By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 12, 2013 - 0 Comments
Sorry for another sitcom-theory post so soon after the last one, but a reader asked me if I had a specific post where I outlined why I think the mockumentary format is the modern version of the laugh track – or at least, as we saw on How I Met Your Mother last week, that it’s okay for a laugh-track show to turn off the track when they do a mock-documentary segment. I think I did write a longer post explaining this, but I can’t find it, so here is sort of a quick summary of my thoughts on the mockumentary and why it seems to work.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 10:31 AM - 0 Comments
Single-camera shows, shot without an audience, are all the rage
“In L.A., you sometimes hear coyotes eating cats—to me, that’s the sound of a laugh track. I hit the wall. I just couldn’t take another minute of it.” That’s why Steven Levitan, co-creator of Modern Family, decided to do the show without a studio audience or laugh track. His vehemence shouldn’t come as a surprise. The sitcom format invented by I Love Lucy, with multiple cameras filming a performance in front of an audience, is in its own way one of the most controversial TV formats in Hollywood and the United Kingdom. Many producers are abandoning its laughter, its deliberately artificial sets, and its theatrical style. Andrew Ellard, a British comedy writer and script editor, says he “can’t imagine anyone wanting a live audience” for some types of sitcoms today.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the opposite was true: almost every half-hour comedy was shot in front of an audience. “I guess it didn’t occur to people that there was an alternative, which is quite comical when you think about it,” says Graham Linehan, creator of the hit U.K. sitcoms Father Ted and The IT Crowd. If a show was shot without an audience, it added a fake laugh track, like M*A*S*H. But today, movie-style comedy without a laugh track is mainstream, and many writers prefer the offbeat humour it allows. Earl Pomerantz, a Canadian comedy writer who has worked on many U.S. shows and produced the first season of The Cosby Show, said when he worked on The Larry Sanders Show—an audience-free comedy that influenced The Office—he found it refreshing to write jokes that would be too subtle for an audience, jokes “about relationship things, and about the way showbiz people treat each other.”
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, March 23, 2012 at 3:54 PM - 0 Comments
I see that Salon’s Willa Paskin has written an article about how Whitney has improved, thereby saving me from fearing I was going crazy. I had been telling people that it was one of the better new comedies of the season – a very backhanded compliment, admittedly, given what this season has been like – and getting genuinely horrified reactions.
Not that Whitney is a first-rate show; it is not. Paskin’s problem with it is that it’s not funny enough; my problem is a combination of that, its still-weak supporting characters, and its slow pacing. (The fact that NBC/Universal has not done this type of show in some years seems very evident. The same network’s Are You There, Chelsea?, produced by Warner Brothers, is a much worse show, but it has a surface slickness and speed. Whitney actually gets a certain odd charm from the fact that it doesn’t have that kind of slickness, but it also has a lot of oddly paced scenes.) But what it’s always had going for it is Chris D’Elia, who has turned in the best performance on a new comedy show. His delivery is refreshingly un-hammy; he gets the most out of everything he’s given and still resembles an actual person. (I also have to give some credit to the writers for that; actors can’t create a convincing character alone. Beth Behrs was very good casting on 2 Broke Girls, but the writing after the pilot has been so bad that whenever I see it, she’s hamming it up, unable to put together a convincing character out of the lines she’s been given.) Cummings is not the natural actor D’Elia is, and from what I’ve seen the show has had problems figuring her out: it seemed to start with the assumption that we would all love her because she was a tell-it-like-it-is person, and has had to adjust to the fact that neither she nor the character are terribly likable.
But it did adjust, and the relationship between Cummings and D’Elia’s characters feels, there’s that word again, real. They’re a convincing couple, two people who get on each other’s (and sometimes our) nerves but really do seem to be together because they enjoy each other’s company. In a season where most new comedies have been unable to create characters and relationships that seem remotely real – instead giving us Zooey Deschanel or the ham-it-up brigade on 2 Broke Girls – I have to consider it one of the more enjoyable shows, even though I cringe at some moments. (There were two new comedies this season that seem to me like they really know what they’re doing: Suburgatory, and Last Man Standing. Everything else seemed to range from strange combinations of good and bad, to outright amateurish shows.) I feel like it’s the sort of show that would benefit from a great big re-tool, since the premise they have set up is simply not strong enough to spin off a lot of stories. (Cummings’ character would work better if she were taken down a peg more often, but because the premise has her as the Alpha Dog among a group of pathetic friends, this can’t happen that often. It needs what one writer has called a “contrary character,” someone who we can root against instead of rooting against the lead.) It won’t happen, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it get a chance to try.
I don’t quite get why this show became the most-hated in a comedy season that wasn’t much good all the way around. It inspired quite passionate hatred in some circles; on the iMDB message board for it, there’s at least two people who seem to spend all their time writing post after post rooting for its cancellation and hating anyone who likes it. My theory about why this is (apart from the obvious answer – “because it really is terrible”) would be that it was a combination of the obnoxious over-saturated marketing campaign and its presence on the Thursday night lineup, where it was considered an evil interloper. Once it was moved to Wednesdays, it was no longer hated as much, and its ratings were only a little bit lower (because the post-Office slot, though still theoretically the best comedy slot NBC has, isn’t really that good a slot any more; it’s not helping Up All Night much either). Not that I think it’s wrong to dislike it; you have to be in an indulgent mood to forgive its weaknesses. But I do think it got more intense hate than it deserved, and that might be a sign that NBC’s marketing campaign backfired. If it’s renewed for a second season, a 50/50 shot at this point, the network had better promote it as a comedy about a couple rather than the one-woman show it seemed to be in the original marketing.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 11:50 AM - 0 Comments
Are walking ethnic clichés better than no clichés in sitcoms?
Michael Patrick King, the creator of 2 Broke Girls, thinks he’s helped the cause of diversity by creating an Asian-American character who says things like, “You can’t tell an Asian he made a mistake, he’ll go out back and throw himself on a sword.” The comedy, the biggest new hit of the TV season, has been pilloried for stereotypical, under-written minor characters. Most pilloried of all, beating out the lecherous Ukrainian cook and the elderly, jazz-loving black cashier, is Han (Matthew Moy), a Korean with an exaggerated accent. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “sorry minstrel show,” and Marissa Lee, who writes for the site Racebending, calls Han “an unimaginative, lazy and flat stereotype.” King responded to hostile critics by pointing out that “the big story about race on our show is that so many are represented.” But Lee says people who wanted to see more minorities on TV are being “asked to pick between two disappointing options: ‘Would you rather be depicted poorly, or not depicted at all?’ ”
Several recent comedies have brought ethnic stereotyping back to TV to an extent not seen since the ’80s. Journalist Amanda Dobbins wrote an article comparing Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara to Charo, the ’70s actress known only for “sexy outfits and Spanish-tinged catchphrases,” and Vergara herself told journalist Maria Elena Fernandez, “We are yellers, we’re pretty, we’re sexy, and we’re scandalous. I am not scared of the stereotypes.” Rob Schneider’s new sitcom Rob, where he marries into a Mexican family, consists of broad jokes about Mexican culture. Even in political commercials, any stereotype goes in the name of comedy. An ad for Senate candidate Peter Hoekstra featured an Asian woman speaking broken English and boasting that her country is taking American jobs; the campaign defended it by claiming it was supposed to be “satirical.”
