There are no rules in comedy. Or so it seems after this week's two episodes, which stand expectations on their heads.
Rule #1: United we stand, divided we fall. Don't separate the ensemble, people. We're seen it over and over again -- if you stick Dave and Bill way the hell out in the St. Louis airport, and send Beth and Matthew to Bill's apartment to water the plants, your finely tuned laugh machine will sputter and fail.
Only it doesn't, at least in "Airport," an episode that comes together far better than I had remembered. For some reason, the balance between friendly locals, Bill in full-on elitist rant mode, and coping yet quietly exasperated Dave makes the great dialog and crackerjack pacing sparkle. It helps that their absence from the office -- well, at least Dave's -- is the topic of the C-story, in which Lisa attempts to prove that she can deal with the impending Catherine-Joe date night as well as Dave could. ("I am not Dave!" she insists to Mr. James; "Dave wouldn't say that," he mutters in response.) It helps as well that Dave makes contact with the mothership early on, falling victim to Matthew's office phone transfer procedure ("hold ... transfer ... push 5549 ... hang up!"). It helps that there's still a staff meeting, which Lisa closes by insisting that "all the girls have to give Mr. James a big kiss!", delighting the boss even though he accepts only a blown kiss from Catherine.
But it's surprising how perfectly the far-flung locations and the paired-up cast members function in this jam-packed episode. Sure, it's fun to watch Bill attempt to use his New York power to dress down airline personnel: "There's nothing we can do about the 18 inches of snow outside," the gate agent insists pleasantly, causing Bill to explode, "What about the 36 inches of BS inside, is there anything you can do about that?!" And his patronizing attitude toward St. Louis, Gateway to the West, is pitched just right between anger and irony: "I almost mistook the Museum of Yarn for the Guggenheim!" But what pushes this story into complete success is the unexpected willingness of the setting to conform precisely to Bill's expectations, therefore befuddling Dave who considers himself the master midwestern operator. Bill gets his way by hurling abuse, then when he tries niceness under Dave's direction, he gets his way again, with hollandaise sauce and a glass of champagne. "Brave, garçon! Take a bow!" he barks falsely to the man who's just brought him a steak. "Well, you deserve it, sir! Kudos! And kudos again!" "The brotherhood of man has never seemed more repellent," muses Dave.
And there's no reason other than sheer talent and invention that the B-story of Beth and Matthew going to Bill's Playboy Apartment to water his plants turns out so well. It's a horrible muddle of hoary props and stale stereotypes, but then Matthew crawls along the rotating bed to stay in the same place during his conversation with Beth, knocks all the books of the bedside shelf while snagging one, and gets whacked by the swingin' seventies lamp. One pratfall, and all is forgiven.
Rule #2: Funny people make things funny. OK, this is a rule more often observed in the breach, at least when it comes to TV guest stars. And boy, Jon Stewart -- a man I dearly love, respect, and nightly blow milk out of my nose under the influence of -- does not make for much fun in "Twins," a goof where Matthew introduces Jon as his twin brother Andrew, leading to much business where they appear to believe they are identical. The storyline may have fallen victim to the Jon Stewart curse, in which any setting involving Stewart trying to act is doomed to a case of the wincing crickets. It's puzzling to me, because in his Daily Show element, Stewart frequently acts up a storm. I'm sure there's a case to be made that his fake news persona itself is a bravura piece of acting, although I think its power stems from how closely the barely-contained outrage seems to mirror Stewart's own. Out from behind the desk, though, wearing the sweater vest and doing the mugging? Less funny than embarrassing. One good moment in the breakroom, when Andrew confesses his secret to the female staff members and they ask why Matthew hasn't caught on yet that he's adopted: "He's a little ret-- hey, bro!" as Matthew bursts in with his usual exuberance.
There's a lot more enjoyment to be had in the B-story of Mr. James's orange-jumpsuited minions removing furniture and equipment because the station is over budget; it starts off remarkably strong with Catherine being lifted off her rolling chair and deposited in a folding chair in front of a card table, and builds with the business about Dave's office window being removed so Beth can shout to him instead of using the (repossessed) intercom. (When Bill and Mr. James pass each other on their way through the window with "Morning, Ralph!" "Morning, Sam," it may be the biggest single laugh in both of these episodes. And if the joke is lost on you millennial types, please to enjoy this link.)
In fact, this plotline is so assured that the actors, dialogue, and even the office set marinate, if you will, in its off-kilter implications. Trying to do their jobs as their tools disappear around them (check out the huge adding machine that replaces Dave's computer, or the mimeograph near Bill's folding table where the copier used to be), the laughs arise from the characters' reactions to the escalating absurdity of their circumstances. In that way it's a trial run for the kind of comedy the show will increasingly feature in the later seasons, the kind where the premise gets thrown into a blender and we watch the characters try to cope with the madness, like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck.
Pairing that kind of sublime comedic conception with the much more pedestrian business of Matthew's delusions serves only to drag down the former. Witness the breakroom scene where the women are trying to spare Matthew's feelings while the clueless men are asking the obvious questions about Andrew's non-identicalness; all the standard sitcom conflict about secrets and interpersonal relations tends to obscure the wonderful fact that they're all sitting on milk crates. It's a crime against comedy.
Grade: "Airport," A-; "Twins," B
- You know what Matthew's problem was? You gotta hit transfer again after you dial the extension.
- "Airport" reveals what everyone but Dave, apparently, thinks of Mr. James: Suck up to his face, revert to contempt as quickly as possible. Catherine spits up his proffered cheese cracker right outside the breakroom, while Lisa doesn't even wait until she gets through the door before flinging it at the wall where it sticks like a booger.
- In another piece of evidence that there are no rules, Joe is awesome in both these episodes. "What's the booth?" he asks when Lisa brings it up in a conversation with Mr. James. "Oh, that booth ... I thought it was a new thing." As Lisa flings condoms from Dave's desk drawer by way of giving up trying to stop Joe and Catherine from going out to the movies, Catherine demurs: "Oh, those won't be necessary," followed by Joe's pleasant rejoinder, "Actually I'm sort of a stickler about safe sex." And when Dave reveals that Bill's secret salary hike is the cause of the budget cuts, he demands satisfaction: "That is completely bogus, and you, sir, are completely bogus as well!"
- Friendly local at the St. Louis airport: "I had a cousin who studied cattle husbandry at Wisconsin Agricultural." Dave: "Hey, who didn't?"
- "You're like one of those trained police dogs that they set loose in the wild and they go all soft and get eaten by a deer or something."
- The callback to "Massage Chair," in which Mr. James had tried to solve the budget woes by eliminating free food, is made extra wonderful by budget specialist Robert's little mirroring gesture when Mr. James waves toward the breakroom: "We can't affoooord free snacks!"
- Hey, It's 1997! Dave uses a pay phone in the airport; Beth thinks goldenrod is the best color of copy paper.
- Bill: "What do fighting men and women do when faced with adversity?" Joe: "They fight!" Bill: "No, they give in! Especially when the odds are overwhelmingly against them."
- "You said, and I quote, I will drink water from the toilet like a dog before I pay for my own sodas."
- "Just step aside, is that your new motto?"