Merchant Banking

Hosted by

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

When I tell people that I write television comedy -- actually, that's a bit of a lie: I never tell people what I do for a living, if I can help it. When people ask -- on a plane, or in some kind of casual never-going-to-see-the-person-again situation -- I almost always say, "I'm a merchant banker," which leads to precisely zero follow-up questions. I mean, when you tell someone you're a merchant banker, they don't then ask, "Oh, have you worked on any private equity deals I might have heard of?" And they don't say, "You know what's wrong with the capital markets? Let me tell you... " and they especially don't ever say, "You know what would be a great private equity deal? My life! Seriously! You should come to my office and meet my co-workers and then do a private equity round of early-investment financing with them!"

But there are people in the business who know what I do for a living, who know that I write television comedy -- you know, entertainment industry historians -- and who, when they see me around town, have a certain way of saying "hi" --- "hey," they say, in a sad, concerned voice, "How's it going?"

Yesterday, someone asked me what I think is wrong with television comedy these days. Usually when people ask me that, I say something glib like, that there's nothing by me on. If there was, then TV comedy would be in great shape, as far as I'm concerned. It's a fair question, though -- look at the network schedules -- the successful comedies are hard to find. The new ones are dying slowly -- like they have African sleeping sickness, you know, tired all the time, short bursts of energy followed up by total collapse... and when the end comes, you're kind of grateful?

But I turned the question back. "What do you think is wrong with TV comedy these days?" I asked.

"They're not funny," he said.

Which is hard to argue with. Funny, as I've said here before, is hard to bottle, but it really is key to a successful TV comedy. Did you hear what I just said. I just said that being funny is key to a successful comedy. The fact that someone actually has to say this on the radio, and that there are people listening right now -- you know who you are -- who are saying to themselves, yeah, funny's important, but... .is all you need to know about why, exactly, television comedy is in the dumper right now.

All of us in this part of the business -- all of us, writers included -- have failed at this most basic requirement. We've had interesting camera angles, fresh situations, edgy dialogue, tried improvisation, wacky casting, running story lines, everything. Everything, that is, except, you know, funny.

I have a friend who played basketball in high school on the worst team in the area. It was a small, rural high school -- and to get on the team, you basically had to show up in shorts and high tops. But during one terrible game, when the team was spazzing all over the court, the furious, frustrated coach called a time out. Gathered the team. And told them just to dribble and pass the ball downcourt a bit, then whoever had it, just put it down on the ground and run away. Just, see if you can do that, he said. Let's just see if you guys can do anything anything right. Anything basic.

Not a bad idea, really. Put it down and run away. Think how funny it would be if everyone in the TV comedy business just did that?

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll get briefly serious. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long