Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Parks and Recreation

The running gag

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The Story of Everest

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What are your favorite running gags?”

In comedy, there’s a type of joke known as the rake gag, as best described by Mike Scully of The Simpsons: “Sam Simon had a theory that if you repeat a joke too many times, it stops being funny, but if you keep on repeating it, it might get really funny.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but the original observation comes from his commentary track on the episode “Cape Feare,” in which the rake gag itself was born.) The protracted repetition of a joke—which was often only marginally funny in the first place—is fascinating because it seems to violate a basic principle of comedy, which is based on surprise. It’s a form of metahumor, or antihumor, that breaks an unstated contract between the writer and the audience, and it forces us to watch ourselves as much as the joke itself. In a sketch like “The Story of Everest” on Mr. Show, our anticipation of every new variation, or the lack thereof, of the underlying pratfall turns us into active participants. Since we know what the next beat will be, we’re placed in the position of authors or collaborators, and most of the suspense comes from how long it can be sustained.

The rake gag is only a highly compressed version of the running gag, a joke that recurs in various forms over the course of a show or story at longer intervals, but which also depends on a weird kind of intimacy between the narrative and its viewers. Any particular instance of a running gag isn’t all that funny in itself; the humor lies in our memory of the previous occurrences, and the anticipation that each subsequent setup creates. We laugh as much out of recognition as anything else, and the effect is subtly flattering. If it’s a running joke on a television series, it assumes that we have a memory that extends beyond the boundaries of the episode we’re currently watching, and our appreciation of the gag can feel like insider knowledge. A casual viewer of Community—if such a thing exists—probably has no idea what to make of the repeated references to the Dean’s fondness for dalmatians or why Beetlejuice casually walks by in the background of one scene, and that flicker of understanding both tickles us and makes us feel like a member of, well, a community.

Michael Cera and Mae Whitman on Arrested Development

This may be why the best running gags are subtle ones, and a poorly handled example can feel like a rake to the head. When a show tries too hard to create a running gag for its own sake—as Parks and Recreation arguably does with the cast’s mistreatment of Jerry or Gary—it can seem forced, an attempt to artificially create the kind of intimacy that can only emerge over time. Like the original rake gag in “Cape Feare,” which was designed solely to prolong an episode that was running short, a great running gag often has the feel of an accident, or a serendipitous return to material that worked unexpectedly well the first time around. After all, a lot of the humor we find in our own lives comes from this kind of organic repetition: we return to the same jokes with our friends because they trigger happy memories, until the original incident has been long forgotten. And like a running gag on a favorite television series, when we try to unpack an inside joke for an outsider, it falls apart, as if we were trying to explain one of our dreams. In the end, you just had to be there.

The closest a show has ever come to willing that kind of familiarity into existence, even before it had much of an audience to work with, is in Arrested Development. The Simpsons is often cited as the first freeze-frame series, which utilized the new technology of home video recording to insert sign gags and almost subliminal jokes that went by too quickly to be processed on first viewing, and Arrested Development was arguably the first show designed to be watched as part of a box set. (If anything, the fourth season took that tendency a little too far, which implies that the key to great comedy lies somewhere in the tension between sustaining a story week by week and in delivering it in one huge binge.) The list of the show’s running gags is insanely long, but if I’d had to pick a favorite…well, I don’t think I will. Explanation kills comedy, as I’ve been doing throughout this post, and that’s especially true of something so fragile, yet oddly resilient, as the running gag. Out of context, it may not seem like much, but at the right place and time, it’s as plain as the nose on Ann’s face.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2014 at 9:42 am

Community values

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The Community episode "Basic Sandwich"

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season. For shows that are perpetually on the bubble, renewal and cancellation decisions can seem arbitrary or worse, but this one was especially inexplicable: Community has never been a highly rated show, but it’s still been consistent enough to think that NBC would want to keep it in reserve, along with Parks and Recreation, to fill a few slots in the spring after other shows have failed and the entire lineup is competing against football on Thursday. (Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club laid out that scenario here.) Instead, at a moment when the series seemed so confident in renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone. Later today, the network’s Bob Greenblatt is scheduled to go into more detail about the thought process behind this decision, and I’m curious about what he’ll say, even if the explanation turns out to be as boring as I expect: sitcoms still cost more to produce than reality shows, so if you’re going to hold onto a mediocre performer, better it be something like The Biggest Loser.

Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen. Shows with poor ratings but a vehement fanbase have been resurrected in surprising ways, whether via another network (Cougar Town), a streaming service (Arrested Development), or a Kickstarter campaign (Veronica Mars), and it’s easy to imagine Community taking any one of these routes. (If Dan Harmon wants my money, I’m pretty much willing to give it to him with no questions asked.) The possibility of a show returning in some other form isn’t a new phenomenon: Police Squad did just fine for itself on the big screen, while movies as different as Serenity and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me indicate that executives are willing to take a flier on a niche property for the sake of tapping into an existing audience, even if the results are never quite as successful as anyone hopes. And if we’ve learned one thing from the curious ups and downs of Arrested Development, it’s that even after years of speculation, rumor, and teasing possibilities, you sometimes do get what you want—although the form it takes may not be what you expected.

