‘Seinfeld’ Fans: ‘If you argue with them, you’ll lose.’

 

imagesI’m interviewing some “professional”-grade Seinfeld fans for my book, and one of my favorite pieces of wisdom came from Jazmine Hughes, who managed to live her 22 years (until now) without seeing an episode and is now blogging about her virgin viewing experience with her superfan roommate (join the fun at Hot Girls Watching Seinfeld). Jazmine told me about talking to her parents about Seinfeld, and her father, who works in TV production, had this brilliant advice:

“Jazmine, some people just think that M*A*S*H and Seinfeld are the greatest shows to ever exist, and if you argue with them, you’ll lose. So just go through life and tell people that Seinfeld is a good show, and it’ll be so much easier.”

‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ Excerpt: Comedy and the Single Girl

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, which tells the story of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its relationship to the Women’s Movement.

paperback coverTreva Silverman had always wanted to be the beautiful, funny, smart heroine of a 1930s screwball comedy. In that world, the woman bantered with the man; the woman was independent, sexy, desirable, witty. Idiosyncratic actresses like Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, and Margaret Sullavan were the leading ladies there. Unfortunately, when Treva was a twelve-year-old in Cedarhurst, Long Island—the time when this desire took hold of her—the movie world had moved on from fast-talking comediennes to man-pleasing models of femininity like Doris Day, who seemed to have endless hangups about being good and pure, and Marilyn Monroe, who was the quintessential dumb blonde. The idea of an equal partnership between equally bright men and women trading quips had all but disappeared. And TV was even worse: Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show featured “dialogue” in which the woman’s only role was to say, “Yes, dear.” The most popular TV comedy heroine was Lucy, who wanted to be in show business but had to hide it from Ricky, who didn’t approve. The central joke of the show hinged on the fact that male approval ruled.

Magazines bombarded Treva with advice to young women—talk about his interests, don’t be competitive, learn how to make his favorite meals. To get the guy, she learned, she had to be all about him. At her grammar school, PS #3, her girlfriends chastised her for winning a spelling bee over Jerry Yaeger, the very boy she had a crush on. She’d never have a chance with him now, they lamented.

So Treva would settle for sitting next to her older sister, Corinne, in the moth-eaten seats of her neighborhood’s only revival movie house, watching and listening to her idols, Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard. Jean Arthur, in her day, made a name for herself as a funny leading lady in the Frank Capra films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can’t Take It with You. Lombard was once described by Graham Greene as “platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features, and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, [who] wriggled expressively through such classics of hysteria as Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey.” When Treva watched Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, she wanted to soak up every last bit of them, the way her movie-house popcorn soaked up melted butter.

Treva had one other escape route from suburban ennui: Every week, she took the train from her family’s home in Cedarhurst for more than an hour to get to New York City. It was where she belonged, she was sure. For now, though, she’d settle for going there weekly for her piano lessons at Columbia University. Two officials at the Juilliard School had declared her a “genius” at age five. She had perfect pitch and could play almost any piece by ear after hearing it once; she could transpose into any key. A unique talent, to be sure. But besides her music, something else was becoming a passion.

After her piano lesson every week, she’d race down to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan to read her way through the vast stacks of the humor section, in alphabetical order: Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, James Thurber. There, at the Forty-Second Street library, she had found her people: the humor writers for the New Yorker. Along with some journalists, critics, and actors, they had met daily throughout the ’20s for lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, forming a loose camaraderie called the Algonquin Round Table. They were known for their sharp witticisms and one-liners, which were quoted all over the newspaper columns. More importantly, the Algonquin Round Table consisted of men and—yes!—women. Not only Dorothy Parker, one of the wittiest of them all, but also Edna Ferber, Tallulah Bankhead, and Beatrice Kaufman.

Treva read on and on, as afternoon turned into dusk, the shadows cast by the library’s stone lions growing longer until they dissolved. She wished she could travel back to the days of the Algonquin Round Table, overhearing them from a neighboring table, or, even better, somehow getting a seat at that table.

