Remembering David Angell

During my basement era — those years from age 8 to 17, 1990 to 1999 — I watched constant comedy. I memorized NBC's jingles (“If you want to be happy on Tuesday night, Wings'll raise your spirits with a brand new flight”), and called my off-at-college brother after episodes of Seinfeld to do post-mortems of Nothing.  At that point my critical capacity only allowed me comments like, “Another thing that was really funny was when George screamed 'Seven.'  Wasn't that funny?” I still needed him to tell me for sure.

By the time I was 14, television producers and writers had become my heroes. They were like baseball players to me. If there'd been trading cards of Miller and Boyett, mine would have been in mint condition. And my brother endured dozens of conversations about the relative merits of James L. Brooks and Marcy Carsey. But no name seemed to come up in the credits more than David Angell, the co-creator of Frasier and Wings, and a prolific sitcom scribe.

Angell, with his wife, Lynn, died on 9/11 in one of the planes traveling from Boston — the town he helped capture as a writer for Cheers — to Los Angeles, the adopted home he'd found success in since the late-70s. As this Sunday's anniversary approaches, I wanted to reflect on his work. READ MORE


"The story of this story is that it won't stop developing": the Media in Parks and Recreation

I love Parks and Recreation the way Ron Swanson loves honor and meat. It satisfies my need for whimsy and my odd desire to interpret a twenty-one minute sitcom as though it were a novel — say Winesburg, Ohio, a classic Midwestern tale in which Sherwood Anderson slowly introduces his townspeople and makes the community his main character.

Like Winesburg, Pawnee, Indiana has a personality, and the writers of Parks and Rec have made sure to develop layers of the town's civic life. We know about and have specific opinions on: the sewage department, the library, the hospital, Park Safety, Animal Control. We've learned about the councilmen, the corporate masters, the Christian Right. And some among us might be able to tick off at least three Pawnee watering holes.

Ever try to think about what a map of the Simpsons' Springfield would look like? I know you have. Well, I'm starting to imagine Pawnee's dimensions, too, wondering whether it has a Russian district or a burlesque house. Much of this can be credited to the show's creators, including Michael Schur, who was recently interviewed by the A.V. Club:

“I think the most exciting thing to me about criticism of the show is when people talk about Springfield. I honestly feel like if that could hold true for the run of the show, that would be my greatest dream. I mean, how many characters do they have on [The Simpsons] that recurred? They must have hundreds and hundreds of characters. And the joy of it is that you don’t need explanation for them when they show up.”

P&R's best recurring characters are the town's Kent Brockmans, the media personalities Shauna Malwae-Tweep, Joan Callamezzo, Perd Hapley, and the radio duo Crazy Ira & The Douche. And while there have been some excellent, in-depth articles about the politics of the show, its satire of shallow media is worth looking at as well. READ MORE


Oh God, Not Another "SNL Is Dead" Essay

In his obituary for Saturday Night Live (and what a well-worn genre that has become), Slate.com writer Nathan Heller compares the show, which wrapped its 36th season over the weekend, to an embarrassing uncle: "in-your-face, given to crude gags, often tedious, sometimes funny, obsessed with election politics, versed in daytime TV, weirdly wistful for the '70s, and grudgingly beloved." I like the metaphor — typical of Heller's incisive writing — but not the conclusion. He's right that the show is hit-or-miss (part of its charm in my opinion), but he approaches SNL as a fair-weather fan approaches a contending baseball team, bitter that it's not playing quite as well as it did that one golden season of 1975. In that way, it's Heller himself — like so many critics of the show — who seems wistful for the '70s.

He praises the "early skits' exotic conceptualism and wild immediacy," arguing that they "fit with the comic vanguard of the time" in a way that the show doesn't now. But he's really arguing that SNL can never be as good as it once was because its cultural power was based on novelty. "A program buttressed by the zeitgeist," he writes, "isn't built to weather change. Slowly, the show disintegrated." He suggests that SNL became too smooth, too corporate, too enamored of "the middlebrow entertainment mainstream" for which it became a feeder.

There is something to the argument that today's show seems to emerge fully-formed from a kind of comic assembly line (begin with song in monologue, screw in retread gameshow sketch, finish with a light-coat of Stefan), and that it's occasionally too safe. But Heller's review does little justice to the show's daring aspects, and he seems impossible to please; he's already pointed out that continuing the show at all is a lost cause. So, while praising the devil-may-care absurdism of early-period SNL, he ignores the inventions of recent seasons. And while insisting that Belushi and the gang fit their time, he says very little about our own comic moment or about the show's current performers. READ MORE


"We Need Jobs": The Office and the Collective Attitude Change Towards Work

When The Office premiered in March 2005 the national unemployment rate was 5.4%.  GDP had grown for 14 consecutive quarters. The Dow was at 10,200 and climbing steadily (Staples had a price of about $22 a share). And yet, though the economy was relatively strong, job satisfaction had dropped to about 48% for workers between 35 and 54.

During a time of job security and job-grumbling, then, The Office struck a chord by following the everlasting, ever-comic theme: work sucks. The opening credits set the tone, featuring closeups of a copy-machine, a paper-shredder, a water-cooler — all aggressively uninspiring. And in the pilot, Michael Scott is a jerk who impersonates Hitler. Like his predecessor David Brent, he fake-fires Pam as a misplaced joke. His awful behavior is, at first, the centerpiece of the show, because, as we know, bosses suck and work sucks. READ MORE


When Getting Laughs Got You a Grammy

A few months ago, I was trolling Wikipedia to disprove a friend's rash claim that all Grammy Award winners for Album of the Year have been terrible. After I triumphantly pointed out No Jacket Required by Phil Collins, among others, I discovered that twice in the show's history, the big award went to comedy acts. With the Grammys coming up this Sunday, I thought it'd be worth revisiting the time when comedy actually had a shot at the biggest award in music.

In 1961, deadpan superstar Bob Newhart won for his debut stand-up record, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart: The Most Celebrated New Comedian since Attila. That title is representative of the slightly off-kilter, nice-guy humor of the album, which held the number one position on the Billboard charts for eight weeks in the summer of 1960.

In six sketches, Newhart plays characters like Abe Lincoln's marketing guru and — in a track titled “The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish” — the mild-mannered captain of a submarine. Addressing his restless crew, Newhart-as-captain sounds like an accountant discussing last year's budget, and it's his understated tone mixed with his outlandish scenarios that make the album work. READ MORE