Monday, February 13, 2017

Kinds Of Comedy

Three new sitcoms I've been checking out represent three different types of comedy you're likely to see on TV.

First, on Monday nights, from CBS, there's Superior Donuts, based on a Tracy Letts play I haven't seen.  The concept is simplicity itself: grumpy old Arthur (Judd Hirsch) has owned his donut shop in a rundown area of Chicago for decades.  Franco (Jermaine Fowler), a hip, young African-American, starts working there and wants to update the struggling shop. (This is the same basic plot as Chico And The Man.)

The two are surrounded by various eccentrics, including Randy (Katey Sagal), a Chicago cop who's been hanging around the donut shop since she was a little girl; Carl (David Koechner), a guy who does odd jobs and has his "office" in the donut shop; Fawz (Maz Jobrani), an Arab-American who wants to buy Superior Donuts as part of his plan to gentrify the area; and Maya (Anna Baryshnikov), a college graduate who spouts academic mumbo jumbo.  It's directed by the great James Burrows, who's worked on Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends and many other notable sitcoms.

This is an old-fashioned sitcom, as CBS seems to specialize in.  There's one main set (the donut shop, including the back room and the street outside), and it's done in front of a live audience.  Many think this style is outdated, but I would think CBS, with the success of shows such as The Big Bang Theory, have proved this format is still viable. What it loses in subtlety it makes up for in lively performances and character chemistry (when it works).

The trouble with Superior Donuts, so far anyway, is its lack of originality.  The characters are clichés and the writing is pedestrian.  To get laughs, you need at least a little surprise, but we've seen it all before. The cast is likable, but unless the show improves (the writing gets smarter, the characters deepen, the plots become more imaginative, the rhythm improves--throw me a bone here), I can't see continuing.

Then there's the more modern type of network sitcom as seen in NBC's Powerless. Airing Thursdays, it's one-camera with no live audience.  This allows for more set-ups, and, presumably, subtler acting.  But it's still about the writing, and the characters, and the concept.  And this is a high-concept show.

The idea is we're with regular people trying to manage as best they can living in a world where there are superheroes, and supervillains.  In particular, we follow the exploits of the R&D department at Wayne Security (part of Wayne Enterprises--yes, from Bruce Wayne).  They come up with devices to protect against the dangers out there.

Vanessa Hudgens plays Emily Locke, the new director of R&D.  She's put in charge of a group of inventors and technicians, including Teddy (Danny Pudi, in his first major role since Community) and Ron (Ron Funches), who can be tough to control.  Emily's boss, Van Wayne (Alan Tudyk), is Bruce Wayne's less talented cousin, who's always trying to prove he's good enough to be a Wayne.

The novel concept (for a sitcom--this idea has been explored elsewhere) carries a lot of the show, but it won't be enough for the long run.  We'll have to get involved in the characters' lives, and not just the basic situation.  The problem with the concept is it doesn't (yet) allow for much humanity, since the situation is so unreal.  The cast is game, but the show will need more work on the characters for it to come alive.

Finally, on Tuesdays, there's a new cable sitcom, so it's edgy, or at least "edgy"--Detroiters on Comedy Central.  It feels more improvisatory, and less conventional (and lower budget) than a network show.

It's about Sam (Sam Richardson) and Tim (Tim Robinson), two guys who run a low-end advertising agency in Detroit.  It comes from Broadway Video, Lorne Michaels' company, and has certain names drop by, such as Jason Sudeikis and Keegan-Michael Key, not to mention the great Detroit newsman Mort Crim.

The show is shot in Detroit (as far as I can tell) and has a loose feeling.  Sometimes a bit too loose, but the two leads seem to have a rhythm, and some chemistry.

The pilot was okay, and, as I'm from Detroit, I'll probably keep watching.  I hope it gets better as it goes along, but as there'll only be a handful of episodes per season (another difference from network TV), why not stick around?

PS  I've also been watching The Mick, on Fox, though that started a month before the three listed above.  It's somewhere between Powerless and Detroiters, in that it's a one-camera sitcom with a high concept (a wild women moves into a rich household to take care of things after her sister and brother-in-law skip the country due to legal problems), while it's fairly edgy for a network sitcom.


Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Being without TV for nearly 20 years now, I'm intrigued by what I know about and what I don't--I have seen The Mick and Powerless, had no idea the other two existed.

I find The Mick funny but tough to watch, so probably won't. I find the humor just a bit too mean.

Powerless is like Supergirl--I want to like it because I grew up on the 1960's Batman. But I was surprised after the great set up--an insurance company for superhero damage--that the first episode never dealt with that concept at all, apart from a trivial intimation in the opening. (Or maybe I fell asleep before the end; regardless, it diverted a bunch of energy away from that very high concept, which seems like a mistake. Introduce a gun, it better go off, etc.)

12:25 PM, February 13, 2017  
Blogger LAGuy said...

In a play or a movie if you set something up, it better pay off. But TV shows are continuing pieces of entertainment, and they sometimes discover the concept that sold the piece isn't what makes it work.

Thus, on Seinfeld, the idea was we'd follow a comedian through his day and see how it leads to his material. Eventually, the show dropped the stand-up when it realized the stories with the characters were the fun part of the show.

Maybe the best example is Bosom Buddies, where two guys have to pretend they're women to get into an apartment. Soon after, the show figured out the guys were funny but the pretending-to-be-women stuff was tiresome. By the second season, most of the plots dealt with the guys when they weren't pretending to be women.

I have no idea where Powerless is going, or it it'll last, but if it does, it's possible we'll get to know and like the characters, and the stuff about dealing with superheroes will recede into the background.

12:52 PM, February 13, 2017  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Fair enough, but to recede into the background so far and so fast that it may as well not have been mentioned in the first episode? (and come to think of it, I'm not sure it was mentioned; all you saw was a flying character emitting an evil laugh and doing some car damage). So bizarre and off key for the rest of the episode that it might have been a dream or an employee's comic book idea, for all we know.

4:16 AM, February 14, 2017  
Blogger New England Guy said...

I really tried to watch Superior Donuts last night. Judd Hirsch feels like he is from a 1970s sitcom and not one of the good ones

6:21 AM, February 14, 2017  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Your review sent me to the NBC streaming site to watch Powerless, which I had not heard about. Love the premise, but the pilot left us a little flat. The premise promises interactions between the powerless and the superbeings. Butthere was none of that besides the opening sequence.

We'll give it a couple more episodes, but we don't want to watch an even zanier version of "The Office".

By the way, did I see that there is a movie of "The Office" being made? Why?

8:09 AM, February 15, 2017  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Does the premise really promise interaction between superheroes and regular folks? Or is it more about what life in like when there are superheroes in the background that you have to deal with?

Haven't heard about a movie version of The Office (based on any TV version of The Office).

9:19 AM, February 15, 2017  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Yup, it's a Ricky Gervais project apparently called "Life on the Road."

8:15 AM, February 16, 2017  

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