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Dumbening


 

After I wrote the post yesterday about Bob Boyett, I discovered that Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen have signed to be in a new Broadway play by Michael Jacobs. Michael Jacobs is the creator of Charles in Charge (though he left before it got really bad), My Two Dads, Dinosaurs and Boy Meets World. We are seriously two steps away from seeing a trend emerge here, as Broadway becomes more and more a haven for refugees from TGIF. But anyway, as news stories often do, this gives me an excuse to talk about something tangential.

Those of you who watched and liked Boy Meets World (many of you) and those who will admit it (fewer) remember that that show had perhaps the most egregious case of, to borrow a word from The Simpsons, “Dumbening,” the process by which a character gets dumber every year until his stupidity goes past the point of all plausibility. The character of the older brother Eric, played by the excellent Will Friedle, started out as your typical cool older brother. Then the writers got the idea that it would be fun to make him goofier, which meant making him dumber. And then they came up with more, even goofier jokes, necessitating his becoming even dumber than before. And every single season, Eric was dumber than the season before, until by the end of the show he was quite possibly the stupidest character in television history. Eric storylines from the final season had him setting his brother’s room on fire; stalking a woman by dressing up as a tree, a woman, a couch, and the guy from the American Gothic painting; he’d forget simple commands and perhaps his own name; and, when a military dude ordered him to “drop and give me 20,” he dropped to the floor and handed the guy a $20 bill. He was funny, but he made Homer Simpson look like Veronica Mars and Willow rolled into one big intelligence ball.

So my audience-participation question (in a desperate bid for comments) is, what is the worst decline in intelligence of any TV character? Or, if you can’t pick just one, who are some characters who started out at least semi-lucid and became complete insane dimwits by the end?

This is a problem that’s as old as the serial format itself (not just television, but radio); any time you have a comedy show with continuing characters, characters tend to get steadily dumber because the writers have to keep trying to top themselves, and that means that if they made a character this much dumb before, the next gag, to top the previous one, has to make him even dumber. Also, if a comedy show becomes more serious, some of the supporting characters may get stupider because they have to provide more of a contrast with the soapy main stories. That’s part of what happened to Eric on BMW and I think it’s also what’s happened to some of the supporting characters on The Office, like Kevin and Dwight and Kelly. Kevin has gotten so dumb that it’s perfectly natural for a newcomer to the office to think he’s literally retarded; but he has to be crazier because in some of the darker episodes, he’s literally the comic relief in a comedy.

But if I had to pick, I’d say the ’90s was the golden age of Dumbening; there were just so many characters who went from being loveably dumb to so dumb that you’d never understand how they functioned in society. Homer on The Simpsons, obviously, is a classic example of how a character gets dumber as the writers keep trying to outdo themselves. (A DVD commentary reveals that the writing staff in season 9-10 argued over a joke where Homer didn’t know how to read, but finally decided to put it in because they thought it was funny. It wasn’t that funny, though, and it just pushed Homer one step further toward complete moronitude.) But there was also Matthew on NewsRadio, who followed a perfect trajectory of dumb: in the pilot, he’s a weird, sensitive guy but quite plausibly the sort of person who would be working at a news radio station. By the fourth season, he was a raving lunatic who never did any work and wasn’t actually capable of doing any work. Actually, everybody on NewsRadio got dumber every year. And Drew’s friends on The Drew Carey Show, and Dale on King of the Hill, and Harry on Third Rock From the Sun, and Kelso on That ’70s Show (very late ’90s, but still), and many more.

I give Friends some credit because while Joey did get dumber, they didn’t let him degenerate quite as far as some of the other Token Dumb Guys. Though I guess you could argue that hanging out with the people on his spinoff was dumber than anything any of those other characters ever did.

Today, Jenna on 30 Rock seems like a case of a character who got really dumb really fast.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijLJflBkU7M


 
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Dumbening

  1. I agree with the friends on Drew Carey. Although, the whole show got a little dumb towards the end.

    Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is another candidate.

  2. Agree on the Kelso call; he also seemed to get meaner or more insensitive. With Homer, not only has he gotten dumber, the character has also grown more insensitive (aside from the movie). At least in the early episodes, Homer would be dumb and insensitive, but at least he’d redeem himself by the end of the episode and Marge would forgive him (“I’m going to the back seat of my car, with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for 10 minutes!”)

    Of course, that could be a completely new topic in itself: shows in which the character(s) not only got dumber, but meaner – and the premise of the show became meaner…

  3. Surely Baldrick in Blackadder – genius (well more intelligent than the rest of the characters) in first series, reduced to reciting his famous poem The German Guns (Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom) by Series 4.

