Greatest Episodes #52: Better Off Ted: “The Impertence of Communicationizing” (January 10, 2010)
September 27, 2011
This short-lived workplace comedy from Victor Fresco (Andy Richter Controls the Universe) peaked with a brilliant high-concept set-up: a memo cautioning employees not to use offensive language replaces the “not” with a “now.” Since Veridian Dynamic is staffed with bureaucrats and obedient cube-drones, everyone blindly obeys the obvious typo and the swear words begin to fly. Dilweed. It’s a classic sitcom plot (by veteran sitcom writer Mike Teverbaugh) because it’s driven forward by each main character’s reaction to the circumstances: free spirit Linda (Andrea Anders) finds the profanity liberating; controlling middle manager Ted (Jay Harrington) takes it as a threat to his authority; nerdy scientists Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett) craft a mathematical formula for effective cursing (which actually works, by the way). Buttmunch.
Teverbaugh’s premise is also transgressive in the way it subverts television censorship requirements to get laughs. The joke is that Ted and company invent an off-the-wall alternative slang to insult each other; if the show ran on HBO and the characters could use real F-words, the gag wouldn’t work. Back-alley crab muffin. (Although a blooper reel featuring actual blue language is still pretty funny, you walking cock-cozy.) A subplot in which heartless corporate exec Veronica (Portia de Rossi) deals with unexpected guilt over a stolen promotion by consolation-dating her sad sack rival (Chris Parnell) is more traditional, but it’s still worthwhile because it sets up lines like: “Then I let him feel me up. I think I might need new breasts. These are covered in sadness.” That’s an example of the kind of presentational wit that Better Off Ted came to specialize in after it evolved from a topical satire (like The Office) to a non-realistic farce (like 30 Rock) driven more by dazzling verbal humor than by situations or characters. You’ve heard of comedians’ comedians; this is comedy writers’ comedy writing, you sad jar of hobo urine.