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 9:25 AM - 0 Comments
Networks are discovering their most loyal viewers like over-60s like Ted Danson
When Ted Danson was chosen as the new lead on CSI, the surprising thing wasn’t that a comedy actor (Cheers) was going to star in TV’s most famous gory forensic mystery. What stunned people was that a major U.S. show will have a hero who’s over 60. Danson, who was born in 1947 and has been bald since his sitcom days, had been playing character parts on shows like HBO’s Bored to Death. That’s what older actors usually do in television, where advertisers care mostly about reaching young viewers. But Bill Newcott, entertainment editor for the American Association of Retired Persons magazine, told Maclean’s there’s an increased awareness that “the longer the star has been out there, the more comfortable we are with them.” Older people are in.
Mark Harmon, who will turn 60 this year, is the star of the most-watched show on television, NCIS. Larry David is 64 and getting some of his best ratings on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And the recently announced Emmy nominees included 63-year-old Kathy Bates, whose Harry’s Law was one of the few successful new shows last season, and Betty White, who now specializes in jokes about her advanced age.
What’s causing this influx of people who are 60 and up? It may help that reality TV, which always seems to influence its scripted cousin, has been proving that you don’t need youth to get young people watching. American Idol has almost matched the success of the Simon Cowell years thanks to Steven Tyler, a man in his 60s who gets flirty with young contestants; he has completely overshadowed Jennifer Lopez, who is 20 years younger but much less popular with her own age cohort.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 2:40 PM - 2 Comments
I got interviewed for a long article on the traditional sitcom (which I guess seems to be my specialized field; journalism isn’t all that different from academia after all) by Tim Walker from the Independent. That article is now online, and it’s a good one long before he gets to the quotes from me. The issues involved are the usual ones, but from a UK perspective; there, as in the U.S., the fight between traditional and non-traditional sitcoms, and a broader fight between naturalistic and non-naturalistic comedy performance, has been going on for a decade.
In the UK I think the discussion is a little healthier because it’s more openly based on first principles, or differing ideas of what comedy can or should be. Ricky Gervais represents the school of comic naturalism, and brutally caricatured the other kind of show in “Where the Whistle Blows” from Extras. Graham Linehan, a surrealist, chooses an anti-realistic format and style of performance to go with it, but other shows like Spaced choose a naturalistic single-camera look and feel that contrasts with and sets off the craziness. Miranda Hart made sure everything about her show is as non-naturalistic as possible; some people like it and some people loathe it (though it does sometimes have the feel of radio transplanted to TV, giving it a feel that is worryingly reminiscent of Air Farce, I like it quite a bit for its broad shamelessness), but everyone can agree that it represents a particular approach to comedy, and that the format is not used arbitrarily.
It’s a healthier situation than in the U.S., where you frequently get the feeling that the style of a sitcom is chosen not based on any real thought-out plan about what kind of comedy the show wants to do, but about what can sell to that network. For every show like Community that makes full use of its format, there are a share of multi-camera shows trapped in single-camera bodies, like Perfect Couples, Outsourced, and (I still think this) Cougar Town. In the UK the two formats have a better chance of co-existing because the creators are conscious of the differences and the effect the choice of format has on the writing, storytelling, and performance.
In the U.S. and Canada there’s still something of a perception that a single-camera sitcom is simply an advanced, sophisticated version of a “regular” sitcom, and that there are no trade-offs for using the format except the lack of a laugh track. (There are certainly plenty of trade-offs and disadvantages to using a non-naturalistic format like the studio-audience sitcom; but right now everybody is very aware of those disadvantages and not so aware of the other format’s drawbacks.) In the last few years the only arguments for the traditional sitcom in the U.S. have been commercial, rather than artistic, and as more and more multi-camera shows flopped (due to being bad) the commercial argument had less weight.
The UK, I think, has more people willing to step up and make the artistic argument for the choice of format. It may be related to something I like to allude to, the fact that many of the great ’80s and ’90s U.S. sitcoms were created by people who worked in the multi-camera format not because they particularly wanted to, but because they were asked to. NBC was right to order David and Seinfeld to shoot their show in front of an audience, but you couldn’t expect that David would become a vocal defender of the format, and he hasn’t been.
In keeping with that, the UK multi-camera shows seem a little more able to take advantage of the format and its anti-naturalism. Miranda Hart breaks the fourth wall and ends her shows with a salute to the old Britcom “waving at the camera” cast pose. And Walker’s article ends by mentioning an upcoming show, Mrs Brown’s Boys, where a man in drag “forgot his handbag after a scene change, and he/she got up and walked across two sets to retrieve it. We’ve kept that in — just to nudge the form forward a bit.” Acknowledging the audience and the artificiality of the sets was done on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and even Fresh Prince, but as shows have tried hard to be naturalistic, or be ashamed of taking place on sets that look like sets, that hasn’t happened very much in the States in the last 15 years. It’s the sort of new/old idea that might make a comeback when some new producers arrive with a fresh approach.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 2:41 PM - 2 Comments
Todd VanDerWerff has a follow-up to his ’70s sitcoms primer: an extensive guide to the U.S. sitcom in the 1980s.
