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Comedy From the Idiot’s Point Of View


 

I haven’t written much about The Jon Dore Television Show, now in its second season, but it’s doing well in the ratings, and is a fairly decent show of its particular type, though it’s not a type of show that I love to watch regularly. Dore, who created the show after his successful gig on Canadian Idol (oh, the CTV synergy!), plays himself as a complete insensitive moron who is nonetheless convinced that he is in fact a good, gentle soul striving to be better in a world that lets him down. Every week, he vows to learn more about some issue or cause, and does so through a mix of mockumentary interviews with real people; when he tries to carry out what he’s learned, he winds up doing things like holding a woman in front of him as a human shield.

The show is influenced by The Sarah Silverman Program and Borat, but also the mock-interviews on The Daily Show some episodes really come across as a longer version of a Colbert Report piece, where an idiot TV guy goes into the world to learn about some issue, and asks real people incredibly stupid questions that demonstrate his own refusal to believe that there’s anything wrong with him or that there are any real gaps in his knowledge or understanding. But Sarah Silverman seems like the biggest influence, right down to the use of some other word or phrase where “show” would do just as well.

What makes these shows very much of our time is that they show idiots who go out among “serious” people and create havoc — but we’re not supposed to like them for it. Traditionally, when you have an idiot among people who take themselves seriously, the audience is rooting for the idiots. The Three Stooges walk into a wealthy dowager’s house and cause trouble; we like the Stooges and we like that they’re shaking things up. But Sarah Silverman doesn’t want us to like her character, and Jon Dore doesn’t either. The comedy aesthetic here, and I think it’s a legitimate one, is like a Groucho Marx scene where Groucho is portrayed not as a charming scamp but as a horrible, insensitive jerk oblivious to all the pain he causes people, and where the fun is in the transgressiveness (look at what these morons can get away with).

Cartman from South Park is a bit different because he usually gets his comeuppance — not always, but often enough that you know there’s an old-fashioned moral centre to the comedy. That’s why he’s from a show that started in 1997, and Sarah Silverman is “now.” Or was last year. I can’t keep up.


 
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Comedy From the Idiot’s Point Of View

  1. Cartman from South Park is a bit different because he usually gets his comeuppance — not always, but often enough that you know there’s an old-fashioned moral centre to the comedy.

    I think this is true, but I’d argue that almost all comedy has a moral center (I recognize this might not be incompatible with what you’re saying). Silverman, for example, may not get an explicit comeuppance in the show proper, and thus the world in which she inhabits is more unfair than the world of South Park, but her punishment is implied by the fact that nobody, including the audience, likes her. So her punishment is being disliked. She is oblivious to this, of course, so she never learns, but the same is true of Cartman. In both of these cases, society at large isn’t perfect, but it’s the transgressors who are the even bigger problem.

    Groucho Marx, on the other hand, is (like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, etc.) basically an anarchist. And we are to sympathize with the anarchist, because it’s society at large that is the bigger problem. In some ways, I think that really old-fashioned moral center is braver than anything Sarah Silverman does.

  2. I’ve only seen little bits of Jon Dore while waiting for The Daily Show to start (it seems funny enough, I just haven’t ever bothered to watch it), but the show that The Sarah Silverman Program reminds me of the most is Get a Life. The fictitious Sarah and Chris are both, essentially, child-like psychopaths who cannot function within adult society. They rely on their families for just about everything, and their friends/neighbours are only slightly more tolerant of their behaviour than the public at large. Each show has a regular who is the central character’s nemesis, and is also flawed (being an extreme “normal” to the protagonist’s extreme “weirdo”) and unlikable. Furthermore, both shows become increasingly surreal, but that’s probably true of just about any show, especially if it’s even just a bit surreal to start with.

    SSP’s (relative) success compared to Get a Life‘s failure (though 35 episodes seems like a downright luxurious way to fail, these days!) probably has more to do with the growth of basic cable than with the latter show being “ahead of its time”; I doubt either show would get more than half a season on any of the networks, today, if it somehow managed to get on in the first place. The characters on these shows (or FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the character who is the most like Chris or Sarah is the show’s MOST likable character) make the Seinfeld gang look like cuddly hug and lesson dispensers. I just don’t think this style of comedy will ever connect with a network-hit-sized audience; look at the reaction that Simpsons fans, who had to be the hippest fans of any network comedy at the time, had to “Homer’s Enemy”, which didn’t even go so far as to make Homer unlikable so much as to make the audience question his likability.

    In fact, this probably extends beyond comedy. It seems like every season of The Sopranos had a large number of fans declaring it to have jumped the shark, because Tony had, somehow, become irredeemable. Has there ever been a widely-successful show where the creators intended for the audience to, fundamentally, dislike the main character(s)? I know that there are fans of shows do dislike the leads, and watch for the supporting characters, but it’s always because the show has failed to make a likable lead.

    I’m thinking specifically of How I Met Your Mother, where Ted was supposed to be the lovable everyman-schlub, but came off as a douchey-haired douchebag who saw Reality Bites when he was sixteen, and decided to model himself off of Ethan Hawke AND Ben Stiller, in roughly equal parts. Fan revulsion has gotten to the point where the writers are throwing in lines that clearly play of Ted’s wankiness, but sometimes I can almost hear the creators’ nervous laughter when these lines get pitched, as if to say, “Oh, you didn’t really think we ever wanted you to like this guy, who is the main character on our show, who narrates it, who is the ‘I’ in the title, who we cast a handsome guy for, who is the linchpin of our premise, whose hangdog glumness we shoved down your throat constantly for the first season or so, constantly shouting, ‘Love me! Love me! Love me! I’m sensitive but also a successful cool dude!’, did you?” They managed to give Robin a hook to make her stop sucking (in case the recent episodes haven’t made it clear, she is from Canada, and also Canada is like the USA but different in hi-larious ways), while, with Ted, they just gave up on him being anything other than the Wesley and made sucking his hook. Of course, I’m sure lots of people who watch the show and like Ted, but I’m also sure these people have a strong tendency to be douchebags.

    (This has to be the third thing I’ve posted on the internet this week that somehow mutated from a completely unrelated topic to an anti-Ted screed, but since Jaime is, from what I can recall, a fellow Ted-hater, I decided not to take it out.)

    In conclusion, intentionally unlikable main characters can succeed in the niche markets of cable, but not on network, while unintentionally unlikable main characters can succeed on network. Meritocracy at its finest!

  3. I don’t know about American shows, but what about The Young Ones? That is a show about complete arse-hats, and we find it funny because they are all terrible people in every way. The joke is: Why are they on tv?

    Also, I always thought the joke of the Marx brothers was that they were huge douchebags – the funniest jokes are them being horrible for no reason, not them sticking it to society.

    • I don’t know about American shows, but what about The Young Ones? That is a show about complete arse-hats, and we find it funny because they are all terrible people in every way. The joke is: Why are they on tv?

      Yeah, Young Ones has influenced alternative comedy in America, too; it aired on MTV, so it had a sizable cult audience. It was more of a cult favourite than a mainstream hit in the UK, too, right?

      Incidentally, it was an acknowledged antecedent for Get a Life. David Mirkin actually shot a failed pilot for a US adaptation of Young Ones right before he started GaL.

      Also, I always thought the joke of the Marx brothers was that they were huge douchebags – the funniest jokes are them being horrible for no reason, not them sticking it to society.

      I dunno. Even in the more anarchic Paramount movies, the Brothers are always more sympathetic and likable than their targets. The MGM movies are even more deliberate about making sure that we’re on the Marxes’ side; they are all about the mean snobs getting their comeuppance.

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