Good Lord, you say, Phoebe I can read this all on Economist.com. I came here for fluff and arch observations of daily life delivered with an international angle. Seinfeld in Central Asia. Now pray stow this chatter about global economic trends. You majored in Anglo-Saxon literature dear.
Very well. What I'm trying to get to is that Dutch Disease is not confined to the field of economics. Comedy shows and comic strips can also suffer from Dutch Disease. I had this revelation while watching the second season of "The Big Bang" sitcom. This highly polished sitcom - for those few readers of this blog who do not already know about the show- revolves around four nerdish scientists with set character traits. Leonard is the romantic everyman, Sheldon the borderline-autistic physics prodigy, Koothropali the sexually shy Indian astrophysicist who- when it comes to ethnic stereotypes- is either extremely post-modern or just insulting and Howard the libidinous Jewish engineer who wears hilariously unflattering pants and- when it comes to ethnic stereotypes- is way past post-modernism and just goes in for the kill. Also there's Penny, a hot blond who actually does have a fairly well-crafted character but I am going to wait a bit before I return to her.
The problem is Sheldon, the genius with Asperger's syndrome. His character, immune to the niceties of everyday human interaction and prone to structuring his life on a purely logic-based framework instead of the simple, everyday pragmatism that the rest of us take for granted, is ripe for comedy gold. The writers, heartened by the fact that the first season's best lines were many times uttered by Sheldon, appear to have fallen into a bit of a loop. Lately on "The Big Bang Theory" the other also genuinely funny characters have been mostly appearing to just feed Sheldon straight lines. Also, in order to have Sheldon support more plot lines, he suddenly now has more character traits than he did originally- character traits that many times are inconsistent with his basic genius-garnished-with-Asperger's-Syndrome personality. While Sheldon's bluntness in the first season was interpreted as a symptom of pathological social cluelessness the character in question has now blossomed into an individual of astonishingly self-aware arrogance. Also Sheldon has gained the ability to snap off sarcastic one-liners, smerky double-entendres and socially-deft arguments... abilities that he would not have been able to display in the first season when he so endearingly misinterpreted Penny's sarcastic: "I know that 'Superman' is inaccurate because real men don't fly," comment by responding with an entirely serious: "No, no, let's suppose that they can...." before meticulously breaking down the various physical impossibilities of sudden drops in altitude, air friction, height and speed causing no signs of wear on even super-tough skin if one were to presuppose Kryptonian levels of endurance etc. etc.
"The Big Bang Theory" has Dutch Disease. It is concentrating all of its investments in Sheldon. As a result many episodes are developing an anemic quality as they focus on one-layer plots involving Sheldon not getting a driver's license, Sheldon boorishly interrupting Leonard's dates in an attempt to strengthen the romantic relationship in question, Sheldon getting his feet washed by an admiring grad student etc. etc. This last example is particularly egregious because the mild visual gag in question is stretched out over the course of five minutes, the laugh track growing in inversely proportionate volume to the bored silence of the actual audience at home. It's lazy comedy, and it makes one ponder the wealth of joys life would hold if one were as happy as a laughtrack. It's a shame too because the episodes where Sheldon is relegated to his original position as a secondary character- though an important one- are the episodes where Sheldon is at his funniest. The scene where he interrupts Penny's date in order to debate her amour-du-jour about who would be the rightful "successor to the Bat-Cowl" is a scream. This scene is not the plot of the episode but the sub-plot, and thus delivers just the right amount of zing before ending the joke and thus eliminating the risk of it becoming fatigued. Furthermore, episodes where characters who are not Sheldon are given a chance to stretch their limbs tend to be very well-balanced and more satisfying. "The Barbarian Sublimation" was like a wholesome breakfast. "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis" like a decent lunch (and contained the wondrous line: "I am now just one healthy human ovum away from creating my own Leonard Nimoy!!!!"), "The Terminator Decoupling" like a good ice cream treat and "The Hofstadter Isotope" freshly fried kimchi rice.