Even though my TV viewing began in the ’80s and therefore I remember the era fondly, I think there’s something about ’80s comedies that makes them feel more dated than the sitcoms of other decades. The ’50s, ’60s and ’90s all produced a bunch of U.S. comedies that could be repeated forever. The ’70s shows are more closely tied to their era, but the best of them have managed to endure based on quality. The ’80s produced a few eternally iconic sitcoms — Cheers, Married With Children and, strangely, Full House, which has had more staying power than I ever would have predicted. (It’s the Brady Bunch of the ’80s.) The Cosby Show has also shown a fair amount of staying power after a rough start in syndication: the reruns originally didn’t do as well as expected, but it has managed to carve out a place for itself in repeats. But other shows are… not forgotten, exactly; shows back then were still able to get a fan following after they went off the air. But they are viewed as products of the ’80s. Family Ties had some very fine episodes, but it’s an ’80s cultural artifact; All in the Family is even more topical in its humour, but is celebrated for its continued relevance. I don’t quite know what it is that makes the ’80s comedies feel more remote from our current experience than the shows that came before or after; it can’t just be the fashions and hair.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, September 20, 2010 at 8:48 AM - 0 Comments
Even if Todd VanDerWerff hadn’t mentioned me in his AV Club primer on the 1970s situation comedy, I’d say it was one of the best pieces I’ve read in that very important period in television history — a period that set down durable, still-existing rules for not just one kind of comedy but several, and also had a lot of impact on television drama. (Larry Gelbart once said something to the effect that he saw M*A*S*H as an opportunity to do actual drama on TV, as opposed to shows about mysteries or medical procedures. Shows that are about doctors or cops, but aren’t procedurals, owe more to M*A*S*H or Barney Miller than they do to the same era’s hour-long dramas, even the good ones like Police Story.) But mostly it was about the three big producers of comedy — MTM, Lear and the Miller/Milkis/Boyett/Garry Marshall team at Paramount — and their competing philosophies of how a comedy should be written, what it should be about, what kind of jokes it should have, even how old the writers should be. The philosophies were different enough that when Mary Tyler Moore’s old Dick Van Dyke director Jerry Paris came over from Paramount to direct a couple of episodes of her show, he spent two weeks asking “where are the jokes?” and insisting that the episodes were going to bomb on audience night because there weren’t enough punchlines. He was now part of one school and Moore had helped to found another.
Speaking of Mary Tyler Moore’s show, Earl Pomerantz has a post where he breaks down the structure of an episode he wrote, to show us how it moved quickly despite the limited number of sets. It’s also, of course, an episode that deals with a situation that could just as easily be played for drama, yet doesn’t play it as a “very special episode” — a key part of the MTM style. (Lear shows would go dramatic if the subject matter was serious. Paramount shows, until the MTM people got there, were mostly escapist. And MTM-style shows are the ones that take stories that could be drama, play them as comedy, but try not tot trivialize the stories. Of course there’s overlap between all three styles.) That episode will be released in a few weeks as part of the final season of Mary Tyler Moore — and since All in the Family‘s DVD releases have also been re-started, the DVD situation for this era of TV isn’t quite as bad as it was.
By Scott Feschuk - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 at 11:01 AM - 44 Comments
It’s been a rough go for Michael Ignatieff. He came into political life like some suave fella all full of brains and handsome and by now he’s got to be feeling like Sideshow Bob being smacked in the face with the sixth rake and, oh, look, there’s three more lying there on the ground.
There’s no denying it: Ignatieff is in a tough spot right now. He’s so low in the polls that he can see Gilles Duceppe’s bald spot. But you know who else is often in a tight spot? Sitcom characters. And yet they always seem to finagle their way out of it. Maybe it’s time for Michael Ignatieff to stop following the advice of political strategists and start learning from the titans of the small screen.
Tip No. 1: Do the opposite of what you’d normally do (George Costanza/Seinfeld) – George was the ultimate loser until he started denying his every impulse. Doing so made him attractive and popular. So when Ignatieff feels the urge to issue another ultimatum or threat, he shouldn’t. When he’d normally skew toward hyperbole, he should pursue measured discourse. And when he thinks the eyebrows are good for another couple weeks, no, time for a trim.
Tip No. 2: Get Peter Frampton to serenade Canada with the song Baby I Love Your Way (Peter Griffin/Family Guy) – After golfing on his anniversary, Peter has an epiphany (thanks to a lighting strike and, indirectly, Death’s hectoring mother) and realizes how important his wife is to him. He wins her back by Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 11:09 AM - 13 Comments
While waiting for my fingers to get on the ball and start typing a real post, here is the most horrifying joke ever broadcast on a mainstream network television show. According to the Internet, this is from 1987 on ABC.
Again, this is why the ’80s were a strange, strange time. Even the audience (if that is is a real audience there) sounds uncomfortable in the long, “cute” pause after that line.
If you want to tie this into today, this is the sort of thing that the Gilly sketches on Saturday Night Live (there was another one in this last episode) are trying to parody — the idea that destructive, illegal and psychotic behaviour is actually mischievous and adorable. It’s not a bad idea; it’s just that 1) It consists of the same jokes repeated over and over in every sketch, and 2) Gilly’s behaviour is actually kind of bland what you could get away with at 8 p.m. on ABC in the ’80s.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 4:30 PM - 3 Comments
Tonight is the big Office event that we’re all looking forward to, though maybe a little tired of hearing about: the pedding of Wim and Jam wedding of Jim and Pam. It is an hour-long episode, as “event” episodes usually are. I haven’t seen the episode yet, but hour-long episodes of The Office always fill me with a bit of trepidation; as many critics have noted, the show’s structure and style isn’t really built for the hour-long format, with the result that long episodes often feel like short episodes padded out. (And the fourth season suffered in particular because of NBC’s decision to order a bunch of double-length episodes.) Not that there haven’t been good hour-long Office episodes. But like Seinfeld, another NBC show that didn’t usually hit home runs with one-hour episodes (“The Boyfriend” is the exception), it usually tells small stories and has to struggle to fill a “big” hour-long slot.
This doesn’t apply only to sitcoms; everyone who watched that show remembers the disaster that ensued when The Twilight Zone was expanded to an hour for one season. Running time is a tricky thing; a show like The Office does great when it has 30 minutes instead of 20 (like the original, and like some of the “super-sized” episodes NBC used to do), but 40 minutes is a problem, usually. And let’s not even get into the series finale thing: it’s generally understood that a sitcom will often have better artistic results with its series finale if it sticks to the half-hour length, the way Mary Tyler Moore and Newhart did, rather than doing a bloated, over-long, night-busting finale like Seinfeld or M*A*S*H did (I said “artistic” results, not “ratings” results; M*A*S*H got great ratings for the finale, but a half-hour version would have been a better episode).
However, the wedding may be a big enough story to make the double-length format work for The Office tonight. Which leads me, finally, to the question I brought up in the subject heading: when does it work for a half-hour show to expand to an hour-long story? What are some double-length episodes that work, and is there anything they have in common that makes them work? Of course the reason for doing an hour-long episode is that the network wants one. But what are some non-crass reasons for doing an hour-long show?
