Laughing Matters — Jake Johannsen, in 1989

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

As much as I’m always keen to share the comedic efforts that provide sharp commentary on the world, exposing the absurdities of the human condition as only punchlines can, I’m maybe most impressed by those stand-ups who effectively ply their craft with material unconnected to the news of the day and the outrage of the moment. There’s something classic about a routine crafted with sharp observations of the mundane and artfully precise language to describe those brainstorms. I appreciate a comedian who understands that properly using the word “fracas” is going to heighten the humor all by itself.

Much as I’m ready to celebrate edgy and transformative comics, I think there’s no one working in the field today who makes me laugh more heartily and more dependably than Jake Johannsen. And that’s been the case for a very, very long time now, since he started making his first late night national television appearances in the late nineteen-eighties. It’s no surprise to me that at least one of those, shot in 1989, still holds up now. Freed of topical references or anything else that locks it to a specific calendar year, he could take a stage today and deliver this same routine with only the slightest of changes. In the very best way, this is timeless comedy.

The Art of the Sell — Bob Uecker for Miller Lite

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Forget about Clydesdales on snowy paths or croaking frogs, the best ad campaigns ever connected to a beer were those cooked up by the McCann-Erickson agency for Miller Lite in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties. As a Wisconsinite, I was especially fond of any spot that included Bob Uecker, the radio broadcaster for our home state MLB squad. And none was better than the entry that opened with Mr. Baseball making his way to a seat at the old ballpark. It’s a perfect comic gem in thirty seconds, and Uecker’s take on “I must be in the front row” is nothing less than one of very best line deliveries across the entire history of television commercials.

Laughing Matters — Funny or Die, “Non-Voters Anonymous”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

If the flaming disaster that is the current U.S. federal government serves as a catalyst to get previously apathetic citizens to vote, it still won’t have been worth it. But at least something good would have come out of the ascendance of one of the worst humans the country has to offer to the highest post in the land despite finishing second place when all the votes were tallied.

That Championship Season — Raising Hope, Season Three

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Before Raising Hope, Greg Garcia was the credited creator or co-creator on two series that had multi-season runs. Yes, Dear was a CBS family sitcom that was painfully conventional. Accordingly, it was a clear commercial success, running six seasons and logging over one hundred and twenty episodes. Garcia followed that with a sole creator credit on My Name is Earl, a high concept comedy on NBC that happily careened into bright outlandishness. That show ended after its fourth season, to Garcia’s irritation, at least in part because, he claims, the network gave him assurances a renewal was pending when he expressed reservations about finishing the last episode of the production year with a cliffhanger.

As a follow-up to Earl, Garcia delivered the Fox comedy Raising Hope, which, intentionally or not, combined the spirits of its two immediate predecessors. It’s a family sitcom, but with an anarchic spirit. It pushed toward moments of sentiment and emphasized the loving bonds in relationships that presented as dysfunctional, but it did so with a cartoon boisterousness and penchant for cleverly bawdy jokes.

The founding premise centered on Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), an earnest, lower middle class fellow in his early twenties who has a one night stand with an assertive, wild woman (Bijou Phillips) who turns out to be a serial killer. When the tryst results in a offspring named Hope (played by interchanging twins Baylie and Rylie Cregut), Jimmy commits to fatherhood as the other parent is carted off to death row. With little money and not much better prospects, he moves in with his own parents, Virginia and Burt Chance (Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt, respectively) in a tiny house that much also make room for Virginia’s grandmother, known as Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman, in her eighties during the run of the series). Jimmy gets a job at a local grocery store, where he quickly becomes smitten with his coworker Sabrina Collins (Shannon Woodward).

In the beginning, the comedic balance on Raising Hope was imperfect. Then as now, there weren’t very many families on broadcast network TV that resides in the same under-rewarded economic strata at the Chases, and Garcia and his cohorts occasionally let strains of mockery infect their depiction of the family and their wobbly social circles. As the series progressed and creative voices became clearer and more assured, the sympathy for the characters solidified. Burt’s sweet dimness and Virginia’s propensity for malaprops remained fodder for jokes — often very funny jokes, it must be noted — but the characters were also afforded a consistent dignity. They were aware of their depressed lot in life, acknowledging their foibles, but with a sharp awareness of how the system was rigged against them. They understood the challenges of their own context.

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As the tone of the show’s internal commentary grew more clear, the creative team took greater liberties with the storytelling. Perhaps emboldened by a sense that Fox executives’ rampant fickleness was starting to turn against Raising Hope, a freewheeling sense of play came to the forefront on the third season. The plots grew a little loopier, as with an early-season two-parter that found the clan trying to retrieve Maw Maw after a social worker (Jenny Slate) disturbed with the quality of care removed the elderly woman from the home. While remaining true to the fundamentals of the characters, fanciful and elaborate schemes were mounted, and it all somehow accentuated the eventual acknowledgement of the value of their togetherness.

