Is improvisation the savior of the sitcom? A number of articles I’ve recently read suggest that it is. I’m not so sure.
Several cable networks have launched comedies that rely on the actors improv-ing (as opposed to “improving”) within scenes. Their showrunners and network execs tell every reporter who will listen that they’re making groundbreaking television, that the old “set-up, joke, set-up, joke” sitcom format is passé and a thing of the past. They’ve come along to rescue the genre. Thank you soooo much. All that’s fine except for one thing – are these new improv comedies really FUNNY?
So far the answer is no.
Even the same TV critics who hail this new form admit in their reviews that the shows are quiet, amusing in spots, the tone is more naturalistic, the actors are likeable, but there are very few big laughs. And that’s understandable because unless your cast includes Robin Williams, Sasha Cohen, Elaine May, Will Ferrell, or the Christopher Guest road company you are putting too much comedy burden on the actors. It’s not their job. It’s not their gift.
I think we all saw an example last week of just how funny Michael Richards is when allowed to improvise. How beloved would Kramer be if Richards had free reign over that character?
This format does work for a couple of shows. I love THE OFFICE (primarily scripted but with some leeway) and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIAM. But at their core are supremely funny people like Steve Carell and Larry David. And even then, these shows can be uneven. CURB seems to be running out of gas, and I worry that THE OFFICE relies so much on getting laughs from people caught in awkward and embarrassing situations that it might start to get old. I hope they can keep it fresh because like I said, I really enjoy that show.
I did improv for many years. Still do on occasion. I’m pretty good at it. Very quick. But even in my best days I was nowhere near good enough to be a performer on network television. I’m going to do the same job as Ted Danson? Not a chance.
And likewise, I’m sure if you asked Ted to improvise a half hour show that will make ten million strangers laugh he couldn’t do it to save his life. Which is fine because he’s not supposed to. He’s an amazing comic actor.
I agree the old multi-camera sitcom style is stale. But I blame that more on bad writing, mediocre network approved casts, reliance on research, and suffocating interference. SEINFELD was multi-camera. So was FRIENDS, FRASIER, RAYMOND, and any number of shows that still hold up as being really funny. Audiences count the guffaws, not the cameras.
The trick is not to make a sitcom different, it’s to make one BETTER. Whatever the number of cameras, style, or technique. And it all goes back to getting the funniest people you can and allowing them to make the funniest show they can, doing the thing they do best.
In the words of the “Great One”, Jackie Gleason: comedy is the most exacting form of dramatic art, because it has an instant critic: laughter.
Notice he didn't say "smiles".