Monday, April 24, 2017

We get it!

There’s a new trend in comedy that annoys me. Of course, considering the state of the world and the number of things that piss the living shit out of me, this is somewhat minor, but it’s a blog on comedy so I’m bringing it up. And who knows? Maybe I’ll get enraged by the end. I doubt it, but we can see.

Here’s my problem: comedians and late night talk show hosts now have this annoying habit of acting out a joke after telling it. They get the laugh on the punchline and then do a thirty-second bit over-dramatizing it. “She didn’t go out because it was raining” is then followed by “AAAA! AAAAA! I’m getting wet. Oh no. I’m melting. My hair. AAAAA! AAAAA!”

WE GET IT.

I was always taught to get the laugh then move on.  Never belabor a joke.  

John Oliver does this to distraction. As much as I enjoy his program, usually fifteen-minute chunks is all I can handle. Stephen Colbert, who is totally crushing it these days, has fallen into this habit as well. And on the recent Louis C.K. special I just watched, he too resorts to this on occasion.

It’s one thing if the punchline sets up a bit and there are new jokes in the dramatization, but most of the time these just explain the joke you’ve just seen. So the monologues feel padded. It’s like putting filler in hamburger. “Hey, what’s going on? This Big Mac tastes like sawdust. Yuch. And they charge the same price. Next time I’m going to Burger King.” (See what I did there?)

Okay, that’s my rant. Let me check. Nope. My blood pressure has not gone up. I have no desire to break any furniture. But you are welcome to have a meltdown over this. Or at least recognize it the next time you watch John Oliver. And hey, reading this just meant five less minutes you were watching the real news. So you’re welcome.

39 comments :

Pizzagod said...

Agreed, but....

Audiences aren't as bright as they used to be. Forget about Steven Wright, now it's a Carrot Top world.

Jon88 said...

Just tried to link to this posting on Facebook, and they think your site is a problem. Weird.

Brad Apling said...

You're a much better observer and critiquer than I of the current crop of writers, so I ask: Is it the deliverer of the routine (e.g. John Oliver) or the versatility of the writers to deliver something comedic without going overboard? Do they study shows of the past to learn from?

Guy Nicolucci said...

My thought on that, having worked for several late-night hosts is that it's egotism. The "act-out" is about the host getting their own laugh that isn't dependent on the written material. (I don't know why Louis CK does it though).

Joel Keller said...

I think on John Oliver's show it's a moment to have some levity during what can be a very serious topic. Without the asides, the show really stops being funny. So my guess is that early on that went into the design of the show so the funny to depressing ratio is a little better. And I think that's always been part of Louie's act. Not sure why Colbert does it.

Dave said...

I agree 100%, and it's the primary reason why I can't watch John Oliver, whose show I would otherwise love. Sad to hear Colbert is doing it now too.

Garnet said...

Oliver's show drove me, as a viewer, away with (a) this stuff, and (b) his move to rather orthodox opinions and topics. Early on there was a bit about beauty pageants that was not only righteous, but fresh and surprising. Not much of that these days, from what I've seen.

Glenn said...

Ken, you just described how I felt for years about Jay Leno. He would do this all the f-in time during his Tonight Show monologues.

Michael said...

Stan Laurel said in his later years one of the things he hated when he watched television was how Red Skelton would deliberately break up during skits and encourage his guests to do the same. And that goes to Ken's point: I don't need the comedian telling me s/he thinks it's funny any more than I need the comedian continuing after the punch line so I'll realize it's funny. By then it's too late.

Mike Barer said...

Jay Leno did this. He'd do his bits, then act out or explain. I found it annoying.

Kirk said...

I'm not sure this is what you're talking about, but it seems like comedians do that while they're waiting for the laugh to die down.

On the flip side, when Johnny Carson's joke DIDN'T get a laugh, he would then sheepishly explain it, but I found that funny.

Ted said...

Jimmy Fallon does this after almost every joke in his monologue - and in his "desk" section too - but with him it seems like the added jokes are also pre-written for him, so it's less annoying.

Orwell said...

John Oliver and Steven Colbert are completely unwatchable. Loud, manic, hyperactive, annoying. This "acting out" crutch is just one of several reasons they are annoying and not funny any more. I can't watch more than five minutes.

Stuart Best said...

I have completely noticed the same thing. John Oliver's show is terrific journalism but has become middling comedy. The humor was pretty sharp in its first couple of seasons, but I haven't watched for a few months because the schtick is getting old. But you helped explain why Louis CK's latest special annoyed me so much. He, like Oliver, found a groove and is letting his pattern of joke-telling take precedence over actual jokes. He used to be a master at stretching out a joke forever and keeping us laughing, but this time I was like, please move on!

Mister Charlie said...

I love John Oliver but I have to agree with Ken's proposal. It is annoying, slows down the pace and you just sit there watching the host wait for the laughs to die down so he can 'finish' the gags. John has an important show but the serious subjects sometimes don't work well with a joke, let alone milking it to death.

Brad Apling said...

Thinking about this topic more, Ken, did you ever have an episode that you thought was really good but the audience acted ho-hum about or one which you thought was average humor yet the audience reacted as if it was the greatest piece of humor the world has ever known?

