We Compared Classic Rock Groups to Modern Comedy Shows
The past few years in American culture have produced quite a bit of things we’d rather forget. The economic downturn, swine flu mania, the phrase YOLO – I don’t think my generation will talk about any of these with much fondness when rocking away in nursing homes. Looking back, it is easy to idolize the cultural products of generations before us. Look at everything the sixties and seventies had. The Civil Rights Movement! Vintage cars! Weed! Play-doh! And of course, there was the music. Rock ‘n roll has yet to have anything as revolutionary as the British Invasion happen again. The great albums and musicians of the sixties are regarded as timeless classics to this day. Will anything produced post-2000s ever come close to those masterpieces?
Do not fret, readers of WPTS. I am here to ease your worries and tell you yes – indeed, it is happening right before our eyes, albeit in a different arena altogether. The quality of American comedy television in the past ten years has been on par with the work of the best bands of the sixties. The two artistic renaissances are so similar, in fact, that there are direct parallels that can be made between the best shows of the current and the best bands of the past. Don’t believe me? Take a look:
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! – Frank Zappa
Zappa was a singular musical genius with a prodigious talent at electric guitar and an encyclopedic knowledge and mastery of virtually all genres. Instead of using his skill to achieve wide-reaching success, however, he operated at the fringes of pop culture, crafting dozens of albums worth of surrealist jazz-fusion soundscapes infused with bizarre satire, absurdist humor, and outright silliness. Were he alive today, he would surely feel a connection to the similarly experimental leanings of Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim, the avant-garde comedy duo whose late-night TV show straddles the same fine line between dazzling parody brilliance and blatant tastelessness. Likewise, the two artists have briefly flirted with mainstream fame – Zappa with “Valley Girl”, Tim & Eric with their Old Spice commercials – but quickly returned to honing their singular craft, which have both had huge influences in the underground and beyond.
Community – The Kinks
The Kinks should have been huge. Not that they weren’t, per se: they did have “Lola” and “You Really Got Me”, huge radio hits that still played today, and have been cited as a major influence by countless other musicians. Yet despite nearly unanimous critical acclaim during their time, the band somehow flew under the radar, always playing second fiddle to the bigger acts of the time. It is a sad fact that Ray Davies, one of pop’s most innovative songwriters, is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan. It may be because the Kinks were too good. Their unique hooky melodies, subversive political satire, eclectic genre-hopping and flair for conceptualism may have been too much for the masses to handle. Furthermore, they were just plain fun– though they took swipes at the war and the government; it was always with a sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek sensibility. Though We Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur are regarded as classics now (perhaps in part due to their usage in Wes Anderson films), the albums flopped commercially when first released.
Similarly, Community is probably the best comedy show on TV right now, and though I’m sure most people have at least hard of it, you would never know it from the ratings. Just as the Kinks satirized every aspect of life in middle-class England, Community satirizes almost every aspect of popular culture with a giddy self-aware brilliance. Jokes fly by a mile a minute, characters break the fourth wall, episodes switch genre like weather changes in Pittsburgh, and nothing is safe from its sardonic gaze, from Doctor Who to chicken nuggets. The incredibly talented cast alone should be drawing people in; not only is the frighteningly hyper-meta Danny Pudi, one of the most talented comic actors active today, but the show’s roster boasts a Billboard-topping rapper (Donald Glover) and Chevy Chase, for god’s sake. Yet despite multiple awards and constant rave reviews, Community has had to fight for its meager position on Friday nights on NBC, a true shame in a world where Two and a Half Men and Two Broke Girls are allowed to flourish. The Kinks and Community are just too creative for their own good; or, as Pierce Hawthorne might say, they are “streets ahead” of everyone else.
Arrested Development – The Velvet Underground
These two are case study examples of innovative artistry that’s ahead of its time. Few people were willing to accept the VU’s dark, gritty brand of rock n’ roll in an era where flower power was still going strong. Drawing on avant-garde classical music and sadomasochism rather than poppy chord progressions and love songs, their music stood out in stark contrast to the landscape of the time. Their starkly produced self-titled debut is frequently included on top album lists today, but was nothing more than an unknown financial failure by a couple of junkies when it came out. The degree of experimentation, however was unprecedented: no other rock band at the time would dare to end a conventional pop song with a six minute noise jam or use the sound of a viola atonally screeching as a pop hook. Lou Reed would eventually go on to a higher degree of fame in his time, but the same could not be true of the band that brought him there. Though their influence is undeniable and legendary reputations sealed by critics, the Velvet Underground remain underrated to this day, largely known only by music fans rather than the general populace.
