Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
January 16, 2006
TV comedy turns into tragic tripe
Comic Carol Burnett repetitive sex 'jokes' and potty language a thumbs down
On the Other Hand
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Television sitcoms and standup comedy over the past two decades have devolved into a monotonous drone of double-entendre (and single-entendre) sex gags.
And the recently-released Kaiser Family Foundation's biennial study Sex on TV finds television characters having sex more often - twice as often as in 1998.
One of the most painful aspects of sex-obsessed TV is that it is such a deadly, gosh-awful bore. I've long since given up watching stand-up comedy, a once-entertaining genre now degenerated into a non-stop potty-language and sex-talk sleaze-fest. Not that poop or sexuality are necessarily always unfunny, but neither does sexual content automatically render lame material hilarious, and most stand-up comedy today amounts to people taking juvenile delight at saying naughty words in public.
Consequently, I was gratified to read that Carol Burnett, a real comedienne of the old school, agrees with me. In an interview, Burnett was quoted noting that the absence of the sort of humour featured on her own long-running TV variety show in the '60s and '70s is symptomatic of television's weakened state of comedy, and that loosening of standards about language and sex has not resulted in a better entertainment experience.
"I'm not a prude at all, but I get a little tired when you watch sitcoms and you know there's going to be another sex joke," Burnett said. "How many do you have to hear before you say, 'Please, can you change the subject? There are other things in life.
"With the exception of some really terrific stand-up comedians that can use that language - but are not using it to shock - it doesn't work. But you know we had to be funny without resorting to that stuff."
Of course, there's plenty of sex in television drama, too, as the Kaiser study documented, although one does get a bit of a respite in Dick Wolf's fleet of Law And Order variants, and in the CSI siblings, which do have frequent sexual references, but usually as part of the exposition of storylines and most often after the fact.
Other dramatic series, partly because they incorporate more focus on the personal lives of the characters, seem to be including more and more sexual situations, often gratuitously - shows such as Alias and Cold Case, which are still watchable because of their strong writing and solid characterization.
I would even say the same for The Sopranos, which is probably the highest-quality drama on television today in terms of production values (and also a lot funnier by times than most stand-up comedy), although I think it would be even better if the gutter language and gratuitous sexual exploitation were toned down.
Not that sexual issues and references never have no place in TV drama, but rather that they would be better left implied, as in the great cinematic masterpieces of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, rather than rendered explicitly. Much sexual content in television dramas today is essentially soft-core pornography pandering to puerile voyeurism, while the sitcom and stand-up comedy garbage is just a wallow in sophomoric vulgarity.
Suggestiveness (what a quaint word in today's context that leaves virtually nothing to suggestion) and pornography, like most vices and addictions, must be endlessly escalated as they lose their capacity to titillate and shock through familiarity. You might have difficulty convincing teenagers today that married couples in '50s and '60s sitcoms slept in separate twin beds, a silly bit of prudery, but that was just 40-odd years ago. What will on prime-time 40 years hence?
The problem with sexual attitudes since the "sexual revolution" catastrophe of the '60s and '70s is that when you disconnect sexuality from the inhibition of moral absolutes, it soon becomes commonplace rather than special, and very quickly banal.
Sex becomes, paradoxically, both overemphasized and unimportant. The pernicious consequences of sex disengaged from love and lifetime commitment are woefully manifest for anyone with eyes to see - in real life as well as on TV.
There is also an achingly sad poverty of worldview. As Carol Burnett observed, there are other things in life. She cited a comment by veteran comedy writer Larry Gelbart, who noted that TV writers today are writing about what they saw on television when they were growing up - about life once removed.
TRAGEDY, NOT COMEDY
An astute observation applied to the leitmotif of postmodern popular culture, in which virtually everything is derivative and inauthentic. Without limits or restraint, nothing means much of anything. That's tragedy; not comedy.