SitComs Not Always a Laughing Matter

By: brasch Thursday October 2, 2008 7:55 am

by Walter Brasch


My favorite new TV comedy is “Growing Up Fisher.”


Sitcom set

It’s the story of a blind lawyer, his 12-year-old son, a mid-teen daughter, and an ex-wife who is trying to return to her adolescent years. The show is based upon the experiences of D.J. Nash.

J.K. Simmons portrays Mel Fisher; for most of his life after he became blind at 12, he tried to make others believe he wasn’t blind. Jenna Elfman  is his ex-, Joyce Fisher, who extends the role she played on the hit series, “Dharma and Greg.”

Because television is a repetitive medium, “Growing Up Fisher” has the look and feel of “The Wonder Years,” complete with a love interest for its pre-teen child.” In this newer SitCom, instead of an older Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern) narrating the story of his younger self (portrayed by Fred Savage), it’s an older Henry Fisher, narrated by Jason Bateman, who reflects upon his own younger self, portrayed by Eli Baker.

In “Growing Up Fisher,” as in “Dharma and Greg” and “The Wonder Years,” the father/husband is conservative and strait-laced; the wife is more of a free spirit,”  common in many comedies, including Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” which had a half-season run on ABC in 1970 after being a successful Broadway play and film.

The pilot of “The Wonder Years” aired on ABC following SuperBowl XXII; the pilot for “Growing Up Fisher” aired on NBC following the Olympics. Network executives counted on dragging the huge audiences into strong ratings for the neophyte comedies.

It’s not for the similarities I like “Growing Up Fisher.” Nor is it for the acting, directing, and writing, all of which are above average for a modern TV comedy. Or even because of Elvis, the Guide Dog. It’s because “Growing Up Fisher” doesn’t have an annoying laugh track.

Charley Douglass, a CBS-TV sound engineer invented the first laugh machine. Its purpose was to improve the studio audience laughs, some of which were raucous and too overbroad, some of which were far less than what the producers wanted. With the change from comedies airing live to the use of tape delay, post-production, including canned audience reaction, became critical for how the producers wanted audiences to perceive the finished product. Ever since the early 1950s, most TV comedies have used a laugh track, even when the show was “taped before a live audience.”  Eventually the Douglass “Laff Box” had more than 300 different canned laughs.

Instead of developing plot and character, many TV comedies are little more than a series of one-liners stuck together by writers and producers who are too young to know and appreciate the writing of James L. Brooks,  Sam Denoff, Larry Gelbart, David Isaacs, Ken Levine, Bill Persky, Carl Reiner, Gene Reynolds, and dozens of others who were craftsmen.  The laugh track now shows up every one or two lines, even if the line isn’t funny.  And it’s not just subtle laughter or mild chuckles. Even the lamest line gets an all-out decibel-popping presence.

The escalation of the laugh track has become the producers’ way to manipulate the audience to believe every word is a gem, every sentence uttered is golden. In the past few years, the laugh track has become invasive. On “Two and a Half Men,” a lame but popular rip-off of “Three’s Company,” and “2 Broke Girls,” both of which push sexual suggestiveness to the edge of lewdness, the laugh tracks make the shows almost unwatchable. They’re not the only ones.

At first, the insertion of canned laughter was non-intrusive. Some comedies, including “My Three Sons” and “The Brady Bunch” used less laughter; others pumped laughter at almost every line. Several comedies went without laugh tracks. NBC reluctantly dropped the laugh track mid-way through the second season on “The Monkees,” after all four actor-musicians demanded it, according to historian Paul Iverson. CBS had required “M*A*S*H” to use a laugh track, over the protests of its creators. However, as the comedy’s ratings and subsequent advertising revenue increased, CBS executives relented a bit—laugh tracks during scenes in the operating room were optional, and other laughter was toned down.

Almost none of the classic cartoons had laugh tracks; they didn’t need it—the audiences knew when and how to laugh, even if network business executives, few of whom were ever in the creative part of show business, didn’t.

Also not needing much “sweetening” are “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” and the late night talk shows. Although all are taped a few hours before airing, live audiences provide the genuine laughter and applause, with the hosts reacting to it rather than delivering a line and waiting a couple of seconds to allow digital laughter to be inserted in post-production.

