Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.
Woody Allen knows a lot about television. Though best known for his films, Allen actually got his start writing for television. At sixteen, Allan Stewart Konigsberg began submitting jokes to New York gossip columnists under the pen name, Woody Allen. The legendary Earl Wilson of the New York Post liked the material and started publishing it as Earl’s Pearls. At first the jokes were published anonymously, but as they gained popularity, Wilson credited Allen in his column. That credit proved to be the springboard for Allen’s television career. In 1955 he moved to Hollywood when NBC hired him to write for The Colgate Comedy Hour. He moved on to co-write The Chevy Hour with Larry Gelbart (of later M*A*S*H fame) which featured the 1950’s comedic icon Sid Caesar. He later wrote for Caesar on the Caesar Hour and provided material to The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and Candid Camera (where he occasionally appeared in the sketches). By 1960 Allen was clearing $1,700 a week as writer, but was growing increasingly tired of the medium. Influenced by stand-up comedian Mort Sahl, he began trying out a routine of his own and within a few years was headlining for $5,000 a week. He was also becoming more active in the theater. By the late 60’s he’d scored two major Broadway hits with Don’t Drink the Water and Play it Again Sam. His TV days were behind him and along the way he’d learned a few things about art and bad television.
While the nature of “art” is an elusive concept for even the most refined of the intelligentsia, almost all of us know a thing or two about bad television. Armed with that knowledge, it only takes a quick peek over the top of one’s cubicle to discover ample material for the next television sitcom. If your office is like most, no one from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art needs audition for the roles. The show is strictly satire, farce and slapstick. It’s The Three Stooges meets Seinfeld. More Larry David than Ken Burns. As you watch it all unfold, you realize that it’s zanier than anything in prime time. Dropping back into your chair you might even consider trying your hand at script writing.
The trouble is that all the goofiness at work can be downright annoying. The job has enough pressures without co-workers acting like Dilbert characters come to life. In truth, things that look funny on TV aren’t always so funny when you see and hear them in the office. The rapier-like comeback on a sitcom may leave you in stitches, but when it’s directed at you in real-life it only hurts. The sassy innuendo that seems so sophisticated when seen on HBO only sounds vulgar when uttered by the leering cretin next to you in the elevator. Of course there’s more. The misunderstandings, misplaced items and innocent oversights that feed the engines of situation comedy are simply irritants when experienced first-hand. They can make us as cantankerous and disagreeable as any character we see beamed at us from our flickering television screens.
Perhaps it’s time to improve the quality of the “bad television” that’s so much a part of our daily living. Start by figuring out what role you’re playing in the great sitcom of life. If it isn’t one you’re pleased with, you might try working on character development. Don’t succumb to the scripts someone else works out for you. Play it your way. Most all, remember it is a comedy. Laugh off the annoyances. Enjoy the ironies. Have fun. You might discover there’s a Daytime Emmy in it for you. —Ebert