Fear of Being Funny
In the past two years, all of the networks and many cable channels have tried to develop sketch comedy shows in hopes of creating the type of sturdy-legged franchise of a Saturday Night Live (NBC), or even a knock-off version of the lesser but still viable Mad TV (Fox). But sketch TV is a difficult genre to master, as evidenced by such painful attempts as MTV’s Lyricists’ Lounge, and Fox’s horrid Hype.
NBC’s summer entry into the sketch comedy wars, The Downer Channel, may be the worst attempt yet, coming off as a random collection of dull, on-the-street interviews and unfunny sketches drowning in a sea of graphics. Starring the all-too-familiar multi-cultural hodgepodge—a Latino (Lance Krall), an African-American woman (Wanda Sykes), and two Anglos (Jeff B. Davis and Mary Lynn Rajskub), this show is so derivative that it’s almost like the production team went with every single one of its first ideas without anyone ever saying, “Uh, that’s not really funny.” It’s the type of stuff high school videos are made of.
The question is: why? I suggest the main problem is that the show suffers from the absolute death-knell to sketch comedy: fear—fear of censorship, fear of being too experimental, and fear of having a strong singular perspective. Start with fear of censorship. The Downer Channel is so afraid of “prime time” censoring that the show is a neutered version of what it may have been had someone had the gall to see it through. The best example of this is when three helium balloons are attached to unsuspecting people on the street (ha ha: tell me that isn’t high school). The balloons are obviously shaped like a penis and two testicles. But they can’t show that on prime time, so one of the testicles floats about two feet higher, and the prank is never defined. It was stupid to begin with, but the way it plays out it loses even the sophomoric snicker it might have gotten from the floating phallus joke.
It isn’t only fear of censorship that dooms this show, however. There is also a seeming revulsion to trying anything new or experimental. The Downer Channel uses every single shtick already done much better elsewhere in the genre. “The Withholding Family”—where a deadpan Fred Willard and Teri Garr ignore their children’s accomplishments—is a feeble nod to SNL‘s family sketch legacy that yielded such memorables as the Coneheads. The interviews on the street are straightforward clips of straightforward people simply pointing out things that annoy them. Compared to Letterman’s cruelty on the street, or Tom Green’s bizarre stunts, The Downer Channel‘s street work is just boring.
The lack of experimentation spreads to the production techniques as well. It might be more accurate to call this show The Graphics Channel, since every sketch on the premiere episode is introduced by on-screen graphics reporting exactly what we are about to see, and the graphics linger so long that they have more screen time than the actors. The promotional material claimed this was sketch in the tradition of Laugh-In (NBC) by which the promoters presumably meant short, sweet, and fast, with lots of production bells and whistles. But Laugh-In was new and different in the 1960s, and since then we’ve grown accustomed to fancy dissolves and wipes and goofy sound effects. There’s no evolution here, which is another reason why The Downer Channel seems so amateur; anyone with a video camera and a computer editing system could have made this show.
The final and overriding fear that grips The Downer Channel is that it is unable to develop a strong and singular perspective. The show is ostensibly about the “down” side of life, which by the show’s definition seems to mean minor daily annoyances—rather than any bigger issues that might actually make black comedy existentialists out of us and allow the series to convey some insightful points about the banality of our culture. Past generations had wars to flavor their sound and fury; now we have people who talk on cell phones while they drive. To make sketch comedy work, you need a strong, overriding perspective driving everything you do. Check out Canada’s The Kids in the Hall (CBC) or Britain’s The Benny Hill Show, for goodness’ sake. Even Conan O’Brien realizes that much; when watching his Late Night skits, you know they’re coming from an ironic New York/Harvard sensibility.
That The Downer Channel doesn’t have a unified perspective makes sense given the huge list of exec producers. The producers have wonderful resumes, including a David Letterman writer, and the Carsey-Warner team that created such witty hits as 3rd Rock From the Sun (NBC). But you get the sense that that is exactly why they are listed as producers: their backgrounds help to promote the show. No one seems to have taken over and given the show the powerful singularity it needs to work.
Take Steve Martin, for example. The only bit that bears his stamp is the sketch, “Cat Lassie,” in which a trapped boy tells his cat to go get help, only to linger for hours while the cat sits at home cleaning its paws. This comes off as completely out of place with the rest of the show, as if the cast made sure they included something Martinesque, even if it doesn’t have much to do with the theme or the other sketches.
In the end, all great sketch comes from the brazen, counter-cultural sensibilities that originally drove Saturday Night Live, or the smart and ironic groove that made The Kids in the Hall so interesting. You can’t be afraid and do good sketch. Unfortunately, The Downer Channel is very, very afraid. It is also very, very bad.