The parallel to Arrested Development here should be obvious. A quick glance at the IMDB Top TV shows list shows it as the highest rated comedy program of all time, above the freaking Simpsons for crying out loud. Even while it was on air, the show received multiple Emmy awards and elevated multiple actors into stardom or semi-stardom (Michael Cera, anyone?). Why does it remain a mere cult classic, then? For a sitcom, it broke more barriers than people were ready for. While amazingly witty and side-splittingly funny to members of its loyal fanbase, the multi-layered jokes and complex continuity made it difficult to follow for the casual prime-time viewer. Its dark yet subtle humor and often sexually-explicit jokes might not have been the best fodder for family viewing either, and post-9/11 audiences likely weren’t buying the edgy political jabs (sadly, not everyone thinks that mistaking testicles for weapons of mass destruction is hilarious). Still, just like the great Velvets before them, Arrested Development did things that no one before them had attempted, and its dynamic brand of meta-humor’s genius and influence is widely acknowledged and prevalent everywhere.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Led Zeppelin
Heavy, hedonistic, filthy, self-indulgent, unrefined, and overwhelming are all adjectives that describe both of these disparate groups of provocative artists. In terms of content, Always Sunny could be the most X-Rated show to ever be broadcast on basic cable. Not an episode goes by where excessive profanity, sexual perversion, beer-fueled debauchery, and general political incorrectness aren’t delivered at breakneck speed. The “Seinfeld on crack” analogy is certainly apt – the cast’s gleeful deconstruction of every cultural norm is almost Dadaist in its sheer inanity, but you’ll be laughing too hard to think about it. The masterful comic timing and performance of the truly talented cast is astonishing (the fact that Charlie Day hasn’t received an Emmy for his Santa mauling performance alone is truly a shame) and more apparently spectacular with multiple viewings. Its often spot-on dialogue and witty cultural observations can not be denied either, and is what raises the show beyond the level of simple gross-out shock humor and really solidifies it as something brilliant.
Led Zeppelin are also overpowering in their sheer raw power. As the godfathers of heavy metal, the band celebrated everything that rock music was chided for: they were loud, repetitive, ugly, sexually charged, and intoxicated on their own fame. The group indulged in just about every drug available in the same way that the Paddy’s Bar regulars indulge in booze. And they were geniuses for it. Zeppelin’s excessive confidence allowed them to break many layers of new round, whether it be through epic-scale operatics or massive apocalyptic fury. Though rooted in convention, the quartet was more than willing to take hard rock to transcendental heights. Just like with Always Sunny’s somewhat immature, frat-boyish image, one should look beyond the negative associations with Zeppelin’s bold and brash performance and appreciate them for the gut-punching thrill they deliver.
Louis CK – Bob Dylan
Dylan was the voice of a generation. An amateurish, untrained, and occasionally scathing and hard to listen to voice– but a definitive voice nonetheless. Bursting onto the scene in the midst of the American Protest movement, classics like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” captured the national feelings of change and uncertainty like no one else could. With just a guitar and the occasional harmonica, he helped bring new relevance to the genre of folk music and moved mountains with his simple songs and powerful words. Just like his rolling stone, though, Dylan was not one to stay content stuck in the same place for long. He expressed himself through music the way he best saw fit, even if that meant alienating a large portion of his fanbase by recoding with an electric band. Though a controversial move, he ended up not only changing the definition of what folk music is but paving new frontiers in the field of rock music. And unlike some artists whose power has faded away over time, Bob has managed to stay relevant for over fifty and still attracts listeners young and old alike to his legendary live shows.
Louie CK is another performer with quite a harsh voice. Actually, make that a disgusting voice – if anyone can be said to have turned the dick joke into a form of high art, it’s him. Sure, many comedians before him have revolutionized stand-up, but Louie adds a unique level of heightened sensitivity to his raunchiness. Just as Dylan captured the spirit of what it meant to feel alienated and angry in the sixties, Louie’s painfully funny routines exemplify modern problems in a humorous way that is currently unparalleled. A ribald renegade in the Falstaffian sense, he is the last entertainer one would expect to star in a sitcom – but he did, first in HBO’s Lucky Louie and now in FX’s genre-defying Louie, a gut- busting look at the life of the everyman at straddles the line between comedy and drama. Though some comic purists have objected to his move into the mainstream just as Dylan was ridiculed for his adaptation of rock n roll conventions, Louis has proved to be an innovative talent worthy of the stardom. His appeal is far-reaching as well: though a whining, balding middle-aged man may not seem to have much youth appeal, his wide demographics point to the universality of his art, best shown by the fact that he hosted Saturday Night Live (and did a damn good job of it).
Scrubs – The Beach Boys
When most people think of The Beach Boys, an image of the funny light-hearted surf pop boy-band that penned sappy hits like “California Girls” and “Don’t Worry Baby” is what first comes to mind. And while those early tunes are classics, they only represent one side of the intricate, complicated beast that is Brian Wilson, one of the few musicians in modern pop music who is on par with the great classic American songwriters like Gershwin or Bernstein. A surfer boy with a heart of surprising depth, Wilson raised the Beach Boys beyond their surf-rock trappings into a melodramatic-pop machine. His band’s “teenage symphonies to God” used ornate instrumentation, complex harmonies, and unconventional melodies to express the deepest longings of the romantic soul, driving himself mad in the process. As the band progressed, their arrangements only became increasingly elaborate – epic tracks like “Heroes and Villains” defied all conventions of radio accessibility and have more in common with classical and jazz than anything else. You could call them a bit overly sentimental, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but you can’t ignore their unique place in pop music and compositional brilliance.
