Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"The Fall of the Four-Camera Comedy"

Get this.

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 And as you can tell from my as-yet-unpublished-but-if-you-come-to-my-house-you-can-read-it book, Both Sides Make Me Angry, I’m not just talking about conservatives.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.

Issue Two:

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 “twist”?

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?

Is 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.


MrCarlson said...

Hi Earl

Very VERY interesting post. Is it wrong of me to butt in, and say that the show was called "Frasier" and not "Frazier" as you wrote? Sorry to be Captain grammar here. I really enjoyed your post and I'm looking forward to the claim that Seinfeld was the best comedy show ever made (with which I agree 100%). I really would wish to see your name on another show one day. Even the most crappier thing, like According to Jim" (yes, I said it), would benefit from an inpute such as yours.
Somehow I figured you for a fan of the office. It's not that pain is funny for me. It's the fact that the main character tries to cover prejudices and PC thoughts as if he was talking to retarded people, and does such a bad job of it. Cheers, for all your posts and thoughts on comedy and comedy writing.

Jacob said...

Do you have any thoughts on "How I Met Your Mother"? If any new network sitcom is a hopeful sign, I'd argue that it is.

Keith said...

I would argue that the best sitcom ever was Barney Miller. A few character actors (usually including Phil Leeds) would show up being very passionate about something that many regular people are very passionate about. The home viewers would get catharsis by hearing a viewpoint expressed at a level they weren't comfortable expressing themselves. Jokes would accentuate each point. Then Barney would come in and remind us all to keep the proper perspective.

I don't recall anyone having to marry someone so they could stay in the country, or misunderstanding an eavesdropped conversation, having to keep a secret that turned out to be not so bad. It was just cultural commentary with great punchlines.

Rob Bates said...

Frasier was never believable. I'll take "Phyllis" any day.

MikeThe Blogger said...

"...Sorry to be Captain grammar here.."

It was Kelsey "Grammer", not "grammer" - sorry to be Captain Pun here. ;-) ;-)

The episode Earl talks about - the writer was their "hero", not a "mentor". And it was the writer who through the manuscript into the fire after mistakenly thinking the Crane boys found it substandard. It was very much a "Zen" act - based not I think, too close a reference" to J. D. Salinger.

I always found the "humour" in Frasier to be of the predictable dramatic irony type. One person believes a certain facts but the audience, when that person was out of the room, learns the true facts. Like when Frasier gives the speech about the Bishop(?) and we know he was lost at sea... I found that constant technique too cheap.

And I think Seinfeld, seasons 4-6 were the greatest television ever.

See my huge tribute website: http://seinfeld.xtreemhost.com/

mrswing said...

Interesting, but I'm not sure whether that's the main reason. European (and then especially UK) sitcoms do not have a fixed formula and rhythm - they are far more varied in tone, approach, setup/joke rhythm etc. (I'm not saying better, just different and less uniform) and yet over here the four-camera sitcom is also in big trouble, especially where new shows are concerned. I'm working as script editor on the longest running sitcom in Belgium - starting on season 20 and we still have a market share of more than 50%, but the majority of other 'traditional' sitcoms have generally been badly received or lasted for a far shorter time. And the execs at my network are explicitly NOT looking for new sitcoms - they want 'humor', not sitcoms, although none of them has any idea of what they or the audience wants exactly.
Anyway, the malaise is global and there must be something fairly fundamental at work in order for these shows to be so unpopular right now.
Seinfeld did change the rhythm, but to me it will never be the best sitcom ever, because of its 'one scene, one minute' rhythm. I can't count the times a scene just got interesting for me (or a comic situation was just being addressed), when 'bang!' they cut away from it, leaving acres of potential hilarity untapped. (Best ever show to wring every unexpected yet logical ounce of comedy out of a given set-up was undoubtedly Fawlty Towers - which is also my undisputed number one sitcom ever)

samuel.x.killer said...

Historical anecdote from Victorian England to compliment the FRASIER example: Thomas Carlyle wrote a history tome and gave the only manuscript to his friend John Stuart Mill to read. When Mill's housemade accidentally tossed it in the fire, Mill told Carlyle, who reacted in joy because he enjoyed the process of writing more than the publication.

I add this for two reasons: 1) I just read this anecdote the other day and 2) I'm going through some of your older posts and they are all top-notch. Thank you so much for all you've written here.

sophomorecritic said...

I don't think Seinfeld was the greatest thing ever and I think it just stifles present day comedies from being enjoyed, so I am therefore looking foward to your argument that it was.