I was wondering why last night’s episode of Two and a Half Men seemed to have better comic timing than usual, providing a lot of solid laughs even though the script itself was decent but not great. (TaaHM has gotten better over the years and it does have a strong cast — except for the kid — but its basic, innate cruelty is still hard for me to take; it’s not Seinfeld-type cruelty, where the idea was that the characters would be punished for doing bad things or trying to take short cuts; this is just plain cruel humour where the good are punished more than the bad.) Then I saw that this was the first Two and a Half Men episode directed by Joel Zwick, and it fell into place: Zwick is one of the great multi-camera sitcom directors ever, and really should be working on more shows now that his movie career hasn’t really taken off (he directed My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but then he directed Fat Albert and made it clear that he wasn’t going to be a star feature director).
He’s actually directed more bad shows than good; he was the house director for the Miller-Boyett team, which means that most of his credits are on things like Full House and Family Matters, with an occasional Bosom Buddies (with TaaHM’s Holland Taylor) as a step up. But TV comedy directors don’t control the quality of the scripts; their job is to make the episodes as funny as they can, and get the episode done as efficiently as possible. Zwick was like the king of efficient, fast, Broadway-style pacing on TV; his tapings were known for being almost as fast as James Burrows’, and a lot of the success of the shows he did derives from the fact that he was extremely good at a) making the show move like a speeding bullet and every joke land perfectly, but b) not letting the show move too fast to detract from the characters, such as they were. At this point I’d a lot rather see his name on a pilot than Burrows’.
Speaking of TaaHM, one reason I like the evil mother character — apart, I mean, from the fact that she’s Holland Taylor and Holland Taylor is incapable of not being awesome — is that she’s one of those comedy characters about whom we don’t know very much, and whose past and present life can therefore be revealed to us in little throwaway jokes. I think one of the most useful comic supporting characters is the one whose life has a little bit of mystery about them and who is also a little bit cartoonish and larger-than-life; this combination means that the writers are free to make jokes about them that suggest there’s a whole other life that character leads that we’re not seeing, and the overriding joke becomes the way they tease us with suggestions of what these characters are doing when they’re not on the show. Barney on How I Met Your Mother is probably the most famous example of this kind of character these days; the writers have deliberately chosen not to tell us what he does for a living, so that they can make a series of jokes that imply he does something illegal, immoral or just plain creepy. (Last night Barney said first that any money paid to Marshall will come from a shadow corporation in Pyongyang, part of a running joke that his company has some kind of shady dealings with North Korea.) Jack on 30 Rock is another character like that, who appears to have done everything and dated everyone in the world. These characters are usually wealthy, usually amoral, and usually very funny — and very useful, because they provide an excuse for great throwaway jokes that would be too absurd to build into an actual story.