Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"A Perennial Question - Part Two"


“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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"A Perennial Question"


Included among other perennial questions such as, “Why are avocado pits so big?”,  “What does it mean to be a Canadian?” and “Who put the ‘Bomp’ in the ‘Bomp-sh-bomp-sh-bomp?’”– the answers to which are respectively:  “I don’t know”,  Nobody knows.” And “I also don’t know, but I’d like to shake his hand.” – is the age-old and equally perplexing TV question,

“Whither the sitcom?”

The most successful half-hour comedies on the air today are:  The Big Bang Theory which debuted eight years ago and Modern Family which hit the airwaves six years ago. 

That makes it six years without a monster hit.  Leaving television networks – where they most highly-rated programs are still broadcast – and media watchers alike wondering if the situation comedy format itself has terminally run its course.   

Again.

(The last time this premature death notice was posted was in the early 1980’s, when comedies were floundering until a currently reputationally-damaged comedic genius single-handedly resuscitated the genre with The Cosby Show.)

First, a few words about why it matter if the sitcom is dead?

Two words exactly:  Syndication Motherlode.

Reality shows are cheap to produce, so that’s good (for the networks.)  But nobody wants to see them over again in syndication (which is bad for the networks, since they now participate in the syndication windfall.) 

(They didn’t used to, the networks’ profits deriving exclusively from selling commercial airtime.  But it apparently wasn’t enough for them, so they got the rules changed and now they make more.)

Hour dramas do not syndicate as profitably as half-hour shows – I used to know why but I forgot. 

This leaves, among all the programming alternatives, the successful situation comedy the undisputable Golden Goose.  So, if that Golden Goose is molting and possibly dying,   

It matters.

Financially.  (Which is what people in business care about.)

Also, America likes to, wants to, needs to laugh, and there is little merriment in shows about brooding protagonists with dark, personal secrets. 

America needs new hit comedies, and that does not seem to be happening.

What’s going on? 

The answer may simply be that it’s cyclical, in which case, thank you and goodnight.

It could be – and significantly is – that not only have the media outlets fragmented, but so has the fundamental idea of “What’s funny?”  This was, at least partially, always the case.  Comedy was often fragmented, for example, on a racial basis.  But now, even white people don’t laugh at the same thing.

With niche broadcasting comes numerous new comedies reflecting particularistic, niche sensibilities.  The economic template has altered.  You do not need “everybody” anymore.  You just need everybody, or as many people as possible, from that niche. 

“Mass appeal” is no longer the standard you’re shooting for.  A show can be “big”, though it’s lacking big numbers.
 
As a result of this proliferation of outlets, many of our most creative practitioners have opted for the non-network-interfering, albeit financially less rewarding option, thus siphoning away from the major networks some of the most innovative comedic talent around, talent that might have provided them with precisely what they are looking for – the next “Big Thing” – if they had only eased up a little on the reins.

Who’s left to create the major network shows?

Writers with “mainstream sensibilities” in collaboration with intensely scrutinizing network participation, who are apparently delivering what the audience, demonstrated by its consistent viewing apathy, doesn’t want.

Let me now add the third contingency.  (I think it’s the third; I may have to go back and count.)

For some time now, networks have generally preferred the habitual viewership of a younger audience.  It’s what the advertisers prefer, and networks are in business to keep the advertisers happy.  The possible exception may be CBS, on whose behalf David Letterman once suggested the promotional slogan:

“CBS – Your grandparents like us.  Why don’t you?”

Wait.  This is all very interesting.  But I think we should start at the beginning.

Situation comedies originated on radio.  In the early days of television, many of them – Our Miss Brooks, The Jack Benny Program, among others – were simply radio “transfers”, now with pictures. 

The early TV sitcom writing style derived almost entirely from radio.  You can still identify some vestigial elements.  On radio, it was necessary for a character to begin virtually every speech by mentioning the other character’s name, because, being radio, you could not see who the character was talking to. 

They continued doing that on television, even though you could easily see who the character was talking to.  Why did they do that?  See:  Fiddler on the Roof

Tradition!

“Name repetition” was one of the less significant “carry-overs.”  But I thought it might whet your appetite.  Or is it “wet you appetite”?  It has to be the first one, doesn’t it?  “Wet you appetite” doesn’t mean anything.  

Your appetite now having been – I am virtually certain – whetted – I am not certain I have whetted it; I am certain that’s the right word – I shall continue this investigation tomorrow.    

“Whither the sitcom?”

As they used to say on radio – and perhaps on television as well…

Stayed tuned.
---------------------------------------------------------
Note:  It is possible that I have published this post this already.  Sometimes, I move posts around the schedule and I accidentally mess up.  I wanted this one to precede tomorrow's post, so I moved it again.  If you have already read it, I apologize.  Consider it as a preview into the future, where you can no longer recollect with any certainty what you have read and what you haven't.  Try it.  It'll be good to have the company. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

"Comedy And Hegel (Who Was Not Reputed To Be Funny)"


Although, as I shall in the near future discuss, “What exactly does it mean to be funny?” (And, parenthetically, “Can there be any definition thereof under which a Nineteenth Century German philosopher might remotely be considered to qualify?”)