Markus said...

Yes, John Oliver does this to an annoying extent. And I think it's a total disservice to the importance of his disecting of oftentimes serious issues. It's fabulous how he injects sidebar humor into those serious pieces, but that "acting out the joke" on top of the joke just takes so much oomph out of it. It is simply not funny at all, it's merely facepalm-inducing. It weakens the entire storyline and flow of argumentation. Terrible.

John Nixon said...

...and they often do it by....speaking.....slow...ly....so...you... and then they just fade out, stop and go on to the next thing.

OK this is unrelated but something you might be able to use. This morning on our local Seattle news radio station the anchor...not the sports guy...was telling us that finally the Mariners had a dominant win yesterday against the A's. He said that they "put up crooked numbers". The score was 11 to 1!

Eric J said...

As others have said, I've stopped watching John Oliver for the same reason. The "acts" are over-acted. Way over the top. I can take a clip included in a short article, but my limit is a couple of minutes now. Acting out a bit is funny once in awhile, but mostly it's extremely annoying and breaks the mood for me.

A similar thing appears in print. An article about how Twitter has gone ballistic/nuclear/insane/whatever over some minor issue quotes particular Tweets in the story, then follows it with a graphic of the actual Tweet which says exactly the same damn thing.

WOKcreativeWritings said...

Reminds me of a joke by a few warm up guys - laugh when you hear it, not when you get it.

blinky said...

Look at Demetri Martin for a comedian that NEVER does that.

McAlvie said...

And I would bet you that they don't even realize they are doing it. It reminds me of another trend a few years back, that of new and upcoming artists unnecessarily stretching out notes to the point where they were all but yodeling. It sounded, and I'm dating myself, like when the needle on a phonograph would hit a bad spot on the record. It would stay in that one groove forever until you gave it a nudge. Some of those singers, I really wanted to give them a nudge. Sing it, don't milk it.

And that's what some of these comedy guys are doing, milking it. It isn't always intentional, though. Often it is the equivalent of someone saying "like" and "you know". But sometimes it is intentional, and that's insulting. Comedians of 50 years ago thought better of their audiences. Or maybe pizzaguy is right and the audiences have gotten dumber in the last 50 years.

Andy Rose said...

I agree that Leno pioneered this to some degree, but he tended to shove his "explanation" into the applause rather than using it to add another layer of laughs. Muttering and gesticulating right after the punchline was a timing bit for him that went well back into his standup days. I would say that Conan was a far more common practicioner of what Ken is talking about. Almost every monologue joke he does is followed by at least one more line begging for another laugh.

I fell out of love with John Oliver because he has so many of these tics that he falls back on. How many times during a show does his "joke" simply consist of making a completely nonsensical analogy, accompanied by a silly graphic? "That's like giving a cashier's check to an elderly gopher..." or some such thing. Once or twice in a show is one thing, but Oliver does it all the time, to the point that it's as much a trope as the cutaway gags on Family Guy.

John Ritteration said...

The Daily Show's Trevor Noah does this incessantly, with the added bonus of simply repeating the same lines two or three times.

Conversely, Louis CK mostly provides extra value whenever he doubles back on trodden ground.

thirteen said...

I'm glad to find that it's not just me. John Oliver's asides have become stark interruptions, and I don't find them funny. I haven't stopped watching Last Week, but I don't enjoy the show nearly as much as I used to. Oliver is getting in the way of his own material.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't think audiences have gotten dumber, but they *have* gotten more distracted. David E. Kelley pointed out in the last season of BOSTON LEGAL that TV shows are increasingly written and shot on the presumption that people watching them are doing at least one other thing (on another screen) while they're watching. Reality shows have recaps after every commercial break (this may not be universal; I don't watch these shows, but I've been in the room a few times with friends who do); the same ads reappear multiple times during the same show; jokes are repeated. All seems to me part of the same syndrome, which is that no one expects anyone to watch anything closely for its entire length. THE GOOD WIFE bucked the trend by requiring viewers to watch the actors' expressions when they weren't speaking; SUPERSTORE bucks it by having the store's customers execute visual gags in the background. If you only listen but don't really watch, you don't see them and the show still works, but those who do actually watch are rewarded for doing so.

wg

Charles H Bryan said...

Ken, after all of this time reading your blog, there's something I sort of disagree with. But just sort of, and really just about John Oliver.

I listened to him on THE BUGLE podcast, and he didn't do this as much, and I don't think he did it as much in previous seasons of LAST WEEK. The long segments in past seasons relied on subjects where the show could just play clips of people saying absurd or outrageous or just plain stupid things, and the comedy was nearly "found". No need for as much mugging.

But I think Trump has the show in a position where they have to deal with Trump week after week, and the "found" comedy has been played out in other venues prior to the show. I suppose LAST WEEK could go to different subjects (and I think there was some intention to do that stated in an early episode this year), but how do they not address The Week in Trump? So, maybe they're a little boxed in, comedically.

That's not a great defense, I know, but I have a lot of affection for Oliver and the show. Can't say I'll never give up on it, but I'll stick with it.

MikeN said...

