Miércoles 22 de Octubre de 2008, Ip nº 251

Sitcoms’ burden: too few taboos
Por Alessandra Stanley

All jokes are pratfalls, really, whether it’s a clownish slip on a banana peel or a bon mot by Oscar Wilde. Humor, at its core, pivots on enduring — or inflicting — embarrassment.

Yet it’s hard to think of anything truly mortifying in an age of Viagra commercials, colonoscopies televised live, weight-loss reality shows, presidential primary candidates who admit to adultery and a vice presidential nominee with a pregnant, unwed teenage daughter.

And that’s the burden that weighs on classic television comedies. Every new season brings more reality shows and dramas, while traditional half-hour comedies dwindle, an endangered species. There are lots of reasons, including competition from comedy channels on cable and the Internet, but a fundamental one is that network sitcoms are still seeking broad appeal at a time when writers can no longer rely on common values or widely shared forms of inhibition.

Comedians try to stretch the limits of humor by turning ever lewder and more offensive about gender, race, infirmity and sexuality. But when sensitivities harden and taboos are so easily tumbled, it’s tougher and tougher to find fresh forms of adults-only material. Comedy reverts to a childlike mix of silliness and bathroom crudity — the humor of bodily dysfunctions.

That led to movies like “There’s Something About Mary,” by the Farrelly brothers, “Meet the Parents” and “Knocked Up.”

Now it has prompted CBS to adapt gross-out humor for the small screen with a new sitcom, “Worst Week.”

The pilot, which has its premiere on Monday, is based on the British show “The Worst Week of My Life,” but it is also so deeply indebted to the Ben Stiller comedy “Meet the Parents” that it may disappoint many viewers. It’s a difficult conceit to sustain week after week, but it’s an intriguing experiment for a network that still does very well with more conventional sitcoms. “Two and a Half Men,” after all, is a huge hit for CBS, and it’s an updated version of a Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin farce, a smooth roué (Charlie Sheen) who lives with and torments his doltish, inept brother (Jon Cryer).

The humor in “Worst Week” is rooted in a ceaseless and escalating cascade of embarrassing mishaps that pile upon its Seth Rogen-ish hero, Sam (Kyle Bornheimer), when he and his girlfriend try to tell her disapproving parents that she is pregnant. It would be churlish to reveal Sam’s ordeals in detail, but nudity, vomit and urine flow freely. As in any situation comedy, from “I Love Lucy” to “Scrubs,” the lead character is a well-meaning, clumsy victim of colossal ill fortune or bad judgment. The difference is that here the embarrassment is mostly physical, not social, dysfunction.

HBO is experimenting with the opposite end of the same spectrum with a new animated comedy in the school of “South Park” and “Family Guy,” entitled “The Life & Times of Tim,” a hero who is impassive in the face of cringe-inducing failure. When embarrassing things happen to Tim — his girlfriend and her parents come home to find him with a streetwalker; his co-workers make him pretend he was drunk at a bachelor party and raped by a homeless man — he is meek, phlegmatic and registers faint dismay, not full indignation. He is a man pecked and picked upon by fate and his own stupidity, but his off-kilter restraint is the funniest part of a show that is laden with all the obscenity and feces jokes that adult cartoons allow.

“Worst Week” and “The Life & Times of Tim” try to exploit the one form of humor that hasn’t been lavishly explored by network television since its Golden Age. From Sid Caesar on, comedies have reveled in all the awkward moments and social misunderstandings that have veined comedy since Aristophanes. Even jokes about sex and race are not new. In a 1965 episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” Laura and Rob accidentally dye their hands black while making a costume for their son — the same night that Rob is to speak to an interracial audience at an awards ceremony.

It was “Seinfeld” that toppled a lot of sitcom taboos, including one of the toughest, in a famous 1992 episode, “The Contest,” in which Jerry and his friends compete to see who can abstain from masturbation the longest. Censors at the time required euphemisms, which turned the signature phrase, “master of my domain,” into a much-used expression in real life.

“Friends” and “Will & Grace” followed suit. Nowadays all kinds of sitcoms, from “How I Met Your Mother” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to “Scrubs,” “30 Rock” and “My Name Is Earl,” make light of drug use, drinking, casual sex, venereal disease, vomit, flatulence and masturbation. “Worst Week” merely has more.

But even those shows don’t come anywhere near the crude, infantile audacity of foreign television comedies. American versions tend to water down the harshest material. Even “The Office” on NBC, one of the better adaptations, is gentler than Ricky Gervais’s original version for the BBC. NBC had to reshoot parts of “Kath & Kim,” an Americanization of Australia’s biggest comedy hit, and squeamishness may well be part of the reason.

A few animated shows like “South Park” and “The Life & Times of Tim,” are brutally callous, but they are cartoons, so the most cruel and offensive jokes are uttered by animated characters: cartoons protect real-life actors from having to pronounce the most virulent expressions of political incorrectness.

British comedians, from Benny Hill and Monty Python to Mr. Gervais, have fewer inhibitions. (Though cross-dressing could be one way for British comedians to stay removed from their own cruelty.)

“Little Britain USA,” which begins on HBO on Sept. 28, is a made-for-America version of an exquisitely puerile British comedy, “Little Britain.” The export version is tailored to touch those last raw nerves in American culture: the opening sketch has a British tourist in Florida rise from his wheelchair, walk over to the hotel pool and urinate, spraying a woman swimming laps.

The show’s creators and stars, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, often dress in drag to impersonate all kinds of absurd characters, none more nutty than Mr. Lucas as Marjorie Dawes, an insensitive weight-loss instructor. (Her segment is introduced by a narrator who says, “There are more fat people in America than there are people.”)

Rosie O’Donnell plays herself as the new spokewoman for Fat-Fighters, a weight-loss organization, who is invited to speak to Marjorie’s group of obese Americans. Marjorie asks her guest, “Are you fat because you’re a lesbian, or are you a lesbian because you’re fat?”

Only Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO and Sarah Silverman on her Comedy Central show have as much nerve — and deadpan social insensitivity. They have learned that the most daring comedies are not the ones that focus on unpleasant facts of life but the ones that showcase unpleasant people.

Some new comedies try to be as outré, but none of them are as clever. Forbidden territory in our society keeps shrinking. Sometimes, it’s wiser to let the land lie fallow.

  19/09/2008. The New York Times.