Of course all pop culture phenomena have suffered from a bout of Dutch Disease at some time or another. Snoopy stole the show from Charlie Brown late in the life of "Peanuts." Spock stole the show from Kirk many times on "Star Trek." It happens. It only becomes egregious when creators put so much comedy investment into popular secondary characters that all other comedic characters are lost or confined to the role of straight man. "Get Fuzzy," for example, ended a promising troika of a nerdish shut-in from New Zealand, a sweet-natured, somewhat gullible dog and a lazy, mean-tempered cat by deciding to focus all plots on..... the cat. Darbey Conley, the creater of "Get Fuzzy," puts Bucky the cat at the heart of every storyline. The belief that simply showing Bucky's face along with a marginally amusing plotline would be sufficient enough to get a laugh is apparently now the driving force of the strip. Bucky's face = laughter. If Mr. Conley shows the face of Rob Wilco (the "Jon" to Bucky's "Garfield") or Satchel then he must draw competently funny dialogue in order for a good joke to take place. It is too bad that "Get Fuzzy" has developed Dutch Disease because Conley is a funny and original cartoonist. His more balanced strips, such as Rob Wilco bringing the pets to Canada for vacation or Satchel and Bucky arguing over how many Democrats can change a lightbulb (with Satchel getting an equal amount of the punchlines while managing to keep all the dialogue within his "sweet-natured buffoon" characterization), are comic gold.
To bring in another example "Heart of the City" (a comic-strip written by someone who, hilariously, has obviously NEVER lived in a city in his life) is a comic strip where it was almost inevitable that Dutch Disease would set in. It appears that the creator of the strip, Mark Tatulli, may have unintentionally(?) pulled a bit of a swindle with his syndicate. Univeral Press Syndicate obviously wished to break into some new markets by offering strips with something more than the usual suburban shenanigans currently seen on the comics page. Newspapers were asking for more city-oriented strips. Also, apparently, some newspapers were also asking for more equal gender representation in their funnies. Strips with little girl protagonists were thus being given more careful consideration by the syndicates. Mr. Tatulli, an obviously canny marketer who was willing to make a few sacrifices to see his strip in print, appears to have agreed to not write the comic strip he actually wanted- an affectionate look at a geekish little boy in American suburbia- but instead write a strip that (on paper) looked like it was breaking new ground. The strip's skull-shatteringly obvious title- Look! A little girl! Look! A city!- is a rather inane form of hard-sell. This strip flogged its premise- feisty little girl growing up in urban Philadelphia- with all the subtlety of a Mel Gibson movie. It worked too.... the strip was picked up by hundreds of papers.
To be fair Mr. Tatulli's jokes were at first very original and had an appealingly realistic view of life as a little girl. I had never before seen jokes that had so accurately described the wonderfully fresh smell of plastic when opening the package of a new "Barbie" doll, the agony of desiring ballet lessons and the endless appeal of dressing up and pretending to be the Most Beautiful Ballerina Princess Gymnast Movie Star in the World. Sure there were some awkward moments, like the fact that Heart seemed to not live in a city so much as a suburb pretending to be a city. Some strips, like "Sylvia" and "Curtis," effortlessly conjure up a city setting without having to mention it specifically. "Heart of the City" so clearly took place in Centerburg, Ohio that it became the "Kool-Aid" of the fruit juice world of urban graphic story-telling. Despite all that however, it should be recognized that "Heart of the City" had a wonderfully new vibe in the beginning.
Unfortunately, within two weeks of the strip's debut, a little boy named Dean moved into Heart's neighborhood. Soon Dean-focused strips abounded. Star Wars jokes combined with events such as backyard blow-up pools filled with ice cream, the agony of back-to-school sales and popsicles on hot afternoons filled the universe of "Heart of the City." Dutch Disease infected the strip and spread with surprising rapidity. Heart, and the cardboard backdrop that was her "city," began to recede into the background. As of 2010 "Heart of the City" appears to have has abandoned its eponymous heroine for Dean: a pint-sized Star Wars geek prone to quoting Linus Van Pelt-style pearls of applicable wisdom. Dean is an obvious portrait of the cartoonist as a boy.