Bill Lawrence’s Scrubs is a creature of a similar nature. The ER comedy is normally associated with its good-natured yet off the wall characters and fast-paced jokes (the best of which were delivered by Bob Kelso) What Scrubs really deals with, however, is the same thing that the Beach Boys sang about: the universal struggles of the lost twenty-something trying to find meaning and understanding in life. Zach Braff’s everyman depiction of J.D. is a character that every young adult watching can relate to, and the countless situations he encounters are those that the target audience can well relate to. Just as Brian Wilson was unafraid to touch on weightier subjects during his career as a Beach Boy, Scrubs unflinchingly looked at weighty themes of death and morality many times during its run. Moreso than most comedy shows, the series frequently interspersed its screwball silliness with some deeply touching moments of emotional vulnerability through its humorous yet fully-developed characters. The show paved the way for other innovations, as well: the single-camera format and improvisational dialogue have become common in many sitcom sets. And just like Brian Wilson, the Scrubs’ writers love of music is apparent: many moments would be nothing if not for their affecting soundtracks, as corny as they may be.
South Park – The Rolling Stones
Okay, so this one may be a bit of a stretch. South Park may have debuted in the nineties, but it has never lost its importance or popularity over its long tenure on TV. In fact, many of its episodes in the 00s are among their best: who can forget Kanye West’s Gayfish cameo? The long-running series has accrued much controversy for its foul-mouthed dialogue and scatological humor, but the shock value isn’t the point. No other series has addressed topical issues with the same degree of gusto and insight as South Park. The episode “Trapped in the Closet”, for example, was instrumental in exposing the background behind the strange religion that is scientology. Despite its apparent crudeness, creators Matt and Trey Parker’s moral compass is in the right place, and they have created a series whose legacy has endured and provoked discussion over two decades.
The Rolling Stones have gained a reputation as provaceteurs of the same rank as South Park, way before there was Madonna or Jersey Shore. Who can forget Keith Richards snorting his father’s ashes or the Sticky Fingers album cover? Mick Jagger and Co. exemplified the punk lifestyle long before The Sex Pistols or The New York Dolls. However, at their core was a band with a heart of gold. The Stones’ rough exterior didn’t completely keep their more sensitive, melodic moments from shining through. Indebted to rock’s country and folk heritage, they are known today just as much for their wispy melodies as their hard rock anthems. Even their more aggressive moments often had insightful message, such as “Mother’s Little Helper”‘s dark warning against prescription pill abuse. Though they could have stopped long ago and been financially well-off, the band is still touring and going strong.
The Office – The Beatles
This is it. The pinnacle. The holy grail. Love them or hate them (which you’d have to actively try to do), it’s impossible to deny the enormous influence that the Beatles had on popular culture. Their arrival on American airwaves in the early sixties marked a change in the landscape of pop music. No, they might not have been the first performers to play catchy love songs, and for a while they didn’t even write their own material. But their charming style and simple four chord tunes turned rock n’ roll from merely ‘young people’s music’ into a movement, a lifestyle, a new form of art. The undeniable talent of the four previously unknown Liverpudlians launched them into massive stardom and long-enduring relevance. And though they may have created a winning formula, the Beatles weren’t content to stay set in their ways. Over the years they changed and challenged their audience, and concluded their career with a strong finish at the appropriate time. The Fab Four set the standard for what ‘perfect pop music’ was all about. Their songs launched phrases that have taken on lives of their own and their songwriting is the example that many musicians today still strive to live up to.
The Office has essentially done for comedy TV what The Beatles did for music. There were certainly shows that specialized in the same kind of documentary-style ‘cringe comedy’ long before it debuted (Larry David, anyone?), and it even started as a nearly line-for-line derivative of a British series. But over time, the US Office took on a life of its own, and the antics of the fictional Scranton paper company’s colorful staff have become a ubiquitous entity in American households and beyond. Just like Beatlemania, the show has taken on a life of its own beyond the screen as an important cultural fixture that can be seen in the hundreds of t-shirts and quotes that the series has sprung. While the quality of the series had admittedly dipped a bit after Michael Scott’s departure, it adapted to the transition by relying on its supporting ensemble of colorful characters and patented, perfected discomforting humor. The Office took a risk by jumping into the mainstream sitcom world with its awkward scenes sans laugh-track, but succeeded greatly as a result, and many other shows have followed suit. It has consistently topped Nielsen ratings and providing the gifted members of its cast such as John Krasinski and Ed Helms platforms on which to embark on bigger careers. As it ends its run as one of TV’s highest-rated shows, it concludes with a bittersweet legacy that is almost Beatlesque.
Obviously, there are some notable emissions – There is yet to be a Pink Floyd of comedy TV, and I’m not sure exactly where other big shows like Parks & Recreation or Workaholics fit into the grand scheme. Still, the parallels are obvious. We’re in the epoch of a great era, and it’s time to look past the Kardashians and Sheldons and see the quality comedy TV for what it is. The golden age is not over – in fact, it’s just beginning.