I Like to Watch

More evidence that Brits and Canadians are funny -- and "Saturday Night Live" is not. Plus: Confessions of a two-TiVo girl.


Heather Havrilesky
November 14, 2003 5:10AM (UTC)

O subtlety, where art thou?
The second season of "The Office" continues on BBC America, and everyone's favorite manager, David Brent, is in top form. His boss asks him for an update on how things are going with the new employees from the merger, and Brent delivers a typically bizarre, rambling explanation:

"They're malleable. You know? That's what I like about people. I don't like people who come in here, 'Oh, we do it this way, we did it that way.' I just wanna go, 'Do it this way. If you like. If you don't...' Team playing. I call it Team Individuality. It's a new management style. Again, guilty! Unorthodox? Sue me! Nothing ever changes by staying the same. Quite literally."

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As usual, watching Ricky Gervais in action provokes utter awe. If this is improv, it's brilliant. If it's scripted, the script is brilliant and the performance is beyond belief.

The characters and comic moments are so strange and understated. One of the new female employees has a birthday party, and gets nothing but lingerie and sex toys as gifts, each of which makes her squeal and yell, "Sick!" Later, when we see her on the phone giggling loudly and bending over, covering her mouth showily, she emerges as a familiar type. Something about the way she laughs, and the way her desk is covered with birthday cards. She's the office party girl, the star of every function who never socializes with anyone outside of work. No one needs to explain this to us; it's telegraphed with the smallest of details within the first few minutes of the show. As she cackles into the phone, we cut to commercial break. Which begins with:

Girl 1: It's willing to take a risk in a way that no American show is willing to!

Girl 2: Everybody's like, "The Office"! We love "The Office"!

Guy: It's over the edge of what would be acceptable at a normal American network!

Girl 3: It's the saddest and funniest show I think that I've ever seen!

Girl 2: It's sooo real that it was kind of shocking!

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Girl 1: It constantly surprises me, and that is, like, the purest form of entertainment!

OK, advertising morons, here's how to snuff out a word-of-mouth groundswell of appreciation for something that sneaks into the public consciousness on its own merits: Hold a big mirror up to those who think they've discovered it and make them feel really self-conscious and lame for not knowing that everyone else in the world has already discovered their little discovery. In fact, use the exact language they use, so much so that your advertising will serve as a funhouse mirror, a repugnant distortion of your supporters' most unabashed expressions of giddy enthusiasm.

Why do I like "The Office," again? Well, it's willing to take a risk in a way that no American show is willing to. But when I see some other punk uttering those exact words, it's like showing up at a party in the Mission in San Francisco and they're playing the Pavement album you already wore out last month, three other women have the exact same shade of reddish-brown hair that you have, and someone nearby is talking about how "The Simpsons" has gone downhill, a conversation you had not three minutes ago with one of your roommates, the reddish-brown-haired one.

If there's one thing our generation hates (and yes, I feel totally and completely comfortable speaking for my entire generation, every last one of you), it's feeling unoriginal. You can blame that on our hippie parents (I know it was a magical time -- joining a cause without feeling unoriginal sounds like pure bliss, in fact) or you can blame it on our hippie parents throwing away their Levis and Dr. Scholl's and taking jobs in marketing. Either way, shifting from subtle comedy to skin-crawling, on-the-nose raving about same comedy makes about as much sense as an agoraphobics' street festival.

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"Kids in the Hall" are people, too
In order to feel special again, I suggest flipping over to "Comedy Central" for some "Kids in the Hall" reruns. "Saturday Night Live" has been moderately disappointing so far this season (despite the addition of weirdo comic wizard Will Forte) and "Kids in the Hall" provides a little reminder of what SNL does wrong, week after week. While those kooky Canadians try everything and anything under the sun, from straightforward skits to bizarre nonsequitor-laden interstitials, at SNL they lack the courage of conviction. Instead of forging into strange, new territories, SNL writers seem to muck around in the same tired skits. I'm sure the ridiculous schedule and relatively crappy pay have a lot to do with it. I'm sure there are people to blame for the badly rehearsed skits and the fact that Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz crack each other up every single time they're onstage together, even though no one else is laughing.

If he's got Darrell Hammond, Jeff "Drunk Girl" Richards, Maya Rudolph and plenty of other talented comics to work with, why are we watching Lorne Michaels persuade Britney Spears to kiss host Halle Berry? Is this SNL or "The Man Show"?

"Kids in the Hall" is a different sort of animal altogether, to be fair. They're surreal to the point of total idiocy and nonsense, and most of their stuff isn't live. SNL's pretaped segments are always the highlight of the show, from "TV Funhouse" to the fake ads for "Gaystrogen." But aside from dependable skits like Maya Rudolph as Donatella Versace and Darrell Hammond as "Hardball's" Chris Matthews, the skits this year are predictable, they last way too long, and they end with a thud. For chrissakes, even if the whole skit sucks, at least end with a joke and a tagline. Even the refrigerator magnets who write for "Rock Me Baby" can do that much.

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Oversweeping my welcome
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "You're not so funny yourself, you lumpy TV addict!" And you're right, but it's not my fault I'm not British or Canadian.