 

When Silverman graduated from Bennington College nearly a decade later, even though the joke of the day was to try to graduate with an “M.R.S. degree,” she had nestled nicely into a Manhattan creative life on her own. She had broken into comedy writing and rejoiced when, one by one, a sketch or song of hers was accepted for an off-Broadway show or for Upstairs at the Downstairs, a topical revue nightclub that featured future stars like Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn. The rest of her evenings were spent using her musical talent: She played and sang show tunes—Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Gershwin—anywhere around town that had a piano and offered the chance to make a few bucks.

She played at bars, bowling alleys, Japanese restaurants. She got to meet people she never would have met otherwise, who lived the kinds of lives she’d only read about. There was the guy who pulled up his jacket sleeve to reveal five men’s watches and whispered to her, “You got a boyfriend who needs a Patek-Philippe timepiece?” There was the guy in the strip joint who wore a black eye patch—he had lost his left eye in a knife fight —who asked her, “Are you a sport, or are you a good girl?” She had only a hazy idea of what a sport was, but she knew she didn’t want to be one, and replied that she was a good girl. He gave her a twenty anyway. This piano-playing stint wasn’t exactly the way to find a husband, but at least it left her days free to write her songs and sketches, and she was making enough money to survive.

Her colorful life was radically out of step with those of her girlfriends from high school and college. Not only did they have respectable jobs in publishing and in advertising where nobody asked them to buy stolen watches, but most of them were gradually being whisked away to the magical never-never land called married life. You had to get there by age twenty-five or else—or else . . . well, nobody knew exactly what the else was, but it wasn’t anything a good girl wanted. Treva did want a long-term relationship, but in the meantime she wanted everyone who asked her why she wasn’t married to shut up.

Her parents thoroughly believed in her talent but were nervous for her. They saw her life as all promise and hope, with no guarantee of a stable future. “Treva,” her mother suggested one day, “why don’t you take a shorthand course? Just as a fallback, honey.”

Treva rolled her eyes. “Mom, I don’t want to learn shorthand so that I can take down some man’s ideas. I want someone taking down my ideas.”

Once she was playing at a restaurant on Fifth Avenue, a place high-priced and elegant enough that, finally, she could invite her parents to see her perform. Seated at a flower-laden table listening to her play and sing, her parents watched while a man came up to the piano, spoke a few words to her, and put a ten-dollar bill in her glass piggy bank. Her father rushed to his daughter. “What did that man want?” he demanded.

“‘My Funny Valentine,’ Dad,” she sighed.

The good news was that the women’s lib movement was starting to percolate. The Pill had been introduced in 1960, freeing women from pregnancy fears. And Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, had recently scandalized the nation, making women like Silverman feel a little less alone in their singlehood while emboldening them to wear shorter skirts and sleep with any man they pleased. Not every woman had to be Jackie Kennedy, for Chrissake. Brown rallied the single-girl troops to pursue their sexual desires, even giving them advice on the art of pleasuring men. “Theoretically a ‘nice’ single woman has no sex life,” she wrote. “What nonsense!”

Brown saw the single woman as a “glamour girl,” contrary to many other contemporary writers, who seemed to pity and fear any unmarried women who displayed both sex drive and career drive. Unmarried women were characterized as spinsters, unmarried men characterized as bachelors-around-town. Brown would soon revamp the magazine Cosmopolitan as a haven for sexually liberated women. Her proposal for the makeover said that her Cosmopolitan would tell an aspiring actress “not to stay back home in Lima, Ohio, like most articles on the subject do, [but would offer] practical advice. Where to live. How much money to save up first.” Treva was beyond the Cosmo girl already—she had loads of practical advice she could give such a creature—but it was comforting to know there were girls who dreamed of the exact kind of life she already had.