(I should add that not all two-parters are true hour-long stories. Sometimes a two-part episode really consists of two completely separate stories, both of which follow the typical half-hour structure, but have something connecting them. You’ve seen them, and they go like this: Week 1, the story seems to be finished, but there’s a twist that results in a “To Be Continued” cliffhanger. Week, 2, we get a story that follows up on the events at the end of Week 1. But the episodes are both separate entities. An example is King of the Hill‘s two-parter that spanned the third and fourth seasons. Part 1 was about Peggy and Hank feeling depressed on their anniversary, and ended with them working off their depression by going skydiving, only for Peggy to plummet to her apparent demise. Part 2 was about Peggy recovering from her near-fatal accident; the episode touched on some issues raised in the first episode, but it was a separate episode with separate writers and its own self-contained story.)
The obvious reason for doing a double-length story is that there’s a story that’s just too big to fit into 20+ minutes. I don’t know how many of those there are, though, since most stories that are appropriate for a sitcom are appropriate for a half-hour format. (Same with your Twilight Zone type of story, a short story with a surprise ending: if you’re not pitching a small story that can lead to a big twist, then why are you pitching it to The Twilight Zone instead of some other show?) That probably happens most often if the story for the episode contains elements of some other genre, like mystery, that usually requires more time to get the plot worked out. The Simpsons, which almost never does two-parters, did one for “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” and it had to be a two-parter, mostly because of the audience-participation gimmick, but because it needed the whole first half-hour to plant all the clues. (And even then, the second half feels heavily padded.) South Park does this sometimes, where they’ll expand to two parts simply because they get to the end of part one and realize they’re not finished yet.
Another reason for doing an extra-long episode is that something extra gets added during the writing or rehearsals, and an expanded length is the only way to incorporate the new material without killing the story. This has happened a few times. What started as a half-hour script for WKRP got expanded to a double-length episode when the guest actor started throwing in a bunch of improvised scenes with Howard Hesseman (they had been in the comedy troupe The Committee together), and the showrunner decided that they should expand their scenes together. So it became a basically small story, but with every scene running longer than usual.
And with the Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld, the need to showcase the guest star and give him a bigger-than-usual role for guest characters meant that if it had been a half-hour, they’d have had to cut down the other two stories pretty severely. As an hour, it may feel a little padded (though it’s one of my favourite episodes from my favourite Seinfeld season), but at least the Vandelay Industries and “spitter” stories can get all the time they need.
One show that had an interesting and fairly unique approach to the double-length episode was Taxi: every season they would do a special two-part episode that consisted of solo vignettes for each of the main characters, connected by a framing sequence where they’d tell stories about their lives (their experiences in a particular cab, the jobs they got while laid off from taxi driving, etc). The episodes weren’t separate from each other, but they didn’t have an hour’s worth of plot; they were patterned after two-part clip shows that some sitcoms would do, except all the clips were new.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 4:22 PM - 11 Comments
Glee is still finding its way, and last night’s episode was a step backwards in some ways, forwards in others. They’re already having problems figuring out how to sustain the tone of the pilot or even the rules that govern the musical numbers; they’re getting close to doing full-fledged musical numbers that go beyond the boundaries of “real-life” performance, and I would not be at all surprised if people are breaking into song in the street by the time the season is over. Though one way or another, they’ll have to improve the lip-synching, an important part of any filmed musical (it’s not usually possible to do an elaborate musical number without singing to playback). I don’t know if it’s the lip-synching or the sound recording, which gives no suggestion of the acoustic of wherever they happen to be performing the number, but they simply don’t give the feeling that they’re doing these numbers in the room. (This is a very common problem on TV shows that do musical numbers. There’s no time to mix the sound of the song to really match the dialogue, so the dialogue and music wind up sounding like they were recorded in completely different rooms — which they were.)
It also never ceases to amaze me that edgy one-camera (and in this case one-hour) shows can get away with doing plots that would get a more conventional-looking show branded as hopelessly corny. The scene where the evil new coach tries to kick out the people who are “different” and is rebuffed with a speech about how being different is what makes you special — not only is that an old plot, but they didn’t even feel the need to try to cut through the treacle or subvert the scene with a joke the way [insert name of multi-camera teen comedy that did this plot] would. I’m not really criticizing, because it is probably a good thing that shows from Glee to 30 Rock feel the confidence to do old sitcom plots without apologizing for them. It’s like their edgy cred frees the writers up to do all the stories they remember from their years of non-edgy TV viewing.
Finally, to bring these two points together, I will say that Glee is increasingly starting to remind me of:
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 12:08 PM - 0 Comments
Earl Pomerantz has a post about one of my favourite subjects: the role a studio audience plays in a show, and the difference between how an episode plays in front of the audience and how it plays on TV.
Some episodes play better in front of the studio audience than they do on TV, sometimes because the best jokes were funnier to people who were actually physically present, but sometimes because the need to edit a show down to length will necessitate a choice about what to cut: the big laugh moments, or the bits that led up to those big laughs (and “set them up”).
One of the things that interests me about this choice is the idea that showrunners can focus too much on the moments that got the biggest laughs from the studio audience. They want to keep all the jokes that got huge laughs. But many of those jokes won’t play as well at home. And they wind up with an episode that feels like a string of disconnected jokes, most of which aren’t even that funny. This description could apply to many bad sitcom episodes (and even weak episodes of good sitcoms):
What then do you cut? You cut, or at least cut down, the exposition and the continuity. Also at risk are the underpinnings that set the comedy up. What happens then? Duh. The funny parts, less carefully prepared for, are no longer as funny.
“Editing for time” also hinders the natural flow of the storytelling. Struggling to retain the comedic highpoints, the episode can evolve into a compilation of “greatest hits”, becoming choppy, and losing its shape. An episode once deemed “better than perfect” can, when finished, feel disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying.
That’s why it’s sometimes better, in the editing process, to be willing to lose some of the big jokes in favour of maintaining the story flow; not only will the episode be more satisfying as a whole, but the big laughs (when they do come) will come organically from the story, and will therefore actually make people laugh at home.
Episodes, lacking those time-stretching “big laughs”, tend to play more smoothly in your house (and better than they did in front a perhaps attentive but less vocal studio audience.) Though admittedly less hilarious, there’s something rewarding about a story that takes time to connect the necessary story dots, from its premise, through its complications, to its natural, though hopefully surprising, resolution. Consciously or unconsciously, it’s an ultimately happier experience.
(I personally think this applies even more to a conventional sitcom than it does to comedy in general. Whatever I think of Family Guy, it can get away with being, as Cartman says, “one random joke after another,” because it usually doesn’t pretend to be anything else. But a regular sitcom has to get most of its laughs from the story, whatever that story happens to be. And if the story isn’t coherently told, it will not be funny to those watching at home.)
