What I’ve Learned About Comedy From Two Years of Hanging in the Archives

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

When I started writing this column a little over two years ago, my intentions were pretty straight-forward: turn the time I was spending at the Paley Center into something productive. I started going to further my own comedy writing, to learn from the past and see what secrets I could glean from the material that came before, but why not try to spread that knowledge to the rest of the world. This is my 100th article for Splitsider and since we are now looking at the beginning of a new year, this seems like as good a time as any to reflect on what I’ve learned throughout these many articles.

Do the Work

This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned through this series. I’ve seen legends make some strange missteps in their careers, such as Don Rickles’ first attempt at a solo TV show called The Don Rickles Show, Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett’s short lived, live sitcom Stanley, David Lynch’s insane sit-com On the Air, and Steve Allen’s attempt at revitalizing his legendary career through The Steve Allen Comedy Hour. Each of these stars stumbled a bit, but found their way. Maybe not with those shows, but with the next ones, or the ones after that. Giving up, though, was not an option. Maybe they had some luck, or someone who believed in them, but more than that, they had talent. They kept working and honing their craft, and eventually it paid off.

This lesson also applied to people as they were just beginning their careers. I was particularly inspired watching Jim Henson and company’s early Muppet appearances in commercials and morning television. It was clear in some cases that the Henson sensibility wasn’t yet fully formed, but there were glimmers of it there. These guys logged so many hours of creative work before they finally got their big break with The Muppet Show. Hundreds of commercials, hundreds of bits performed on various chat shows. It really says something when the word “Muppet” is a household name long before it shows up in the title of your TV show.

Other comedic institutions demonstrated this idea as well, for example, Garry Shandling’s Showtime comedy special is in some ways just your average half-hour stand-up special, but the wrap-around segments he shot are incredibly creative and show that meta sensibility that doesn’t really apply while you’re on stage, but became a staple of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Carl Reiner’s pilot for what eventually became The Dick Van Dyke Show is as good an example of making something work no matter the cost as anything. He initially wrote the script because he was dissatisfied with the quality of the television material that was being offered to him. He starred in the pilot and then nothing happened. It was another in a long string of pilots that never made it to series. But when the opportunity came to reboot it with a different actor in his part, his ego didn’t stop him from casting Van Dyke and creating one of the most enduring programs in television history.

There were opportunities to see this concept in pretty much every show I watched for this series, and while each of them were entertaining in their own way, a few stood out as particularly special to watch. My retrospective on the short films of Albert Brooks was inspiring to watch and a true pleasure to watch someone be so funny right out of the gates. The unaired, alternate ending to the episode in which Shelly Long left Cheers made me feel like a television archeologist uncovering the remains of a… TV… dinosaur. (that metaphor can only extend so far…) And finally, this year we looked at Johnny Carson’s first major television show and his very last. Between these two appearances, and some forty years we see major development of a comedic voice, as well as a tearful goodbye that remained just as touching when I watched it twenty years after it originally aired.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of these articles is that there’s still a lot of comedic knowledge to be learned from the past. I’ve seen patterns emerge, forms of jokes die and return, and I’ve tried used this knowledge in my own projects.

Thank you for joining me over the last few years. Let’s see what we can learn from the next 100 articles, shall we?

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine,” premieres on January 14th.

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