 

One night in 1964, Silverman was playing at a piano bar in Manhattan’s theater district—it was another one of those dark, smoky places, but this one had a well-tuned baby grand. She took her requisite set break, listening to the glasses clink and the patrons murmur in the absence of her playing. Still energized from her performance, she struck up a conversation with an intense, bearded, hippie-ish guy and his girlfriend sitting near her at the bar. Soon they were chatting about their mutual love of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger. Beards were only just on the brink of acceptable mainstream grooming at the time, a signal of a certain kind of rebelliousness that endeared this guy to Silverman. Guys with beards tended to smoke weed, be creative, listen to cool music. They were Silverman’s people. Even more so when they could talk Fitzgerald and Salinger. It figured that he was there with a woman, though. Those guys were always taken.

The guy, Jim Brooks, worked at CBS as an assistant in the newsroom. Treva and Jim talked about their mutual ambition to write for television. Brooks was intrigued with the sketch comedy work she was doing; his admiration for her was instant. He knew Upstairs at the Downstairs and its reputation for sharp, topical work. She was attracted to the way his mind worked, his quick, easy, funny conversation, his split-second responses. Something clicked between them: that feeling that says, We’re going to matter in each other’s lives.

She stayed in touch with Jim as she got more and more of her comedy sketches and songs performed in New York cabarets. Then came the day she received word that not one, not two, but five sketches of hers were going to be featured at Upstairs at the Downstairs. Five! She had been elevated to being the only sketch writer in the show. She was glowing with success when she ran into the mother of her best friend from high school. What luck, Treva thought—someone with whom to share her excitement. “Mrs. Bernstein, I just found out!” she said. “I have five sketches in the new Upstairs at the Downstairs!”

Treva waited for that spark of respect to alight in the older woman’s eyes. Instead, she got: “How nice that you’re keeping busy. . . . Are you seeing anyone?” Treva wondered if she would ever go a day again without hearing that question, dripping with passive-aggressive judgment.

But comedian Carol Burnett walked into Upstairs at the Downstairs a few months later with a different attitude toward talented, funny women like herself. Not long after Treva had talked to Jim about wanting to break into TV, Burnett came down to Midtown from her Upper East Side apartment to check out new talent at the revue; it was similar to the one in which Burnett had gotten her own start, the Blue Angel, nearly a decade earlier. Burnett liked Silverman’s sketches so much that she invited her to write for a variety show she was about to star in, CBS’s The Entertainers, along with Bob Newhart and Dom DeLuise. Writing comedy on a network TV show! Treva had arrived.

Silverman’s work there led to a job in Hollywood writing for the television show The Monkees. She moved west in 1966 to craft scripts for the made-for-TV band that was aiming to replace the Beatles in teen girls’ hearts, even as posters for the edgier Who and the Kinks, David Bowie and Jefferson Airplane, vied for the poster space on those same teenagers’ walls. When Silverman got to her new gig, she found she was once again, as she had been on The Entertainers, the only woman writer on staff. The only other women she encountered were secretaries who typed up what the funny guys wrote and mimeographed copies for the producers and cast.

At that point, Treva was one of only two or three women writers in TV comedy who worked without a male partner; she was such an anomaly that Mademoiselle magazine did an article on her. She was part of a sociological phenomenon, a generation of new feminists being profiled in newsmagazines, who prioritized their careers over marriage and were often the only women wherever they went, their miniskirts, high boots, and tent dresses distinguishing them from the cinch-waisted, full-skirted secretaries who came before them. Later, interviewers would always ask Silverman, “How did you survive in such an atmosphere? How did you make it in a profession that had only been men?” The truth, however, was that she just did because she had to if she wanted to do the job she wanted. If the cherubic, soft-spoken Treva Silverman had to sit in rooms full of bearded men to be a comedy writer, then that was what she would do.

