Here is an actual joke from tonight’s 2 Broke Girls:
“Last year I was taking meetings on Wall Street. This year, I’m eating meat on the street, by a wall.”
Here is another:
“Also known as OCD vs. ‘Oh, here’s a CD I forgot I had.’”
I’m firmly on record as believing that comedies should get some time to figure out what works in the joke department, that if everything else is clicking, a show can fix the problem of bad jokes pretty easily (by hiring better writers, usually). The problem is that these last two episodes of 2 Broke Girls suggest the show is actually solving its story issues—tonight’s episode was once again a fairly well-executed sitcom plot—but hasn’t bothered with coming up with better jokes. It’s dropped the racial and gender stereotype jokes, but it hasn’t replaced them with anything else.
TV writer Denis McGrath came up with a term called the like-a-joke. It’s a sitcom placeholder gag that gets into the script because the writers want to make sure the story is as tight as it can be, before they go back and perk up the jokes. In many cases, like-a-jokes will last until the table read, when the writers can see if the actors are able to put some of them over through sheer line-reading ability. After the read, then the writers go back and plug in better jokes. This isn’t a bad procedure, honestly: Get the story in place, then see if the actors can save some of the lamer gags, then plug in better ones later on. I’m not suggesting every comedy on TV does it this way. In most cases, the vast majority of jokes that make the final script are in there in earlier drafts. But when you just can’t think of a good enough gag to, say, end an act on, it’s sometimes just fine to plug something in there to get on to something else. There’s only a limited amount of time to produce these things in, after all, and once it’s in the actors’ mouths, there’s every chance something will suggest itself.
The problem with this show is that the like-a-jokes seem to have all stayed in the script. When Beth Behrs is asked to say, “The only thing I’ve lost is my virginity!” in response to a query about whether she’s ever lost anything, is there any way to imagine that she would take that line and make something out of it? The audience chuckles a bit, but it’s a stinker. It just sits there, flopping around on the floor, while Behrs has this little grin on her face, like she just wants everything to move on from there. This scenario repeats itself throughout the episode, especially as the writers throw themselves back on the “I like this because of [word]; you like this because of [similar-sounding word].” It’s a joke structure the show has been abusing since the pilot, and it’s especially egregious tonight in the two examples listed above.
The first joke listed above is particularly bad because it’s Behrs’ Caroline once again telling us the premise of the show, which makes her seem ever-so-slightly brain-damaged. Does Caroline really care this much about reminding us that she was rich, to the point where she has to do it in the first minute of every episode? Of course not. The writers just want to keep reminding us of the single worst element of their premise because… I don’t know? They still haven’t figured out how to make this a consistently entertaining show about the characters? The second joke stems from a lengthy running gag about how messy Max’s purse is, and while it’s awful on its face, at least it ties into a plot that has something to do with the main story of the episode—Max’s disorganized life potentially getting her in trouble with the IRS. This is a good story, and it incorporates much of the cast in smart ways. If the jokes were even slightly better, I might actually recommend “And The Messy Purse Smackdown” somewhat heartily.
Because when the story’s strong, that makes the jokes stronger as well! There are some good, weird jokes here about how Earl used to wash Frank Sinatra’s balls. They’re raunchy and dumb, but because they’re in the midst of a plot about how proud Earl is of his own financial security, they work. (I particularly liked him saying that being Frank Sinatra’s ball-washer was “good work in those days.”) The final sequence of the episode—with Max deciding that she can do her own taxes because she can take control of her messy life—is also good, and it ends on a somewhat triumphant note, as the character gets her taxes in under the wire. It’s a great little character moment, and it shows how Caroline and Max are able to make each other into better, more complete people, which is the kind of standard sitcom theme this show could thrive with.
There’s plenty of other stuff that could work in here as well, even if it doesn’t, not quite. There’s a potentially enjoyable slapstick centerpiece of Max and Caroline stomping around in a dumpster, looking for Earl’s tax return (which they accidentally threw out). There’s a moment where Max sees that even her pot dealer files his taxes, when she hasn’t for years and years. There’s the usual scene where the two head for a weird location—in this case, one of those fly-by-night tax prep offices that pop up around this time of year—and meet some odd people. And there’s the stuff throughout about how Max needs to take control of her own financial life, which has always been one of the stronger elements of the show and has always tied it into the economic insecurity that gave rise to its premise. There are all of the elements here for a really good episode of television, and I don’t know that I could have possibly said that for… months now.
But the jokes remain bland and uninteresting. The supporting characters remain a mess. The storytelling is better, but it’s still logy and bulky and bland. The like-a-jokes are all over the place, and as much as Kat Dennings and Behrs seem game to put them over the top, they just don’t ever land because there’s not even the slightest amount of craft put into a lot of them. “Messy Purse” comes so close to working that it makes it that much more irritating when the show’s usual flaws hold it back. I’m past the point of defending this show, but I’d still be pleased if it figured out what it wanted to be. Instead, it’s still stuck in a constant, ever-shifting state of sitcom evolution.
- Sophie’s in this episode for a little bit, tied to the B-plot, in which Oleg realizes he has feelings for her. When Jennifer Coolidge steps on the set, she gets applause from the studio audience like she’s Mork from Ork, so I imagine she’ll be a series regular next season.
- I really don’t understand why Max and Caroline wouldn’t change into something grubbier to go digging in a dumpster. But maybe I shouldn’t question that!
- The dumpster scene, incidentally, was fairly poorly directed. It was hard to tell what was going on at certain points, and the camera never found a good way to cut around the high, metal walls of the thing. There was probably a better way to shoot this one.