When situation comedies began to decrease in popularity, a television executive was asked for an explanation. His response was this:
“The writers aren’t funny anymore.”
Yeah. That must be the reason. (To be read with the appropriate slathering of sarcasm, combined with a perplexed shaking of the head as to how that executive ever got a job.)
“The writers aren’t funny anymore.” Not “The networks played it safe way past the time when ‘playing it safe’ was any longer in any way safe.” Not “They glutted the airwaves with too many – I don’t want to single out any specific show, it may be your favorite – but, generically, imagine a piece of talent who’s familiar to the viewing audience but who, throughout their careers, has never demonstrated the tiniest glimmer of comedic instinct.” That strategy hardly strengthens the sitcom brand.
Then, we have the competition from cable, whose riskier comedies like Beavis and Butthead, Dr. Katz, Ren and Stimpy and, later, South Park went head-to-head with the networks’ somewhat funny leading ladies with really great-looking hair. What kind of competition is that? “Ha-ha” versus a luxurious head of hair. If you were talking football, that would be USC versus Toronto Hebrew Day School.
You can’t blame the writers, plagued by the dual devils of the risk-averse network executives and the virulent PC interest groups who monitor the “public airwaves”, ready to pounce whenever their issue of choice is portrayed in any other manner than glowingly. And as you can tell from my as-yet-unpublished-but-if-you-come-to-my-house-you-can-read-it book, Both Sides Make Me Angry, I’m not just talking about conservatives.
Were the writers at all responsible for the serious decline of television comedy? We did our part. It works like this.
You write what you can sell. That’s natural. TV writers are well paid and have a really great health plan. So there’s this powerful incentive to continue working. Your agent also wants you to work – they’re parasitically dependent on their clients’ success – so you’re encouraged not to rock the boat, and continue doing the type of writing got you where you are.
Before you know it, you’re censoring yourself, strangling any exciting but less than mainstream impulse in its bed. And before you know it Part Two, you don’t have to censor yourself anymore. You’re doing what they want automatically, “what they don’t want” ideas no longer troubling your consciousness. Except during those euphoric “that would be hilarious, but we can’t do it” fooling around moments, after which you immediately “get back to work.”
The result is what you see on prime time network TV. Like what?
Stories television viewers have experienced many times before. A friend/relative/co-worker temporarily moves in with the lead character, because their house is being fumigated/their spouse threw them out/they’re suddenly allergic to their bed.
The writer fools themselves into thinking the storylines are fresh because they’re being funneled through the “unique” perspective of their show’s “original” characters. Writers are adept at fooling themselves, especially when they’re tired and under the gun, and when any idea taking a “never seen before” direction is overcome by the weight of serious network “concern.” Inevitably, like the houseguest in the above example, the “traditional” storylines begin to wear out their welcomes.
Precise and unvarying scriptwriting rhythms, established before the current writers were born, constrict and constrain (those may be the same thing) the storytelling process. Under the surface of a smoothly executed narrative are moments, scenes, and ultimately entire scripts, made up entirely of one-joke-after-another, three-laughs-per-page, modular hunks.
Sitcom scripts proceed with the meticulously timed regularity of a Sousa march – Bum. Bum. Bum. Bum. Set-up. Joke. Set-up. Joke. Somebody leaves a room. Joke. End of scene. Big joke. End of act. Really big joke, (or a tension-filled dramatic moment).
Once again, you fool yourself, this time thinking, “I may be doing the same rhythms, but my jokes are funnier.”
For a more instructive insight, try putting that the other way around: “My jokes may be funnier, but I’m doing the same rhythms.” These are not “life” rhythms, they’re unique- to-sitcom rhythms. (I’ve rarely made a joke when exiting a room. Sometimes, I leave without saying anything.) Like the stories themselves, these “unique-to-the-sitcom” rhythms eventually get tired.
Then, there’s the issue of the actual story structure. The better episodes mask it better, but underneath, virtually all sitcom stories follow the same repeated trajectory.
I believe, at least when you’re starting out, you can learn more from an inferior show than from a good one. The good shows hide their skeletal underpinnings more artfully, so they’re harder to break down and learn from. In inferior series, the story structure is easier to follow.
Phyllis – I’m sorry if you loved it, and, by the way, I wrote eleven episodes of Phyllis – was not a good show. It was too thin. A supporting character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show was, as they say, spun off, and given their own series. Phyllis did well for one season, but after the second season, it was gone. On some level, the audience realized there was nothing there.
