"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: TV comedies are usually not very good. And unlike procedural dramas that aren’t very good or nighttime soaps that aren’t very good, comedies that aren’t very good are almost impossible to watch. Like a pair of ill-fitting pants or a tour guide with something stuck in his teeth or windshield wipers that just barely work, bad comedies don’t simply fail to function, they torture you with their badness. Each failed attempt to make you laugh not only disappoints, it hurts ever so slightly.
Adding to the pain is the deeply depressing sound of that empty-headed fraudience chuckling away over the worst jokes in the world. The mind abandons whatever thin narrative is unfolding on the screen for much more alienating thoughts like, “How could those people laugh at something so stupid? What awful taste they must have!” and then: “What other bad things must those people enjoy?” (The answer: Applebee’s Riblet platters, Adam Sandler movies, enormous blow-up Santas, cars with gigantic woofers that rattle the intestines of everyone within 50 feet.)
To be clear, I’m not talking about so-called low culture. Everyone knows that lots of supposedly trashy things are actually divine: the bright orange glow of instant macaroni and cheese; the packed Megaplex on opening night; the delirium brought on by playing “Grand Theft Auto” on a truly impressive home entertainment system; the untold joys of an onion the size of a human head, covered in thick batter and chili powder, boiled in animal fat and served on a platter by a remorselessly upbeat teenager with a fake Australian accent. These are the delicious indulgences of mainstream pop culture, the kinds of things that make most of us damn proud to be Americans.
Good comedy, like a good fried onion, unites us. When we laugh out loud together, we share a good experience with total strangers. Conversely, when everyone else is laughing and you’re not, you realize suddenly that you’re all alone in a world full of morons. So watching shitty sitcoms is an exercise in alienation — not just for snotty little superior weenies like you and me, but for people of all stripes across the country. When freaky actor meat-puppets spout worn-out clichés parading as jokes, it gives me the same sinking feeling that I got one day when I spotted one of those “Remember our troops!” ribbon magnets people put on their cars, but instead of reminding us of the war in Iraq or breast cancer, it said, “I (Heart) Softball!” That’s right, a ribbon magnet for softball. So the message is … never forget that I love softball? A sticker of Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbes” taking a piss makes perfect sense, compared to that one.
Bring the pain!
The sad fact is that, while TV dramas seem to grow more and more sophisticated and well-written each year, sitcoms remain stuck in prehistoric times, with stereotypical characters cracking jokes that would make your grandmother roll her eyes and squirm. True, a few comedies break free of the mediocre mold each year: “The Office,” “Weeds” and “30 Rock” offer some proof that funny TV writers still exist somewhere out there. So why don’t the others wise up and copy from the pros? Well, sadly, you can copy the characters, the situations and the tone of a good comedy, but you can’t copy the funny.
Ironically, the really bad jokes, flat characters and idiotic stories on most sitcoms are just misused copies of a show that actually worked, because it was written by people who were funny — or more important, people who at least knew what wasn’t funny. While there will always be a limited supply of such humane TV writers who manage not to injure the general public with hurtfully stupid punch lines, there will never be a shortage of mercilessly mediocre TV writers who shamelessly inflict their flaccid, unfunny sitcoms on the world — and get paid handsomely for it.
For accuracy’s sake, then, most TV comedies should be rated not based on how funny they are, but on how painful they are. Forget four stars or thumbs up or down — it makes much more sense to use one of those pain scales that they show you in the hospital — you know, the ones that go from zero to five, with little smiley and frowny faces, so you can describe to the doctor how much pain you’re in?
Zero, the least amount of pain, has a smiling face. Two is a neutral face with a straight line for a mouth, meaning, “This isn’t great, but I can handle it.” Three is the face you make when you’re about to eat a few more Advil than the bottle recommends. Four is an extreme frown that clearly means, “My morphine button isn’t working, damn it!” And five is a weeping, desperate, frowny face, the face of a person who’s capable of violence against a complete stranger, if that’s what’s necessary to secure an adequate supply of Percoset.
Which sorts of jokes can cause that kind of pain? And which characters and situations might scar you permanently, while others leave you relatively unscathed, but with a hankering for a strong drink?
Like the double takes and misunderstandings of “Three’s Company” or the snappy comebacks of “What’s Happening?” each year there’s a brand new slew of painful tricks up the lame sitcom writer’s sleeve. Here’s how our scale works, and how it corresponds to some of the painful “comic” elements in circulation today.
