Yay, New TV! (In Theory) – Part 2: Sitcoms
Throughout the decade, networks have been trying like hell to figure out why people don’t seem to like the comedies they put out every fall. They just want people to laugh, dammit, so why is the viewing public so damn fickle?
They have no luck offering variations on established laugh-getters. “You liked Kelsey Grammar as a finicky radio host – why don’t you like him as a TV news anchor?!” they ask. “10 years, you people chuckled along with ‘Friends’ – yet you turn your back on ‘The Class,’ which had a premise that was at once more high-concept and yet somehow thinner than ‘6 people who like each other.’ WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE AMERICA HAPPY?!”
Then real frustration kicks in.
“Oh, is that all too ‘standard’? Need something edgier and different? Well, here! How about you watch ‘Arrested Development.’ No? You don’t ‘get’ it? You don’t know ‘when it’s on’? YOU SONS OF BITCHES!!! Here, enjoy your ‘According to Jim.’ Fat blue collar guy with an improbably attractive wife. There. Couldn’t be simpler…what do you MEAN, ‘affront to human decency’?!”
Comedy’s been on my mind a bit lately, especially after watching “Bored to Death,” which didn’t exactly hit the ol’ funny bone for me. I want to like comedies. But even after decades where you would think a tried-and-true formula would emerge, there’s something so ineffable about what actually works that the networks try and retry everything they can think of, with mixed results every time.
Let me go down the list of new(ish) comedies to see if I can find a humor-pattern, and see what needs to be burned to save the sitcom village.
“Community” – is funny. It has a solid cast, a clear premise (washouts at a community college, led by defrocked attorney Joel McHale), a format that’s strangely rare (single-camera, no laugh-track, yet not presented as a documentary), an ensemble of capable, confident performers, and writing that actually trusts itself to be funny without pushing the issue. On the strength of the pilot alone, you should watch this. Also it’s on after “The Office” anyway, so hell, why not.
“Parks and Recreation” – is intermittently funny. Again, solid cast, no distracting laugh-track, but the mockumentary structure works against it, because there’s no good reason for it, other than at some point in its development it was meant to be a spinoff of “The Office.” It might actually work better with a format like “Community” – just tell the story, and don’t worry about who it’s being told to – but that ship has sailed, so we simply have to watch as it finds its own comedic voice (much as “The Office” did in its own second season, after six initial episodes of simply trying to ape the BBC version).
“The Big Bang Theory” – funny, almost despite itself sometimes. And here, we run into our old nemesis, the laugh-track. It is damn near insulting to its audience, since its presence means the producers don’t think you will be able to recognize “jokes” without someone else laughing first. The material is funny, the performances are fantastic all around, and the premise has shaken off its initial “Hot girl puts up with nerdy neighbors” conceit. Ironically, the jokes themselves are far smarter than anything that should have a laugh-track attached. Unfortunately, it’s produced by people who did “Roseanne.” So it looks like “Roseanne,” with the old-school set-facing-the-audience and plenty of set-ups/punchlines that leave room for canned laughter (including my favorite, “Fake guy who finds something REALLY funny and laughs just a little louder than everyone else in the audience”). Still – jokes about the Doppler effect and comic book stores that are funny both for non-nerds (“hey, look at all them nerds!”) and actual nerds (“Yeah, there usually is a guy in sweatpants and a Captain America shield T-shirt at the comic store, and he saddens us all”)? I appreciate the all-inclusiveness.
And finally (reason for tonight’s post): “Modern Family.” I was predisposed to not like this, because honestly…I’ve got my own quirky family. I don’t want to have to deal with a fictional quirky family as well. And to look at it, it’s a weak premise (here are three families that are related), it’s using the quickly-wearing-out mockumentary structure, and at first glance, each family embodies some pretty broad stereotypes (the gay couple; the old guy with a young Latina wife; the stressed mom/thinks-he’s-cool dad). But…it all clicks. The potential clichéd types are mild enough to actually allow realistic characters to emerge, the mockumentary allows jokes to reach naturally awkward moments (and actually does remind you of the type of “family documentary” that might show up on TLC) and the cast is made up of strong performers (Ed O’Neill is always welcome, and Tyler Ferguson of “The Class” has great comedic chops – though I was most impressed with Ty Burrell, whom I only knew as Doc Samson from Incredible Hulk). And the way the pilot itself builds – by introducing the individual family units first, only revealing that they’re all related to each other in the final act – is honestly a smart way of getting the audience familiar with everyone first, before introducing any larger sitcom tropes. And that’s refreshing, to see a sitcom that really wants to be character-based, rather than hang it all on its premise.
So, what have we learned? What should comedies do if they want to thrive?
1) Build your characters, and utilize capable actors who don’t mistake “mugging and waiting for laughs” for “comedic timing.”
2) Use a format that actually fits – and if you’re gonna keep the old-school, “_____ was filmed in front of a live studio audience,” at least make sure you’ve got some veteran showrunners who know how to do it, and
3) Take the Laff-O-Tron 5000, or whatever god-awful laugh-track machine you’ve been using since “Happy Days,” lug it out to a field, and beat it to death, “Office Space”-style (rap song optional).
(And if you don’t believe me that laugh-tracks are the devil – though, with this crowd, I don’t think I’ve made a particularly bold statement – here, go watch this. It’s “True Blood,” if it had a laugh track. DO YOU SEE WHAT THAT MONSTER CAN DO?!)