“Whither the sitcom?”
is that question, for those intermittent visitors who missed yesterday.
Television will always make comedies. That’s where the money is. The thing is, more than ever maybe, television does not know what comedies to make, and, albeit less importantly, they are less than confident about the most commercially viable format for making them.
When we left off yesterday…
I was mentioning how television half-hour comedy evolved directly from radio – sometimes literally, as many hit radio comedies were transferred intact to the new medium – The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Molly, and radio’s perennial favorite comedy, Amos ‘n Andy, although in that one, black actors were required to replace the white actors who played the Amos ‘n Andy characters on radio because now you could see them, leading nitpicky questions, such as,
“Why are they white?”
Many radio comedies were recorded in front of a live studio audience. Eventually – after filmed situation comedies such as Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show
ultimately succumbed due to terminal tepidness – television comedies began being filmed and later videotaped in front of live studio audiences as well.
Faced with the prospect of performing before an actual assemblage of humanity, the actors became advantageously adrenalized. By contrast, Robert Young, the star of Father Knows Best, often looked like he could barely keep himself awake.
So here’s the deal. And, like everything in life – asserts the writer because he is seventy and now speaks with the Wisdom of the Ages – it’s a tradeoff.
When facing a live audience, the indisputable Test of Success is,
“Are they laughing?”
With that single objective clearly in mind, the writers write in a style that will insure the greatest likelihood of eliciting the “ha-ha.” Which sometimes – no, more than sometimes, almost always – generated a greater level of exaggeration in both word and behavior, meaning that the characters would say and do things that, almost without exception, would neither be said nor done in actual everyday life. That’s why we watch television instead of actual everyday life.
There are more guaranteed laughs.
That’s the tradeoff – belly laughs at the price of contrivance. (Which a lot of viewers don’t mind, because, unlike verisimilitudinous purists and curmudgeonly former TV writers – or TV writers with immutable standards – those viewers readily accept the fact that, “It doesn’t have to be real. It’s a show!”)
But time matzas on, and as the audience tires of one format, another inevitably takes its place. And in truth, it is not just the audience that finds the traditional style of presentation formulaically predictable, the writers get tired of it themselves. And they start hunting around for something fresher.
“Fresher”, over the last fifteen or so years, is the – technically labeled “single-camera” comedy, or – expressed less technically but equally accurately – comedies shot without a live studio audience.
I know. You only care if it’s funny. But I am telling you, despite your disinterest, that the choice of formats delivering the comedy makes a thesis-length describable world of difference.
This is my only point today – although I could write about this till the cows come home but I won’t because if I did the cows would roll their eyes and immediately go out again and who wants to be responsible for wandering cows?
Watch a half-hour comedy filmed in front of an live studio audience, like, say, Mike and Molly or Two Broke Girls, and then watch a sitcom that isn’t, like Parks and Recreation or Portlandia. Then ask yourself this question:
Is there any joke that can be extracted from Mike and Molly or Two Broke Girls and seamlessly inserted into Parks and Recreation or Portlandia? I am not talking about content; I am referring to the structuring of the dialogue.
Conversely, is there a line in Parks and Recreation or Portlandia that you can imagine being performed in front of a live studio audience and eliciting a certifiable belly laugh rather than a (barely recordable) registration of amusement?
There you have it.
Two systems of laugh elicitation that are incompatibly different.
Right now, the non-studio audience format is dominating the airwaves. I personally prefer at least its possibilities because it requires the writers to put clever, naturalistic interplay before the obligatory punchline-every-ten-seconds.
But that’s me.
Though I believe that, generally, the non-audience format will prevail because it seems more compatible with the sensibilities of today’s show creators, it is stylistically consistent with the inexorable progression of realism in entertainment – all the way to “reality” shows themselves – and because creatively, you do not, as a rule, go backwards.
RADIO WRITER: Isn’t it more satisfying to imagine what the characters look like than actually seeing them on television? The audience will be back. I’m sure of it.”
That radio writer does not have a job.
Unlike the Beatles, at least in the context in question, I do not believe in “Yesterday.”
But I do believe in talent. That’s where my money is. Somebody out there, who is intensely in the tune with the times and can deliver a relatable situation and identifiable characters (played by consummately gifted comedy performers) is going to touch a Zeitgeistual nerve and ignite a response from, not a sliver, but a substantial portion of the television-viewing audience and the next landmark situation comedy will have arrived.
I hope it’s soon.
Because at the current moment, I have very little to watch.