  4. George Costanza got .. not dumber .. but more not sane (n a dumb way) as the years went on. Look at, say, building a bed under the desk at his office.

  5. Um, does it have to be dumber? Could it not just be substantially more..err.. incompetent and/or mean?

  6. Um, does it have to be dumber? Could it not just be substantially more..err.. incompetent and/or mean?

    Sure. As Ian notes above, characters getting dumber and getting meaner is sort of interchangeable anyway in TV-land.

  7. While I stopped watching somewhere around the fifth season, I found that Jack on “Will & Grace” not only got dumber, but degenerated to complete infantilism as time went on. That was one reason I quit watching. Well, that, and the writing became little more than who they could stunt-cast that week.

  8. I have to agree — Baldrick is perhaps the classic example of dumbening. Ah, rudely-shaped turnips.

    But back to BMW (and to go a little off topic), didn’t Corey get “dumber” as well? He, and Topanga, and almost all of the characters except Feenie, Shawn, and Angela, became almost unbearably inane by the end of the series. Extremely annoying, to say the least.

  9. I’ll speak out in some defense of Jenna on 30 Rock, actually, in that I actually think her lack of intelligence is the smartest thing for the series. While it is growing less and less probable over time that Liz Lemon would ever be her friend outside of employment, the character is much funnier as a delusional and pathetic excuse for a person than as a starved-for-attention leading lady.

    I’d also make the argument that Jenna’s character was never consistent to begin with, and that her eventual idiocy was simple a matter of picking which of the umpteen different characterizations from the first season worked best. I find the character more integral now than I did before – it might have gone a bit too far into stupidity beyond “Hard Ball,” which struck the perfect balance, but she’s still better than the pilot by far.

  10. The Baldrick reference (and the reference to his German Guns poem) made me laugh. There’s a gag that looks ridiculous on paper but is sold by Tony Robinson’s performance of it.

    I wonder if Baldrick’s dumbening is a good example though – he was completely reconceived in the re-tool for series 2, and became dumb after being the smartest character. But did he dumben after that? Is series 4 Baldrick noticeably dumber than series 2? I’m not sure.

    Incidentally, I’ve never seen Jaime write about Blackadder or some of my other UK favourites that I’d be interested to see him write about (eg The Goodies). Are these not that well known in Canada (I’m in Australia) or is it just that his preferences lie elsewhere?

  11. George W. Bush – i mean, the whole thing just stopped being plausible around 2006.

  12. I don’t know if Blackadder is a great example… between the different periods, many changes happen to all of the characters (after all, they are completely different people). The namby-pamby Blackadder of earlier on does not wash with the intelligent but lazy Blackadder Goes Fourth version, for instance.

  13. Incidentally, I’ve never seen Jaime write about Blackadder or some of my other UK favourites that I’d be interested to see him write about (eg The Goodies). Are these not that well known in Canada (I’m in Australia) or is it just that his preferences lie elsewhere?

    I love Blackadder, definitely — I’m surprised I haven’t written about it before. The Goodies I’ll have to check out.

  14. President Bush. I don’t mean the real guy, who’s pretty dumb if you go by his track record, but the President Bush who’s in all the late night monologues. The other night on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, “President Bush” thought that a valedictorian was from the country of Valedictoria.
    That’s pretty dumb.

  15. Ross on Friends went from extremely whinny to crazy (crazy funny in my books). I think his transformation was for the good, by the last two seasons Ross was funny because he was just wacky.

  16. It’s funny Keith. I thought Chandler got dumber, more so than Ross.

    Potsy Webber wasn’t that dumb in the early seasons of Happy Days.

    I thought Sam Malone got dumber (almost too dumb for my taste. Almost) in the post Diane years.

    Hey Jaime, how about the flip? Major Hoolihan on Mash actually got smarter and more noble as the show continued.

    Mark

  17. You’re right-on about Kelso in That 70s Show. He seemed to get slightly dumber each year in the earlier seasons of the show, then in season five the writers really started ratcheting up the dumbness. (Ashton Kutcher also started delivering his lines in a different way, which didn’t help matters.) Towards the end, he was basically a cartoon. By the way, That 70s Show is one of the best examples of a long-running show that sees its characters turn into caricatures of themselves by the end. Nearly every single character on that show became a (often poorly-written) send-up of the person they originally were.

    Homer’s a prime example. I agree with the last commenter about Sam from Cheers. He starts to dim a little during the Diane years, but it became more noticable during the Rebecca years. In the last season of the show, though, he seemed to get smarter again.

