Ed Driscoll

NBC: Where the Real Comedy is Backstage

 Kate — wait a minute. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m the one who lost his head. Something you said got me thinking. You said something about artistic freedom. Perhaps that’s important. Perhaps there’s a place in commercial television for quality. For intelligently conceived, well-acted, inventive programs, programs that aren’t written for the lowest common denominator. And NBC could lead the way! NBC could be the network that puts these programs on the air!

… Nahhh.

—John Belushi as beleaguered then-NBC president Fred Silverman, with guest-host Kate Jackson, Saturday Night Live, February 24th, 1979.

Come back Fred, all is forgiven! Flash-forward to 2015, where on Sunday, Entertainment Weekly noted that “There’s not much funny about NBC’s new fall schedule,” at the formerly “Proud as a Peacock” network:

After struggling to launch new comedy hits for years, the broadcaster will relegate sitcoms to only one hour per week next season—and that hour is on Fridays, an evening that’s traditionally the lowest-rated weekday for networks. One comedy is the returning series Undateable (which will have all-live episodes for its third season), and the second is new couples sitcom People Are Talking, starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar (see NBC’s fall schedule below; check out the new trailers here). In fact, according to TV historian Tim Brooks, this is the first time since 1978 that NBC has only programmed one hour of comedy in the fall.

The marginalization of half-hour programming by the network that once pioneered Must See TV marks a dramatic departure that also sees NBC doubling down on new and returning dramas. The move also reflects how other broadcasters have had difficultly launching new sitcoms this season as well, a fact that probably makes it tougher for NBC executives to envision their own success with the format.

As in England, when a nation’s overculture goes left, comedy and satire serve as the shock troops, but it’s only a matter of time before PC kills comedy. (Insert the trademarked Sandra Fluke “That’s not funny” glare here.)

Of course, it’s not like their grandfathered-in legacy comedy show still knows how to be funny, either, as Allahpundit writes:

Ace and David French think it was gutless of them not to actually draw Mohammed. Yeah, but even “South Park” can’t show Mohammed anymore; the last time Comedy Central allowed it was two months before 9/11, before minds on both sides of the blasphemy divide had been sharpened to the issue by the west’s new sense of vulnerability. Most media deal with self-censorship over Mohammed by avoiding the topic. SNL didn’t. One cheer for that. If we’re going to enforce Islamic blasphemy norms, let’s make sure we all understand that’s what we’re doing.

And let’s make sure everyone understands why. I agree with Ian Tuttle that the gag at the end here partially redeems the blank canvas.

After both contestants refuse to sketch even a line toward the clue, their teammate (Reese Witherspoon) still manages to guess correctly. The implication, I thought, is that the only subject for sketching that could elicit the paralysis the contestants exhibit is Muhammad, and Witherspoon’s character knows it — and so do the rest of us.

Actually drawing Muhammad might have been a defiant finger in the eye, true, but it would have garbled the subtle point, which is that Americans now willingly self-censor for fear of offending Islamic terrorists, and while we refuse to say that that is what we’re doing, everyone knows that’s what’s happening.

And with this sketch, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels comes full circle. At the dawn of his series in 1975, he merely imported half his cast and musicians from his home country of Canada. This weekend, his show simply ripped off a Canadian sitcom to phone-in the above tepid sketch.

Hard to believe this ancient franchise once had real balls; but then, as one of its early writers liked to say, you can only be avant-garde for so long before you become garde.

Or Palace Guard, as with the rest of NBC.

But then, to catch glimpses the real fun at NBC, you have to peer backstage.