Here’s how Phyllis generally constructed its stories. As a child, Phyllis had had a traumatic experience playing at a piano recital. She decides – I don’t know why, to feel better about herself, something – she has to return to the moment of that trauma and finally confront her demons. Yadda, yadda, yadda, finally, it’s the “block comedy” recital scene. And there’s Phyllis, marching onto the stage, the only adult in a group of much shorter, recital-playing children.
The recital scene was hilarious. But the rest of the episode, structured to set that final scene up, felt like five scenes (out of six) of empty filler. Would the last recital scene have been as funny is it hadn’t been skillfully built to in the earlier scenes? No. But it’s not enough. There has to be more to a half-hour episode than one, albeit very funny, payoff scene.
Another structural sore spot? The big, sitcom story “twist.” I’ll give you an example from Frasier, a very popular and deservedly much-honored series, but this episode, I don’t believe, was their finest hour.
The standard sitcom “story surprise” reminds me of a car with automatic transmission. Unlike driving “gearshift”, the “automatic” car offers no subtly calibrated adjustments – it has “go” (forwards or backwards), and it has “stop.” It’s the exactly same with the standard sitcom.
The standard sitcom “twist” involves, not a surprise that’s different from what you’d expect, but, like “go” and “stop”, a surprise that’s precisely one hundred and eighty degrees the opposite of what you expect.
Frasier has a mentor who’s written a book, and he wants Frasier to take a look at it. For reasons I can no longer remember, the manuscript winds up incinerated in Frasier’s fireplace. “Oh, my God, (with the accompanying wringing of hands). It’s the only copy. What I am going to tell him?”
The mentor is grateful the manuscript was destroyed.
Huh? That was my first reaction. Who, based on everyday experience, would be grateful, hearing that the only copy of the manuscript they had worked tirelessly on for years had gotten burnt up in a fire? Not me. I’d be really pissed.
Okay, so maybe it’s not that believable, but it’s a funny surprise, isn’t it?
You’re sitting at home, watching a sitcom. You’re expecting a twist, because that’s what sitcoms do. But the “twists” sitcoms do are invariably, not something different than what you expect, but exactly the opposite. Like when instead of being pissed because his manuscript got burnt up in a fire, the mentor responds the exact opposite – he’s happy.
Is that a twist? It’s a sitcom “twist.” It is a surprise? No. Why not? Because that’s what sitcoms do. It is funny? Surprises are funny, and this wasn’t a surprise. It also wasn’t believable.
Finally, when you came down to it, the issues played out in sitcom stories don’t fundamentally matter. I don’t mean the issues are trivial, I mean that, at the end of the episode, nothing has ultimately changed. You have normal life, a disturbing complication, and end with a return to the same normal life you had at the beginning. To borrow a line from Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath, the sitcom story trajectory went something, no, exactly, like this:
The old lady with the parakeet, flies out the window, flies back in.
So there you have it. Done in by a “dinosaur” formula, the multi-camera comedy passes, pretty much, entirely from existence. Its current replacement? A return to where it all began – the single-camera comedy. At least it’s different. The dialogue and story structure are more consistent with an identifiable reality, the “twists” aren’t “one-eighties”, and, at the end of the episode, you’re not always back at the beginning.
Are the new comedies popular? Only if “popular” isn’t measured by the size of the audience. And it’s not. “Popular” is now measured by the size of the audience coveted by the advertisers. Are the new comedies popular when measured by the size of the audience coveted by the advertisers? Apparently, they are. But boy, are those audiences tiny.
Maybe it’s not a funny time. The current comedy hits, like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm seem more about humiliation and pain than anything I recognize as humorousness. But maybe, its traditional terrain played out, that’s just where comedy moved on to.
Are there any hopeful signs? There were, with Seinfeld, which, in mine ‘umble opinion, was the greatest half hour comedy ever made. And I’ll back up that claim tomorrow.
It’s possible, I suppose, that that television executive was right – the writers did the traditional sitcom in. But, more likely – as I hope I have demonstrated – it was the other way around.
The traditional sitcom, with its rigid, almost Kabuki-like requirements, finally did in the writers.
Note: If the conditions writing network comedy are different today, I’d like to hear about it.