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I took a last-minute gig last month and one of the conditions of taking the gig was that I hadda keep it clean. How clean? "TV clean," was the response. How long are the sets? "25-30 minutes," came the reply. I took it. I wouldn't want to try to be clean for 45 or 50 minutes. At least not in a club. I'm not a filthy act; I'm no def jammer. I don't simulate the sex act on stage. But I've got an adult act. I use salty language. I get a little edgy on occasion. I'm the same way onstage as I am offstage. I think that's as it should be. Working clean presents a challenge. A challenge I'm only recently getting around to accepting.
It's a funny thing, this working clean. I've never really had to work clean very often. There are some comics who worked clean from their very first time up there. I'd say they are rare. Most of us worked dirty. Why? Because we could. Sure, we all knew that we'd need to clean it up for TV, but that was an easy game to play. To say that a good, filthy club comic wasn't capable of spinning out a squeaky clean 8-minute TV set was akin to saying that Jeff Gordon wasn't capable of driving down to the post office without causing several ugly, fiery pileups.
But the debate always raged. "It's very, verrrry difficult to work clean," say the clean advocates. Actually, what they say is "It's easy to work dirty." Which implies that it's very difficult to work clean. Who are these clean advocates anyway? Oh...let's see... Sid Caesar...various talent coordinators...clean comics. "It's easy to work dirty, they all say." This would be your very tall, very wide pile of solid waste. It steams and it smells badly.
Let's throw money into the equation. Why not?
These days, there is an army of comics who are flying just below the radar who are making piles of money by doing corporate gigs. That's what we all call them, "corporate gigs." This is where a comic gets a rather large paycheck for doing a rather short set in front of a group of people who've gathered together because they're either a.) employees of a corporation, b.) members of a trade group or industry organization or c.) the grateful customers of a corporation (vendors, suppliers, contractors, like that). The guy in charge of organizing the entertainment for this shindig has an eye-bulging budget and this wisenheimer-type thinks it's a good idea to book a comic to entertain his gathering. And if he values his job, he makes certain that the comic is clean. Who wants to piss off the guy who supplies your company with PVC pipe? Who wants to anger the wife of your biggest sales agent? Why torture your marketing department with a comic that says "fuck" a lot? These folks may be drinking, but they sure didn't pay a cover and they sure didn't think they were coming to a comedy club. Makes sense to me. So, the key to the cash-laden comedy kingdom is working clean. Some folks get a little confused, though, and think that getting a fat paycheck for working clean means that a clean comic is somehow "better" or more talented. This isn't so. Like I said, they're confused.
It's difficult to work clean. It's difficult to work dirty. Why? Say it with me: It's difficult to be funny. How you approach it makes it neither harder nor easier. I think we can all agree on that. Or can we? I'll tell you one huge group of people who don't help matters any: It's those people who always link the words "clean" and "clever." They imply that a dirty comic is utterly incapable of being clever. (Unless he's Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce... or Chris Rock.) They also imply that the only way a clean comic can overcome the restrictions of working clean is by being clever. This, of course, implies that comics who work dirty aren't bound by such restrictions and, therefore, are seldom clever. This would be the very tall, very wide pile of solid waste next to that other pile over there. It too steams and smells very badly.
There are some clean comics who are ow-my-face-hurts funny. Brett Leake comes to mind, as does Jeff Allen and Rita Rudner. There are some dark and dirty comics who are equally gasp-inducing. Stanhope, Otto & George, Jim Shubert to name a few. The dirt level is irrelevant. And, as for Sid Caesar, I don't much care for his brand of comedy. And I don't like the way he always tars "these young potty-mouth comics today" with the same broad brush. And I don't like the fact that he was notorious for shitting on his writers (many of whom went on to wildly successful careers of their own while Mr. Show of Shows was drinking himself nearly to death).