To the question “When you create a new situation comedy, where exactly do you start?”, the most frequently heard response to that question is…

“Character.”

Or, as the supremely talented Jim Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Simpsons) was heard to discourse, repeating for educational emphasis:

“Charactah!  Charactah!  Charactah!” 

(Because he was from New York.)

Most creators of sitcoms agree.  You begin with the characters, and you allow them to grow and develop and interact, hoping they will blossom into full-blown and beloved sitcomical icons.  (See: Archie Bunker, The “Fonz”, Kramer, and the hyper-fussy Man-Child on The Big Bang Theory, among a revered handful of others.)

In truth, however – the “truth” being my truth – to blaze the trail to sitcomical immortality, there are other avenues you can pursue (allowing that you can say “trail” and “avenue” in the same sentence without getting drummed out of the “Writers Guild Clarity Fraternity.”)

Alternative Options To Sitcomical Success:

You can start with a star – The Cosby Show.  You can start with an enormously gifted but yet to be discovered future star – Michael J. Fox in Family Ties.  Or with an enormously talented ensemble – Friends. 

You could also start with a cleverly conceived concept – Get Smart or Third Rock from the Sun.  Or a fortuitous combination of these elements – (enormously gifted future star) Robin Williams in (a cleverly conceived concept) Mork and Mindy.  Or take other avenues to success that do not immediately come to mind.  (But feel free to add some.)  (I would parenthetically throw in that a great team of writers doesn’t hurt, but that would apply anywhere.)

My personal “Avenue of Preference”, reflected in the M.O.’s of three of the four series I created is:    

Conflict.

And therein we encounter the long dead (he was certainly gone before television) and little known (to me) German philosopher, so little known to me, I had to look up his first (second and third) name(s),

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

The “Hegelian Dialectic” harkens back to an ancient Greek method of argument for resolving disagreements.  I will eschew the specifics and offer only the superficialities, because I know that is what my readers expect of me.

No depth.

Here’s how it (superficially) works.

One person takes a side; their disputant takes the opposing side.  The two then haggle (or perhaps “Hegel”) until they reach an “in-between” position of substantial agreement…

Is what I think it’s about.

Conflict, for me – although not necessarily for other writers who generate their concepts from character or one of the other above-mentioned options – is a Jim Dandy “Starting Point” for the development of a TV show.  In fact, when I can encapsulate that specific element of conflict, I know immediately I have a series.  Not one that will unquestionably succeed, but at least one that I am certain I can write.  (And cross my fingers that my enthusiasm for those conflictual fireworks will be universally contagious.)

I wrote a failed pilot (it did not advance to series) called Island Guy – When a late Twentieth Century Beverly Hills family adopts a natural “Innocent” from generic “Polynesia”, the conflict between their two cultures challenges (or at least would have challenged if the pilot had been picked up for series) the way of living that family accepts as “business as usual.”  (And to an equal degree vice versa.)

Best of the West, which ran for one season, involved the conflict between the West as it actually was – murderously unsavory – and the highly publicized and idealized “West of the Imagination.”

And Major Dad, which pitted the traditional (Read, to those who disagree with them:  Rigid) values of a lifer Marine against the flexible (Read, to those who disagree with them:  Wishy-washy) perspectives of a female journalist.  Based on the wealth of material they could "dialectic" about, it is little wonder to me Major Dad lasted for four seasons.  

(My fourth Family Man, like The Cosby Show that inspired it, chronicled the experiences of a particular family, although there was plenty in there to "dialectic" about as well.)

It is clear that the "Conflict Approach" is my personal preference.  A funny argument, funny not because the conflict itself is hilarious but because the chosen method of arguing – involving combatants adamantly sticking beyond reason good will and good sense to their guns – provides...well, the fire is already there; all you need to do is throw in more kindling and more wood.

With heat – more specifically unreasonably escalated heat and neither side willing to back down – there is inevitably a rich and fertile environment for comedy. 

You got built-in conflict – you got a show.

At least that is what I always believed.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Belated Fantasy Accolade Encounter"


After the Oscars, during which Birdman was selected “Best Screenplay”, “Best Director” and “Best Picture” and Boyhood captured a single Oscar for “Best Supporting Actress”, I imagined making my way over to Boyhood’s writer-director Richard Linklater during some post-Oscars “after-party”, tapping him gently on the shoulder, and saying,

Birdman is a winner.  But Boyhood is a classic.”

I meant every word of that fake interaction.  I am nothing if not sincere in my fabricated illusions.