Better yet, the show evolved rather than prolonged one of its most familiar elements, the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Jimmy and Sabrina that has been a sitcom staple since Diane Chambers first crossed the threshold of Cheers. The two became a couple in the middle of the second season, and the episodes that soon followed trafficked in orchestrated conflict to stir uncertainty. That approach was largely jettisoned in the third season, and the writers and performers instead examined how the couple grew together, edging to a wedding that was refreshingly treated as a normal outcome rather than a momentous dramatic event.

In an especially satisfying choice, the wedding episode employed a conceit that allowed it to be presented in the rough style of an episode of Modern Family, then in its fourth season and making its sharp exit into the pure tedium of characters behaving abominably to each other in advance of delivering a curdled antidote of episode-closing sentiment. Raising Hope trailed Modern Family significantly in the ratings, but the wedding episode — perhaps meant to be nothing more than a friendly homage — served as a compelling rebuttal to the ostentatious wealth and manufactured tender feelings. Far humbler in every respect, Raising Hope came by its affection and warmth honestly.

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The wedding episode was also emblematic of a winning meta mischievousness that enlivened Raising Hope in the third season. Generally, this quality manifested around the edges. One-time Goonie Plimpton’s Virginia comments on the sad downward trajectory child performers often experience from Spielberg-backed theatrical blockbusters to “the nutty mom on some sitcom.” Burt responds to the presence of cameras filming pre-wedding activities by speculating they’ve been existing in their own version of The Truman Show, which would explain the procession of “crazy things” they experience. The self-referential storytelling reaches its dizzy pinnacle in an episode built around Hope’s birthday party that’s a thinly disguised excuse for Garcia to stage a reunion of the entire principal cast of My Name is Earl. The showrunner, enjoyably, was doing whatever the hell he wanted.

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Although Raising Hope spent the third season shooting off narrative fireworks like it was in a state of perpetual grand finale. Fox unexpectedly renewed the show, but Garcia moved on, as if the madcap sprint of the season meant he romped through every idea worth having and expressing. In the fourth and final season, Raising Hope was a muddled echo, maintaining a certain antic quality without any of the inner being that made it special. Season three had already proved Raising Hope could be more than a headlong joke machine. It could be crafty and complex, and a sharp winner in the process.

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The Leftovers, Season Three
Treme, Season One
How I Met Your Mother, Season Two
Firefly, Season One

Golden Words — “Elegant Iggy”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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Taxi, season 4, episode 20: “Elegant Iggy,” written by Ken Estin, aired 1982.

From its debut, in 1978, the high quality of Taxi was practically unquestioned. Created by James L. Brooks and a trio of his Mary Tyler Moore Show collaborators (Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger), the series was an immediate critical darling and an Emmy magnet. Taxi was a nominee for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of the five years it was on the air, claiming the prize its first three seasons. It was also a hit, at least initially, claiming a spot in the Neilsen Top 10 for the 1978-79 television season. (To put in perspective how fleeting ratings success could be in the nineteen-seventies, among the shows that outperformed Taxi that year were The Ropers and Angie.)

Taxi also figured prominently in the writing categories, collecting eight nominations during its run. Although the series was ostensibly an ensemble piece set in a unique workplace, when it came to teleplays favored by the Television Academy, one character clearly stood out. Five of the last six of those writing nods were for episodes that centered on Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd), the burned out cabbie who first appeared in a season one episode that featured him presiding over a wedding of the taxi company’s foreign-born mechanic, Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman). Quickly determining they’d struck comic gold with the character — especially in Lloyd’s sputtering, sweetly addled performance — the producers made Reverend Jim a regular by the second season and he become a dominant figure, bringing an absurdist streak to an otherwise fairly strait-laced show.

“Elegant Iggy” is a perfect encapsulation of how easy it was to generate laughs while Jim was central. The plot is set in motion when Jim is given tickets to a classical music performance by one of his fares. After a brief debate among coworkers angling for the seat beside him at the erudite affair, Jim opts to bring Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) as his companion. Although Jim cleans up well, donning a dapper suit in lieu of his usual heavily scuffed denim ensemble, his eccentricities still prove embarrassing to Elaine when she encounters a wealthy acquaintance (stalwart TV guest character actress Fran Ryan) who she hopes to enlist to provide funding for her fledgling art gallery. The potential patron invites both Elaine and Jim to a gala event she’s hosting.

The conflict of the story rests in Elaine’s fretting about the ways Jim’s behavior among the high society crowd could jeopardize her shot at much needed investments held up against her devotion to her friend, arguably the most innocent soul in the glum cab company. There’s nothing all that profound about the story’s progression, so the award-worthy qualities are found in the dialogue. Writing for Jim, whose intellectual edges were buffed down to literalist nubs, providing the opportunity for wordplay that was like a gentler version of Marx Brothers’ inspired verbal lunacy. Without ever seeming like manipulation to provide a pathway to a punchline, the teleplay sets up Jim for an inspired twist of comic misunderstanding over and over again. As expected, his social stumbling eventually shifts to a day-saving triumph. It is inevitable, and yet, because of wise structuring of his confusion, never quite the obvious outcome.

