Don’t you just love the clarity of those titles?
Early in my sitcom-writing career, a neophyte Pomerantz asked Jim Brooks, the then guru of the genre, "Why do episodes always have six scenes in them?” To which he informatively replied, “It seems to work better that way.”
What Jim neglected to include was the addendum, “Under current technological circumstances.” But he didn’t need to; that was a “given.” If, during another era in history, a frisky apprentice had quizzically inquired, “Why do we always ride horses?” it would have been superfluous to reply, “Because faster modes of transportation have not yet been invented.”
In other words, it’s now, and it’s this.
Not that I had ideas for anything better, or felt unduly constrained working in the six-scene structural format. It just seemed to me odd – and vaguely annoying – that there was only one way of doing things. I have a natural aversion to cramping limitations. (I have a similar problem with turtleneck sweaters.) Plus, if it were not already obvious, I’m a rebel.
What were the (perceived apparently only by me) circumscribed conditions on sitcom writing in the seventies, which for the most part meant series filmed or videotaped before a live studio audience? They were the same circumscribed conditions writers experience in the theater.
You have a stage and you have an audience, the number of sets limited – yes, by budgetary constraints – but primarily by what the audience is able to see. It makes no sense playing theatrical scenes in the invisible confines of the “wings.” Nor, lacking “video-assist” monitors that came later, playing scenes in half-hour comedies on parts of the soundstage the studio audience has no visual access to. They’d experience voices but no people. The size of the soundstage itself also imposed boundaries on available set-building terrain.
Also again, since film, by its nature, needed to be “developed” – which took a couple of days – and then edited – literally cutting snippets of film and then gluing the disparate fragments together, which, as you can imagine, took longer – it was technically impossible for pre-shot scenes to be processed and edited by “Show Night.”
What then was left?
Three sets to tell the entire story. (Two “standing sets” used every episode and one temporary “swing set.”) An ancillary consequence of those parameters was that scenes, like scenes in plays, had to be longer. Six scenes averaged out to about four minutes per scene.
Those were the conditions that prevailed, and you wrote to those conditions because you had to. Which limited the structure to a… you know, how Fleers Double Bubble cartoons have four squares?
Sitcom stories had six.
On my first show free of external creative control called Family Man, I tried something different.
For the first time, I’d let the needs of the story dictate the number of locations (and accommodating sets) required, and let the needs of the story determine the duration of the scenes shot in them. No more extraneous “filler” to fit the necessities of the format. You visited the location, you did your business, you moved on. Less like a play, more like a movie.
The trouble was, when doing Family Man, technological and space concerns were still determining factors. So what did I do?
I got rid of the audience, removing the bleachers in favor a larger “shooting area” on the soundstage, the increased space allowing the opportunity to build sets for more locations, providing an expanded freedom for sitcomical storytelling. (When I wrote that I felt the liberating excitement of wide-open spaces.)
Well, it didn’t work out. For two reasons:
One, the actors, who would have been energized by the presence of a studio audience felt instead like they were acting in a soap opera. And two, my years of conditioning subterrainially did me in.
Although I expanded the number of scenes substantially – my first Family Man episode encompassed five locations – the scenes were almost the same length as when I was limited to three. (We went to more places once but for virtually an equal expenditure of time.)
I was a “half-imaginer”, a failing way station on the road to the future. I could see the possibilities, but I was negatively pre-programmed to exploit them.
Enter Seinfeld. (My inspiration for this post, and there always is one.)
I was watching an episode of Seinfeld – Jerry’s girlfriend shows up, always wearing the same dress – and just for fun, I counted the number of different locations the show filmed scenes in.
Eleven. I watched the next episode that ran back-to-back.
Eight locations. (Some used, frequently wordlessly, for virtually seconds.)
What exactly had changed?
Sitcoms were now recorded digitally – meaning no lengthy post-productional processing – and edited on an Avid machine, which was exponentially faster than literally cutting and gluing stuff together. (Plus, Seinfeld appropriated two soundstages to accommodate all their sets.)
As a result of these innovations, Seinfeld was able to pre-shoot scenes and have them ready to show, blended with the “live-performance” scenes, to the assembled studio audience.
Also, no meaningless caveat, Seinfeld creator Larry David, unfettered by any background and training in sitcom writing whatsoever, did not know – or care – that a show was supposed to have six scenes. (Contemporary megahit Friends still did.)
I guess, sometimes, you’re not meant to be the innovator.
I had seen the river.
But that’s about it.