You want to tinker with the format because, by definition – meaning because the format was in place before you arrived – it is somebody else’s way of doing things, and you want to develop a way of doing things of your own. Understanding that writers are notorious rebels.
“We like to write about things rather than risk actually doing them.”
All right, there’s that. But within the realm of the imagination, we are exceedingly bold.
I am thinking of three situation comedies that tinkered with the traditional format – but just tinkered, you do not want to reinvent the wheel; it is virtually impossible to sell an entirely different-looking wheel. Three experiments in tinkering, two that succeeded, another that didn’t. I will begin by chronicling the experiment that didn’t.
Oh, wait. That was the one I tried. Well, at least it has the honor of going first.
I made mention not long ago, possibly yesterday, that comedies shot without an audience have the creative advantage of storytelling flexibility, while comedies filmed in front of a studio audience gain the heightened intensity of the immediate presentation. But there are tradeoffs. To be delineated forthwith.
In a sitcom I created called Family Man, I decided to eschew the live studio audience, because I wanted them to take out the audience bleachers so there would be more room on the stage for more sets, thus providing an expanded number of storytelling locations. In the Family Man pilot, I used seven locations rather than the regulation three, which was then the maximum number of locations (because of space limitations) available to live audience shows.
By eliminating the audience, I was also free to write more nuanced and naturalistically, unencumbered by the insistent imperative to earn audience guffaws. It is incredible how comedically freeing that is.
Unfortunately, my experiment did not work. Though I unquestionably gained in range of storytelling and laugh-inducing flexibility, lacking the audience-infused electricity, the finished product projected the recessive energy of an amusing soap opera.
(Note: It was only after Family Man’s production when two completed episodes were screened in front of an audience that the show’s star, Richard Libertini, realized, from their enthusiastic reaction, that the show he was participating in was actually funny.)
I had tried something and it failed. But at least I tried something.
Seinfeld, on the other hand, tried something and it was wildly successful.
Having no sitcom-writing experience whatever, the Seinfeld creative team was blissfully liberated from the restrictive indoctrination of “The Rules.” Also, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are incredibly talented, each of them possessing a distinct and hilarious comedic “Voice.”
Their original “Voice” pervaded the series from its opening episode, where an in-no-way-story-advancing conversation concerning the importance of the location of the second-from-the-top button on a man’s shirt tagged Seinfeld as a series that was definitely going to be different.
From the tinkering standpoint, although they retained the live studio audience, Seinfeld told its stories employing, I don’t know, twelve to fifteen scenes of greatly varying lengths, situated in multiple locations.
This expanded canvas was accomplished by “going outside”, like on that “New York” street (in quotes, because it was actually a set next to the soundstage), by locating sets on the stage itself whose action, resulting from advanced technology, the audience could not directly see but could follow via a monitor – when shows like Taxi were produced, there was nothing to see, because the film had yet to be developed –, by pre-filming certain scenes and showing them to the audience fully edited, and by later in its run expanding to two soundstages, allowing room for even more indoor locations.
The result, complementing the more naturalistic dialogue, was a more naturalistic (meaning less “theatrical”) manner of unfolding the story, their narrative options no longer restricted to two or three standing sets. (Note: In our day, we were also instructed to limit the number of scenes so that the live audience experience would be less fragmented, and inevitably take less time. For some reason, every time you “Cut” a scene, the actors disappear into their dressings rooms and call up their business managers. An increased number of scenes triggers a commensurate number of delays.)
Finally – I am just skimming here because we all have lives outside of this exercise… except, perhaps me… there is the sitcom Mom, out of the Chuck Lorre stable of comedies (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a half Men, Mike and Molly), delivered in full-out “Throwback Mode” – unrelenting “setup-punchline” format and a live studio audience. But it’s different.
Mom’s courageous innovation is that, while telling its story via the traditional format, it will abruptly stop to acknowledge the less than humorous realities of the characters’ existence – their history of addiction, and financial uncertainty – not just once, near the end of the episode as shows of the past have done in their often excruciating "MOS" (the professionally denigrated ‘Moment of Shit’) interludes, but interwoven organically throughout the episode.
Rather than being a downer, this balance of lightness and darkness makes Mom feel more like actual life than a structural skeleton to hang formula jokes on.
As you see, these innovations are not earthshaking. But they uniquify the product by delivering a welcome humanity into the proceedings.
And that’s what we’re looking for.
A sitcom with a pulse.