Colbert, Oliver, Bee, all are Democrats with a punchline.

Anonymous said...

David Spades been doing this for 20 plus years. IMO whatever it is, if it gets a laugh who cares you've accomplished your job.

Sean

Anonymous said...

Since years, the reality-tv model has moved from the original idea of interrupting action with "confession booth" portraits where one of the "stars" reveals, discusses what just happened and so on, to just literally repeating what was just said. So the scene shows a store they visit, the storeowner tells them some information about whatever nonsense artifact the reality-show stars brought in ("Your piece is essentially garbage") then cut to "confession booth" model, which is now just another camera-angle on the same "star" who repeats: "he just said that my piece is garbage! Wha....?" then back to the store set, and continuation of the discussion, where some more info is gleaned, that maybe it's worth if then and the other condition exists. And they repeat it again to us.

Mark said...

John Oliver's show stopped being funny for me when it became obvious he was using a laughtrack.

Johnny W said...

Yes! I'm glad you wrote this, Ken. I see it all the time. I even wrote to Dan O'Shannon about it (for those who don't know: worked on Cheers, Frasier, Modern Family, and wrote a book on laughter which Ken recommends to his students). The thing is, I don't see it as a trend on TV; I've noticed it in real life, too. If I'm recounting something I can get a smile/chuckle if something funny happens, but it will turn into a laugh (sometimes big) if I act it out. Even if it's only for a second. I've found it frustrating because internally I'm thinking, "couldn't you have just imagined that bit for yourself, why'd you make me act it out"? But I'm over that now.

I see this all the time, and have done for a while, and now I wonder if it's less a trend and more about humans in general. I don't even think it's necessarily limited to acting things out, either. If you zoom out a bit, it's basically the comedian (or whoever) explaining a funny situation... and then explicitly explaining what's funny *about* that situation. When you broaden it that far, you see it ALL the time. I'm sure if you look back you'll see it all in every era; the explanation of the situation will be funny, but the literal restating of WHY it's funny (or, rather, explicitly stating the result of the situation -- the part which anyone could imagine for themselves) will get the biggest laugh.

It's almost as if the comedian is giving the audience permission to laugh. Or a confirmation that what they thought was funny about a situation IS actually what was funny about the situation. It's a bit baffling, but it's EVERYWHERE.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Who's John Oliver?

Devon Miller said...

How has only one person mentioned Conan O'Brien in this discussion? He is the poster child for what Ken is ranting about. I had to stop watching his show because his monologues made him seem so insecure with his constant acting out the jokes after the punchline. I've watched every episode of John Oliver and never noticed it from him, so it must be something slightly different that he is doing.

PolyWogg said...

I think often it falls into the "class clown" theory ... if it was funny once, it must be funny twice? And if it is funny at all, milk it for what you can.

By contrast, the best I ever saw was Johnny Carson -- he would milk the DUDS until people were laughing. It could be a bad delivery, a flub, or just not funny, and he could then make fun of himself doing it and dying, and THAT was funny.

Now maybe they think, if it is funny, and I can show self-awareness of its humour to step outside the joke and comment on it like Johnny did, it too will be funny. Leno certainly tried it. Letterman often found a different way to do it, wasn't bad over time. Early on, pretty rough.

For a semi-related Friday question though, do you ever see a show or a routine, you're looking at it like, "meh", and then for one glistening moment, there's a line that shines like a beacon of good writing. Maybe just one line, and time stops for a second. It is like the line in Almost Famous where Penny finds out (spoiler alert) that she's been traded for a case of beer to another band, and while the devastation hurts, she recovers and asks what kind of beer. A moment of transcendant artistry and magic, and you wonder...is it a blind squirrel finding a nut or was there some semblance of talent that just got buried in a seas of other lines and routines (mind you, there are lots of great scenes in AF). I was watching SuperGirl tonight, and ho hum, nothing special, wasn't expecting there to be but I like it, and then there is one line and another mini-scene, four or five lines, and they're both darn near PERFECT. And I wonder, "Where did THAT come from? And why isn't the rest of the episode at that level?".

Paul

ADmin said...

Milking jokes has always been a peeve of mine - And I think it's quite common: Stern comes to mind. Soder & Oakerson on the Bonfire. Heck, Saturday Night Live has taken it to a galactic level over the years. That said, Oliver does not bother me because he looks so funny acting out the ridiculous follow-up.
I read something about this by Tim Allen. He asserted you milk the joke to the point of annoyance... and then you do it once more (I'm paraphrasing) ;) But in general, I'm with you. We GET IT - enough already!

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I dont know about that, Bob Hope did that as well as Jack Benny.But that was due to radio.

pete275 said...

There's an episode of "comedians in cars getting coffee" where the guest tells Jerry that they don't know what to do when they get a big laugh on a joke, and it goes too long, so they just stand there awkwardly, so Jerry says "stay in that moment". Maybe that's what they're doing, the laugh is going for longer than they planned

Dayhew said...

I am shocked at the John Oliver "hate". It wouldn't be as funny without all of his self deprecating antics. He is far more entertaining and informative than ANYTHING on broadcast TV, which is the usual focus of these blogs.