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TeeVee Mailbag XIX: Humor for the Humorless

Dying, a great actor who may or may not have been Laurence Olivier once observed, is easy. It's comedy that's hard. While that may seem incongruous to anyone who watched Sir Larry devour his way through the scenery of "The Jazz Singer" -- the 1980 motion picture which definitively answers the seemingly unsolvable riddle, "What's the most awful thing that Neil Diamond has ever done?" -- the revered Limey thespian may have been on to something there. Any doofus can take a pratfall down a flight of stairs to his waiting death and make it look good. But how many can elicit a chuckle or two mid-tumble?

Damn few, that's how many.

That's partly the nebulous nature of comedy itself. One man's seltzer-down-the-pants is another man's hefty dry-cleaning bill. The rip-roaring PMS joke that killed over at the Chuckle Hut last week might not play so well for the gals down in the secretarial pool. Throw in a pinch of straight-faced irony with your laughs, and it's a wonder more people aren't left with blank stares or puzzled expressions while you try to explain the punch line for the umpteenth time.

And the World Wide Web has only made matters worse. In more innocent times, all a would-be Slappy White had to worry about was selling the gag to a dubious audience. Now, with the advent of the Internet, there's a whole new dilemma -- how to get across to the nameless, faceless masses out in Web-land that it's all just a goof. There's no elbow in the ribs or knowing wink or breezy "Thank you, folks, I'll be here all week! Enjoy the veal!" to drive the joke home. In cyberspace, no one can hear your rim shot.

It gets worse. In any other medium, a joke gets told and either leaves 'em rolling in the aisles or forces you to duck for cover, and that's that. But on the Internet, the gut-busting witticism you posted months back hangs there for time immemorial, just waiting to be discovered by some unaware Web surfer who may not be in a laughing kind of mood.

Say, for example, you write a humorous essay about... oh, let's say H.R. Pufnstuf. Big goofy puppets. Heavy-handed '70s drug references. Demented children's programming. The sort of inconsequential TV show that no one takes too seriously, and the everyone can have a good chuckle about. Right?

Maybe to you. But what about those hard-core H.R. Pufnstuf fans out there, surfing the 'Net, looking for serious, scholarly debates about the Sid and Marty Krofft canon and what it means vis-a-vis the state of the world today? Through the magic of search engines, maybe they come across that playful little jab at the expense of Sid and Marty and Jimmy and Witchie-poo weeks or months or even years after it was first written. And instead of getting the kind of weighty ruminations that the Brothers Krofft deserve, what do these H.R. Pufnstuf partisans find? Ridicule. Abuse. Choking, blinding bile.

Not that we're aware of any Web site that would act so reprehensibly.

Heh. That's one of those little jokes we were talking about, the ones that don't seem so funny when you can't hear the irony and self-deprecating sarcasm dripping from our voices. The fact of the matter is, us Vidiots know all too well that the gags which sound so rip-tickling over mai tais down at Damon's Steak House on Friday night may not play as good within the constraints of HTML.

And if we ever forget, readers like Collin Ivy are there to remind us.

Lose that Philip Michaels! He obviously needs to deal with his problems on his own time, not taking them out on puppet shows of the past. I found a great deal of pleasure as a child watching HR Pufinstuf. Why, as an adult(?), he feels the need to sit up all night and watch puppet shows on Nick at nite, then proceed to tear them down in an article, is childish and adolecent. Why was he up all night anyway, was he brooding over some trauma? Mabey he didn't get the right order at the McDonalds drive-thru? Next time mabey he can find something more substantial to write about.

Oh, Collin -- if we only had a dime for every time we wished that Philip Michaels would seek out some sort of professional help to subdue his myriad demons, we'd be out of this Web racket, we can tell you that. If he's not blubbering over some dog-faced harlot who broke his heart back in high school, he's sniveling about some sort of imagined injustice he suffered in the 10 Items Or Less line at the supermarket. Most of us just try to ignore him. It's gotten to the point where we don't even hear the constant sobbing coming from the direction of his desk anymore.

Still, Collin, we promised his mother we wouldn't fire him. So our hands are tied there.

But you've got a point, Collin: Michaels needs to pull himself together and write more substantive analyses in line with the hard-hitting reportage you've come to expect from TeeVee. We hope you enjoy his eight-part series on the situation in Kosovo and its impact on the long-term stability of the Euro.

Now when a reader with the smarts of a Collin Ivy misses one of our clumsy, ill-conceived jokes -- and judging by how well-crafted and carefully worded his little epistle was, it's clear that Collin Ivy is quite the MENSA candidate indeed -- we can only imagine how many countless others must stare at our Web site, uncomprehending and unamused.

Take last month's mailbag. We thought it was a delightful, little diversion, poking good-natured fun at the gap between our generation and today's crop of youngsters. Surely, no one could be offended at that mere trifle, we reasoned.

Well, we reasoned wrong. And an anonymous student at Lewis and Clark College -- the post-secondary school that's filling America's critically unmet need for liberal arts majors and chubby, beret-wearing adulteresses -- dropped us a line to tell us just how wrong we were.

You, over there in teevee land, need to stop making obscenely general statements about my generation.

