Taking The Fun Out of Dysfunction

o'er yon chevy chaseI didn’t like the pilot of Community as much as most people did (though it is, after all, only a pilot). I found something a little hacky about a lot of the joke writing, with lots of rhythms, joke constructions and characters that have become clichés of the “edgy” comedy: the guy who compares everything to popular movies, the politically-incorrect old guy, the laundry lists of dysfunctions and bad behaviour. (I was really hoping they would not have that character make the obvious reply after someone mentioned “Aspergers,” but yes: “Heh-heh-heh… assburgers.” Seriously, it’s not clever or edgy if we see it coming.) The last scene, where the characters show at least some potential to function as an ensemble, was promising, though, but I feel like the weakest things about it are the cynical/dysfunctional bits, and it works best when it’s closer to a regular ensemble comedy about more or less normal people trying to make it. But with the Joel McHale character at the centre, it’s going to have trouble playing to that strength.

One of the things that makes The Office unusually successful and durable for an edgy-comedy franchise is, I think, that Ricky Gervais and Ian Stephen Merchant deliberately didn’t play up the dysfunctions of the characters. Even David Brent is dysfunctional in a realistic way, the guy who thinks he’s funny and beloved but isn’t. Most of the other characters on that show were as mundane as the lives they led. The American version has become broader and turned at least one character, Dwight, into a full-blown cartoon character — but it still has its roots in the idea that most of these people are not unrecognizably weird or dysfunctional. Which seems to be the right mix for comedy: characters who range from fully sane, to people who are crazy but in a realistic way, to one or two out-and-out cartoons (your Kramers, Barneys, Sheldons, Jim Ignatowski-ses). This probably is too generalized a pronouncement, but I think one reason single-camera shows have trouble catching on is their tendency to define almost every character by their dysfunctionality. The paradoxical thing is that characters sometimes have more potential to become funny if they start with relatively common, everyday characteristics, as long as those characteristics are well-defined. (“The hard-drinking, crusty boss” or “the know-it-all barfly” are decent ways to start with a character. “The fast-talking guy who compares everything to The Breakfast Club or Meatballs,” I don’t know about.)

I enjoyed The Office premiere a lot (I missed the Parks and Recreation premiere, but will try and catch up with it and see if that show is making the expected second-season improvement). Paul Lieberstein, who wrote and directed the premiere and is in charge of the show while Greg Daniels and Michael Schur are busy with Parks, has always been good at light comedy based on dark subjects, which can then take an unexpected dip into genuine darkness (but one that, because the episode deals with adultery, we’ve been properly set up for). It’s surprising, though, how much the show has abandoned the idea of David/Michael unwittingly abusing his power. The original idea was that the boss is terrorizing, manipulating and pulling incredibly cruel jokes on his employees, and they have to sit there and take it because he’s the boss. But this episode, with the story about the intern program, had all kinds of opportunities for that type of joke, and the script did not take them. Instead the episode wound up with Michael being scared of his employees, rather than the other way around. The inherent cruelty of the premise occasionally comes out on the show, but it’s become a much gentler show as Michael has become more of a sympathetic (if exasperating) character.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.