 

Then the original bearded guy in Silverman’s life, Jim Brooks, reappeared in the summer of 1969. Treva had written for several sitcoms during the two years since The Monkees went off the air, including a few episodes of Brooks’ groundbreaking high school history class comedy, Room 222. They’d stayed in touch since meeting in New York, and he had even introduced her to his fellow producer on Room 222, the short-haired, clean-cut Allan Burns. Now Brooks was calling her with a rather existential question: “What are you doing right now?”

“Washing my hair.”

“No,” he said, “I mean with your life. Our pilot is going to series—the one I’m doing with Allan Burns—and we want you to come on board. It’s with Mary Tyler Moore.” With the woman from The Dick Van Dyke Show, the one who was pretty and funny? Like Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard? There was nothing Silverman wanted more. That was quite a relief to Brooks and Burns, who needed writers that they felt could understand their kind of show. The fact that Silverman was a woman was a bonus—they could use some estrogen-fueled help with their female lead character. No one knew whether the show would last beyond CBS’s initial thirteen-episode commitment to it, but Brooks offered her all he could: “We want you to write for this series,” he told her, “and we want you to write as many episodes as you want.”

As Brooks, Burns, and Silverman carefully wrote and rewrote the early scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, they didn’t dream their show would have any long-lasting effect on the world. They just sat at their typewriters and pounded away, trying to write the best they could and hoping the show didn’t get canceled. At times the series would veer awfully close to ending prematurely. But instead, the writers and producers’ ideas and actions—some smart, some not—piled on top of each other, mixed together, and made history. They pulled star Mary Tyler Moore out of a perilous career slump. They weathered attacks from network executives who said the program was too different to succeed, or just plain rotten. They survived cast members’ insecurities and jealousies, divorces and diets, and screaming matches between producers and directors. Along the way, they made several unlikely stars, changed the fates of a dozen female TV writers who spun their everyday lives into comedy gold, helped usher in a more woman-friendly era in the television industry, elevated the sitcom to an art form, and killed a clown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Would Have Watched a ‘Brady Bunch’ Spinoff About Alice

140601183504-ann-b-davis---restricted-horizontal-galleryOn this, the occasion of the death of actress Ann B. Davis, who played housekeeper Alice on The Brady Bunch, I would just like to say: I would have watched a spinoff that explored Alice’s inner world. I would probably have liked it better than The Brady Bunch. Alice was so much more intriguing than those milquetoast Bradys—stuck in that sky-blue maid’s uniform all the time, dating Sam the Butcher interminably. Why did she wear that uniform? Did the Bradys have a secret totalitarian streak they kept hidden from the sitcom cameras? Or, more likely, did Alice choose it herself to show her professionalism and/or to create a kind of personal brand? Meanwhile, she and Sam clearly had one of the best, most stable, long-term adult relationships ever seen on television, unique for non-married, middle-aged, working-class people. I would love to know what they fought about, how they resolved their conflicts, how they kept the magic alive. I bet they could have taught us all a lot.

In fact, something Davis said in a 2004 interview with the Archive of American Television confirms my hunch that Alice had hidden depths. Davis gave her a whole backstory: “I did have a twin sister, so I used that as a basis. … I cared very much about this family. It was my family. It was as close to my family as Alice would ever get. I would have died for any single one of them at any point,” she said. “You know, they wrote me such gorgeous things to do, as the intermediary between the kids and the adults, and between the boys and the girls. And they gave me funny things to do.”

Gosh I want to see whatever it is that may have required Alice to risk death for a Brady. Now that Davis is gone, alas, we’ll never know.

Inside TV Audience Testing

TD00428I visited Las Vegas this week with my sister to see Britney Spears’ show at Planet Hollywood, but we had to find stuff to do the rest of our three-day stay because neither of us likes gambling. Good news! It’s fall-pilot-testing season for the broadcast networks. And CBS and NBC reps were out in force recruiting people off the Las Vegas Strip during the day to watch some shows and answer survey questions about them. Oh, and they were offering anywhere from $20 to $50 for opinions, depending on the length of the show and the intensity of the questioning. Brilliant! Now we could “win” money in Vegas and lose nothing. We couldn’t present ourselves to the recruiters fast enough.