For “The Wonder Years” and “Growing Up Fisher,” which first aired more than two decades apart, the producers wisely decided that comedy, if good, will bring its own laughs; the merit of the show will rise or fall based upon writing, acting, and directing, not upon forced laughter.

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, satirist, and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and effects of hydraulic horizontal fracturing.]

Misdirection: Rampell Views Entitlements Through the Generational War Lens

By: letsgetitdone Saturday January 8, 2011 1:38 pm

Some of the favored children of the economic elite who have a public presence, work hard in their writing and speaking to divert attention from inequality and oligarchy issues by raising the issue of competition between seniors and millennials for “scarce” Federal funds. That’s understandable. If millennials develop full consciousness of who, exactly, has been flushing their prospects for a decent life down the toilet, their anger and activism might bring down the system of wealth and economic and social privilege that benefits both their families and the favored themselves in the new America of oligarchy and plutocracy.

Catherine Rampell sets forth the position that seniors haven’t paid for their Social Security and Medicare because they “generally receive” more in benefits out of these programs than they pay into them.

Here and here, I evaluated Abby Huntsman’s arguments for entitlement “reform,” and, of course, Pete Peterson’s son, Michael fights a continuing generational war against seniors in pushing the austerian line of the Peterson Foundation. Now comes Catherine Rampell, who, in a recent column, sets forth the position that seniors haven’t paid for their Social Security and Medicare because they “generally receive” more in benefits out of these programs than they pay into them. I’ll reply to all of the main points in Rampell’s argument, by quoting liberally and then replying to the points she makes in each quote. She says:

Yes, seniors paid into Social Security and Medicare during the years they worked, if they worked. But they generally receive much more out of the entitlement system than they paid into it.

She continues by citing an Urban Institute study and pointing out that earlier age cohorts received much more in benefits from Social Security than they paid in, and also says:

But let’s consider the average worker who turned 65 in 2010. Generally speaking, the people in this cohort will, more or less, break even on Social Security, according to Eugene Steuerle, an Urban Institute fellow who co-authors the annual report. (Earlier generations made out like bandits; for example, members of an average one-earner couple who turned 65 in 1990 receive twice as much in Social Security benefits as they paid in taxes.)

Medicare, on the other hand, is pretty much a steal no matter when you turned 65.”

After citing some details documenting “what a steal” Medicare is, Rampell concludes the first part of her argument with this:

”It boils down to this: Despite all the “we already paid for it” rhetoric popular among seniors, seniors did not pre-pay for their entitlements. If anything, they paid for their parents’ entitlements, which were more modest than the benefits today’s retirees receive.

This argument of Rampell’s is disingenuous, because it takes the claim that seniors have already paid for their entitlements as saying that they’ve paid dollar-for-dollar, more or less, for what they’re getting in benefits. But seniors who know how SS and medicare works certainly don’t mean this when they say they’ve already paid for it. What they surely mean instead, is that Congress has legislated the SS and Medicare safety nets, and the benefits that currently exist, for the purpose of seeing to it that seniors have a minimum of economic insecurity during the period of their lives when a large proportion of them no longer have the capability to earn a decent living due to illness, other infirmities, or an extreme reluctance of private sector employers to hire them even when they are very skilled.

To draw on the benefits of these programs seniors were required to pay FICA contributions during their working lives. These payments, according to the law, give them the right, in other words, entitle them, to receive the benefits of SS and Medicare that were mandated by Congress.

No one ever said to today’s seniors that there was some rule in the SS and Medicare programs requiring that their payments needed to, or ought to, correspond to the amount of their total benefits, since that was never the deal legislated by Congress. No, the deal was: “You pay your FICA contributions, and you get your benefits at retirement.” Simple as that!

So, people who followed the SS and Medicare rules and made their payments over the years rightly view themselves as having paid for their entitlement benefits, regardless of whether their cumulative FICA payments fall short of or exceed the cumulative sum of those benefits. Why shouldn’t they, and why is Rampell implying that the deal implicit in our major entitlement programs is anything different?