Annoying Elements of the Typical Sitcom and Their Corresponding Pain Ratings
Again, any of these elements can be handled well, with hearty laughs in store, if the characters are original and believable, the jokes are solid, and the situations are relatable. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was nothing but Grumpy, Beleaguered Husband and Bossy, Annoyed Wife going head to head, but it worked because the dialogue was realistic and funny, and the characters were relatable and original. “Seinfeld” devolved into unrealistic zaniness every other episode, but the building blocks — trivial things that bug us, laziness, the attempt to get out of something you don’t want to do — were always knowable, plus the characters and writing were both fantastic. Like “Seinfeld,” “Arrested Development” (which was obviously influenced by “Seinfeld”) was so entertaining that it spawned a flood of bad copycats — while Quirky Wierdos, zanily unrealistic stories and bizarre non sequiturs abound, few even come close to the magic of the Bluths.
Now let’s see where the midseason sitcoms fall on our scale.
“Knights of Prosperity”
(9 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC)
The title might suck (it changed from “Let’s Rob Jeff Goldblum” to “Let’s Rob Mick Jagger” to the vague “Let’s Rob…” before landing with the confusing and slightly precious “Knights of Prosperity”), but this comedy starring Donal Logue (“Grounded for Life”) at least has a pretty original premise: a bunch of abject losers create a thieves club of sorts in order to break into Mick Jagger’s apartment and take his stuff. Unfortunately, there’s an excess of kooky cuteness here, from the matching T-shirts the characters wear to their search for the right theme song for their club. The notion of a serial comedy makes sense — each week the Knights make a little progress in their quest to rob Jagger — but it’s not clear how we’ll tolerate watching these characters chase the same absurd goal all season long. Other offenses include mildly unrealistic situations that seem to have no purpose beyond a general cr-cr-crazy feel they lend the story, overused pop-cultural reference in place of jokes, and Quirky Weirdos galore.
That said, this comedy isn’t nearly as painful as most, and there are some scenes that work. When the Knights offer their renditions of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” — well, “Tom Sawyer” may be one of the funniest songs ever written, a case where a pop-cultural reference pays off. The scenes with Mick Jagger are always amusing, whether he’s kicking soccer balls around in his apartment or ordering his houseboy to prepare his yogurt bath. The cast has plenty of flair — no Bland Guys or Talentless Hotties here — but, like the rest of this show, they fall squarely into the category of Adorably Odd, and that gets old fast. But then, what do you expect from the same producers (Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman) who created the fatally quirky-cute dramedy “Ed”?
“In Case of Emergency”
(9:30 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC)
Yet another sitcom about a bunch of people who went to high school together (see also: CBS’s “The Class”) and grew up to be losers. More specifically, you’ve got Self-Deprecating Loser Harry (Jonathan Silverman), the Quirky Weirdo Jason (David Arquette) and the Manic Freak Sherman (Greg Germann).
There are all sorts bad sitcom elements here: 1) Wildly unrealistic situations that aren’t all that amusing (Diet guru Sherman, despondent over the fact that his wife left him, hijacks a pastry truck and shoves doughnuts into his mouth while driving); 2) Pointless pop-cultural references (Harry jumps on top of a moving car and yells, “Hey! Look at me! I’m like Starsky! Or maybe I’m like Hutch. Hey, who was the one with the hit song, Starsky or Hutch?”); 3) Bad, unrealistic jokes (The guys hang out at the bottom of a pool because Sherman’s ex-wife took everything when she left, including the water from the pool. Bahaha!); and 4) David Arquette.
“In Case of Emergency” doesn’t qualify as utterly excruciating, mostly because Greg Germann (the jerk from “Ally McBeal”) is a funny guy and manages to sell his absurd scenes pretty well, and the jokes, while not all that funny, at least aren’t the sorts of punch lines painful enough to make you weep big, salty tears into your frozen TV dinner. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a point to the madness here, and that gives this one the expected life span (and the charms) of a housefly.
(premieres 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 4, on Fox)
Without a doubt, there’s nothing more challenging than leaving one of the funniest programs on TV, “The Daily Show,” to star in a sitcom. It’s basically impossible to imagine that Rob Corddry could find a home in the prime-time network schedule that wouldn’t be a major disappointment.
That said, when it comes to disappointing Corddry’s loyal fans, “The Winner,” co-created by Seth MacFarlane of “The Family Guy,” goes beyond the call of duty. Corddry plays Glen Abbott, a chumpy virgin who’s in love with the girl next door, but mostly just hangs out with her 14-year-old son, Josh (Keir Gilchrist), since they have so much in common. Corddry and Gilchrist have a nice dynamic, and the absurdity of their scenes, however predictable, works reasonably well.