Sheldon, Dean, Bucky and all other over-invested comedy characters have the quality of being thick beams of support when they hold up only a corner of a comedic universe. When taken and made into main support structures, however, these characters become shakey. Cobbled-together forms of make-shift character traits ("Oh look, Sheldon has developed an odd habit of writing equations in mid-air with his finger despite the fact that, as a borderline-autistic genius who is obsessed with order, he would do the equations in his head or on his computer in a meticulous manner. Still, it's good for a three-minute joke. Not a particularly funny joke but a joke nonetheless,") or character-shifts ("Oh look, Bucky has founded his own nation and is spinning out endless wars with the ferret next door despite the fact that, as was established early on in the strip, he is a lazy cat who sleeps fourteen hours a day and would thus not have the initiative nor the energy for such projects,") or complete switches ("Oh look, Dean is going on a four-week-long quest in Middle-Earth so the cartoonist can get his geek on. Meanwhile Heart, yknow, of 'HEART of the City,' has not had a four-week-long storyline in the last five years,") are like the thin, slanted pieces of plywood keeping the teetery piller from collapsing. To return to the Dutch Disease metaphor, I would ask all comedy writers to redistribute their wealth in a more economically-stable way. Comedy phenomena may rise and fall but DVD and book collections are forever.... and ensemble efforts are so much more fun to revisit.
Recently I have been watching "The Big Bang Theory" along with "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"... two comedy shows that are extremely different besides sharing a core premise (four outcast guys and one blond chick hang out together) and contrasting the two is absolutely fascinating.
Firstly "The Big Bang Theory" is about four male friends who, while socially rather inept, are at the top of their respective games career-wise. They are all professors, engineers and physicists who occupy cheerfully-colored apartments decorated with a sort of endearing academic whimsy. My favorite piece is Leonard's old fashioned library card catalogue occupying the space next to his desk in the background.
The dialogue in "The Big Bang Theory" is highly polished, obviously crafted more towards getting the biggest laughs than creating the strongest sense of realism. The majority of shots are interiors to disguise the fact that the show is filmed in Los Angeles and not Pasedena. The character arcs of the series are subtle but definate as Leonard and Penny get ever more slightly closer with each season, Wallowitz becomes ever more slightly aware of his boorishness, Koothropali becomes ever more slightly confident around women and Sheldon starts ever more slightly developing an understanding of romance, friendship, sarcasm and gift-giving.
"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is the exact opposite. The background style of the comedy show is the epitome of gritty realism. The bar, where most of the action takes place, is located in one of the poorer districts of Philadelphia.... a place where little Heart of "Heart of the City" will probably never see in her entire life. This bar is unapologetically dim, grimy and depressing. The bathrooms, with their smeared walls and malfunctioning urinals, are blatantly filthy. The apartments are disgusting.... and it is clear that the characters who occupy them have generally given up on life. When one character, Mac, wishes to smash his friend Charlie's chair during a rock performance Charlie objects. He grabs the rusty canvas deck chair out Mac's hands. "No way man, this is my good chair!" Mac is annoyed. "Your good chair? Dude, it's got bird shit all over it." "It's not bird shit, it's toothpaste." "Dude..." Mac counters, unconvinced, "Do you even own a toothbrush?" Charlie's mortified silence at this comment answers the question. No, he does not own a toothbrush..... and the set of his apartment and his general lifestyle are so putrid that you can well believe that this man considers dental hygiene to be a needless frippery and a rusty canvas chair covered with bird droppings to be the best item of furniture he possesses.