The cast of Community

As a result, when a show like Community ends, it’s less of a full stop than an ellipsis, possibly with a question mark attached. And for a series that always had its eye so clearly on the long game, it represents a real loss, at least for now. Sitcoms have traditionally had an uneasy relationship to the very idea of a finale: since every episode was meant to stand on its own, even the penultimate installment of a show usually felt like business as usual, saving all the thankless work of setting up the ending for the following week. (“The Puerto Rican Day” episode of Seinfeld, for instance, which was the last regular episode before its finale, really could have aired at any point in the show’s run.) Aside from the practicalities of syndication, in which episodes can aired in any order, there’s a good reason why sitcoms often prefer to confine all this material to the finale: it generally isn’t a lot of fun. Community was always a little different; each season had a clear arc, albeit with room for many bizarre digressions, and even if this was designed in part to gently mock the whole idea of overarching storylines, if the show knew that it was ending for real, the tone of the entire season would have been very different.

As stands, we’re not going to get that season, and even if it materializes in some other form, it’s inevitably going to be altered by outside circumstances. (Obviously, this is nothing new to Community, which has never been as free as it would have liked to shape its stories according to their internal needs: over the past two seasons alone, it weathered the firing and return of its creator and the departure of a pair of crucial cast members, and the strain on the storytelling often showed.) It’s instructive to compare this to Parks and Recreation, which just ended its own season with an episode that felt empathically like a series finale: it found room for all of its lead and supporting characters, included callbacks to six years of history, tied emotional bows on every major storyline, and concluded with a flashforward that worked beautifully as a closing gag. Watching it, I assumed that Michael Shur and his collaborators had approached it as a potential ending while waiting on the resolution of the show’s fate, but in fact, it seems that they’d already been guaranteed a renewal. In other words, their approach was the exact opposite of Community, which structured its finale with another season in mind even as its future hung by a thread. I shouldn’t be surprised: no other sitcom on television has consistently taken such big risks. And if it had played it safe at this last, critical moment, it wouldn’t be the show I’ve grown to love.

Parks and Rec and the comedy of affection

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Adam Scott and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

“In a good play,” Christian Friedrich Hebbel says, “everyone is in the right.” This is also often true of books, movies, and television shows. I love a good villain as much as anyone, and I’ve created a lot of them in my own novels, but when we’re presented with a work of art that creates real drama and interest without resorting to neatly drawn lines of good and evil, it’s a reminder of how artful such stories need to be. It’s easy to slide in a generic bad guy for the protagonists to react against, and much harder to tell stories that arise organically from the conflicts between fundamentally sympathetic people, but if it works, the result is often worth it. This is especially true of comedy and children’s entertainment. It’s the reason, for instance, why the best recent family movies—the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, most of Miyazaki—have only incidental villains or none at all, preferring to create conflict through the interactions between the primary characters and their adventures in the larger world. (I’m willing to give a pass to Toy Story 3, but only because Lotso is arguably the most nuanced and interesting movie villain of the decade.)

It’s also why Parks and Recreation is the best comedy on network television. Community may rise to greater heights—although I’ve become increasingly skeptical that we’ll ever see those heights again—but on a weekly basis, Parks and Rec is a marvel of magical, inventive, organized storytelling. And a big part of its appeal is that we like everyone involved. The show doesn’t mine laughs out of manufactured conflicts, but out of the fact that the characters are funny, richly developed types who can’t help colliding with their coworkers, however good their intentions may be. It’s a truism that television, which relies on our willingness to invite the same people into our homes every week, depends on creating characters we like, but few other shows have ever delivered on this promise so beautifully. Last night’s wedding episode, which made my wife tear up, is a reminder of how emotionally rewarding this kind of storytelling can be, especially when sustained for season after season. We love these characters, and it’s largely because they love one another.

Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman in Parks and Recreation

And it didn’t have to be that way. The first season of Parks and Rec was notoriously rocky, with characters who were little more than stereotypes and a tone that failed to distinguish itself adequately from that of The Office. Yet the show righted itself soon thereafter, largely because of the affection I mentioned above—in particular, the affection of the writers for their own creations. Their first great realization was that Leslie Knope wasn’t a clueless bureaucrat, but a hero who loved her job, was smarter than most of the people around her, but was endlessly carried away by her own enthusiasm. The second was even more crucial: Leslie’s boss Ron, despite his philosophical dislike of all forms of government, liked and respected Leslie as well. As a result, a premise that could have generated a string of tired conflicts became, instead, a show about the wary dance between two friends. (For this, we can probably thank 30 Rock, which quickly came to a similar conclusion about Liz and Jack.) The rest of the cast began to flower right away, and with the addition of Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger, the picture was finally complete.