Additionally, I’m afraid that Rampell is also wrong when she says that today’s seniors “paid for” their parents’ entitlements. They certainly paid FICA and Medicare-related contributions, of course; but it is not true that these revenues paid for anything, in spite of Federal reports that appear to link the two, or the accounting that shows that the Social Security Administration has built up a $2.8 Trillion credit against future expenditures, and that Medicare has a much smaller volume of credit to be used for such expenditures.

Saturday Art: The Exit Room (short film)

By: Crane-Station Saturday April 19, 2014 11:20 am

This is a powerful film, and I was only about a minute or so into it, when I realized that it reminded me of a film that I saw in the early 1970s. I will explain at the end of this post. Here is what Vimeo includes about The Exit Room:

Starring: Christopher Abbott
OFFICIAL SELECTION 2013 @ Tribeca Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Hollyshorts Film Festival, Aruba International Film Festival and many more.
SYNOPSIS: It is 2021, and imprisoned journalist Joseph Michaels faces government execution as he contemplates a desperate escape attempt in order to return to his wife and new-born in The Exit Room.
Director: Todd Wiseman Jr.
Producer: Ariel Elia
Cinematographer: Milos S. Silber
Co-Producer: Tyler Ben-Amotz
Editor: Brian Denny

The film that I saw in the early 1970s is called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and as it turns out, this film is based on that excellent film:

Gentrification is about the choices we make

By: Danny Mayer Thursday April 17, 2014 7:54 pm

A house on North Limestone purchased for $35,000 and offered for $120,000.

Gentrification is the ugly downside to urban development. Beginning in December, I attended two publicized meetings on the topic by an urban-identified at-large council member. At the informal meetings, I was struck by how little some representatives knew about gentrification. Some cited it as an inevitable and also somewhat positive process.

One way these positive testimonies for gentrification have occurred is by segmenting the process away from its underlying drivers. In the meetings, most of my attempts to discuss gentrification in the context of city subsidies for projects like 21C and Rupp Arena–or the city’s current disinvestment in many poor-trending suburban and near-urban locations–fell on deaf ears. The consensus was that such things occurred in separate spheres with little practical connection to our topic.

Saturday Art: Influential Authors: Ernest Hemingway

By: dakine01 Thursday August 18, 2011 6:00 pm

OK. everyone who had to read Hemingway in school raise your hands…

1 . who is fooling who -  IMG_0001

Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway

That’s about what I thought. Most of us had to read at least one or two of his books during high school or college or both. I would wager, however, that few of us have ever read much of his writing outside of the classroom. I may be an exception as I know the first Hemingway I ever read was The Old Man and the Sea which I picked up from the local library when I was eleven or twelve.

Here’s the wiki intro for Hemingway:

Ernest Miller Hemingway (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961) was an American author and journalist. His economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Hemingway produced most of his work between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works. Additional works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously. Many of his works are considered classics of American literature.

So that’s a total of ten novels, ten short story collections, and five non-fiction works. Yet, lists fourteen pages of Hemingway works. That’s a lot of collections and groupings as most “pages” list about thirty books per page.

I know that I read The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls during my high school English classes – at least the first time. I read The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories and Islands in the Stream while I was in college. I also have read a few of the Nick Adams Stories, usually excerpted in anthology series with other writers.

After Hemingway’s death in 1961, the New York Times had a short paragraph on Hemingway from many of the world’s then top writers as a part of his obituary. In 1999, The Atlantic did a “flashback” to reviews of some of Hemingway’s works from over his full career and after death as part of the centennial of his birth.

Hemingway’s IMDB shows 71 different films and TV shows based on his work. There have been a lot of short films from his short stories that have been produced in this century. A Farewell to Arms starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes was the very first production of Hemingway’s work in 1932. Cooper also starred in For Whom the Bell Tolls with Ingrid Bergman. Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, and Ava Gardner were in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. To Have and Have Not starring Bogie and Bacall got its title and many characters from a Hemingway book but according to wiki, was otherwise quite a bit different than the original storyline.