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, May 25, 2009 at 11:29 AM - 4 Comments
This has been around for a while, but the sitcom map is a useful guide to where TV comedies take place and which areas of the U.S. have the highest concentration of comedy. (New York, obviously, is where most comic characters would rather stay). There’s also a list at the bottom of comedies that don’t take place in any particular geographic area, like The Simpsons and The Donna Reed Show.
The map does not include Canadian or Mexican television shows, conveying the impression that North America is two-thirds barren wasteland. I suppose if someone tried mapping out Canadian shows, Toronto would be the setting for a lot of shows, but TV comedy wouldn’t be quite as concentrated in Toronto as U.S. comedy in New York, or British comedy in London. But I might just be getting a skewed impression because there are a bunch of shows around today that are set outside Toronto (Winnipeg for Less Than Perfect Kind, for example).
In some ways, the setting of a comedy is essentially pointless, because most comedies are shot in the studio, and no matter where the show takes place, they’ll hardly ever leave L.A. But that creates a certain amount of freedom in choosing the setting. A show that goes out on location has to either pick a place they can shoot in, or a place that Vancouver can be dressed up to resemble. But a studio-based sitcom can choose to pretend that it takes place just about anywhere. That’s why it’s odd that so many multi-camera, indoor comedies automatically choose to take place in or near New York. Besides the fact that they think New York is cooler and that Seinfeld and Friends cast a long shadow, setting a show in New York means that the characters can have access to just about any place or event, and the writers find it easier to bring in a guest star or guest character (lots of people unexpectedly pop up in New York, or move to New York on a whim). But a show that takes place in a less cliche’d city can sometimes come up with interesting new reasons for guest characters to turn up, or things the characters might do with their time that they might not do in a New York or L.A. show.
However, if you’re going to set a show in Portland, Oregon, please do not have Meadowlark Lemon move in next door.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, May 15, 2009 at 1:20 PM - 1 Comment
Some Friday comedy thoughts:
- The excellent season finale of The Office didn’t have a tag (a scene before the closing credits but after the final commercial break), which was a bit disconcerting. I actually prefer the show without the tags, but I’m so used to them that I simply didn’t expect the show to be over after Pam’s Big Revelation™; I was not mentally prepared to think that that was the end. That’s why I think it helps a show to have the executive producer credit at the end, the way 30 Rock does: when you see Lorne Michaels’ credit, you know the episode is over.
- I’m still not into Parks and Recreation but the sixth episode was the best yet, and the presence of writer Norm Hiscock on the show is a good sign. (Hiscock, formerly head writer for Kids in the Hall, was hired by Greg Daniels to write many episodes of King of the Hill; after he left that show, he moved back to Canada and wrote for Corner Gas among others. I guess Daniels lured him back.) There are reviews from Televisionary and (more positively) from Myles; both agree in their own ways that the documentary format, uneasily grafted onto this show, may be holding it back. (It may be a little cursed by the fact that it grew out of NBC’s desire for an Office spinoff.)
- One advantage of 30 Rock‘s single-camera setup and cartoonish style is that it allows the writers to get away with using some of the oldest sitcom plots on record. Last night’s episode had Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 2:32 PM - 3 Comments
If I were looking for a single word to sum up why Chuck Lorre has managed to build a comedy empire in an era that didn’t seem very sitcom-friendly, the word would be “efficiency.” Two and a Half Men may be kind of cruel and mean, but every element of that show is calculated to make the show an efficient laugh machine, and remove anything that might stand in the way of generating jokes on a regular basis: no needless set clutter, no extra plot complications, no verisimilitude in staging or lighting. It is, as all multi-camera sitcoms need to be, a machine that can produce 20 minutes of jokes every week. Not that efficiency doesn’t matter in other forms of TV, but it’s just even more important in a multi-camera comedy because every joke has to land in front of a studio audience, which means that the writers are literally writing for two audiences at once.
One little thing that can sometimes be a test of comedy efficiency is, believe it or not, how well the studio audience is recorded. It’s a tiny thing, but I think it has a subliminal effect: flop sitcoms often have audiences that don’t sound like real human beings. The default assumption is that when audience laughter sounds fake, that’s because it is fake. But while there’s usually some fake laughter in there, many comedy shows, even the bad ones, can get a studio audience to laugh at the jokes. But real laughter in the studio sometimes sounds like fake laughter to the people watching at home, which can make it harder to laugh along with that audience. A show where the laughs sound real and “live” has the subliminal effect of making us feel like we’re in an audience, and that makes it easier to laugh. (Shows that film without an audience and add a laugh track, like How I Met Your Mother, are a different story; the laughter is just there to brand the show as a comedy, so it needs to be at a low volume level. But with a live-audience show, it’s important to give us the feeling of being there in the studio.)
I suspect that the key to making laughs sound real is to mike them in such a way that they sound like they’re the product of real individual voices: instead of one big undifferentiated blob of laughter, the listener should be able to detect differences between frequency and timing and volume of laughs. Oddly enough, as Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 11:37 AM - 3 Comments
As the networks slowly start re-learning the fact that audiences will always like multi-camera sitcoms, I’m going to make one prediction about the future of the format: multi-camera shows will have basically one plot per episode, and the “B” story — a separate story involving characters who don’t have much to do with the main story — will mostly be restricted to shows that don’t use live audiences.
Actually, I shouldn’t say “future of the format,” because it’s really the present of the format. Most of the CBS multi-camera shows do not use a lot of B-stories. Take The Big Bang Theory last night (which was one of those episodes that makes you wonder why anyone would ever hang out with Sheldon or Howard). The main story was the four guys taking a train trip. The way sitcoms were written in the Friends era, if you had some of the characters go on a trip, there would also be a secondary story at home with the characters who didn’t go. But that didn’t happen here. Penny got a few scenes on the phone with Leonard and Sheldon (as always, her scenes with Sheldon were the best part, and they weren’t even in the room together), but she didn’t have a story of her own. You could argue that the A-story was really two little stories in one (three of the guys trying to hit on Summer Glau; Sheldon trying to get his flashdrive whatchamajigger), but the point is that there was no separate story in a separate location, and in other, better episodes, there’s just one story for the whole evening, period.
How I Met Your Mother, on the other hand, almost always has two or more stories. (Last night: Pretentious douche Ted and his even more pretentious, douchey ex-girlfriend; Marshall forgets his pants; and did I mention that Ted is annoying?) But while that show is multi-camera, it doesn’t use a live audience and patterns itself after single-camera shows, with their faster pace and very short scenes. The Office and 30 Rock always have several plots going on, usually not just two but three plots, which may or may not intersect. One of the reasons why the multi-plot format is so perfect for a one-camera show is that those shows are more dependent on editing to create their pacing and timing; more stories per episode create more options in editing. The Office is a show that’s basically made in the editing room, in the sense that the final edit may have a different structure from the script; with two or three plots a week, there are more editing choices to make.