And your articles are so geared towards cutting people down, it makes me wonder what kind of "smart-asses" you all think you are. (And I'm sorry you live in fear of gay people you homophobic and regressive apes)

Now, it would be easy to taunt and make fun of our anonymous friend. We could point out his or her obviously inferior brain power. We could sneer at the redundancy of calling someone a regressive ape (as opposed to all those advanced, brainiac apes conducting complex chemical experiments and running the space program). We could make unfounded suggestions about the sexual foibles of our little buddy at Lewis and Clark College.

We could. But it would be wrong.

Besides, we here at the ol' TeeVee Mailbag have never been about ridiculing others, no matter how dimwitted and simple they may be. We're about helping.

Oh, sure -- a few of you can see through the gags and the japes and the pointed asides. But our other, stupider readers -- the chuckleheads and the mongoloids and the Lewis and Clark undergrads -- they simply can't follow along. With furrowed brows and pursed lips and hours of careful study, they try and join in on our little Web fun. But no dice -- our jokes, simple and predictable as they are, zoom over the heads of our slower readers like a F-14 flyover at the Super Bowl.

Well, that's simply not fair. It's not fair to the dozens of mooncalves and shut-ins taking time out of their studies at Lewis and Clark College who read our site and don't see what the big joke is all about. We're tired of the angry letters, the tearful confrontations, the bitter recriminations. We want to bring people together -- the smart cookies and the dumb bunnies. We want to build the world a home, and furnish it with love.

So, as a public service to our readers who are a bit slow on the uptake -- and you kids know who you are -- we proudly offer a new service. If ever we think there's a risk that one of our snappy little quips may just be rattling around that empty cranium of yours, we'll immediately explain the joke in painstaking detail in italic type. That way, thick-skulled readers can get the same kind of enjoyment out of TeeVee that savvy Web surfers take for granted every day.

Let's see the new all-inclusive TeeVee in action. Reader Daniel Phillips asks:

do you know where i can get a tape of the diary of desmond pfeiffer?

Sure do, Dan-o. Just call up the UPN Network -- don't worry if the phone just rings and rings; someone will eventually pick up -- and ask to speak with someone in the programming department. It may be nap time over there when you call, so they might ask you to call back. Don't let this discourage you. At any rate, once you do have someone from UPN's programming department on the phone, simply ask them to send you a copy of the pilot episode of The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. After a few minutes of uncontrollable wailing, they'll be able to take your name and address. Hope this helps.

Dan-o is a hilarious bastardization of the name "Daniel."

By stating that it may be some time before someone answers the phone at UPN, we are intimating that it is a second-rate network on the verge of failure.

The use of the phrase "nap time" suggests a programming staff of limited maturity -- a biting commentary in regards to the quality of UPN's current roster of shows.

As for the "uncontrollable wailing," we are implying that Desmond Pfeiffer was such a remarkably bad show that the mere mention of its name will cause shame and derision among UPN employees.

"Hope this helps" is deliciously ironic, as we really don't care one way or the other.

See? Doesn't that make the comedy more accessible to all and, therefore, funnier?

Let's try another one, this time courtesy of Rob Owen, a TeeVee reader who came across this passage in James Collier's magnum opus on the perils of being a TV critic:

"Just because you don't work for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette doesn't mean your opinions aren't legitimate! Believe you me, the TV critic there is just as much a loser as you are. Except for the fact that he's better paid, gets into better parties and has the respect and admiration of his colleagues."

Naturally, Rob was quite taken aback by this, but only because he is, in fact, the TV critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob wrote:

Woo-hoo! I made it into a TEEVEE piece! I've been on the mailing list for about a year now and really enjoy the work of all the writers, but to get mentioned in an essay on TV critics, well that's a special surprise. Seriously though, why me? I mean, Tom Shales I understand, but why the TV critic in market No. 19? Was it random or does someone really hate me?

Oh come off it, Rob. Like you don't know. Your review of the motion picture "Wing Commander?" Where you dismissed the performance of Freddie Prinze, Jr.? Thought you were being pretty clever, didn't you?

Well, think again, Critic Boy! For you see, Rob, us Vidiots think Freddie Prinze Jr. is just boss. Freddie Prinze Sr. may have been Chico, but Freddie Prinze Jr. is the Man!

And you won't be the last critic to taste the cold, unflinching steel of our TeeVee brand of justice, Rob! Others of your ilk should brace themselves for a similar helping of whoop-ass. Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Examiner? Say your prayers, buddy. Howard Rosenberg at the Los Angeles Times? Get ready for the pain! And that guy at the Asbury Park Press... Man, he really burns our collective ass!

We have no bone to pick with Rob Owen. We mentioned him in an article and are now trying to cover for our embarrassment that he actually reads us.

None of us ever saw "Wing Commander." The thought that grown men would have a crush on Freddie Prinze Jr. is laughable.

"Whoop-ass" is an inherently funny word.

We're actually big fans of Tim Goodman. Howard Rosenberg, we can take or leave. We have no earthly idea who the TV critic for the Asbury Park Press even is. Besides, the idea of swearing vengeance against TV critics is a ridiculous one -- as crazed as suggesting that, for all his bad TV shows, Tony Danza deserves to be thrown in a sack with a wild animal and cast into a river.

Though in Tony Danza's case that may not be such a bad idea.


Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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