You know, I think I understand why the British are so quick-witted, but Canadians? Why are Canadians so damn funny? Mike Myers anyone? Tom Green? Phil Hartman? Is there some secret ingredient in Canadian bacon that makes these guys hysterical? Celine Dion -- where did she get the gift of laughter?

Will the hammer of the p.c. gods crush me to smithereens for pointing out that Germans aren't so funny? And what's wrong with the Swiss, exactly? Why are Swedes so good at making cool, cheap furniture and songs like "Take a Chance on Me," and so very bad at comedy?

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I'm not pretending to know -- I'm just speaking from my personal experience. Now, admittedly, I've experienced about as much in this life as your common roof rat has. But as far as I can tell, Jewish people are funnier than all but the most depraved Catholics, and Catholics are funnier than most of those from the Protestant faiths, unless they're Canadian or British. Southern Baptists can be funny, but sometimes it's not intentional. The only exception is Unitarians, who are incredibly funny, particularly when they stand up and sing "We Are the World" and everyone has to hold clammy hands and you can smell the failure of your neighbor's rock deodorant.

Now that I've cut my readership roughly in half, I can ask those of you who are left: Why does money so often make people less and less funny? Why are out-of-shape people funnier than fit people? Why are women in expensive shoes so rarely funny, and does that completely explain this past season of "Sex and the City"?

I think small animals are funny, don't you? I was watching "Dogs With Jobs" the other day, and there was this little dog called Peek who could open drawers in the kitchen, pick up dropped spoons, and help her owner make the bed by dragging the pillows into place. It was hilarious! It was also kind of cool when...

TiVo through the tulips
OK, I admit it. I watch way too much TV. I don't mean to brag -- or put myself down -- but I just got a second TiVo. The second TiVo has two inputs, so that now, I can record three different channels of television at the same time.

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Head-spinning, isn't it? It might even sound a little bit excessive to you, until you put yourself in my shoes and recognize that, not only do I need to buy some new shoes soon, but I also get a lot of mail from three different camps. The first camp wonders why I haven't written more about "The O.C." The second camp wants to know what I think of Bachelor Bob. The third camp wants to know whether or not I agree that "The West Wing" is a slow-motion train wreck this season. And while, as a critic, naturally I'm happy to make up opinions about each and every one of these shows, the problem is that they're all on at the same exact time. I mean, sure, I'm guessing that Bob is charming in a smug way, which works well on camera but gets old within two episodes, and I'm guessing that "The West Wing" may have lost some of its subtlety and intelligence, but anything that displaces that worn-out manic, quippy cadence has got to be a refreshing change for the better, but I don't really know the truth because...

That's right. I've been watching "The O.C."

Look, it's my duty to watch the newest stuff, and if there's a nighttime soap that actually gets good ratings, well, then, I've got to get at the bottom of that trend. Also, that Ryan guy is pretty cute.

The truth is, every time I watch "The O.C." in the beginning, I feel a little guilty, like I should be watching policy makers fret and pace the halls of the White House instead. But then Peter Gallagher does his weirdly likable dad thing, and his son Seth -- I love Seth! -- has such a strange, believable way of delivering his lines, and oooh, I hate Marissa's mother sooo much! It's like "90210" with better plots, a far more lovable family, and without that awful Jenny Garth. Call me shallow, but sometimes I'd rather see hot teenagers kiss on the Ferris wheel than watch Donna and Josh flirt innocently, only to be interrupted by the latest poll data on Qumar.

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But worry not, West Wingers. Now that I have two TiVos, I can watch everything. Everything! The TV world is mine, all of it! Every stinking, wretched corner of it!

Hungry, hungry hippie
Recognizing the value of having an irritating villain along for the ride, the producers of "Survivor" suddenly decided to merge the tribes, thereby saving creepy Jon's hide. Taking their cue from that timeless classic, "Drunk Asshole Hotel," they threw previously ejected tribe members Lill and Burton back into the mix. Now, suddenly, Burton is sitting pretty while the Morgan tribe's self-proclaimed leader, Andrew Savage, unexpectedly got the boot.

This week's teasers seem to suggest that Balboa members will seek to eject Sweetums soon, but given how often Sweetums' face has appeared on "Survivor" promos lately, I doubt the promotional whiz kids would elevate him to the level of Pearl Islands Golden God only to kill their golden goose.

Sweetums' vengeance is swift and fierce, isn't it? But passionate a pirate as he is, his wrath can sometimes be a little bit overwhelming. Then again, he seems to emote directly to the source of his ire, and then offer a second chance like a good daddy. Is that what a good daddy does? Or does he hold in all of his emotions and then smash something to little bits? Either way, I'm betting that Sweetums isn't going anywhere, and even though everyone hates creepy Jon, I'm guessing he'll be around for a while, too. And thus, all is well in the world. Someone to love and fear, and someone to make your skin crawl.

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Tune in next week, when I forsake reality TV to update you on all of those really serious, weighty dramas that you don't watch, either.

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For more Heather Havrilesky, click here.


Heather Havrilesky

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.

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