For many years, most television shows, whether an hour or a half-hour, told basically one story per episode. Shows like M*A*S*H and Barney Miller helped change this in the ’70s, and this spread to hour-long dramas (which were also influenced by multi-story movies like Robert Altman’s original M*A*S*H). By the late ’80s, it was common if not required for every comedy to have an A and a B story in most episodes, and then the two most popular sitcoms of the ’90s took this to a new level: Seinfeld would give every character his or her own story and tie them all together at the end, while Friends usually had three stories per episode plus maybe an extra running gag that wasn’t really a story in itself.
The problem was that this multi-story format was one of the things that helped make sitcoms seem so hopelessly lame by the end of the ’90s: good A stories would be combined with corny B stories, and the need to do so many plots meant that shows ate through all their good story ideas much too quickly. And the shrinking running times meant that there wasn’t enough time to tell one story adequately, let alone two. That’s why Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, made “no B stories” one of his rules when he made the show. Every episode would be one story and only one, and instead of giving the supporting characters their own separate plot, they would drop by to give their perspective on the main problem of the week. (This was just a throwback to the way radio and TV comedies were written up until the ’70s.)
It’s Raymond that has become the template for a lot of the shows that don’t use B stories: keep the pace more leisurely, allow more time for the audience to react to a joke, and use very simple stories that don’t require a lot of time to resolve. In the ’90s, many multi-camera sitcoms used scenes that lasted under a minute (when Michael J. Fox did Spin City, he gave many interviews mentioning that this was the biggest change in TV, that he was now doing dozens of little scenes a week). Except for Mother, this is now the province of one-camera shows; multi-camera shows are moving back to having fewer sets and longer scenes — probably the only way for a show like that to tell a story when there’s only 20 minutes of screen time.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 9:09 PM - 4 Comments
Update: Since I’ve written this post, Jacobs’ bio has finally been added to the Impressionism official site. (Those two events are not related, however.)
I’ve previously mentioned this play called Impressionism, which is about to open on Broadway with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen as the stars (and Marsha Mason also in the cast). I haven’t seen or read the play and don’t know what the advance word is about it, but the TV connection — and forgive me, those of you who have seen me mention this before — is that the writer of this romantic comedy is Michael Jacobs, who had his first Broadway play produced at age 22 but (after finding limited success in the theatre) moved to California, becoming a successful writer-creator of family-oriented comedies: Boy Meets World, Dinosaurs, the first season of Charles in Charge, My Two Dads, The Torkelsons and much more. He went back to Broadway when the market for family sitcoms dried up. I’ve always liked his writing, and at least some of the shows he did, so I’m naturally rooting for him.
Now, that said, I just looked at the official site for his play. The site has bios for the whole cast, and every member of the crew… except the playwright. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but I do notice that what little publicity material I’ve seen on this play seems to tiptoe around or altogether ignore the previous credits of the person who wrote the play. (Jacobs apparently doesn’t appear on the special features for the upcoming DVD of My Two Dads, either, so maybe he’s just not seeking the public eye any more.)
Now, I know that Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen are the main selling points of the play. The question in my mind is, would it help or hurt a play if the producers played up, or at least mentioned, the fact that the playwright created many shows that potential theatregoers have probably seen (and many of which they grew up watching)? They may not be prestige credits, but if I were a producer I’d find some way to try and turn them into a selling point. Which may explain why I’m not a producer. But come on, someone would have to want to see this play because it’s written by the person who co-wrote the Charles In Charge theme song, gave William Daniels a character who could make kids forget he was KITT, and also created this:
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, February 13, 2009 at 2:11 PM - 3 Comments
…”At first I hated it.And then I liked it. Then I hated it again. Then I got horny. And then I fell asleep. ” (Frank, 30 Rock)
The latest of the Shout Factory licenses (along with the even more welcome announcements of Peyton Place and The Dana Carvey Show, about which more later) is the first season of Designing Women, which has been kept off DVD until now, except for best-of collections, because Sony didn’t want to pay the music licensing fees.
I would expect this one to sell well, since the show still has a substantial fan base and is still sometimes seen in reruns (as 30 Rock already pointed out). I’m not as excited for it as I am for some other, lesser-known shows; I personally couldn’t get into it. I think one of the things that turned me off was the Meshach Taylor character, who was such a eunuch. The Golden Girls and Sex and the City were smart enough not to try to bring a male character into the core group — Golden Girls actually had a gay male character in the pilot, who was dropped by the second episode — because it’s the equivalent of bringing in a token female character who has no reason to be with an all-male group.
The creator of Designing Women and writer of most of the episodes, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, was one of a number of female writer-creators who became famous for using their TV shows to address whatever was on their minds. Amy Palladino is another writer in the same mold, and Gilmore Girls was like a one-hour, less abrasive take on the Designing Women format. And of course, though he’s not a woman, David E. Kelley is the ultimate writer in this mold, someone who uses episodic television to work out his own obsessions. I think that a lot of what we now think of as “personal” television, TV shows where episodes are a reflection of the creator’s own neuroses and moods, owes something to the work of Bloodworth, Susan Harris, Diane English etc.; they helped raise the bar for the amount of his or her own personal self a showrunner could put into a show with continuing characters.
This clip is from David Mirkin’s short-lived Fox comedy series The Edge (after it was canceled, he took over as showrunner of The Simpsons). And yes, that is Jennifer Aniston in the cast.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 7:12 PM - 2 Comments
One thing that I find intriguing about the strong performance of comedies on CBS is that virtually all of their successful comedies are produced by outside companies. Warner Brothers does Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and Old Christine; Fox produces HIMYM. Worst Week is produced by Universal. Gary Unmarried is an ABC/Disney production. Almost by accident, they’ve revived an older model of TV production, where the network concentrates on buying projects from other companies instead of producing shows in-house.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 12:59 PM - 4 Comments
Long before Shout! Factory announced that they’d acquired the DVD rights to Mr. Belvedere, I had noticed that it was probably one of the most-requested TV titles — constant message board posts all over the place demanding to know why Mr. Belvedere wasn’t on DVD yet. Ironically, this announcement means that it’ll come to DVD before the movie it’s based on, Sitting Pretty (unless Shout! includes the movie as a special feature, which would be cool but might not be possible).