    JD on Scrubs has definitely gotten dumber (and the show itself more cartoony) over the years. Bill Lawrence says things are going to be less cartoony next year. I certainly hope so.

    99 dumbed down a little on Get Smart, mainly in the last season. Malcolm on Malcolm in the Middle also seemed to get dumber (and more obnoxious) as the years went on, although his level of dumbness didn’t always stay consistent.

    As for Happy Days, while Potsie immediately springs to mind, I noticed they also seemed to write Fonzie a little bit dumber too in the final season of the show. It was kind of an interesting move on the writers’ part.

    That bit from the Simpsons commentary you mentioned is saddening (although not that surprising). I mean, I’m glad the argument at least took place, but not glad the wrong side won. It just shows the direction the show has gone in in recent years. You shouldn’t sacrifice a character’s integrity all in the name of a cheap joke. But the writers of the show now just don’t seem to care what outlandish thing they have Homer do, what gross-out or just plain illogical gag they have to stoop to (like in this past Sunday’s episode, where Homer has so much fat his nutritionist is able to hold an end of it while Homer actually walks outside of the house and into the front yard. It wasn’t funny, just ridiculous, and the show never would have done that 10 years ago).

    I think what a lot of these shows have in common is that they’re long-running. And when the writers start to run out of ideas, or perhaps skate a little on your laurels, it’s easy for them to fall into the cheap joke trap, just to get a laugh. By making a character dumber, you can go the wacky/slapsticky joke route more often. The joke might get a laugh, but too often it’s a “WTF?” type of laugh, and I think audiences eventually tire of them.

  18. If you watch the first season of Married… With Children, Kelly is nothing like the dumb blonde of later seasons. Same thing with another Kelly, the customer service rep from The Office. She started out as timid and conservatively dressed in the show’s uneven first season and then turned into a chatty and vapid Scranton version of a Valley Girl during the following season, when her portrayer, staff writer Mindy Kaling, and the other writers found their groove. But the change in Kelly’s character (“a chubby Paris Hilton-y aesthetic,” as Kaling calls it) was for the better because outside of Kutner on House, there’s never been an Indian American character like Kelly on American network TV (second-generation, has no accent, outgoing).

    To the poster who said Hilary from The Fresh Prince was dumbed-down, she was dim from the beginning. It’s Carlton, the overachieving foil to his lazy sister and equally lazy cousin, who got dumber as the seasons went by, but Alfonso Ribeiro didn’t seem to mind (the end-credits bloopers show him chewing the scenery with delight). The final scene of the entire series illustrates how dumb Carlton had become: the mansion’s lights are shut off, and everyone’s gone, except Carlton, who rushes out of the bathroom with his pants down.

    In the first season of Monk, Lt. Disher was a much more competent cop than he is now. The de-evolution began as early as the end of that season, when he thought touching the top of a lamp would grant him Monk-like deductive reasoning skills.

    What about character assassination during shows that continued on the big screen? George Takei was miffed that Sulu, the galaxy’s best helmsman, and Chekov, the galaxy’s best navigator, both got lost in the wilderness, an example of how tepid and forced the humor was in Star Trek V.

  19. Baldric in Blackadder was intended to become more stupid with each series–by contrast, Blackadder himself became smarter.

    Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys was the smartest person in the park in the second season, but he was as prone to stupid decision-making in later seasons (I guess you could argue Ricky’s product had something to do with that).

  20. Two points:

    – That ‘drop and give me ($)20’ gag was used on a “Ren and Stimpy” episode and (recalling your “Get Smart” gags on “Animaniacs” post at Toonzone) I’m willing to bet that the gag was hardly original to wherever John K. got it from.

    – Good save by Mr. Aquino; how did we get 18 posts into this discussion without mentioning Kelly Bundy? Seriously, how does *that* happen?

  21. Not just Homer, but a whole suite of Simpsons Springfieldians have found themselves on a slippery slope of mental and/or social degeneration. My faves would probably by Moe (each storyline involving him a little more pathetic than the last), and of course everyone loves Ralph (from “you’re deceptive” to “duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck duck…”

  22. I just got around to reading this, but I wanted to say, about Eric on Boy Meets World –

    It seemed to me that he kept getting dumber because the writers didn’t know what else to do with him. At the beginning of the series, he was the “cool older brother” and Corey often went to him for advice. They quickly realized that they didn’t need him for that, because they had Feeny.

    With Feeny as Corey’s mentor, Eric needed a new role, and Will Friedle does that goofy comedy really well, so it probably just seemed natural.

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