Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Considering Productivity From Another Angle - Comedy

An early predecessor of The Daily Show was That Was The Week That Was (TW3).  It probably was my first exposure to adult humor on TV and I became a fan of the show.  We also had some comedy albums on vinyl that we listed to with some regularity. Tom Lehrer's That Was The Year That Was was a personal favorite.  (One of the user reviews of TW3 says that Lehrer was a writer on the show and the songs on his album were from the show.  I didn't know that.)  Another album that was pretty funny was The First Family.  TW3 was how we got to know David Frost.  It was also my first exposure to comedy and satire in a blend, where it was public figures from the news who were the objects of the sketches. 

What I want to make note of here is that the show was aired weekly, as its title indicated.  It was a half our, just like a regular news broadcast with Walter Kronkite or with Huntley and Brinkley.  (TW3 was on NBC.)   Indeed, the sitcoms we watched - I Dream of Jeannie, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan's Island, etc. were also half hour shows and aired weekly, at least the first time around.  And, of course, those shows were filmed in advance of the viewing, so the writing could very well have happened well in advance of the filming.  TW3, in contrast had to be timely.  The writers for the show were under a great deal of pressure to produce funny and relevant stuff each week.  In the user review I mentioned above, the author speculates that TW3 only lasted for one season because it was too hard to deliver the quality the show established over a long period of time. 

Of course, writers for late night TV, The Tonight Show comes to mind, had to produce a monologue for each show and sometimes there were bits in the monologue that referred to the news.  But the obligation to bring in the news wasn't there.  Other zaniness would would be perfectly fine.  And the monologue was considerably shorter than a full length news broadcast.

With that let's fast forward 30+ years from TW3 to The Daily Show.  It airs each evening, Monday through Thursday.  So it's frequency is like other late night TV.  The approach is very much in the spirit of TW3, though without the musical numbers. How have the writers on the show been able to keep it up all these years?  Jon Stewart has been the anchor now for upward of 16 years. 

Further, in those interviewing years the nature of news, particularly the pace at which new information comes to the fore, has changed dramatically.  First cable TV and then the Internet let to what has become known as the 24-hour news cycle.  Some people who have lived through both versions of the news cycle deplore the current situation, because it encourages people to become fixated on the latest bit of information and to lose a thoughtful perspective that requires lengthy reflection to produce.  (I am one of those people who are disenchanted with the 24-hour news cycle.)  But whether good or bad, it certainly has impacted the audience expectations on what it means to deliver a timely message.  If anything, then, The Daily Show writers have to deal with a tougher to please audience, simply in assuring the content is quite current.

How have they been able to pull it off?  Does their being able to do so mean that comedy writing has become more productive all these years later?

My family watches The Daily Show, on occasion.  I do not.  So I will not speculate about how to answer these questions.  If anyone reading this remembers TW3 and watches the The Daily Show too, please offer up a comment and chime in with your opinion.  I'm curious as to whether this constitutes a productivity improvement or not. 

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