Comedy Takes Time
June 16, 2009 2 Comments
The Letterman/Palin controversy is not so much offensive as pathetic. Surely the critics have made too much of Letterman’s joke, and now that Letterman has apologized, the whole thing should be dropped, but it’s worth reflecting on the real reason Letterman made the joke he did: laziness and lack of creativity.
Late-night comedy shows like his have to supply a night batch of “jokes”. These “jokes” have to be topical. Well, they don’t have to be topical and mention current events so much as the joke-writers need current events in order to have new stuff to write jokes about, easy/lazy/cheap hooks to hang their jokes on. One imagines them sitting around their office frantically channel-surfing during the day to find some handy news item to reference, that will give their jokes currency and topicality – suppose a politician sex scandal arises, you can almost hear comedy writers cheering and yelling “jackpot!”
This explains why late night comedy talk shows, and to some extent SNL, seem so repetitive and unoriginal. Virtually all their “jokes” are of the same nature; it’s as if they have a small set of, say, 5-7 Joke Templates, and they update names from time to time (starting in 2000, “Bush” replaced “Quayle” in all the Stupid Jokes, etc.) to stay current. The details of the joke change but each joke can be boiled down to some purified Joke Essence, with this or that name from current events plugged in: [Bush] Is Stupid, [Palin] Is White Trash, [Cheney] Is A Bloodthirsty Monster, [Britney] Is A Druggy Slut, etc. etc. etc. In some case, late-night-comedy writing is just the art of disguising one of these Joke Essences in a clever manner, cloaking them in sarcasm and current-event references and inverted structures so as to hide how wholly unoriginal they are. Maybe this is why all the comedy writers need to have, like, Harvard degrees.
I literally haven’t watched more than five seconds of Letterman in perhaps eight years, but I really don’t get the impression I’m missing anything. It’s the same jokes, same pose, same attitude over and over again, two hundred times a year. I could tune in tonight and feel as if nothing has changed in 20 years other than the particular celebrity/politician names he plugs into the “Stupid” jokes, the “White Trash” jokes, the “Slutty” jokes. At least with a soap opera, if I haven’t tuned in in years, it would take some catching-up before I’d be able to follow along with the storyline again. I can’t know what Alexandra Spaulding’s been up to on Guiding Light, or what Erica Kane’s been doing on All My Children, without taking some time to catch up on the storyline.
With Letterman, and Conan, and Jon Stewart, there is no storyline.
The problem seems to be that – apparently – writing good jokes is really really hard. It seems not to be something that can be done well on a daily, repeated basis. Even a weekly schedule seems to be quite demanding and draining, judging from the burnout rate and high drug usage on the set of SNL. If you’ve ever watched the documentary Jerry Seinfeld Comedian, you know that even a great comedian like Jerry Seinfeld agonizes over his jokes and routine, and practices, and discards jokes that don’t work. There’s no time for any of that if you’re David Letterman. There’s no time for him to even write his own jokes, actually; he has cynical, snide, metrosexual twentysomething guys to do that for him. Which is why I didn’t get mad at Letterman over this Palin controversy in the first place, when it came out; I knew he probably hadn’t even written the joke himself & barely had time to look the material over. It was some kid who wrote it – plugged the name “Palin” into the “White Trash Joke” Microsoft Word Template.
Unfortunately for Letterman and his ilk, this is also why I don’t watch them in the first place. Good comedy takes time and they don’t have it, by definition.