I’m happy for fans of the show, but I don’t quite understand why it has so many fans. I have, as readers know, a lot of affection for the cheesy family sitcoms I grew up watching, but this one wasn’t one of my favourites, not even maybe in the top 10. I remember that I didn’t like anybody in the cast except Christopher Hewett, I kept wondering what kind of family would have Bob Uecker in it, and it wasn’t that funny. I did like the endings where Belvedere would write in his journal — kind of a low-tech predecessor of Doogie Howser — but I never went out of my way to watch it. I did like the theme song, though, especially in its full version.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, November 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM - 865 Comments
Kids’ TV is now about young people in wild situations—with few adults
A bunch of kids have gathered in a school on a Friday evening; they’re not here to learn, but to see the first and only live taping of their favourite Canadian kids’ sitcom, The Latest Buzz, about a magazine that hires five high school kids to write its articles. “How many kids here have jobs?” asks writer/actor Darrin Rows, who’s doing the warm-up. One kid puts up his hand; he works at Pizza Pizza. Another kid proclaims: “I work for the Buzz,” the magazine on the Family Channel show. He doesn’t really. But he wishes he did. So do a lot of the kids who watch TV these days. This isn’t the ancient time—five years ago—when kids’ comedy shows were about wholesome nuclear families. Today, a successful youth-oriented sitcom needs to be about a girl who’s secretly a rock star (Hannah Montana) or kids who have magical powers (Wizards of Waverly Place). The modern-day kids’ show starts with a premise that, in the words of Family Channel executive Kevin Wright, “is aspirational, meaning that kids would want to be in that situation.” Forget family values; today, kid comedy is about wish-fulfillment.
Like most entertainment trends, this one started in the U.S., where producers for the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon have been busy pushing kids’ fantasy lives as far as a TV budget will take them. Your kids can see Hannah Montana, or Wizards of Waverly Place, or Zoey 101, starring a pre-pregnancy Jamie Lynn Spears as a student at a luxurious boarding school where everyone lives like a Hollywood superstar. When you come across a traditional kids’ comedy—like Life With Derek, a one-camera show with no laugh track about growing up in a mixed family—it looks like it came from another generation. Suzanne French, a producer on Derek (whose first season, like the first season of Buzz, recently came out on DVD), says that on both Family and the Disney channel “it holds its own against the laugh-tracked lineup,” but adds that this kind of show is becoming harder to sell: “It feels like the world has gone into a higher-concept mode. I don’t know what it would be like pitching the show now.”
The Latest Buzz, which premiered last year, was the first Canadian show in the Hannah Montana vein: on videotape rather than film, with a laugh track and broad jokes, and above all, a premise that puts kids into situations that real kids drool over. In the live-audience episode, just about everything is escapist in one way or another except a brief moral message near the end: the kids form a band and sing pop songs, Hannah Montana-style, doofus gaming expert Wilder (Munro Chambers) does slapstick comedy while trapped in a magician’s box, and the kids never go anywhere near their actual homes or school. Brent Piaskoski, creator and showrunner of Buzz, says that it features “five teenagers who, after school, go to work on the coolest job ever. I hoped that would get the audience.” And it did: a third season started production even before the second season began airing, and Family Channel is making plans for other shows in the same vein, like Overruled, about a kid who gets to be a lawyer.
You didn’t always need that approach to make a family-friendly show. Network executives used to feel that the best shows for kids were the ones that captured what it felt like to be a kid. This goes as far back as Leave It To Beaver, where Jerry Mathers lived a humdrum suburban life and faced realistic problems, just with happier endings than in real life. Full House was another show that became popular with children by presenting sappier versions of normal family concerns. Even Lizzie McGuire, the Disney Channel’s biggest hit before Hannah Montana, starred Hilary Duff as a girl with a conventional family, school, and social circle.
There were occasional hits that took a more fantastic approach, but they were flukes: after ABC had a hit with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, the network commissioned several other kids’ sitcoms about genies and angels, and they all bombed. It was assumed that kids wanted to see their own lives reflected back at them, albeit in an idealized way, like in the acclaimed ’90s series The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which introduced a few surreal elements into what was basically a realistic story of small-town childhood. But today, Wright says, kids’ shows can’t just start with the simple premise of kids living ordinary lives: “We tend to like shows that are high-concept, because they set themselves apart from other shows.”
And once networks get into the high-concept mode, they keep having to top themselves. Cory in the House is a spinoff of an earlier Disney Channel show, That’s So Raven, about a girl who had psychic abilities but otherwise lived a dull life with her suburban family. Even that was too tame for modern kids, so the spinoff features a character who gets to live in the White House and have world-endangering adventures with his friends. And if people thought Disney had gotten as far away as possible from real life with The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, about kids who get to live in a luxurious metropolitan hotel, they were mistaken: the channel just unveiled a retooled version called The Suite Life On Deck, where Zack and Cody move from the hotel to a luxury liner. Disney is launching a boy-centric channel called Disney XD; one of its first new shows will be about a teenager who is secretly a superhero. Wright explains that the Disney Channel always wants a premise that’s more escapist than the last one: “‘We have two guys in a hotel, what could be better than that? How about a rock star like Hannah Montana? How about a cruise ship? You’ve gotta go up, you can’t go down.”
But even as the concepts of these shows get more bizarre, the idea behind them has stayed pretty consistent: to appeal to modern children, a show needs to feature kid characters who get the kind of independence that only adults have in real life. On The Latest Buzz, the kids not only get to act like grown-up journalists, but have problems that are usually reserved for adults on prime-time sitcoms: one character deals with a humiliating Internet video, another tries to pretend that he has a higher-ranking job than he really does. It’s like a pint-sized version of the Seinfeld gang, with their petty obsessions. Better yet, kids on these shows are almost free from adult authority. On Hannah Montana, the character has no mother, and her father is her manager, making him as much an employee as an authority figure. The only parent who appeared in the live-audience episode of The Latest Buzz was Wilder’s father, who is even dumber and more childish than he is. And Zack and Cody’s mother, who provided a bit of authority on the original show, was dropped from The Suite Life On Deck.
Piaskoski explains that a lot of the people who watch this kind of show are in the 8-14 age bracket, where for the first time in their lives, “the answer to ‘what are you doing on a Friday night’ is ‘We’re not going to the Old Spaghetti Factory with mom and dad, we’re going to this place instead with friends.’ ” When kids realize that they can go places and do things without adults, they naturally identify with characters who can do anything without having to ask a grown-up. True, the producers have to be careful not to portray their protagonists as completely alone and without guidance, since kids wouldn’t like that either; Wright says that when Overruled was focus-tested, “kids were concerned, saying ‘hey, we hope that there’s adult supervision.’ Kids in that 8-14 year-old demo do want to have that in their lives.” But they want just enough grown-up control to make them feel comfortable; they don’t want a Ward Cleaver or Carol Brady figure whose orders have to be obeyed. When they watch today’s TV, one of the things they’re imagining is freedom.