But nothing else does. First of all, the Quirky Weirdo/Loser really is the bad street mime of the sitcom world this year. No matter how charmingly strange Corddry manages to be, he might as well be wearing white gloves and opening imaginary doors in our path while we’re trying to catch a bus downtown. Second, the stories are weak. In one episode, Glen visits a massage parlor to lose his virginity (there’s a very similar scene in the pilot of “In Case of Emergency”); in another, Glen unwittingly goes on a date with a gay guy, thinking that the guy just wants to be his bestest friend. There are little glimpses of cleverness here and there, mostly due to Corddry’s deadpanning as a childlike freak. Still, the overall feeling is, “How did Rob Corddry wander onto the set of a shitty sitcom? Quick, someone get him back to ‘The Daily Show’ before they replace him!”
I hate to jump on the bandwagon of flogging popular performers for branching out and trying new things — it’s certainly working for Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”), Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) this year — so let’s just hold our breath and hope that “The Winner” finds a way to win eventually.
“Rules of Engagement”
(premieres 9:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, on CBS)
Ah yes, what does the world need more than a bad sitcom about relationships? This one is populated with painful stereotypes, including the Grumpy, Beleaguered Husband; the Bossy, Annoyed Wife; the Talentless Hottie; the Bland Guy and the Horndog Friend (played by David Spade). The jokes have all been done before, and most are of the Lenny & Squiggy variety, with all of the male characters endlessly ribbing each other about who’s getting laid and how often. This exchange between Bland Guy and Horndog Friend typifies the flaccid “Dude!” humor of the show:
Bland Guy: I proposed to her because I love her.
Horndog Friend: Oh, that’s so gay!
Bland Guy: Being in love with a woman is gay?
Horndog Friend: No, but saying it out loud to a guy is!
And then there are the cutesy non sequiturs:
Bossy Wife: Look, you spent $109 on a robot dog!
Beleaguered Husband: There’s no need to bring Gizmo into this. He’s programmed for love.
Robot dogs are so funny, aren’t they? Every time I hear the words “robot dog” I laugh and laugh!
The story lines are every bit as insufferable as the punch lines. In one episode, Bland Guy (who’s engaged to Talentless Hottie, not surprisingly) wants to know what sexual favors Beleaguered Husband gets from Bossy Wife, but Beleaguered Husband won’t tell him. In another, Talentless Hottie discovers that Bland Guy shared their queen-size bed with his ex-girlfriend, so the couple trade predictable jealous barbs for the rest of the show.
The only good thing about “Rules of Engagement” is Patrick Warburton, the big, burly guy who played Elaine’s boyfriend Puddy on “Seinfeld.” Unfortunately, Warburton can’t save the disastrous void that opens up every time Bland Guy and Talentless Hottie open their mouths, and with very little cleverness to work with, David Spade’s smugness falls flat. Isn’t it incredible that CBS could spend millions to produce a sitcom this bad, when shows as good as “The Comeback” and “Arrested Development” are canceled?
(10 p.m. Sundays on HBO)
If you think watching a truly terrible sitcom is painful, imagine starring in one. That’s the conceit driving the second season of Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s comedy “Extras.” Andy Millman (Gervais) finds fame and fortune as the star of a shockingly bad sitcom (replete with zaniness, colorful losers and annoying catchphrases), a show so awful that his new life is even more humiliating than his old one as an extra was — if that’s possible.
Watching Gervais squirm and mince words and crawl out of one humbling situation after another is the main draw here, just like it was when he played David Brent on the original BBC version of “The Office.” But unlike David, Andy knows he’s something of a loser, whether he’s getting caught in a lie in the middle of hitting on a woman in his building or being tortured by idiot fans, only to bask in their moronic adoration the second his ego gets a little bruised.
Gervais’ timing remains impeccable, and Ashley Jensen is wonderful as his shallow, lazy friend Maggie. And, proving how fantastic some of the lamest sitcom devices can be in the right hands, “Extras” employs celebrity cameos as brilliantly as “The Larry Sanders Show” once did, either using them to demonstrate the extreme self-obsession of big stars (Orlando Bloom, carrying on about how much more desirable he is to women than former costar Johnny Depp, or Chris Martin, shamelessly plugging Coldplay and dropping queasy lines about rushing home to his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow) or using them to embarrass Andy (as David Bowie did on last week’s episode, writing an impromptu song about what a chump Andy is). While so many shows try (and fail) to take on the entertainment industry in fresh ways, “Extras” offers a deliciously mean exploration of the mixed blessings of becoming a paid TV actor.
Next week: Time for your bad reality roundup! Would you rather watch white people rap, or try to sing and dance like John Travolta?
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)