Both of us are TV nerds, so we loved this idea. I’ve always wondered about the mythical testing process, which is an integral part of any great show’s origin story. Inevitably in these stories (please see: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld), the audience testing says a show is total garbage, and later it goes on to great acclaim, popularity, and otherwise legendary status. Audiences hated The Mary Tyler Moore Show because they thought she was a single loser who hung around with annoying and scary people (Rhoda and Lou). They hated Seinfeld because they preferred Jerry’s standup to the actual story, and they thought the whole thing was kind-of pointless.

I won’t get too much into the specifics of the shows I watched, because I feel some sense of duty, like I just served on a jury or something. But I can tell you that it was really interesting to see the differences in how the two networks tested shows, as well as the questions asked. Both nets had the legendary Good/Bad buttons: At NBC we had Yes, I Like This! (green button) and No, I Hate This! (red button); at CBS, we had dials from 1 (hate) to 100 (love) that we had to keep moving through the entire show. We also answered endless questions about our feelings toward every character, plotline, and relationship in the shows. We picked our favorite and least favorite shows among those already on. We, of course, specified our ages and genders and income levels and places of residence. The worst part about this system is the binary; it’s incredibly simplistic to ask people whether they “like” or “don’t like” a show at any second. What does that mean? Do people really need to “like” a show every second for it to be good? It’s easy to pick out shows that, whether or not they were tested, you can imagine testing terribly. Mad Men? Too slow. Game of Thrones? Too confusing.

If you go back to the Mary Tyler Moore example, obviously the audiences weren’t quite ready for an independent, single woman or any characters who weren’t all sunshine and happiness; the show would push those boundaries until audiences did like, or at least more readily accept, such things. Seinfeld, I think, is a little different, because anyone who loves the show and watches the pilot episode now can see that it wasn’t anywhere near what it would become. So the testing question is somewhat moot when it comes to Seinfeld, though it does prove that some shows need a chance to find themselves before random people from the street pick them apart.

My favorite part of my testing experience this week was when we finished watching a drama pilot at CBS, which was obviously targeting younger women (18-49). The workers rushed my sister and me afterwards because we fit the target demo, and asked if we wanted to come back in a few hours for a more detailed discussion (and another $50). I was lucky in that I have a red-eye flight out of Vegas tonight, so I had time to stick around; she didn’t. Listening to the more in-depth discussion with my fellow target-demo ladies and a moderator, I could imagine how a writer would go absolutely nuts listening to what we all liked and didn’t like. (I wanted more backstory! I wanted less backstory! I hated this person! I wanted more information about every single ancillary character! The opening drew me in! I loathed the opening! And was that the main character’s sister, best friend, roommate, or lesbian lover?) As someone who writes books, I can’t imagine how infuriated I would be. (Yes, I can, actually, because I’ve made the mistake of reading some of my Amazon reviews.) Obviously the creator wrestled with all of these questions for months, and he has his own vision, and suddenly a bunch of randoms wandering in between eating tacos and drinking a 45-ounce margarita have all kinds of ideas for him?

At the same time, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. A lot of the women pointed out areas of real confusion and had some genuinely great insights as to how to make the show better. If the shows I watched air, I’ll have a lot more insight as to how testing affects final products. And I’m grateful to CBS and NBC for helping me win in Vegas.

Was ‘Friends’ Really a ‘Seinfeld’ Rip-Off?

20130303210812!Friends_season_one_castSpoiler alert: My answer is going to be NO.

I do think it’s interesting, though, that Jerry Seinfeld was, during the Must See TV era that his show and Friends dominated, and has continued to be, convinced that Friends “stole” their show premise from his hit. I like that Seinfeld is so competitive when it comes to his art — I’m sure that’s what’s fueled him toward such excellence in his work — but I can’t believe he’d really believe this. Aside from both shows being about single, unrelated people hanging out in New York City — hardly a unique description — these two shows couldn’t be more different.

