Guest Commentary: Single-Camera Sitcoms Squelch Sound of Laughter

Dec 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

A TV disciple’s wish for 2008 (if not for, at least, the coming network pilot season—should there actually be one): That the respite brought on by the 2007 WGA strike will have afforded TV writers and TV executives and TV producers the time to reflect on, among other things, what exactly has happened to the television sitcom—and what might save it from extinction.
Who knows, the answers might even go a ways toward saving TV as a whole.
Some interesting facts about TV comedy:
By my count, in the past 35 years (since the start of the 1972-73 season), there have been 146 new sitcoms introduced into prime-time network television that finished their seasons in the Top 25 of the Nielsen rankings.
I say Top 25 because you gotta start somewhere in defining success. And yes: Top 25 in household ratings, because with all deference to demo-driven prestige (read: “cult”) comedies, popularity is popularity. Show me a network that says it doesn’t want a Top 10 berth for even its hippest 18-to-49 comedy and I’ll show you a network that’s fooling itself.
146 comedies. 146 half-hour sitcoms.
(And don’t get me started on the illusory and genre-killing “re-definition” of what a comedy is. Attention Emmy members: A comedy is a half-hour show. A drama is an hour-long show, unless it’s “Adam-12.” “Desperate Housewives” is a drama. “Ugly Betty” is a drama. “Monk” is a drama. As were “Moonlighting” and “Eight Is Enough” and a host of other unusual or unconventional 60-minute series before them. That an hour-long show is light-hearted or features eccentric leads or quirky situations or even makes you laugh out loud does not make it a comedy. Was “Columbo” a comedy? “St. Elsewhere?” “Scarecrow and Mrs. King?” “Northern Exposure?” Were its writers writing sitcoms? Conversely, some of the saddest moments in the history of TV writing came in episodes of “M*A*S*H” (“Dreams” or “Heal Thyself” or the final episode). Was “M*A*S*H” a drama? How about the landmark “My Name Is Alex” episode of “Family Ties” that won an Emmy for acting and writing? Few laughs there; heavy emotion. Was that a drama?)
Of those 146 comedies introduced since 1972 that landed in the Nielsen Top 25, just 13 were single-camera/non-traditional sitcoms: “Bridget Loves Bernie,” “The Partridge Family,” “The Little People,” “M*A*S*H,” “Happy Days” (which started off as a single-camera sitcom then went multi-camera in its third season—also when its ratings soared, if that means anything to anyone), “Good Heavens,” “House Calls, “ALF,” “The Wonder Years,” Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “King of the Hill,” “Baby Bob” and “Scrubs.” Thirteen out of 146; lousy odds.
Even lousier: Of those 13, just one ended up a syndicate-able, money-printing, long-lasting home run—”M*A*S*H.” (Again, I discount “Happy Days” from the mix because it only became a smash hit once it switched to the multi-camera format in 1975.)
One out of 146 comedies in 35 years.
I love and respect all forms of well-written, well-executed, well-envisioned comedy—of whatever length. As I do its writers. I thought “Frank’s Place” was fairly brilliant. I loved “The Wonder Years” and “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Arrested Development.” I even like “The Office” and, on occasion, “30 Rock”—although you don’t have to have a memory that stretches back to NBC’s failed 1969-70 “Bracken’s World” to guess the number of mass-appeal hit TV shows on TV about the workings of the TV business. (Hint: It’s close to zero.) And this year “Aliens in America” and “Samantha Who?” have stood out (although we’ll see if the latter show morphs into “Samantha What?” without its powerful lead-in).
But unlike the broad-appeal soundstage single-cameras of old (from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “Julia” and “The Brady Bunch”), these self-impressed half-hours of today are art-house releases in a multiplex world. And TV still is (or can and should be) that multiplex world.
To pursue one single-camera effort after another in search of the next “Friends” or “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “Seinfeld” or “Cheers” is not just folly, it’s destructive: It’s rendering the live-audience comedy obsolete when its power to collect mass eyeballs is needed more than ever. (Funny how those and other reruns continue to prosper and draw audiences off-network, though, what with the “traditional” sitcom being declared dead and “viewers wanting other options for comedy.”) Last I heard, the powers-that-be at each of the networks weren’t saying to themselves: “If only we had another ‘Scrubs’” or “Get me our ‘Earl.’”
The traditional TV comedy can survive, and prime-time can again be a place to find collective belly laughs and characters to grow old with long into syndication if we all take a page from history and judge what will work based on what has.
Until then, the sitcom doesn’t seem to be much of a laughing matter.
Jim McKairnes, a TV consultant and writer, was formerly executive VP of programming at Discovery and senior VP of scheduling at CBS.

