Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Worth Knowing"

I heard a comedian tell this joke early in the Cold War. At the time, America was concerned because Russians was ahead of us in military technology. The joke went like this:

“People are worried about the Russians stealing our secrets. I say, let them. Then they’ll be two years behind.”

This joke comes to mind when I think about people trying to learn about sitcom writing from veteran writers like myself, except, instead of two years, I’m afraid they’d be twenty years behind.

That’s why I don’t teach sitcom writing. I want to give the current aspirants a fighting chance. Situation comedies, especially the multi-camera variety, seem to me like some art form practiced in an ancient civilization. Teaching sitcom writing is akin to leading students through the anachronistic intricacies Egyptian wall painting.

“The legs and head go sideways, but the eyes face straight out.”

Why would you want to learn that? And hope it will make you a living?

There was a time when aspiring writers, watching classic situation comedies, were thinking, “That’s what I want to do!” One of them was me. But that was in 1974. And back then, those shows were popular.

There are some excellent sitcom writing teachers today. I imagine, among other advice, they warn their students against formula joke rhythms, stock characters and predictable storylines. That’s undeniably good advice (though, it’s worth remembering that many writers who avoided none of those elements wound up with extremely large houses).

The problem is, in my view, that the obstacles inhibiting a sitcom revival lie, not in the execution, but in the DNA of the situation comedy form itself. The liabilities come with the territory. I remember the first time I ate ice cream as a five year-old, and I immediately got an excruciating headache. To this day, I can hear myself screaming, “I like ice cream. But take away the cold!”

You can’t have ice cream without the cold. And you can’t have sitcoms without those inherent sitcomical elements that have clearly worn out their welcomes.

The generic living room sets with the couches facing forward. (It’s the only way the four cameras can adequately cover the action.) People eating around one half (the back half) of a table. (Same reason.) The unnatural intrusion of the live studio audience, laughing longer and harder than the people watching at home could possibly see any reason for. (People laugh harder when they’re actually present, but the laughs sound artificial at home, which is why they’re perceived to be “canned” even when they’re not.)

Why didn’t these, and other artificialities – the Huxtables’ living room was large enough to land an airplane in – disturb the viewers of that period? Because owing to the volume of comedies on the air at the time, “sitcom reality” was unconsciously accepted as normal.

As the number of sitcoms drops below a critical mass, the inherent weirdnesses of those that remain seem jarringly disconcerting. Which is a significant reason for the switch to single-camera and animated comedies. These more flexible formats significantly alleviate the traditional sitcom oddities.

The only difference between the classic sitcoms and the inferior versions was that the writing was better. The stories were more identifiable, the characters more believable and less inconsistent in their behavior, and the actors, given honest dialogue, played their parts more truthfully. But beneath the quality, the structural underpinning to both the good shows and the less good ones was exactly the same.

That underpinning is no longer selling tickets.

There’s this multi-camera series currently on the air called The Big Bang Theory. On the surface, it feels unique, the four male lead characters representing young physics geniuses, or something. The dialogue sounds persuasively not phony-baloney. There’s a ring of to authenticity to, I don’t know, blah – the science stuff.

Under the surface, however, it’s the story of a socially inept outsider with a powerful crush on the girl across the hall. I think that one goes back to Buster Keaton. I believe I mentioned yesterday that a hit show is something that’s fundamentally traditional, but a little bit different. The Big Bang Theory is precisely that. Fresh-sounding characters. Stories with moss on them.

I watch The Big Bang Theory, and I root for it to succeed. But unless the stories evolve to the intelligence level of the characters…eh.

Is there anything you can teach to resuscitate the ailing sitcom genre and give it its best possible shot at a comeback?

Yes. You can teach storytelling technique. I believe that, as there are natural laws in the universe, there are natural laws of telling a story. The right way feels better. You can tell when you’re telling a story correctly. You’re holding your audience’s attention, from moment to story-escalating moment.

Successful story structure, though invisible, lifts the material like a supporting wind lifts a bird in flight. It elevates the impact of any story you care to mention, from The Three Bears to… anything more impressive than The Three Bears.

My agent disagrees. He says the audience’s shortened attention span has rendered traditional story techniques irrelevant. My response to that is this. I do not believe any TV series or movie was ever less successful because the story they were telling made sense.

Storytelling technique matters. And that can definitely be taught.

And then there’s this. Offered as a concluding ray of sunshine.

I recently read about a guy who lived a while back, who drove himself crazy with the thought that, since there are only seven notes in the musical scale, the time was imminent when no new songs could possibly be written.

They’re still writing songs.

And a lot of them of are pretty good.


Racicot said...

Hello Earl,

As a viewer (then & now) I've only ever tuned into sitcoms who's characters I love: Cosby, ALF, Night Court... not necessarily the stories they were trying to tell.

Today's sitcoms, I feel, lack likability - save Two & a Half Men. Charlie Sheen is hilarious because we know who Charlie is (was) in real life - a f@#k up.

I, as a viewer, can't identify anymore with sitcoms. I see no 'I wanna be just like them' characters. Whereas in cable we have people the likes of Don Draper, the dudes from Entourage, Alec Baldwin. And Vampires!

I couldn't ever imagine having to listen to the guys in Big Bang Theory without wanting to tell them to shut-up.

So, that's my two & a half cents.

Be cool, or go back to skool!

p.s. here's a copy paste of an 80s Sitcom essay. If anyone could help me figure out how to 'link' articles, I'd appreciate it.


David K. M. Klaus said...

I'm here courtesy of Ken Levine.

> I recently read about a guy who
> lived a while back, who drove
> himself crazy with the thought
> that, since there are only seven
> notes in the musical scale, the
> time was imminent when no new
> songs could possibly be written.
> They’re still writing songs.

For now.

"Melancholy Elephants" by Spider Robinson