Wiki covers Hemingway’s Writing Style:

The New York Times wrote in 1926 of Hemingway’s first novel, “No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.”[154] The Sun Also Rises is written in spare, tight prose that influenced countless crime and pulp fiction novels and made Hemingway famous.[155] In 1954, when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was for “his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”[156] Paul Smith writes that Hemingway’s first stories, collected as In Our Time, showed he was still experimenting with his writing style.[157] He avoided complicated syntax. About 70 percent of the sentences are simple sentences—a childlike syntax without subordination.[158]

Whatever his style, whatever his writing faults, Hemingway is undeniably one of the literary giants of the last century. And he really should not have needed all of the high school English teachers around the country to explain that to us. He told his tales well.

Poison Candy: The Murderous Madam: Inside Dalia Dippolito’s Plot to Kill – Book Salon Preview

By: Elliott Thursday March 1, 2012 3:30 pm

Today at 5pm ET, 2pm PT

Poison Candy: The Murderous Madam: Inside Dalia Dippolito’s Plot to Kill

Chat with Mark Ebner about his new book, hosted by Beth Karas.

In August 2009, former madam Dalia Dippolito conspired with a hit man to arrange her ex-con husband’s murder. Days later, it seemed as if all had gone according to plan. The beautiful, young Dalia came home from her health club to an elaborate crime scene, complete with yellow tape outlining her townhome and police milling about. When Sgt. Frank Ranzie of the Boynton Beach, Florida, police informed her of her husband Michael’s apparent murder, the newlywed Dippolito can be seen on surveillance video collapsing into the cop’s arms, like any loving wife would—or any wife who was pretending to be loving would. The only thing missing from her performance were actual tears.

… And the only thing missing from the murder scene was an actual murder.

Tipped off by one of Dalia’s lovers, an undercover detective posing as a hit man met with Dalia to plot her husband’s murder while his team planned, then staged the murder scenario—brazenly inviting the reality TV show Cops along for the ride. The Cops video went viral, sparking a media frenzy: twisted tales of illicit drugs, secret boyfriends, sex-for-hire, a cuckolded former con man, and the defense’s ludicrous claim that the entire hit had been staged by the intended victim for reality TV fame.

In Poison Candy, case prosecutor Elizabeth Parker teams with bestselling crime writer Mark Ebner take you behind and beyond the courtroom scenes with astonishing never-before-revealed facts, whipsaw plot twists in the ongoing appellate process, and exclusive photos and details far too lurid for the trial that led to 20 years in state prison for Dalia Dippolito.

After receiving her juris doctorate from Loyola University School of Law in 1998, Elizabeth Parker began her career as an assistant state attorney in the Palm Beach County Florida State Attorney’s Office. Since then, she served consecutively as the deputy chief of county court, the chief of the county court division and the domestic violence division. From January of 2009 until August of 2011, she held the position of chief assistant state attorney, in which Parker litigated high-profile cases.  She has appeared on Dateline, Snapped, Sins and Secrets, Nothing Personal, and In Session for her role as the lead prosecutor in the Dalia Dippolito case. Parker opened her own victim advocacy and criminal defense firm in Palm Beach County, Florida, and has appeared on Nancy Grace and In Session as a legal analyst.

New York Times best selling author Mark Ebner is an award winning investigative journalist who has covered all aspects of celebrity and crime culture for Spy, Rolling Stone, Maxim, Details, Los Angeles, Premiere, Salon, Spin, Radar, Angeleno, The Daily,, and New Times among other national and international and internet publications. He has repeatedly positioned himself in harm’s way, conducting dozens of investigations into such subjects as Scientology, Pit Bull fighting in South Central Los Angeles, the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, celebrity stalkers, drug dealers, missing porn stars, sports groupies, mobsters, college suicides and Hepatitis C in Hollywood. (BenBella Books)

Adventures in taxes: “Jail or No Jail”

By: Jane Stillwater

A friend of mine just told me about a friend of his who, for the past several years, has had to spend every single weekend of his life cooped up in jail.  Every single weekend, week in and week out, this guy goes to jail — with free room and board provided at the taxpayers’ expense.  “But, why?” you might ask.  Because the guy steadfastly refuses to pay that portion of his federal income tax that goes toward unnecessary wars.

