A confession: I liked Cavemen. Not “liked” in an ironic way. Not “thought it was not so terrible, considering how bad it could have been.” I thought that, despite a rough start, ABC’s much-mocked 2007 sitcom was actually a sharp and very funny comedy, even though it was roundly pooh-poohed for originating in a series of Geico commercials. (Which, by the way, were themselves brilliant, funnier and, in their original run, more subtle than many sitcoms.)
That is to say, I’m always a little suspicious when people pile on a new sitcom simply because it has a goofy origin story, a dumb name or a offensive-sounding premise. Execution is everything. With sharp writing and well-realized character, a good comedy can come from nearly any origin.
In that spirit, I watched tonight’s comedy debuts, CBS’s $#*! My Dad Says and NBC’s Outsourced. And I discovered that sometimes, a bad-sounding sitcom is actually just a bad sitcom.
$#*!—which I hope does not get canceled anytime soon because I have just memorized that string of characters—is CBS’s adaption of the @shitmydadsays Twitter feed, which then became the book Sh*t My Dad Says. In that feed, Justin Halpern purportedly records amusing quotes from his septuagenarian dad. As a Twitter feed, limited to 140-character bursts, it’s economically funny and conveys a lot of voice in a little space.
But something happens when you take funny Twitter-style quotes and put them into the mouth of a character on a standard-looking domestic sitcom. They become “zingers”—little bursts of canned humor, delivered with those just-so expressions and postures you’ve seen a million times, with just that pause for studio laughter that’s ingrained like muscle memory. And they have to be shoehorned into dialogue, which means that in place of actual conversation, you have that zinger-setup-zinger-comeback rhythm that’s more rigidly codified than the Latin Mass. And a 21st-century form of storytelling suddenly becomes a sitcom from 1977.
William Shatner stars as Ed Goodson, a.k.a. Dad, a grumpy retiree in San Diego whose grown son Henry (Jonathan Sadowski) moves home after losing a magazine job because of the lousy economy. (Which, ouch.) When first we see them, Henry stops by Ed’s house looking for a handout at 9 p.m. and Ed walks out with a shotgun. “Guts or nuts, your choice!” he barks.
And you pretty much have the show’s dynamic and classiness level right there. I’m not personally offended by the show’s bleeped title, but the pilot’s reliance on genitalia jokes is lazy, gross and often creepy. The morning after Henry shows up, he chats up Ed about his successful garden. “You should see my zucchini,” Ed says. “I think I did,” says Henry, “when you answered the door in your jammies.”
The final air version at least improves on the original pilot sent to critics, as Sadowski, recast in the role of Henry, has better delivery and chemistry with Shatner. And the show may well please fans of throwback insult comedies, longing for the days of The Ropers and C.P.O. Sharkey. But why anyone needed to buy the rights to a Twitter feed to base a sitcom on the concept “Cranky Old Man Makes Wisecracks” is beyond me. I’m going to go start a Twitter feed called @shitmyprecocioussixyearoldsays. CBS, call my agent.
Outsourced, however, is the comedy that really let me down this season—the show that could have shown up the knee-jerk naysayers by pulling off its Kick-Me sign of a premise. To wit: Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport), a manager at Mid American Novelties, discovers that his entire department has been laid off and the work sent to India. If Todd wants to keep his job, he’ll need to ship overseas to manage a second-string team of Indian operators taking orders for fake vomit and mistletoe belts from Americans.
Hang on, millions of South Asians and unemployed Americans: this is not automatically an offensive sitcom! Satire works in dangerous zones. You could start from this premise and make a really incisive comedy about economic insecurity, globalization and the clash of culture. It doesn’t have be full of jokes about sacred cows and funny names and how funny certain American things sound when you say them in an Indian accent. There is no reason Outsourced needs to be bad.
Outsourced, however, is bad. It is full of jokes about sacred cows and funny names and how funny certain American things sound when you say them in an Indian accent. There’s a punchline about what spicy curry does to American gastrointestinal systems. There is an Indian man trying to learn about American culture by shaking his butt and singing a Pussycat Dolls song. (A joke that’s not just insulting but stupid, since it’s premised on the idea that people around the world are not already steeped in imported American pop.) There’s a character named “Manmeet,” which is funny because it sounds like “Man Meat,” which is funny because a guy might call his penis that, which is funny because penis. Also, it is not funny.
So never mind, you can be offended by Outsourced, if not because you have had your own job shipped overseas or because you think Indians deserve better than funny-talk jokes that Michael Scott might have written for a Dunder-Mifflin talent show, then because Outsourced thinks that this is the most sophisticated handling of its premise that you can handle. (And, for extra credit, because this sitcom is on the air in place of TV’s current best comedy, Parks and Recreation.)
Cavemen, come back! All is forgiven!