The three male friends of the core cast live a life that is perpetually inches from destitution after having either drifted there from a more purposeful existence (Dennis, who dropped out of UPenn and never really got back on his feet afterwards) or been born there (Mac, whose father is a meth dealer). There is nothing brightly-colored or whimsical about "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" except perhaps the title (which is meant ironically) or the sweetly melodic theme music (which is also meant ironically). The plots themselves revolve around racism, prostitution, welfare, abortion, drugs, molestation, AIDS etc. etc. and none of the characters are redeemed at the end of each episode. The only way the audience can stomach all the horrible events that occur during the course of the show is the fact that the characters themselves are so hideously amoral that viewers end up not really caring what happens to them. This sounds like a criticism but in actual fact it works for the show. "The Big Bang Theory," in contrast, wishes the audience to be somewhat emotionally invested in the characters and sometimes that works against the show... such as the unfunny sequence where Wallowitz is genuinely devestated after Penny tells him that he will die alone. "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" runs no such risks and instead concentrates entirely on the comedy. When Dennis goes through an existential crisis about whether he's "peaked" or whether the best times of his life still lie ahead we don't sympathize. Dennis is portrayed as such an unapologetically arrogant bastard that we laugh, unfettered by guilt, at his pathetically narcissistic attempts to regain his mojo. Wallowitz, at least, has some redeeming qualities so any laughs provoked by his fit of depression would be stilted and awkward.
An interesting fact about "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is that it is the only tv show I have seen that does extemporaneous comedy well. Extemporaneous comedy can be sublimely funny onstage and horrifically bad onscreen (witness Jim Carrey's awful performance in the movie of "A Series of Unfortunate Events." His forced comedy presence- entirely extemporaneous- essentially killed what could have been a profitable movie franchise).... and indeed extemporaneous comedy has never really been well-crafted in the movies since Woody Allen's earlier work. Woody Allen was a master at making dialogue extremely naturalistic and yet funny at the same time. Look at his charming musical comedy "Everyone Says I Love You." All conversations between Woody Allen, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda and the other rich New Yorkers who inhabit the upper West Side apartments of the movie's cozy and (to me) extremely familiar universe overlap, interrupt and even go off on tangents so that you feel like you actually are in your grandmother's kitchen during Thanksgiving.... if your grandmother was a rich New Yorker who possessed the wit of Oscar Wilde and the style of Coco Chanel (and my grandmother was.)
"It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" possesses that same naturalism in its dialogue. It sounds extemporaneous but in actual fact you can tell from the crispness with which the actors deliver their lines and the general success of the comedic material on display that the dialogue is highly polished. The actors are able to pull off this successful comedic naturalism because of a variety of factors. First, the actors themselves have an easy chemistry with each other that comes from the fact that (as with most low-budget comedy shows) they were already friends off screen -indeed four of the actors were married to each other- before the show was put together. Second, the actors are very talented. They have the patience and comedic skill to riff extemporaneously for hours before pulling the necessary six minutes of gold from the rest of the sludge and working it into the script. In this way the writers are able to balance good comedy with good naturalism that is, in a way, a much more difficult task to accomplish than the effect that the highly-crafted dialogue of "The Big Bang Theory" puts forward.
The most interesting difference between "The Big Bang Theory" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," .... or rather any show and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is the main female character. The female character Penny in "The Big Bang Theory" is always portrayed as beautiful. With the exception of some parts of "The Barbarian Sublimation" Penny continuously appears in fabulous make-up and clothes that show off her toned body. While there are a few comments made about her lack of luck when it comes to her career Penny is always chivalrously spared from the crueler jokes. The four main male characters are continually torn down and mocked for their lack of lives. Leonard's flatulance due to his being lactose-intolerant, Koothropali's humiliating conversations with his parents where they discuss his "samosas," Wallowitz's admission that he lost his virginity due to an incestuous coupling with a cousin, Sheldon's almost getting mistaken for a child predator after engaging in a conversation with a little girl.... all these jokes are par for the course for male comedians. Be edgy. Push yourself. And, more importantly, remember that the root of all comedy is personal debasement.