But on the other hand, many huge US-based multi-national corporations also refuse to pay any kind of federal tax at all.  So shouldn’t their CEOs be spending weekends in jail as well?

Taxes are supposed to be a way that all of us Americans can pool our money together in order to buy all that expensive stuff that we couldn’t afford to buy individually.  For instance, I alone cannot afford to purchase good roads, education for my granddaughter, police and fire protection, etc. all by myself.  And neither can most of the rest of us either.  And for this obvious reason I approve of taxation.

But apparently a lot of huge mega-corporations have refused to pool their money with our money so that we can all afford to pay for these big-ticket items.  Corporatists have a better idea:  “Let’s just let everyone else pay for our share.”  And then you can hear them whispering to themselves under their breath, “Suckers.”<
Jail Cell
April is tax season, of course, but it is also Passover season too.  And this Passover, I was once again amazed by the poetry and meaningfulness of the Haggadah ritual words recited at Seder dinners throughout the world.

According to the Haggadah, Jews everywhere strongly believe that freedom is the birthright of every human being alive — and not just Jews.  “With freedom and justice for all.”  Even for dark-skinned Jews in Israel and even for Christian and Muslim Palestinians.  Yay!  And even for us tax-paying Americans too.

PS:  At last month’s Berkeley-Albany Bar Association luncheon, our guest speaker told us all about the latest changes that have been made in federal tax law.  I madly scribbled all this stuff down on some paper napkins and here it is.  Hopefully I got most of it right:

“The IRS budget for 2014 was slashed by $526 million.  It now has 8,000 fewer employees — but with a much bigger workload.   Last year there were 3.5 billion dollars in fraudulent tax returns.  And the IRS admits that it conducted 18 percent fewer audits of major corporations last year.”  Told ya.

“Not many tax laws were passed last year.”  Hell, not many of any kind of laws were passed last year by this do-nothing Congress — except for a whole bunch of laws sending Big Government into our bedrooms.

“The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA), passed in 2013, permanently extends a lower tax rate on individuals with incomes of $400,000 or less.  It also provides for a new 39.6% marginal rate for income in excess of the above thresholds, as well as a higher rate for net capital gains and qualified dividends.  And for a phase-out of personal exemptions and itemized deductions for higher-income individuals.  But even with these new increases, US tax rates are still quite low in comparison with other countries.”

“Regarding foreign income reporting, there is now a Form 8938 which requires that specified foreign financial assets must be reported.”  About time for that to happen!  “And the penalties are stiff if you fail to file an accurate 3938.”  Good.  “And there are no statutes of limitation here either.  Pursuit of US taxpayers with foreign financial accounts continues to be one of the IRS’s highest priorities.”  But the IRS is also trying to extend its statutes of limitation in other areas too.  So be aware of that.

Regarding gay marriages, “Same-sex couples, legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriage, will be treated as married for all federal tax purposes.”

And apparently America’s fourth-largest tax preparation firm just got busted for fraudulent and deceptive conduct and isn’t gonna be allowed to prepare our taxes ever again.  “One of the more heinous acts committed by the owner involved forging customers’ signatures on duplicate refund checks, causing collection proceedings against the customers, who knew nothing about this.”

Also, when filing out your 1040, make sure you check “child support” and not “family support” because spousal support doesn’t count as child support and apparently doesn’t get as many reductions.

“The IRS assessed FBAR penalties against a taxpayer for willingly failing to report the existence of or the income from a Swiss bank account.”  And the IRS has taken a very hard line regarding overstated charitable contributions too.  And California taxes its residents on their world-wide income as well.

“S corporations have done well under the new tax act — exempt from healthcare taxes, etc.  They won’t be going away any time soon.”  No idea what an S corporation is but apparently it is a good thing to have if you are going to pay taxes.

“And roll-overs are tricky.  Be very careful.  You only have 60 days.”  And home offices aren’t so much the audit-trigger that they once were under the new safe harbor rule — as the IRS attempts to codify repairs and improvements to small businesses.

And then the speaker also explained a lot of stuff about ObamaCare and its effects on our taxes — but I got distracted by the cheesecake for dessert.