In fact, I see them as Platonic opposites. Because of the similarities in their basic stats — sitcom, group of friends, Manhattan, professional-class, white — their differences are more obvious. Friends is really about friends — that is, earnest feelings of affection among people who have formed what so many trend articles afterwards called “an urban family.” They loved each other so damn much that they engaged in nearly every permutation of straight romance that could happen among the six of them without things getting really creepy. Friends was about that magical time in life when your friends are the most important people in your life, before you settle down and have a family of your own, blah blah blah. Friends is literally feel-good television.

Seinfeld was a reflection of cynical times, not an antidote to them. Seinfeld did not explore the bonds among its characters; it assumed them for the purposes of pure comedy. (A person could wonder: Why the hell do these people keep hanging out together? Specifically: What’s Elaine’s excuse?) Where Friends says something like, “All we need is love,” Seinfeld says, “We better stop having feelings before anyone gets hurt.” Mind you, that’s what makes Seinfeld great, what makes it more artful than Friends — which is genuinely funny and touching, but not paradigm-shifting. Seinfeld rewrote how sitcoms were written, making room for unsympathetic characters, petty grievances, and plots wound far tighter than anyone had known they could be in 22 minutes.

Watch the two finales for all the evidence you could want. Friends will warm your heart, but you’ll feel a little emotionally manipulated afterwards, like you got your happy ending without totally earning it. Seinfeld will annoy you, disappoint you, and make you think: Was all this time I spent watching this show worth it? But at least you’ll be thinking.

The ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Finale: Proof that We Should Cool It With the High Concepts

himymI actually enjoyed watching the How I Met Your Mother finale at face value: I laughed, I cried, I looked forward to having one fewer show to get through on my DVR every week. But that last thing, in particular, also points to the weaknesses in the show that this finale revealed. I hung in there because I’d invested so much and the title had promised me something that wasn’t delivered until the very end. The title, it turned out, was a fake-out, though. The show wasn’t really about how Ted met the mother of his children, who actually dies before the “present” of the story-telling. The show was actually about how Ted had spent his whole life in love with Robin. Meanwhile, we spent a whole season this year on Robin’s wedding to Barney, which, it turns out, dissolved within a few years.

I’m happy Ted finally got what he wanted. I’ll never totally believe that Robin loved him back.

Here’s the thing about all of this, though: If the show hadn’t been called How I Met Your Mother, and it had simply been about friends in their 20s and 30s, the time in life when your friends are your family and your life, the time before you get married and have kids and grow apart, it would have been a great show. It would have been a better show, actually. It wouldn’t have spent so much time course-correcting toward the final goal, twisting itself in knots for entire lame seasons. It could have just lived a simple, natural life. Hell, it could have still involved the poignant narration from the future, which did allow for some wonderful time-jumping and lent significance to those fleeting moments of young-adult friendship.

In some ways, high concepts like Mother‘s make for narrative innovations and, yes, it’s great to see sitcoms trying new things. But it’s actually more challenging to keep audiences watching by just telling good stories about characters we love, which HIMYM often did, particularly in the early days. I want to love the in-development How I Met Your Dad because I’ve enjoyed Carter Bays’ and Craig Thomas’ shining moments with HIMYM, and I like the star, Greta Gerwig. Let’s hope HIMYM‘s lessons pay off in a clearer route toward meeting Dad next time around.

In Praise of a Spoiler-Free Life: Why I Loved Being Surprised by ‘The Good Wife’

THE GOOD WIFEI had no idea what was coming when I settled in with a little bit of wine and a late-night viewing of The Good Wife yesterday evening — my partner had gone to bed, but I felt like staying up alone a little longer with my TV. I even thought I might just watch some of the episode while I enjoyed my glass of wine, then save the rest for the morning.