Male comedians are generally more successful, and more genuinely funny, than female comedians. This may be due to the fact that men are less vulnerable than women to attacks on personal character. Throughout history, up until very recently, women have generally been valued for their marketability as wives. Sure we have had the odd queen and business owner here and there but until the recent years women have always placed the bulk of their personal assets on appearance, beauty, youth, gentleness of spirit, obedience, etc. A woman who is personally debased is a woman whose entire future is at stake because her desireability as a romantic partner has been called into question. Though over the last fifty years women have slowly become more maneuverable in society, taking jobs in the private sector and in government that are equal in terms of responsability (and salary) to the jobs that men hold, there are still quite a few gender-based taboos. The fact that almost no female comedians are willing to debase themselves, and thus draw even with male comedians in terms of genuine ability to draw laughs, is one of these taboos. Take, for example, the rather surprisingly funny comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry." The male comedy cast continually debases themselves to hilarious effect. The Dan Akyroyd character makes graphic references to his prostate problems ("This morning I was able to take a piss for the first time in months without spraying into both side urinals so I was in a relatively good mood when...."), the Kevin James character is constantly ragged for his obesity and the Adam Sandler character is so cheerfully promiscuous that he has sex with a fat, unhygeinic older partner while his friend is sleeping right beside him. There is a woman in the comedy as well but of course she is beautiful and has impeccable moral character.
Let's compare "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," with "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a comedy show that has a continuing female character. Pearl Forrester, played by comedienne Mary Jo Pehl, is seen as a fearsome character who simply cannot be debased. Thought she is clearly obese Ms Forrester, unlike Kevin James, is spared from all fat jokes. While she has many bad traits these traits are linked to more flattering character elements (power, ingenuity, domination over the weak) and cannot be seen as personally debasing. Other comediennes are similarly protected from this unspoken chivalry so that even extraordinarily talented women (such as Tina Fey, whose Sarah Palin impression can only be described as rapturous) cannot break the gender barrier and reach male audiences with their routines. "Baby Mama" did not attract a lot of men during its opening weekend. It's easy to see why, besides the fact that it was very much a female-oriented film. The comedy in the movie is so gentle, so very delicate in making sure that the twin heroines remain admirable, beautiful, successful women in spite of all odds, that it is barely even chuckle-worthy. Please compare this to Adam Sandler, whose movies are almost all box-office successes and whose slapstick antics make his (many) female viewers laugh just as uproarously as the men.
The comedy world's chivalry towards women can be seen everywhere, even in such edgy shows as "Family Guy" (where Lois is constantly more level-headed (and sexier) than her dangerously idiotic husband), "The Simpsons" (where Marge is constantly more level-headed (and sexier) than her dangerously idiotic husband), "Futurama" (where Leela is constantly more level-headed (and sexier) than her dangerously idiotic boyfriend) and even "The Berenstein Bears" (where Mama Bear is constantly more level-headed (if not exactly sexier) than her dangerously idiotic husband).
But to go back to comparing "The Big Bang Theory" with "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." While Penny and even the relatively more homely Leslie Winkle can walk swaddled in the comforting assurance that while the men will bear the brunt of comedic cruelty the women will always come out as intelligent, desirable people.... Deandre from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is not so lucky. Kaitlin Oslen, the actress who plays Deandre, is the first comedienne I have seen who is willing to debase herself on the same level as the men. Ms. Olsen, a gorgous blond, makes a genuine effort to appear homely since that is what her character calls for. She wears a constant expression of fatigued annoyance, ages her face beyond her 28 years by projecting flabby, tired, cosmetic-free appearance (Deandre could pass for forty) and overall manages to convey the impression that her character has led a stressful, unfulfilling life.
Of course beautiful women wiping off their make-up is hardly the stuff of revolution.... and certainly Ms. Olsen's deliberately haggard appearance cannot even compare with Charlize Theron's groundbreaking performance in 2003's "Monster." Ms. Theron's character, Aileen Wuornos, gets debased to a horrific degree in that film. Of course that film is not a comedy and the effect of Ms. Wuornos' debasement (whoring herself out for a sandwich, getting raped with a length of pipe, etc.) is meant to horrify and to accurately convey how cruelty breeds cruelty... ending with Wuornos becoming a serial killer. The idea that women are not as strong as men when it comes to being debased for COMEDIC benefit is still a barrier that is very strongly rooted in our society.
