I recently read a blog post where an older man wrote about how he doesn’t seem to find today’s comedy movies and television shows funny. He referred to an NPR piece postulating that mid-century comedy was more intellectual, whereas current comedy seems to stick more to slapstick.
I won’t link to the man’s post or reblog it. I was working on a comment on my phone, but it was coming across too harsh and I don’t want to directly attack this guy just because I don’t agree with his opinion.
I have a real problem with this way of thinking. Journalists, bloggers, storytellers, and many other groups seem to enjoy using vague generalizations to paint a picture that everything used to be so much better before the relentless march of time drove any given facet of civilization or culture straight downward into the sewer. Depending on the source, you can sub out “relentless march of time” with “kids these days,” because people inclined to use that term seem to love this worldview.
Today, I’m going to use a unique blend of Capitalism and Pop Culture observation to explain why I will never agree with these folks.
Part 1: The Rise of Television Real Estate in America
The television landscape has changed over the past several decades. Dramatically. When TV sets first became a mainstay in American homes, there were only three channels. Advertisers didn’t have to guess which of the three given programs airing at any particular time slot was the best. They were guaranteed an enormous amount of eyeballs, even on the lowest performing shows. A selective viewing of TV series from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s will show that while there were some quality programs on the air, there were also some turd sandwiches as well.
The conceit of this argument is that because television real estate was so scarce, it had higher value, but I argue that comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges (that is, programs of the same genre and depth across time) would show that this argument doesn’t hold water. There were crappy network shows back then. There are crappy network shows now. There are great network shows now. There were great network shows back then. People arguing otherwise tend to compare the great classics of the era with the disposable garbage of the modern day as most of the best stuff currently on the air flies right over their head. We know that Real Housewives of Atlanta is not as good as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Find your remote and change the channel rather than using one bad show as your reason for writing off everything else on air right now.
Part 2: Enormous Growth in Viewer Options
Efforts by major networks to establish high-production value shows with maximum pop culture impact further supports my position that when competition for viewers is high, content quality must also be high. If the shows on the networks aren’t up to snuff, consumers now have a gazillion other options on cable, premium channels, free and paid on-demand features, Netflix, Hulu, and even home video (which wasn’t around during those days when TV was “so much better”).
Targeted marketing through cable programming sells for a higher cost per thousand impressions (CPM), allowing grand cinematic visions to hit the small screen in the form of shows like The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and actually just about anything currently on primetime AMC.
Purely by the numbers, I would argue that there are more excellent shows on air or available to viewers right now than there were in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s combined. (And no, I’m not counting the fact that any teenager with an internet connection can now pull up an episode of Gilligan’s Island if he or she is so inclined when I say “available to viewers right now.”)
The converse of this, of course, is that there are many, many, many more horrible, vacuous, pooptastic shows on air right now as well. And they manage to find an audience unfortunately, ensuring that we will continue to know about any and every little thing that a Kardashian ever does ever until we locate the people watching that show and cut off their cable. (That’s a homework assignment, Society.)
Part 3: The Search for the Lowest Common Denominator
I’ve done my best to acknowledge the counterargument to each point I’ve made so far, and this point especially will tip my hat to those who believe that television has seen better days.
Desperate major networks have adopted a popular Hollywood method of marketing: find the lowest common denominator – that one thing that won’t put off any single viewer – and get as close to that topic, tone, theme, etc. as possible.
It’s the reason why paint-by-numbers crime procedural NCIS is the top rated show every year. There’s nothing wrong with that show. It isn’t awful. It just doesn’t have any flavor. It doesn’t go anywhere risky or do anything that might make you think. It doesn’t surprise you in any way that might make you uncomfortable. It is a safe, mind-numbing viewing experience; the culmination of the perfect execution of this particular programming formula.
Same goes with the strangely popular Two and a Half Men (prior to Charlie Sheen’s departure). Nielsen keeps telling us that millions and millions of people are watching each week, but it seems like nobody is talking about it. It doesn’t generate buzz or spur conversation. It isn’t a cultural phenomenon that will be remembered through the ages. It’s just some stuff happening on a TV screen that millions of somebodies somewhere out there like to space out in front of.
Though by necessity this approach must have been the goal of the networks in the early days of television (with three stations micro marketing would have been suicidal), there was still an experimental aspect to shows back then. With so many unknowns on a new frontier, strangeness managed to find its way into American family rooms because the suits hadn’t yet perfected their formula for hollow success.
Part 4: Comedy’s Evolution
The statement that comedy used to be more intellectual is a bit ridiculous to me. To argue that humor used to reference elements of history, science, or pop culture; that a degree of knowledge used to be required to “get the joke” is totally wrong in its conjugation. Change that past-tense to present tense, because it never stopped being true.
Turn on Family Guy for God’s sake. They reference anything and everything and all the freaking time. I once saw that show reference a Crest Toothpaste commercial from like the early 80’s.
These days even slapstick, screwball, and physical humor are used to wink at the viewers who have been paying attention. Don’t believe me? Look at the elaborate joke constructions, episode-spanning set ups and rapid fire third act pay offs of Modern Family. Seriously, watch the recent episode titled, Las Vegas, and marvel at all of the complicated things that they pulled off in just 21 minutes of screen time.
If you’ve got even more time to kill, watch all four seasons of Arrested Development. If that show wasn’t cancelled for being so far ahead of its time, some of its jokes would have made our heads explode a thousand times over by now. Had those writers chosen different paths in life, their knack for off-the-wall concepts and flawless execution would have made them prime candidates to form an Ocean’s Eleven-like crime ring.
After you finish Arrested Development, check out How I Met Your Mother. It’s an entire series structured as flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks telling one long elaborate tale that is just a prologue to the pivotal moment when a hopeless romantic meets the love of his life. And it’s one of those shows that appeals to people who enjoy a good boob joke.
Actually, all four of those shows have goofy physical humor and crude sex laughs, but it doesn’t take a genius to appreciate the complexity of what those writers are trying to accomplish in the big picture. Sure, there’s a lot of junk shows whoring their one dimensional characters out for easy laughs. But there are also a ton of really ambitious, weird shows that make you appreciate the hand of the storytellers in weaving such an unconventional, detailed narrative.
Remember the moment in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when you realized that Harry stabbing the talking diary with the snake tooth in the weakest book in the series was actually an enormous part of the overall conflict that all seven books build to? Even network sitcoms are doing stuff like that these days, so you should check out those four shows and try really watching them.
Part 5: Conclusion
The irony of writing a long post that speaks in broad generalizations to uphold my criticism of people that write long diatribes speaking in broad generalizations to uphold opinions that I don’t agree with is not at all lost on me. This was a natural, human reaction. I was frustrated and I won’t pretend that I’m not a hypocrite for responding in this way.
That being said, I don’t truly believe that television back then pales in comparison to television today. They were different times. Society had different expectations of their pop culture, different values, a different sense of propriety when it comes to questioning any given widely held belief of the time. It doesn’t mean that their stories have lost value over the years, even the ones featuring now irrelevant plots and conflicts. I grew up watching Nick at Nite – I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, The Munsters, Happy Days, The Wonder Years. I will always love these shows, but they do NOT represent some superior time period that we will never again live up to as creative people.
My problem is this: When people state that art, society, civilization, pop culture, and everything else has gotten unequivocally worse over the years, they write off a treasure trove of what the world today has to offer. Quit lusting for the past so much and you just might find that the present is pretty awesome too.
I just might write up my similar take on movies someday to go along with this post, but it will probably only happen if someone gets me riled up on the topic again.