The Right Stuff

If the reality show has demolished creativity in television, then let’s insert comedy into it − without telling anyone. And let’s break into song.

The efflorescence of the new cultural languages of the 20th century – cinema, television, light music − was accompanied by the debasement of central modes that had shaped cultural consciousness in the past. In some cases, they were marginalized, while genres and forms of expression that could not be accommodated in the new field were erased. For example, the centrality of theater − certainly the most important cultural platform until the 20th century − was severely diminished, along with poetry ‏(which gave way to pop songs‏), classical music and other forms.

The new artistic discourse no longer takes place on the proscenium or in the pages of poetry books, still less in concert halls. In the 20th century, cinema became the most compelling arena for those who wished to give expression to the essence of their times and to shape new art forms. Beginning in the last decade of the 20th century, television has supplanted cinema both as the primary mass arena and as the venue in which daring, momentum and aesthetic virtuosity are occurring most meaningfully anywhere in the world.

 Adam and Ilana Avital

Of course, this statement challenges a certain “old order,” though in some cases it now exists only in the minds of a small group of people, purist and conservative, who find it difficult to speak in the language of the present. And, of course, the sweeping character of such a statement needs to be diluted: let us suggest that literature is still a major field in the cultural discourse, and certainly art − with the wide range of subgenres it has been able to develop − attracts many creative minds. But still, if we look for the main spheres of influence, including those of the economic sphere − this is, after all, the capitalist era − we find them ranging between the small screen, the big screen, the musicians’ recording studios and the mass stages.

It follows that cultural genres and languages that did not succeed in keeping up with the spirit of the age became extinct. Others, more sophisticated, found a way to generate self-expression using the new tools of the period. For example, comedy, one of the three principal genres since the inception of culture, developed multiple subgenres that were appropriate to the platforms active at the time and, no less important, to the spirit of the age.

Thus, satire found a way to go beyond text and stage and preserve its power through television. However, parody, a subgenre that was highly suited to an age more refined than ours, has almost vanished from the world, along with burlesque, whose force lay mainly in creating a ridiculous disparity between the object of mockery and the manner of its presentation, using exaggerated body gestures. That type of language has almost no place in contemporary theater, however experimental and fringe, nor are there many comedians or playwrights who are busy these days trying to revive it or adapt it to the spirit of the times.

New genre

With these thoughts in mind, I have found myself riveted in the past few weeks to “Hall of Fame,” a program broadcast daily − and throughout almost the entire day − on the Music Channel. The program brings together 10 musicians who have almost disappeared in recent years. The venue is a house that has been converted into a small performance studio and an apartment. What takes place there is a musical competition among the 10 and a personal competition, in which one participant is removed each week.

At first glance, this amusing and original program appears to be no more than an upgraded variation of a similar reality show that was broadcast in Israel: “Big Brother VIP.” However, a deeper and more erudite viewing compels one to acknowledge that a new cultural genre is being founded before the viewer’s eyes − more precisely, the revival of cultural languages that seemed no longer to have a place in the new cultural field.

Reality television had begun to erode the power of the central TV genres of drama and soap opera and forced drama to differentiate itself from reality programs that had the same emotional effect on the viewer. Reality also dealt a blow to comedy. The sitcom, widespread in the golden age of the 1970s and ‘80s, has almost disappeared; sitcoms in the classic sense barely exist in Israel or anywhere else today. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David crossbred standup with sitcom on “Seinfeld” and resurrected the genre briefly. But it’s evident that series such as “Arrested Development,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Married with Children,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “30 Rock” all tried, each in its distinctive language, to create a new television comedy language of hybrid genres: parody and comedy, documentary and comedy, and so on.

They all excelled at what they were doing and they all earned their place on contemporary must-watch lists. However, they were not successful in producing worthy successors, perhaps because the alchemy required to engender them was a product of their creators’ genius. Back to “Hall of Fame.” At first it appears to function as a reality program in every respect, but in practice it becomes − because of the participants’ unconscious power of improvisation − a new genre of television comedy. The number of truly fine comic moments created by the weird and surprising encounters between people with different musical and social approaches, along with the raucous and colorful personal confrontations between the musical tenants, generates an undiluted comic effect that evokes in the memory a pleasure akin to the experience of burlesque and vaudeville viewers. Anyone who saw Benny Elbaz, the ultra-Orthodox musician, threaten Avi Biter, the priest of kitsch and the pathetic ‏(but heart-touching‏) grotesque knows that no writer today could credibly script a comic situation like this. Anyone who saw Avi Toledano strutting around the house with Dafna Armoni at his side, both falling into each other’s arms and crying in the wake of some trivial episode that turned them into emotional gushers, certainly laughed aloud at the situation.

Return of burlesque

The way “Hall of Fame” turns into comedy of a new type − one that writes itself before the viewers’ eyes − involves a delicate balance. This is created ‏(possibly by chance‏) between the contestants’ ability to adopt a mannerist posture that is not staged and is larger than life, and the lack of seriousness with which viewers take the naked pomposity and melodramatic emotionalism the contestants project. The fact that the situation entails musical obligations and the presentation of a genuine onstage performance, creates the effect of a show within a show and a play within a play, with each apparently unaware of the other’s existence.

When Avi Toledano, whose persona needs no introduction and is well known to most viewers, performs the Hi-Five song “I Love You,” wiggling his bottom and capering about like a goat, a deconstructed cultural register is created as we watch − a mix of numberless associative fields and cultural images, with laughter as the only possible reaction to the sight of this big bang. So, without intending to, “Hall of Fame” has resurrected burlesque and parody, created a refreshing homage to the traveling vaudeville railroad cars of song from the end of the 19th century, and has become the most amusing Israeli comedy on the small screen today, along with “Ramzor.”

Its punch lies primarily in the surprising mixes it creates between the characters, who are aware that this is acting, conjoined with the almost theatrical artifice with which they perform in the game. The more surprising the imagined life forced on them by the program’s creators, the wackier and more extreme the comedy. “Hall of Fame,” then, is first of all an allegory of the wisdom of culture and its capacity to update its language, even in a cultural milieu that is one big Tower of Babel.