in the history of the small screen. Produced in cooperation of the Museum of Television & Radio, this nostalgic special looks back at shows including "The Honeymooners," "All in the Family," "The Bob Newhart Show," "Spin City" and others.

Call me a crank, but I'm always a tad suspicious when anybody describes anything as "the funniest." "America's Funniest Home Videos" (7 p.m., ABC) has been on for decades now, and it has never earned its superlative title. But maybe that's the point. When you're working with videos of dogs chasing their tails or guys being hit in the crotch with footballs, you need all the hype you can get.

Do nostalgia and comedy mix? Sure it's funny to see Lucy crush grapes or watch Suzanne Pleshette wake up Bob Newhart from the bad dream of his sequel sitcom, but repetition brings an empty feeling, too. Where have all the comedies gone?

Sadly, "Two and a Half Men" is the highest-rated comedy on television right now. And it is a remarkably vulgar show - a travesty parody of "Frasier" dumbed down for the most drunken guest at the bachelor party.

The comedies that have shown promise, including "Everybody Hates Chris," "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl," are hardly hits.

But who says good comedy has to be popular? Could this ratings trough be a sign of generational shifts or comedy growing pains?

"TV's Funniest Moments" and its "good old days" look at entertainment reminds me of the early 1970s, when Hollywood was in crisis. With many of the old studios shuttered and props from "The Wizard of Oz" being sold at auction, producers made movies like "That's Entertainment" out of pieces of old MGM musicals in the hopes that older viewers would return to the Bijou or that younger viewers raised on "Lassie" reruns would appreciate the splendor of an Esther Williams aquatic musical. They worked - for a while.

People did return to the movies to see "Jaws," "Star Wars" and "Godfather" movies. And comedy changed, too.

Much has been made of this summer being the 30th anniversary of "Star Wars," but it also marks 30 years since the release of "Annie Hall," a film that may be even more influential. And, it's worth noting, "Annie Hall" concerned a comedian and TV writer obsessed with (among other things) the terrible state of TV comedy.

It probably never earned a fraction as much money as "Star Wars," but "Annie Hall" influenced a generation of comedy writers, actors and directors. You can draw a direct line from that Woody Allen movie to "When Harry Met Sally," "Mad About You," "Seinfeld" and "Friends."

Is the next "Annie Hall" lurking out there amid the wreckage of contemporary comedy? Is it a movie, a TV pilot or a two-minute clip on YouTube? We'll have to wait and see. But I don't think it will be starring Charlie Sheen.

Tonight's other highlights

¢ Bad baseball vibes on "Ghost Whisperer" (7 p.m., CBS).

¢ The secrets of laptops on "It's All Geek to Me" (7 p.m., Science).

¢ Pigskin perps on "Close to Home" (8 p.m., CBS).

¢ A former child star on the slab on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (8 p.m., NBC).


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