Dirty Jokes Are Forever

If 2 Broke Girls doesn’t last, it will be forever remembered as “That Coldplay Show.” Probably to the surprise of showrunner Michael Patrick King, who was all set to field questions about the ethnic stereotyping, the main online controversy yesterday was about an early joke where Kat Dennings’ character tells a hipster “I wear knit hats because it’s cold outside, you wear knit hats because of Coldplay.” What probably seemed to King like a typical combination of a topical reference with a bit of wordplay – the sort of joke he’s been doing on Sex and the City for years – set off alarm bells all over the internet: people pointed out that actual hipsters don’t like Coldplay, or that someone who likes Coldplay isn’t a hipster, and that anyway the reference is already dated. It won’t be what drags the show down if it doesn’t live up to expectations, but with one joke, the attempt to be a now, happening (like the kids say these days) show kind of evaporated. Instantly it revealed that it used music references the way most shows use them: pick a reference that’s well-known enough to the people who don’t follow contemporary music. The show has potential if they can improve the supporting characters – but hip it ain’t.

This rather minor joke fracas helped, in a roundabout way, to answer a question I sometimes have battling for space in my brain: Why is it that CBS, the network that aims at the broadest demographics, has the most sex jokes, while NBC, the most sophisticated comedy network, is also the cleanest? This is not inevitable. Sophisticated or smart comedy is often very dirty, and it wasn’t so long ago that the stereotype of mainstream or “safe” comedy was that it avoided dirty material that would shock the Little Old Lady In Dubuque. So what happened?

Well, I think part of what happened is that if you’re aiming to reach the largest audience possible – and last night’s Two and a Half Men premiere did huge numbers despite the slight handicap of being basically terrible – then sex jokes are reliably mainstream, among the few reliably mainstream jokes left. We all know about the rapidly changing technology, which TV has never been able to keep up with (remember Seinfeld in 1996 saying “I gotta get on that internet!”). More problematically for comedy writers, the fragmentation of popular culture has led to fragmented trends. A writer of a network comedy in 1966, even if he wasn’t doing topical references, knew that certain things were “in”: spies, superheroes, the Beatles. Today, most of TV doesn’t have the power to set trends (Mad Men is a trend setter among people who watch it, including network executives, but that’s a different thing), except reality TV, which is one of the reason Jersey Shore jokes are everywhere: it’s one of the few shows that seems to pull off the old TV trick of both influencing trends and reflecting them at the same time. Socially, too, the trends are not as clear-cut as they have been (or seemed) at other times, so writers latch on instead to made-up trends like the “man-cession.” For a TV comedy writer to write about what “people are interested in” has always been difficult, but it’s now as difficult as it’s ever been.

There are two ways to deal with that. One is for the writer to simply write what he or she is interested in, never mind the trends. This can lead, unexpectedly, to mainstream success, and it’s usually a better bet for artistic achievement. (Seinfeld is an example of a show where the writers just wrote what happened to them, never mind if anyone else would care, and somehow discovered that their experiences struck a universal chord. Though even there, much of what struck people as universal was that it talked about sexual matters with a frankness that most sitcoms had avoided.) But the other, especially if you’re consciously trying to construct a show that appeals across regional and national borders, is to go for the things that have not changed, and where the writers are least likely to be accused of being out of touch. Sex jokes. Sex changes, but not the way technology or pop culture changes. Anatomy jokes are anatomy jokes; flatulence jokes have been pretty much the same for all of human history. When you hear a sex joke, you’re almost hearing the relief of a writer in not having to worry who will get this, or if the joke won’t work now unless he somehow arranges for the characters’ cell phones to conk out.

Am I saying that TV humour is going to get even raunchier than it is now? It’s possible. It’s also possible that trends will become easier to spot or, best of all, a new scripted show will come along that is such a big hit that it makes the trends. Much of what we think of as “the ’80s” or “the ’90s,” after all, is the creation of popular culture. A show sometimes comes off looking better when it doesn’t try to keep up with the times; when it does, it just reveals (as with Coldplay) that the writers are not trendy folk. Or writers should focus intently on how life is lived in a particular part of our fragmented society. Maybe it’s not a good example because it wasn’t a big hit, but Friday Night Lights struck a chord even with people who don’t live in a town that revolves around high school football, because it was just interesting to see people who are interested in something and to see a society that feels somewhat authentic. The alternative is a hermetic TV world where the only topic is what Preston Sturges called “Topic A,” or an increased retreat into the past (hence all the period pieces: the writers can know what was popular at the time, and they know what references we’ll get). One way or another, I don’t think we’ll be getting a lot more Coldplay jokes on any show.

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