The trade-off for this is that by catering to kids’ fantasies, these shows may be losing the opportunity to make a greater emotional connection with children. The writers still try to have quiet moments and teach lessons; Piaskoski notes that “we’ve done stories about one of the characters’ parents being separated, and as much as you want them to try to get back together, they didn’t. I’d say we’re as real as any show out there, except for the Buzz thing.” But many of the stories can’t have much resonance for real kids: Zoey 101’s most popular character was a scientific genius who created robots and explosives; the Latest Buzz kids get to interview celebrities; Zack and Cody endanger the safety of passengers on what is, for all intents and purposes, the Love Boat. These are shows about kids who don’t have many family, money or social worries, and they appeal to kids who wish they didn’t have those worries either. For the comforts of an old-school, family-oriented kids’ show, they have to look to reruns.
Or maybe they can start looking to some of the shows that are coming; executives and producers already seem to be hedging their bets a little in case kids start getting fed up with fantasy. In the U.S., the ABC Family channel and actor-producer Shaun Cassidy are developing a multi-camera show called Ruby and the Rockits, about a girl who lives with her uncle and his family while her musician father is on the road; it’s aiming for a realistic take on children of the music business, and definitely not Hannah Montana. Canada’s own Family Channel also is not forgetting about the joys of the old-fashioned living room set: Piaskoski says that a proposed spinoff of The Latest Buzz, focusing on the character of Wilder at home, will be “very family-oriented, closer to Family Ties than Buzz, and I think kids are going to love that too.” But whatever kids might love in the future, what they love right now is the type of show where they get to dream of the cool lives and jobs that they’ll probably never know. Plus, escapist comedy usually means plenty of slapstick: “Any time Wilder gets a cake in the face,” Piaskoski notes, “you’re going to get a laugh.” How many cakes in the face did you see on Leave It To Beaver?
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 11:54 AM - 1 Comment
Earl Pomerantz does, among other things, the absolute best posts about the decline of the sitcom form. (His words have extra authority, of course, because he was there helping to make some of the best examples of the form, including The Cosby Show, which saved the form when it was near death two decades ago.) Today’s post contains a great insight about why it’s becoming harder and harder to revive the multi-camera sitcom format: the fewer examples there are of this kind of show, the less audiences can accept its built-in conventions:
Why didn’t these, and other artificialities – the Huxtables’ living room was large enough to land an airplane in – disturb the viewers of that period? Because owing to the volume of comedies on the air at the time, “sitcom reality” was unconsciously accepted as normal.
As the number of sitcoms drops below a critical mass, the inherent weirdnesses of those that remain seem jarringly disconcerting. Which is a significant reason for the switch to single-camera and animated comedies. These more flexible formats significantly alleviate the traditional sitcom oddities.
I would compare it — and I think I might be unconsciously stealing this comparison from someone, maybe even another post by Pomerantz — to the decline of the Western, in movies and especially on TV. When there Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, October 17, 2008 at 3:08 PM - 2 Comments
Silly question of the day: when you’ve seen a sitcom dubbed into a foreign language, do they dub in a laugh track as well, or not?
I’ve seen a number of live-audience sitcom episodes dubbed into other languages, and since they can’t carry over the laugh track from the original (it’s intertwined with the dialogue) they have to make decisions about what to do with the laughter. If you watch French dubbed Seinfeld episodes, for example, they do dub in a laugh track along with the French dialogue. But in Italy, when they dub shows, they don’t add any laughter, and Italians are sometimes very surprised to find out that their favourite shows originally had people laughing in the audience.
For those of you who have gotten this far (this is just one of those days when I’m working on a long piece and am in the mood to write really silly, nit-picky blog posts), here’s a popular sitcom in Italian. Doesn’t it seem a little creepy without any laughter — everyone pausing for laughs that never come?
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 4:11 PM - 6 Comments
Yes, it’s another “what’s wrong with the multi-camera sitcom?” post. (Nobody ever gets tired of those, since we TV-analyst types only do 34 of those a day.) This is something I’ve been wondering for a while, as far back as the late ’90s when sitcoms were still popular: why don’t some network sitcoms go back to using videotape?
To explain this quickly: most “story” shows like dramas and comedies are shot on film, or digital formats that look like film. More ephemeral shows that aren’t intended to be re-run forever and around the world — variety shows, news shows, reality — are usually shot on videotape, which is cheaper and has a harder, brighter look. In the early ’70s, Norman Lear made the unusual decision to shoot All in the Family on videotape, partly because the British show it was based on was also shot on tape (the BBC was doing most scenes on tape at that time, using film only for location work), but also because Lear wanted the audience at home to feel as if they were watching the show live with the audience, instead of the more distanced, canned effect of film. For the next 20 years after that, all of Lear’s shows and many other American sitcoms were shot on tape; a few companies preferred film, but the majority of multi-camera sitcoms were done on tape, both in the U.S. and elsewhere (Fawlty Towers, King of Kensington). Because tape was cheaper and easier to edit, there was a lot of pressure on sitcom producers to use tape; Ken Levine tells the story of how the struggling Cheers was asked to experiment with the idea of saving money by switching from film to tape.
Anyway, there were many reasons for producers to dislike tape: as Levine notes, it made sets look fake and tacky (film lighting can make everything look more “real”; on tape, everything looks like a studio set); it looked cheap because it was cheap, and it made a show look disposable. In the ’90s, film became cheaper to edit, an extra camera was added to multi-camera film crews (removing an advantage of tape, which used to have four cameras to the three of filmed shows), and eventually digital technology made it possible to create a film “look” without actually having to use film. All these things together helped to eliminate the use of videotape for network sitcoms. Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, Raymond, all the big sitcom hits of the mid to late ’90s were on film, and the creators of Frasier would actually get kind of huffy whenever somebody referred to a “taping” of the show — it’s not taped, they insisted, it’s filmed.. Today the only North American sitcoms shot on tape are cable sitcoms for kids, like Hannah Montana, and even those shows have the videotape processed to make them look as much like film as possible (it’s a process that was used for a while in the early ’90s on shows like Blossom, and then as now, it actually made videotaped shows look worse, not better).
With the backstory out of the way, I think the networks might benefit from reconsidering the use of videotape — undisguised, cheap-looking videotape — for sitcoms. Now, nobody is going to watch or not Continue…