No chance of that once I saw Will Gardner bled-out on a hospital gurney. So dead. A major character and the star-crossed lover of our heroine, the one she seemed to be heading toward a reconciliation with, dead. I honestly caught myself trying to come up with ways he could not really be dead. But all I came up with were the worst, most hackneyed fake-outs — nothing becoming of the continuously gutsy showrunners at The Good Wife. They consistently manage to reset the show without feeling cheap, and without disrupting what the show’s true journey is: the transformation of Julianna Marguiles’ Alicia Florrick from a doting political wife to, well, a badass bitch. (When I saw her husband, Peter, calling her a “bitch” in the preview of upcoming scenes, I actually cheered to myself: damn right, she’s a bitch. About time.)

It’s a strange truth about enjoying narrative art in general, and television in particular: Surprises, even when they hurt, provide some element of delight. I think it’s because we like knowing we’re in the hands of storytellers who are going to keep things fresh and real at all costs. I think it’s also because we like feeling that our investment in the story is worth something, that it’s leading to some deeper truths.

It turns out the death resulted in part from actor Josh Charles’ decision to leave the show. (To which I’m tempted to say, “What?!?” But we all have our own creative journeys, and it takes guts to leave a successful show to remain true to yourself.) For me, this had an extra resonance: I would have known this was coming if I still worked at Entertainment Weekly. We always knew (what with it being our job) when an actor was leaving a show, when a major plot twist or death was coming, often because our editors were negotiating to get “exclusives” on such developments — fodder for the popular “spoiler” blogs or first interviews with actors whose characters met surprise demises. I didn’t mind spoilers; I still liked seeing how shows executed their twists.

But man, was it strange, devastating, and, in the end, satisfying, to experience Will’s death the way the characters did: as a horrifying surprise.

Can You Watch a Show Wrong?: What I Learned About Fandom

Invader Zim, if you didn't know.

Invader Zim, if you didn’t know.

I attended Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Scholars Association conference this weekend to speak, and the panel discussion I loved the most was one about modern fandoms. Perhaps it’s because this isn’t an area in which I do a ton of research, or perhaps because the internet has spawned so many new ways to participate in and study fandoms — in any case, it was damn fun to hear about some of this research. I could go on and on about all three panelists, but for now I’ll tell you the three coolest things I learned:

1. There’s this amazing-looking cartoon called Invader Zim, and some people are psychotically passionate about it. The presenter, Tim Jones, actually said fantastically interesting things about this show’s relationship to Barthes’ “Death of the Author” theory — and, in fact, inspired me to use the Death of the Author in another project I’m working on. It seems the creator of Zim, Jhonen Vasquez, actually ranted at a symposium that certain of his fans who were misinterpreting his work from his point of view were “watching the show wrong.” I love that idea, as it speaks to so many hostile TV experiences of late, from the Lost finale on through every other internet freak-out. But mostly, I was excited to learn about this show with very cool illustration and what looks like a kind-of dystopian world view. Best of all, his presentation yielded a sentence that would have been nonsensical to me before I’d learned all of this: “There is a lot of concern about poseurism in the fandom of Zim because of the popularity of Gir shirts at Hot Topic.”

2. I might understand this whole “Brony” thing finally. Two very smart young men, Jason R. Nguyen and Kurt Baer, explored “Ethnographic Methodology and the My Little Pony Fandom.” First of all, they have a great blog where they’re explaining and documenting their efforts. I’d heard about this “brony” phenomenon — mostly straight-identifying men who watch and discuss My Little Pony — in bits and pieces of media coverage/outrage. Naturally, most of the coverage doesn’t have to work that hard to make the idea of grown men watching a little girls’ pony show seem suspicious. But through Nguyen and Baer’s entertaining presentation, I think I understood it much better, and it seems to come down to camaraderie like any other fandom. But the key is that most people may not realize that what they’re fandoming over is a very clever reboot of the My Little Pony franchise that is designed to go above and beyond normal kid fare. What I’m saying is, I think it’s just a good show that isn’t that pervy to enjoy, and we shouldn’t judge straight men for liking something traditionally “girly.” We wouldn’t fret about a group of straight women discussing Transformers.