Writing to Lloyd’s performance was enough of sure bet for Emmy attention that one of the four competing nominees “Elegant Iggy” bested to take the prize was another Jim-centric episode, “Jim the Psychic” (which, to be fair, was more of a comedic showcase for Danny DeVito, playing insidious dispatcher Louie De Palma with delirious heights of anxious paranoia in the face of Jim’s dire prognostications). That same year, Lloyd also won the first of his two Emmys for the role.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

The Long Haul —Keri Russell in The Americans

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans (2013-2018)

When The Americans made its debut on FX, a mere five years ago, its premise of Russian agents operating covertly on U.S. soil seemed like almost quaint in its Cold War retrospection. Set during the nineteen-eighties, an era when President Ronald Reagan set rhetoric against the U.S.S.R. to a low boil, the series brought a bruising authenticity in its depiction of street level spy trade, but the yet tougher drama is reserved for the family dynamics of the Russian agents who’ve set up residence in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C.

Series creator Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner, Joel Fields, were always clear in their intent to use the high stakes of geopolitical intrigue to examine the equally fraught terrain of human relationships. It was part metaphor and part wry parallel. And as the show really found its thematic footing, the approach provided opportunities for its actors to dig into uniquely layered characters. Some — like Matthew Rhys and season two addition Costa Ronin — were strong from their first moments, and others — notably Noah Emmerich and Holly Taylor — developed crafty complexities as the the series proceeded. Even as widely distributed praise is merited, no performance across the run of the series was as consistently impressive as that of Keri Russell.

As Elizabeth Jennings, the matriarch of the implanted nuclear family with a secret mission, Russell arguably rides the most pronounced character arc of the series — from a unyielding true believer of the early episodes to a weary survivor at the end — but the fiercely contained nature of her performance is necessarily free of the showy moments that signal a change in inner being. Transformation plays out in flickers across her tensed face, certainty giving way to doubt with mere tremors of conflict in her bearing.

The character never becomes warm, exactly, never succumbing to a familiarized appreciation for the United States like her partner, cover spouse, and eventually actual husband, Philip (Rhys). He finds stabilizing solace in touchy-feely encounter groups, but Elizabeth is steely to the end. She does, however, grow to have affection for her family. Much of the agony of the later episodes comes from the strange tangle of emotions she feels for those around her, especially as she grooms her daughter, Paige (Taylor), to join the family business even as her prior ruthlessness ebbs when it comes time to share the most unsavory details.

Gifted with a good length of time to develop Elizabeth’s shifts and intelligent writing that generally favored nuance over clamor, Russell takes a character that could have been a gimmick and makes her piercingly true. As The Americans drew to a close, suddenly against headlines that seemed to forecast the fraught plot lines that could drive a rebooted version a couple decades from now, the facile observation touted the unexpected newfound relevance. Such critical punditry foolishly elided the fundamental spirit of the series. More errantly, it shortchanged the impact of Russell’s performance. She already made the material real as the daily sunset through sheer force of her acting.

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Other posts this series can be found by clicking on the tag “The Long Haul.”

Programming Note — TV Week

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True story: When I was a wee child, springing from bed far too early once per week because I was excited to watch Saturday morning cartoons, I soothed the anxiousness that arose when I switched on the set to be greeted with pre-broadcast-day static by convincing myself I was watching an especially basic animated program comprised of Snoopy and Woodstock in a physical brawl.

Anyway….

Two of my favorite current television creators are Michael Schur and Vince Gilligan. They create distinctively different programs, but they have one peculiar, mildly masochistic trait in common: They love boxing themselves into scenarios for which they don’t have a plan for handy extrication. They set up cliffhanger plot turns, particularly in season finales, without an exit plan.

The tricky brinksmanship doesn’t always work in their favor (Gilligan still laments the machine gun in the trunk in the fifth season of Breaking Bad), but I am sympathetic to the writerly need to establish a deadline or other stakes that can’t be easily escaped. With that in mind — and, admittedly, with a certain mental weariness that prevents the creation of anything more intricate or robust this evening — I am declaring this television week at Coffee for Two, in recognition of the annual presentation of the Emmys taking place one week hence from the point in time that finds me typing these words.

That means — and here’s the potential self-sabotage — that not only do I need to come up with a new installment of the regular television-related feature in this humble digital space, but I also must figure out two more offerings before the arrival of “One for Friday” provides me rescue. I think I maybe-kinda-sorta know how I will conquer this self-bestowed puzzle, but I also have a little bit of a shruggy emoticon feeling right now. Maybe this will be fun. Maybe disaster looms.

Either way, stay tuned.