By the way, Your Show of Shows was canceled in 1957! And that show leads me to my next topic (don't worry, I'll tie these all together into a neat columnar bundle by the final column buzzer). It was with this show that network programmer Pat Weaver figured out that they didn't need to have a show entirely sponsored by an advertiser, but instead the network would produce the show and would sell the sponsor commercial time in 30-second chunks. This was figured out in the early days of the medium. It is truly amazing then that today's network executives hit upon this idea every few years or so and act as if they've just invented penicillin. But then, television executives have cultivated their very own brand of dumb over the years and they put it on display every year when they invite the TV critics out west for their annual powwow.
David Bauder, AP television writer, writes from the annual
TV critics debauch in Pasadena that NBC is not interested anymore
in so-called "family-friendly" shows because, the network's
West Coast President Scott Sassa says, "They don't have the
upscale demos that we want that would allow us to keep them on
the air." Sassa says that NBC has had trouble casting
family-friendly shows and finding writers. Hmmmm...
What the whiny execs at NBC are saying is: It's hard to work clean! Those guys over at HBO have it easy! We got it hard! Lift the restrictions on us and we'll soar like filthy eagles! Yeah, right. Do you think for one minute that any of the major networks would greenlight a show like Six Feet Under? Hell, no! (Note: I said a show "like" Six Feet Under. That would be Six Feet Under with the violent and sexually graphic content and the frank language excised.) Hell, no they wouldn't! They wouldn't run it with the language and the sex. And, if you take away the sex and language, it's still a show that they would shun because of it's unorthodox tone and pacing, subject matter and dark humor. And here's another hot flash: HBO isn't running it because of the naughty words. They're running it for it's tone, it's pacing and it's dark humor. And (here's the other half of the equation) if NBC had "permission" to air Six Feet Under in it's current form (from the FCC? from sponsors?), they still wouldn't run it!!! Why not? Because they're stupid, that's why! They want their own version of Tony Soprano using "fuck" as a subject, a predicate and an object. And they want Kim Catrall's tits at 8 PM if they can get 'em. Because it's easier to work dirty. In their desperation to plug the hole in the bottom of the network ratings boat, they think that foul language and tits and ass are the way to go. And they think they can persuade enough advertisers to go along with their tawdry little scheme. And they look longingly across the room at the HBO execs and say puzzling things like "I wish we had the luxury (the luxury!) of not having to pull huge ratings on our shows like HBO does!
I was watching an old videotape I found in a pile of tapes in my living room. (Yes, my living room has piles of videotapes.) It was a review copy of an episode of Homicide from 1994. It was better than anything on television today, network television at least. And it hit me: NBC had their little slice of HBO heaven ten years ago! They had Homicide! They had a show that was well directed, well cast, scored with cool contemporary music. It had monster story arcs and funky pacing and deep characters. It was based on a best-selling book! And they did it without using those seven dirty words that George Carlin built a career on. And Yaphet Kotto never showed us his ass. So what did NBC do with it? They put it on Friday night. And they whined and complained when the numbers weren't huge. And through their executive weasel tears, they bleated out cold, heartless executive weasel-type things like "Well, at least we're not losing any money on it because we own it." And all the while they crowed about how the critics loved it-- but those goddamned boneheaded viewers weren't watching it in big enough numbers! Damn them to hell! (No matter how few they were, they were probably way more than any HBO show ever pulls!) They made 122 of them and then they canceled it. A good run for any show. But they never tried to duplicate it again. Have they ever assembled a crew like Attanasio and Levinson and Fontana and tried to make another Homicide? No. In fact, tvguide.com reported in 1997 that "NBC execs have been pressuring Fontana to up the series' babe quotient." So, even when they had a good show, they couldn't resist the urge to screw it up.
One other thing that Sassa said that disturbed me was that
NBC has had trouble casting family-friendly shows and finding
writers. Okay. Here you have a network executive, based in
Hollywood, who is having trouble casting a television
show. Is this guy priceless or what?!
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