3. It doesn’t matter whether the endless reboots of beloved franchises are good or not. At least, to Hollywood it doesn’t. They make tons of money whether fans love or hate their newest Superman, Batman, Hulk, or Star Trek vehicle. In fact, a certain segment of cynical fans go to these movies just so they can then get online and tear them apart. Quincy Thomas’ presentation title said it all, with a perfect pun: “These Reboots Were Made for Mockin’.”

What Does ‘Feminist Comedy’ Look Like?

TwoBrokeGirlsI attended Bowling Green State University’s Conference on Cultural and Critical Studies this weekend to give a keynote address, and I caught some thought-provoking panels along the way. The one most obviously in my wheelhouse was one on Saturday about gender and comedy, featuring papers about Two Broke Girls, Shit Girls Say, and Girls. (So many girls!) An interesting question emerged during the discussion among the three panelists: What does “feminist comedy” look like?

This question came up in response to the Two Broke Girls paper, in which scholar Nancy Bressler posits that the humor in Two Broke Girls comes off as “empowering” to women only by putting down and stereotyping the male characters. Instead, she argued that truly feminist comedy would be a more genuinely empowering alternative. Okay, so what would that be, exactly? The ten minutes or so of discussion didn’t quite allow an entire new genre of comedy to be created, but it’s an interesting idea. I’d start with Girls, which, as another scholar, Molly Weinberg, discussed in her paper, allows its female characters to be who they are — sexual, messy, awful, funny, lots of things women have traditionally not been allowed to be.

A few of my other thoughts on a more concrete kind of feminist comedy:

1. Comedy that highlights feminist issues. This is the obvious answer. Some of it exists, too. My friend Katie Goodman does a whole musical-comedy stage show in this vein.

2. Comedy that uses humor to point out the injustices of inequality. A good example of this came during Louis C.K.’s standup special last yearOh My God, wherein he did a bit on the courage that dating requires: “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women.” A moment later he adds, speaking for all men, “You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.” As if I didn’t love Louis C.K. enough already.

3. Comedy that sends up the very tropes used against women. This is what I think 30 Rock did best, giving us a relatable heroine who’s self-aware enough to identify as a feminist but still beat herself up for falling into more traditional traps like body-image issues and the desire for a partner. Mindy Project does this, too, most notably during the many ridiculous sex and romance scenes in which Mindy’s unrealistic expectations, stoked by romantic comedies and women’s magazines, come crashing down on her. Check out this shower sex scene for a taste. And this bit where she tries to dismantle a stripper pole at a frat party is about as explicitly feminist as you can get.

In Praise of Susan on ‘Seinfeld’

SusanrossI’m prepping to interview Heidi Swedberg, who played Susan on Seinfeld, and I’m particularly excited: I have a real soft spot for George’s almost-wife.

She started as the only female NBC exec in the room when Jerry and George pitched their sitcom idea. She championed that idea and got it approved — she must have had quite a bit of pull to get their “nothing” concept through, given that it had gotten a chilly reception otherwise. But her tragic flaw was her taste in men: She started dating George, even though she turned out to be bisexual. With both men and women to choose from, she still opted for George in the end! Given that he had zero redeeming personal qualities, it’s hard to imagine why — except perhaps she simply had a self-destructive streak.

Then (SPOILER ALERT) she died from licking cheap wedding-invitation envelopes, the ultimate insult.

I like to imagine what the Susan story would look like if she were the tragic heroine of her own television show (a drama, obviously). I think it would be a metaphor for modern womanhood: A groundbreaking female TV executive with liberated sexual mores is put in her place by heteronormative culture until she is finally killed … by her own impending wedding.

Rest in peace, Susan.