Monday, September 15, 2008

"The Complete History of Half-Hour Comedy" - (the short version)

It started with radio.

Amos ‘n Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Our Miss Brooks, The Great Gildersleeve, The Jack Benny Program, The Burns and Allen Show, Life With Luigi. These and other radio comedies would be influential as templates for the television comedies that would follow.

When television started, most half-hour comedies were filmed like little movies. (They were produced in movie studios and that’s what they knew how to do.) The process they employed is known as the “single camera” filming system. When you shoot “single camera”, every scene is filmed multiple times – “close-up”, “medium shot”, “long shot”, and from various angles – with a single camera (hence the, you know, name of the process). The footage is then edited together, ultimately producing the final product.

Most early “single camera” comedies were family shows like Ozzie and Harriet, which generated gentle chuckles from the humorous escapades of the bumbling Dad (the Mom was perfect) and their harmlessly incorrigible offspring. The “single camera” format would continue through the Sixties with, among others, My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

There was one exception to the early “single camera” monopoly. Desi Arnaz pioneered the “multi-camera” approach to recording half-hours for I Love Lucy, so that his wife, Lucy, could stomp grapes and stuff chocolates into her blouse in front of a live studio audience.

The Lucy audience’s natural laughter accompanied the episodes when they were broadcast, energizing the audience at home with the excitement of the actual performance. By contrast, “single camera” comedies felt remote and, consistent with the word applied to the fabricated “laugh track” that accompanied them, “canned.”

(It amazes me that Lucy was brave enough to risk filming elaborate physical comedy set-pieces in front of an audience. With the audience present, you only have one shot at getting the stunt right; otherwise, you lose the surprise (and the peals of spontaneous laughter the surprise sets off). When I wrote for shows, I was encouraged to avoid such gambles, relying instead on clever dialogue and carefully built-to comedic “moments.”)

Is this stuff too academic? If I were lecturing, I could see people yawning, and start juggling or swallowing a sword. I wish this were more interactive, so you could tell me to keep going or please be more entertaining.

Oh, well. I’ve gone this far…

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, half-hour comedies, such as Sanford and Son and All in the Family, began to be videotaped. Taping programs accommodated the “multi-camera” arrangement, but the production process was considerably cheaper. (A guy I once met who, with a writing partner, created and owned the show What’s Happenin’? told me that his company never had to “go into deficit” – read: borrow money – to produce their series. The videotape process was so cheap, they could begin making a profit right away.)

Not all shows were taped, of course. The shows I worked on, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi and the others, continued to be shot on film, employing the Lucy-developed “multi-camera” approach. (They used to call what we did “Three Camera Comedy.” Then, one day, they started calling it “Four Camera Comedy.” I asked, “How come?” They said, “We added a camera.”)

Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley (the one show that took Lucy-sized gambles with its physical comedy), Family Ties, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Murphy Brown, Seinfeld, Friends, Frazier, Everybody Loves Raymond – all programs people loved, ratings winners – it wasn’t unusual for half the week’s “Top Ten” to be populated by comedies.

Comedy was where the money was, especially when shows were successful enough to make it to syndication. Hoping to hit the syndication market motherlode, studios and production companies scooped up all the comedy talent they could find, shelling out substantial sums to sign writers with promising resumes to exclusive “overall” deals. (Hello, Universal. Thanks for the pool.)

It was a good time to be good at being funny. Comedy was riding high, and funny people were flourishing. It looked like it would never stop.

And then it stopped.

And so will I. For today. Tomorrow, I will reveal the truth – I call it the truth, but it could just be my opinion – about the precipitous slide of a genre of entertainment that ruled the airwaves for over seventy years, but doesn’t anymore.

That’s a big story, isn’t it? Worth coming back for?

So come back.

I’ll see you tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

You wrote "If I were lecturing, I could see people yawning, and start juggling"

I am a juggler, but I was riveted by this; I am glad you kept going.

angel said...

I was riveted, too and was glad you kept going.

Being a non writer, I had wondered why companies hired people to deals, but to nothing specific. You are starting to show me the why.

Anonymous said...

In my humble opinion, when you ask yourself if you should keep going, the answer should always be yes!

michael said...

Keep going? Why else am I here?

As a former professional critic (it is now just a hobby), I do have one criticism. Your posts should be shorter. Not less information, but the same information spread over several days. I have no interest in Westerns but your repeated posts featuring short "interviews" with Western "stars" rank among my favorites of your posts.

Anthony Strand said...

Yeah, it's great. I can't wait for the second part.