Or it was until "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" became the most popular comedy show on FX. Ms. Olsen is not only a brilliant comedienne (able to deliver lines like "We're going to paint the baby" and "I do not have bones made of glass" in such a way that the viewer has to laugh ... even though why exactly the lines are funny is never exactly clear) but in an average episode of "Philadelphia" you will find her character, Deandre, in a variety of humiliating situations that can only be interpreted as hilarious. I don't speak of the gentle, female-oriented "Bridget Jones" style humiliations like dressing up in sexy bunny ears at a cocktail party or accidently saying the wrong way to a stuffed shirt at a staff meeting. I speak of humiliations along the lines of soiling herself after spending two days high on crack, getting deliberately cracked on the nose by a male basketball player, being shoved to the ground and left to the mercy of an angry mugger while her male companions flee in a cowardly manner, growing facial hair and beating the hell out of a hapless (male) driver in a steroid-infused rage, drunkenly sleeping with a greasy, elderly busboy in order to get a secret beer recipe.... all part of a day's work for male comediens but some damned refreshing new ground for female humorists. It works too. All of the male viewers of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" laugh just as heartily at Deandre as they do at the male characters.
Before continuing I should specify that I am not in favor of women being debased for laughs in general but in favor of women being debased for laughs ON THE SAME LEVEL AS MEN! One of the reasons that Deandre's painful tumbles and humiliating drug excapades are hilarious is that the show makes it clear that she is just as amoral and rotten a person as her male co-stars. The other female regular on the show, called simply "Charlie's Waitress," is perhaps the only character in the cast of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" to be creditably described as a pretty decent human being. The Waitress knows when to call Social Services, knows how to maintain a job with some degree of competency and even offers to help Charlie when a court order mandates that he go to AA meanings... despite the fact that Charlie generally disgusts her. When the Waitress, in a fit of broken-hearted anger, sleeps with an older sleazy man so that she could get back at Dennis for cruelly manipulating her.... the effect is surprisingly tragic. There is not an ounce of comedy to be found in the situation when the Waitress tearfully confronts an obviously-doesn't-give-a-damn Dennis and says: "That's what people do when they say they're in love! They [cheat on you and] sleep with older people!" When Deandre likewise sleeps with an older sleazy man for relatively nobler reasons (obtaining a secret beer recipe and save her brother's business), her befuddlement and subsequent humiliation are a scream.
It is an odd belief that the easy anti-male humor one finds in greeting cards, magazines and movies (talking about how dumb men are, how unneccessary they are and even sometimes encouraging violence against men) is actually reinforcing feminism. It is not. By allowing anti-male humor to be mainstreamed and anti-female humor to be seen as the crassest form of funny... women are being pulled back. Anti-male humor is allowed because female rage is not seen as dangerous. Male rage is seen as dangerous (and thus productive) so anti-female humor is restrained in Western society. Women in our western society laugh at all the "men-are-so-worthless" jokes in the magazines and then wonder why it is that female politicians, soldiers, pilots and surgeons are not seen to be as competent as men. Anti-male humor indirectly reinforces the belief that women will never be dangerous and will never carry through on threats... and so do not carry the strength of will necessary to succeed. Women look weak when humor spares them. Power has been traded for toothless jokes. It's okay to continue cracking wise about the toilet seat sweetie but forget about ever being CEO. We know that Marge Simpson will never be as idiotic as Homer, and that Hillary Clinton will never be president. ....but maybe this is changing. When comedic female characters like Deandre are able to take as much abuse and humiliation as their male colleagues then perhaps the tide will turn. Yeah Deandre will be literally smashed in the face with as much frequency as her dopy male counterparts but that's all right.... because when she gets mad she will have the potential to do just as much damage- and consequently get just as much respect- as any man. Let's hope that the women of the future can expect as much.