In the television business it’s a big joke to put down a show by calling it “radio with pictures” — when you think about it, it’s true. A lot of producers still have their heads stuffed in the big black hoods used by Victorian portrait photographers, toy canary in one hand, magnesium flash in the other, shouting “cheese” at a bunch of performers with iron rods up their backs and clamps around their heads to keep them artfully posed in front of a canvas backdrop painted to look like something else. The trick is to pretend the camera isn’t there.
The roots of radio go back to vaudeville and nowhere is it more obvious than in television comedy, that elephants’ graveyard where old gags go to die, bones of Jack Benny and Our Miss Brooks sticking through their flesh. A musty smell of straw boaters and greasepaint lingers about Carol Burnett and Dick Van Dyke and Don Rickies and Flip Wilson as they labor through pretty much the same routines that laid ’em in the aisles at the Orpheum in 1923. They learned their trade in clubs and conventions — funny faces, funny voices, a stand-up patter of jokes culled from a filing cabinet in the dressing room to entertain an audience of drunks.
Taking out the dirty stuff and putting a camera in front of this kind of act doesn’t automatically make good television, yet we still get an endless string of those “A-funny-thing-happened-tome-on-the-way-to-the-studio” comics who made the Sixties such a nightmare. I expect the June Taylor dancers any day.
Radio invented the situation comedy but “Holy mackerel der, Sapphire,” the glory of radio was the perfect one-liner. Jackie Gleason brought it to television and almost a generation later Laugh In, in spite of all its visual techniques, knocks out a civilization with “Heah come de judge!”
Televisipn killed the radio comics because they didn’t look the way everybody knew they looked. The radio script with its jokes and one-liners is still there, but the mysterious and tantalizing private scenario has been replaced by flat cardboard sets, old sight gags and actors in makeup who sweat under the studio lights. Phooey. You can see the gags coming a mile away.
Like an old age pensioner on pep pills, the TV comedy show has been given an injection of speed, hyped-up so that hysterical energy replaces wit. Lucy, who used to be a subtle and delicate comedian, now screams. They all wave their arms around a lot, mugging, grimacing, shrieking and bellowing, falling down and running into walls. Watch an old Lucy or Dick Van Dyke show and you can see how far they’ve slipped into pitching for cheap laughs.
This kind of comedy reminds me of the days when people used to visit the local madhouse on Sundays to be entertained
HOW THE TUBE MAKES WITS OF BOOBS
by the antics of the crippled and insane. It’s spastic humor, so desperate, primitive and intense that we laugh out of a kind of involuntary nervous reflex. Flip Wilson owes a lot to this tradition with his eye-rollin’ “dumb nigger shuffle” which is always good for a giggle when a joke goes flat. Don Rickies is so painfully contorted he is, like Phyllis Diller (before her face job), a freak. All comics, after all, started as court jesters, fools who would do anything for a laugh and a scrap of meat thrown at their feet and who were, frequently, idiots. This kind of laughter, however, usually leaves me depressed.
One of the great advantages of losing most of our Canadian talent to the United States is that we unload the bad stuff along with the good. In a supreme act of guerrilla warfare we managed to lay Gordie Tapp and Hee Haw on the unsuspecting American public. As a result, Canadian television stays relatively fresher and more open to new people and ideas. It’s so open right now that there are no comedy shows on at all except the occasional Hart And Lome Terrific Hour and Let’s Call The Whole Thing Orff. Canadians have been convinced we’re not funny, thanks mainly to the appalling beaver humor of Spring Thaw. It’s not true. Stephen Leacock was funny; Wayne and Shuster were funny; Hart Pomerantz and Lome Michaels are funny. Hart and Lome are also young enough to have been raised on television and to think instinctively in its language.
Television is made for satire. Good satire depends on an overwhelming impression of reality, a knowledge that this is the way life really is which television can convey perhaps more convincingly than any other medium. It’s not
done with tacky sets and fright wigs, but by taking the camera out into the streets and recreating exactly the same scenes we see every night on The National — from a kinky point of view. The actor doesn’t have to sweat for laughs because the camera does most of the work. Monty Python’s Flying Circus used this technique with great success. Pomerantz and Michaels’ film documentary on Dutch Puck Disease explored many of the possibilities of using television to its full power. This kind of comedy not only makes you laugh, it’s a revelation.
The breakthrough came a few years ago when Wayne and Shuster made a film satire on Air Canada which was shot, as far as I can remember, on a real jet. The economy passengers, who entered by climbing up a wooden ladder, were separated from the cocktail party in first class by the famous Air Canada striped curtain. I still cannot fly without thinking about the grizzled old woman who came down the aisle with her bucket of beans. That skit was a classic — bits and pieces of it have cropped up everywhere from Laugh In to Flip — but I have never seen this film technique used on any American comedy program.
Satire may be something Canadians can do that Americans can’t. Censorship keeps it off American television. Canadians so far haven’t been clued in enough about what’s going on to be able to laugh at it, but that’s slowly changing. So is the government’s sense of hilarity. Pierre Trudeau, as we all know, does not suffer fools gladly. I’ll be curious to see whether people like Pomerantz and Michaels can go on to really hard, witty satire with a cutting edge that changes people’s minds, and if so, will it be permitted? ■
Heather Robertson is a Winnipeg free-lance writer and broadcaster
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