(Note:  You know the interaction is fake because I would never be invited to a post-Oscars “after-party”, nor would I ever tap a complete stranger on the shoulder, either gently or otherwise.)

I had seen Birdman in the theater.  It made me, as I wrote earlier, extremely uncomfortable – a clich├ęd story of show business redemption gussied up with impressive camerawork and hyperventilated acting.  (That’s a little facile, but so, to a substantial degree, is the movie, so it fits.  Which, thinking it over, is furtherly facile.  I just think I’ll move on.) 

I watched Boyhood in my bedroom.  (Owing to my consummate mastery of the DVD-playing apparatus.  I never tire of bragging about my technological advancements.  iPhone-5 – you’re next!  Even though while amassing the courage to tackle it, I have already fallen one iPhone behind.)

One evening, because Dr. M was hosting a psychoanalytic event in our living room, I was summarily exiled upstairs.  Boyhood would be required to bear the brunt of my grumpy disposition, as I did not want to be exiled upstairs.  Who wants to be exiled anywhere?  It makes you feel sorry for Napoleon.  Poor little Emperor got exiled twice!

Also, Boyhood was reputedly two hours and forty-five minutes long.  That was my evening’s agenda  – being penned up in my bedroom, watching an overlong movie I may possibly not enjoy.

And I didn’t enjoy it at first.  As you are probably aware, Boyhood, the story of a family highlighting the younger, male sibling, was filmed piecemeal over a twelve-year period, allowing the actors to age naturally while continuing to play the same roles.  (So there was no six year-old “Mason Evans Jr.” played by one actor and an eighteen year-old “Mason Evans Jr.” played by a different actor because who would believe a six year-old playing an eighteen year-old?  Or vice versa.  This way, it was actor Ellar Coltrane playing “Mason Evans Jr.” the whole time.  And all the other actors playing the same characters the whole time as well.  Because you can’t do just one.)

I don’t know why I didn’t enjoy Boyhood at first.  Maybe it was because I had been forced into watching it and I am a vindictive old coot.  Maybe it was my unfamiliarity with the family, who lived in Texas and none of them was Jewish.

No matter.  It short time, the movie grew on me, and by an hour or so into it, I was hooked.  My favorite moment? – talk about unfamiliarity – Mason Jr., having turned fifteen receives two birthday presents from his divorced Dad’s new wife’s parents – a personalized Bible and a vintage shotgun. 

The thing is, these items were presented with such generosity and kindness that a non-shotgun-shooting Jewish man cooped up in his bedroom was viscerally affected by the gesture.  Who’d have thought that a scene bestowing a gun and a Bible on a adolescent boy who had little enthusiasm for either would be so unexpectedly moving? 

Why was it moving?  There was an identifiable humanity shimmering right through it.  They may have been misguided, perhaps, but these people didn’t have to give that kid anything.  And instead, they delivered from their hearts.

The entire movie – Boyhood often reminding me of The Graduate for its ability to accurately encapsulate a cultural moment – sparkled with meaningful interactions and reverberating surprises, like the disappointed-in-life patriarch turning out to be an excellent father. 

Conditioned to expecting cinematic hackery, I kept anticipating, “Oh, here’s where she announces to the family that she has cancer” or “Here’s where the unsophisticated country boy succumbs to hard drugs”, I was instead relieved – nay, delighted – to discover that Boyhood eschews hackneyed pyrotechnics in favor of chronicling the mundane realities, a choice which for me is unceasingly rewarding. 

Opting for the “every day moment” turns out to be a deliberate strategy.  Allow me to excerpt from the recent Writers’ Guild “Written By” magazine, in which writer Lisa Rosen profiles Linklater, and his idiosyncratic storytelling process:

“The drama feels completely lived in.  Things don’t escalate the way you expect in a film because the usual plot twists don’t apply.  Because there’s no plot.  ‘Somewhere along the way it hit me, I have dumped plot completely in favor of just character and story,’ he {Linklater} says.  ‘So many movies have a structure that’s built around satisfying plot and leave no room, or very little, for these real moments.  You hear all the time, What are the stakes, what’s the payoff?  That’s all artificial.

‘When you’re going for the rhythms of real life,’ he asks, ‘are you sitting right now thinking, What are the stakes in this thing I’m trying to do?  Naw, it’s something I’m compelled to do.  I thought maybe I could do a whole movie without a plot.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense.  It’s plot that’s fake.  What’s real is the way life unfolds, the way time moves, the way things don’t always pay off in big ways.  Because they don’t.  Your life doesn’t have a plot.  It has character and story.’”

No formal plotline, yet it remains compelling to the end.  Not all movies have to be like that.  But I am delighted that some of them are.  When courageous filmmakers like Richard Linklater can abandon formula and turn people’s ordinary existence into memorable entertainment…

For me, at least,

Those movies are classics.