Friday, October 9, 2009

The Brilliance of Sunny

Television in the 1990s was something of a barren wasteland. There were some innovative shows, like My So-Called Life and Twin Peaks, and some well-executed and long-running programs like Homicide, Seinfeld and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but the dials were mostly crammed with the likes of Tim Allen's relentless mugging and the Olsen twins. The finest artistic achievement on television of the decade (and the irony of that line is fully appreciated) was a little program called Beavis and Butt-head. The show was popular and permeated the public consciousness, and for my money there hasn't been a work of satire so profound and fully realized in my lifetime. Admittedly, few people who watched the show probably saw anything more than a dumb comedy, but the show's depiction of American youth and culture was frequently brutal and searing: B&B were complete morons who couldn't do anything--aside from watching MTV or farting, basically. Most episodes explored their disconnect from adults, peers, strangers, as well as both older and younger kids. That the show was so popular amongst the very people it was parodying just seemed to lend it more credibility as a portrait of the vaunted Gen-Xers.

I frequently think of Beavis when I watch the current program It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The show has recently entered it's fifth season and has seemingly lost little steam in the process of putting out so much television. A direct comparison between the two shows isn't exactly fair, but Sunny seems a good companion piece for the old MTV chestnut. In fact, Sunny often feels like a continuation of Beavis, only with five Beavises instead of one. Beavises that might have aged but that never really grew up, Beavises that might live in the world but have no real idea how it works and no real desire to figure it out. They're self-obsessed to an extreme extent.

Like Beavis, Sunny isn't really supposed to be taken at face value. Its characters are caricatures, nth degree extrapolations of real trends in American society. The show's hyperbolic characters often lead to over-the-top action and plot developments, as well as gags that frequently skirt the boundaries of good taste in many ways. Sunny often falls well on the funny side of the line, though sometimes it goes too far: a season four episode featuring a urinal waterboarding went just a bit too far, though it was almost redeemed by having one of the characters walk in and nonchalantly take a piss right next to said torturing. Some people will no doubt be turned off by the scatological nature of some of the humor, and while I can understand that I think it's wrongheaded. I have always been of the opinion that nothing should be off-limits when it comes to comedy, though I do think that, say, meanspiritedness about the handicapped is inherently unfunny. Sunny deploys its humor in a clever way (in fact, the right way) that most people in the comedy game tend to forget these days: humor is frequently an attempt to resolve an underlying tension, and the Sunny crew usually understands this. However, many other comedy writers seem to think that it's the tension itself that's funny, which is wrong. It is, as I once heard someone explain, the difference between American Pie and Scary Movie: the former is funny because having the dad walk in on the kid making it with a pie introduces tension, which is resolved humorously by having the dad being basically nonplussed by the situation. The latter is not funny because it's the equivalent of having the kid and the pie, but no dad. Sunny understands what so much "comedy" does not, and while it's just as daring as, say, Tom Green was back in the day, it uses that boldness to tell funny storylines (unlike Mr. Green).

More and more, it's beginning to seem like "cringe" comedy is becoming something of a mainstream option. Admittedly, some can do it well. Ricky Gervais has made a career out of it, and he's quite good at it. And even Judd Apatow manages to make his raunch mostly palatable. But when we're talking about the likes of the Wayans it becomes clear that a lot of people have missed the point, just like decades of guitarists after Jimi Hendrix, who emulated the style but couldn't come close to the music. The truth is that, despite most peoples' inherent squeamishness, most people will go along with scatology if it actually results in real laughs, if it's handled properly. If you're dealing with scatological humor, you can't forget the second part of the term. The craftsmen over at It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia understand that.

The common knock against the show is its unevenness, or perhaps that the characters don't develop. I'm not sure that either one is correct or relevant. I do think that the characters of Mac and Frank, for example, have developed immensely over the course of the show. It's the most consistenly funny show on television and, quite possibly, one that will withstand the test of time. Very little of its humor is topical--the narcissism of "The Gang" almost forbids going out of their little universe. Sunny might well be the best TV comedy of the decade, with no exaggeration.