It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this show’s evolution has been. In some ways, its uncertain start is what made its ultimate blossoming possible: this wasn’t a show that was perfectly conceived from the beginning, but one that gradually discovered the potential of its characters, setting, and cast, and it’s a miracle that it was allowed so much time to find its true form. Best of all, after an initial run of seasons in which our affection for the characters allowed us to enjoy episodes that were only mildly amusing, the show has become consistently hilarious. True, in the last season, the show has introduced its first real villain, in the form of Councilman Jamm, and the results haven’t always been great—his storylines are usually the weakest part of any episode. To the show’s credit, however, Jamm always gets a swift comeuppance, to the point where we suspect the writers just want to get back to the real business at hand. What began as a satire of local government has evolved into a show in which, weirdly, wrongdoing is punished and idealism thrives. It’s something that no one could have expected when this series began. And I hope it has the chance to grow and surprise us for years to come.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2013 at 9:21 am

Critical television studies

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The cast of Community

Television is such a pervasive medium that it’s easy to forget how deeply strange it is. Most works of art are designed to be consumed all at once, or at least in a fixed period of time—it’s physically possible, if not entirely advisable, to read War and Peace in one sitting. Television, by contrast, is defined by the fact of its indefinite duration. House of Cards aside, it seems likely that most of us will continue to watch shows week by week, year after year, until they become a part of our lives. This kind of extended narrative can be delightful, but it’s also subject to risk. A beloved show can change for reasons beyond anyone’s control. Sooner or later, we find out who killed Laura Palmer. An actor’s contract expires, so Mulder is abducted by aliens, and even if he comes back, by that point, we’ve lost interest. For every show like Breaking Bad that has its dark evolution mapped out for seasons to come, there’s a series like Glee, which disappoints, or Parks and Recreation, which gradually reveals a richness and warmth that you’d never guess from the first season alone. And sometimes a show breaks your heart.

It’s clear at this point that the firing of Dan Harmon from Community was the most dramatic creative upheaval for any show in recent memory. This isn’t the first time that a show’s guiding force has departed under less than amicable terms—just ask Frank Darabont—but it’s unusual in a series so intimately linked to one man’s particular vision. Before I discovered Community, I’d never heard of Dan Harmon, but now I care deeply about what this guy feels and thinks. (Luckily, he’s never been shy about sharing this with the rest of us.) And although it’s obvious from the opening minutes of last night’s season premiere that the show’s new creative team takes its legacy seriously, there’s no escaping the sense that they’re a cover band doing a great job with somebody else’s music. Showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port do their best to convince us out of the gate that they know how much this show means to us, and that’s part of the problem. Community was never a show about reassuring us that things won’t change, but about unsettling us with its endless transformations, even as it delighted us with its new tricks.

The Community episode "Remedial Chaos Theory"

Don’t get me wrong: I laughed a lot at last night’s episode, and I was overjoyed to see these characters again. By faulting the new staff for repeating the same beats I loved before, when I might have been outraged by any major alterations, I’m setting it up so they just can’t win. But the show seems familiar now in a way that would have seemed unthinkable for most of its first three seasons. Part of the pleasure of watching the series came from the fact that you never knew what the hell might happen next, and it wasn’t clear if Harmon knew either. Not all of his experiments worked: there even some clunkers, like “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” in the glorious second season, which is one of my favorite runs of any modern sitcom. But as strange as this might have once seemed, it feels like we finally know what Community is about. It’s a show that takes big formal risks, finds the emotional core in a flurry of pop culture references, and has no idea how to use Chevy Chase. And although I’m grateful that this version of the show has survived, I don’t think I’m going to tune in every week wondering where in the world it will take me.

And the strange thing is that Community might have gone down this path with or without Harmon. When a show needs only two seasons to establish that anything is possible, even the most outlandish developments can seem like variations on a theme. Even at the end of the third season, there was the sense that the series was repeating itself. I loved “Digital Estate Planning,” for instance, but it felt like the latest attempt to do one of the formally ambitious episodes that crop up at regular intervals each season, rather than an idea that forced itself onto television because the writers couldn’t help themselves. In my review of The Master, I noted that Paul Thomas Anderson has perfected his brand of hermetic filmmaking to the point where it would be more surprising if he made a movie that wasn’t ambiguous, frustrating, and deeply weird. Community has ended up in much the same place, so maybe it’s best that Harmon got out when he did. It’s doubtful that the series will ever be able to fake us out with a “Critical Film Studies” again, because it’s already schooled us, like all great shows, in how it needs to be watched. And although its characters haven’t graduated from Greendale yet, its viewers, to their everlasting benefit, already have.

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

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