One Comment

  1. Situation Comedy: Striking a Chord with Gen Y
    By Dan Rupple
    In a recent TV Week Guest Commentary (Dec. 9, 2007), TV consultant Jim McKairnes, stated his case for the return to the multi-camera, “taped before a live audience” sitcom as the salvation of the genre. While his points are well taken and his ratings’ statistics are credible, I think he errors in not being mindful of the viewing habits of the young Gen Y audience that television comedy is trying so desperately to reach. Mr. McKairnes encourages us to “all take a page from history and judge what will work based on what has.” Well, merely because multi-camera comedy has been successful in the past doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be again. Times have changed. The audience has changed. The delivery systems have changed. This assumption is akin to saying that because Disco was hugely successful in the 70’s that a return to the disco ball, medallions and platform shoes will revitalize the music industry.
    Generation Y, the highly coveted audience of 18-28 year olds, has a far different sensibility, sense of humor, taste and context in which they approach their entertainment fair. Ever wonder why Internet entertainment is soaring? Why has mockumentary style comedy flourished? Why has reality television dominated the ratings for networks?
    Let me venture a guess. Study upon study tells us that one of the highest values of Gen Y is authenticity. Their parents – the Baby Boomers, of who I am a proud member – have so hyped, marketed, branded, commercialized everything in their world; that they celebrate anything that is genuine, anything that is void of an agenda, anything that rings true.
    One looks at the huge success of the user generated videos uploaded to YouTube. Why do 12 million Internet users watch a video of a girl eating a preying mantis? Because a real girl, eating a real bug in her real dorm room brings out the voyeuristic curiosity in all of us, especially the Gen Y’er who want to know what is really happening in the reality of their neighbor next door or around the world.
    As for television, I believe that this quest for authenticity, fueled by a generation’s increasing voyeuristic tendencies in a growing isolated universe is, in large part, responsible for the false sense of realism that has made reality shows so popular. We all know that there is little reality to this producer manipulated genre, but Gen Y doesn’t care. They are perfectly content to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” It quenches their thirst. As does the pseudo documentary comedy style of The Office (as well as Christopher Guest films or Borat) and the realistic locations and fly on the wall camera style of shows such as Arrested Development, Entourage or 30 Rock.
    While a multi camera, studio shot, laugh track seasoned, traditional comedy format (Back to You) might find an audience, especially amongst Baby Boomers; I have grave doubts that it could be the savior of televised comedy with the young generation. We Boomers may like the nice and tidy escapism of the homogenized sitcom, but when Gen Y watches these types of shows, they see a whole different offering. When they see the artificiality of the canned laughter, the one dimensional sets, the unrealistic and often unrelatable storylines, the set-up / punchline joke structure; they see (to quote Elaine Benes) Fake! Fake! Fake! Fake!.
    I’m not saying that future multi camera comedies have absolutely no chance of garnering an audience. Comedy that is well crafted and expertly performed will usually find it’s audience, regardless of the platform or style. I agree with Mr. McKairnes, the writer’s strike may be the perfect time to reflect on the type of comedy content that could return comedy to it’s prize position. But the bigger question just might be, even if we give Gen Y the type of comedy they want, will this “on demand” generation let their schedule be dictated by “appointment TV”? I think yes, if the comedy offerings are compelling enough to their collective funny bones. We must get better acquainted with our audience – their likes, their dislikes. And let’s get creative, with so many mobile options at our fingertips, are there ways we haven’t yet explored that television and digital media can work hand in hand? Our odds of success will increase if we get creative and think outside the cable box. Let’s take all that we can into account, then give the audience what they want, the way they want it, where they want it and when they want it.
    Dan Rupple, a former CBS Production Supervisor, is CEO of Seriously Funny Entertainment, providing comedy entertainment for television and Internet. Dan also teaches Comedy Writing for Television at Biola University.

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