The USA Today piece, by Bill Keveny, was less a review and more
of a heads-up for viewers. But Keveny manages to sprinkle
the piece with quotes from exec producer Matt Kunitz, exec producer
Lisa Leingang and NBC late-night veep Rick Ludwin. And Keveny generally
parrots the NBC party line. In the story's lede, he says that
"...the network is offering jaded viewers a reassurance: no
comics in front of brick walls and no airline food jokes."
This sums up the entire problem as far as I'm concerned. That
one sentence (or independent clause) neatly displays the paranoia
of the NBC brass, their willingness to insult all the shows that
came before and their propensity to insult most comics working
today. And it shows the eagerness on the part of the press to aid the
folks at NBC in perpetuating sterotypes and hackneyed
opinions about past shows and the comics who appeared on them.
Kunitz says they're "trying to be a little bit edgy, a little
more experimental," and Leingang concurs by saying that the
rougher edges will be "more appealing to younger viewers than
a slick production." All this is done, Keveny chimes in,
"to avoid a program that seemed too much like the standard
standup show of a few years ago, which went into decline after
overexposure." (There goes those kneejerk assumptions
THE EDGY CRISIS
Has there been a tremendous cry for "edgy?" Have
swarms of viewers been going on hunger strikes because
there just aren't enough shaky camera shots and skewed camera
angles? Do such cheap production tricks enhance the presentation
of standup? No. No. And no. Of course their real motive in
all of this is to attract the elusive "younger viewer."
The pursuit of this demographic has led to some of the
more comical and moronic programming trends in recent
As I recall, we were told some years back that television
was going to add color to old black and white movies because...
younger viewers just WOULD NOT WATCH FILMS WITHOUT COLOR. Give
us the latest technical advancements, young Americans cry!
We can't even consider watching a film if it's even lacking
in the most rudimentary production values (like color!).
And the last time I checked, the fastest way to break
a box office record is to slather a film with as many
expensive, elaborate special effects as you can get your hands on.
Where then, does television get this notion that teens and
college students are suspicious of slick?
And where is the wisdom in attracting young viewers to a
show like this one in the first place? Sooner or later, you'll
attract younger and younger viewers to a show that's packed
with jokes that the viewing audience is far
too young and/or stupid to understand! It's kinda like
marketing Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street Week to homeless people.
("Here's the deal: Henceforth, Louis will tape the show
from inside a huge cardboard box!")
STRATEGY LAID BARE
Equally puzzling are the statements by Big Cheese Ludwin, who
states that the show will enable the network to find talent that
they can shoehorn into other NBC shows. Has anything really
changed? Haven't all these shows traditionally served that
purpose? Why are we suddenly privy to such irrelevant information?
Ludwin further suggests that the 1:35 AM time slot will be a
"forum for unconventional talent without too great a risk."
A risk? Of what? "It's all about finding that fresh voice,
that fresh attitude," Ludwin says, "It's terribly hard
to find." Touching isn't it? A network executive so willing
to admit to incompetence, cluelessness and frustration... or is
he implying that nobody out there (in what TV execs derisively
refer to as "flyover country,") has yet found a
fresh voice or attitude? Either way, it's puzzling. My suggestion
to Mr. Ludwin and to Ms. Leingang is that they might look a
little harder. (And one more thing: I certainly hope that
making fun of network execs is considered "edgy," as I
would dearly love to appear on the show as well!)
To their credit, they managed to promote the show without once
using the word "alternative." But we all know that's
what this is. They danced around the "A word" it by
using words like
"eclectic" and "new" and by dropping catch
phrases like "fresh voice" and "fresh attitude."
(The folks over at Comedy Central show no such reticence; Senior
VP of Development Debbie Liebling, while pumping a spate of
new shows, uses the word "alternative" and
"insane"--in the same sentence --then, much to
her credit, she actually describes on
of the shows as "funny." How radical!)
OUT WITH THE OLD
Imagine if NBC were to dream up a late night show that showcased
musical talent instead of comics. How embarassing would it be
if they were to
present the bands as "totally unlike anything you've ever
heard!" If I were a band about to tape that show, and I heard that
kind of talk buzzing around, I think I would halt the taping
and ask them to introduce us as "just a kickass rock and
roll band." Bands --good ones, great ones and bad ones --are
rarely so intent on creating such a chasm between them and what
came before them. In fact, they quite often exult in their
connection to their past and their influences. They pay respect
to their roots. They incorporate the past into their creations
and they're confident that the new work is good and even, in
some ways, but not all, better.
Not so with standup. There seems to be an all-too-obvious
and frantic hurry to put distance between the new and the forebears.
Even a tendency to out-and-out trash the founding fathers. Would
U2 open up a concert by saying, "Good evening! We were just
talking backstage about how the Rolling Stones are pathetic and
should just hang it up! You're looking at the future of rock
right here, people! Let's shoot Mick in the head, whaddya say?
And if I hear one more Bo Diddley song, I'll hurl!"
I banged out a letter to both the Post and USA Today in response
to their articles. In writing to the Post, I took issue with
author Adam Buckman's statement that "The young, so-called
talent working the comedy clubs these days is insufficient
in number to fill a one-hour TV show, much less populate
several such shows week after week." I countered that
there are gobs of talented comics working the clubs these days.
NBC, however, has chosen to narrow their focus to alternative
comics. This makes their job that much tougher.
I further pointed out that if this show had been launched
15 years ago, using the same criteria, the producers would
have spurned such talented comics as Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld
and Roseanne in favor of Ludwin's "fresh voice(s)"
and "fresh attitude(s)." In 1985, Allen and the
others weren't yet stars but were on the road, working in
comedy clubs. Their current-day counterparts are working a
lot of those same clubs as we speak. NBC has chosen to
ignore them. This is especially ironic in light of the
fact that one of NBC's stated goals in launching the show
is to find comics who might work well in future NBC sitcoms.
Do we really need to review the enormous success of the three
comics I just mentioned? Particularly in SITCOMS?
I should point out here that I don't
mean to imply for one minute that the folks on Late Friday
aren't fresh, new or edgy, but I get the impression that NBC is
implying that everyone else out there ISN'T!.
This is a tremendous development in world of Post-Bust Standup
Comedy. A weekly show, on network television, that features five
or six funny and interesting comics. This is a clear sign (one of
the many that we've observed over the last three or four years) that
the business is on the way back up.