Monday, October 06, 2008

Sitcoms are not dead

Wow! Yesterday’s post elicited quite a reaction. Even more than my big announcement that I’m on Twitter (you can still sign up, by the way). Some found it overly depressing (I like to think I can depress you but not “overly”), a number of working writers found it hilarious (but not “overly” damn it), and others it made angry.

There’s the big question that’s been floating in the air. The one no one wants to ask because they’re afraid of the answer. Yesterday’s post prompted that question.

IS THE SITCOM DEAD?

If you can’t make shows like CHEERS today then what’s the point?

The point is sitcoms are still on the air and attracting sizable audiences and yes, CHEERS might not be in vogue today but that doesn’t mean in five years that form won’t be the rage. It’s a pendulum. Always has been. A few years ago you could never have sold FRIENDS. Networks insisted you have at least one older authority figure. Once FRIENDS became a huge hit the networks proclaimed, “Send in the clones!”

Oh, and I should mention -- they’re wrong. A CHEERS-type show should be on today. When the young people the networks are desperately chasing are watching CHEERS reruns and not DO NOT DISTURB I think that’s sending a message.

Sitcoms will survive. In success they make the most money. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER just landed a big syndication deal. Reality shows may get the better ratings but they have no shelf life. Don’t expect to see reruns of AMERICAN IDOL on WGN, even with Sanjaya.

And I think we’re just one big hit away from a renaissance.

The good news is there are more places to sell your sitcoms. ENTOURAGE is a show that the networks would never buy. Way too inside show business. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM – the lead is too old, too ugly, too unlikable. WEED – mom sells marijuana? Not if you had Reba MacInytre.

I also think the sitcom form will splinter and evolve, shaking off some of its standard conventions. Laugh tracks are no longer required. The line between single and multiple camera shows have blurred. There are hybrids of film and tape. Short order series. Relaxed length restrictions. Is MONK a comedy or a drama? What about PSYCH? Or BEVERLY HILLS 90210 (Oh wait, that’s not supposed to be a comedy)? A lot of FRASIER writers are now producing DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.

And with all of that, I guarantee networks will also return to the traditional form. They’re already starting to. The ones that are currently on are doing well. And visions of the next FRIENDS is always in their heads.

More important than whether ensemble or star driven, one or four cameras, thirty or sixty minutes, network or cable or internet or direct-to-phones is the quality of the writing. If you’re a good writer there will be room for you. It might not be CHEERS. But who knows? In a couple of years it might be. Or it might be better.

One last note: In the early 60s the Beatles were rejected by Decca Records with the explanation: “Guitar groups are on the way out.”

30 comments:

michael said...

This gives me hope that maybe a silly guy who writes a sarcastic blog and some scripts has a chance of writing professionally in the long run. Thanks for that.

Anonymous said...

Television simply needs to
overhall the process of
reviewing which shows get
the green light, I think NBC
and ABC will find it really
hard to keep from a meltdown !

Anonymous said...

Apparently you haven't heard of IDOL REWIND... It aired on WGN.

JSWN said...

Please explain.
How do stinkers like SUDDENLY SUSAN and TWO GUYS A GIRL AND A PIZZA PLACE have such longevity?
Seriously. How does such shiiiit last and last on the tube?

Christina said...

You didn't mention one of my favorite shows, TWO AND A HALF MEN. In its sixth season, baby. People make fun of it - especially writers - but a lot of people watch it. Ironically, probably the same people that love Sarah Palin...

For the record, my top 5 favorite sitcoms of all time:

1. The Bob Newhart Show (the one where he's a psychologist)
2. The Jeffersons
3. Cheers
4. Two and a Half Men
5. The Office/Arrested Development (tie)

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Don’t expect to see reruns of AMERICAN IDOL on WGN, even with Sanjaya.

American Idol Rewind. It also airs on a few other channels.

smacklab said...

i wouldn't normally pipe up here... but i find it endlessly disheartening that u put 2 and half men above the office (ill assume you mean the excellent english version) or the amazing arrested development...

it might be one of the best of teh current bunch... but it aint all that...

1 and a half is really just 1 joke... over and over again... charies a male slut... chicks are easy... i get sick of it quick...

Christina said...

smacklab - I'm honest about my taste. It'd be easier to toe your party line, but I'm not easy.

xjill said...

I am a huge drama viewer and never watched many sitcoms. Currently the only 30 minute comedies I watch are The Office, HIMYM and 30Rock, which are all anything but 'traditional' in the way they're filmed. Anyways, a good multi-camera sitcom is like comfort food to me, and it's a shame there's not one on I like. I do feel like we are one small step away from another critical AND audience fav. I look forward to seeing what it is.

smacklab said...

no offence, but my "party line" isnt the current most popular sitcom... so it isnt easier... much easier to go with whats popular... poor arrested development suffered from that...

but i understand what u meaning... and good on u sticking to ur guns... you gotta do that.. :)

emily said...

MONK!

Paul Duca said...

Things are cyclical...that's history. At the end of the '60s they said the sitcom was passe, then along came MARY TYLER MOORE and ALL IN THE FAMILY. In early 1984 they said the sitcom was out, then along came a top 10 hit...the mid-season KATE & ALLIE (THE COSBY SHOW merely sealed the deal).

Bob said...

>> ...the Beatles were rejected by Decca Records with the explanation: “Guitar groups are on the way out.” <<
Anybody seen Decca Records lately?

Brian Phillips said...

To Bob, yes, I have seen Decca lately, here it is:
http://www.deccalabelgroup.com/

A friend of mine discuss stories like "The Death of the Sitcom". We agree that it is less truth and more about selling papers, magazines and getting more hits on a website. Another perennial is "Can this be the end of broadcast television?", which I think is a less interesting story than the shrinking of locally produced shows. They had their share of bad programs and good ones, but at least they were there and helped a few go on to national shows. Some of the shows even went national. American Bandstand is one and there is also footage of Dick Van Dyke on local Atlanta TV. For a short time a show called "The Baxters" was syndicated. It was a sitcom that had a novel format. The first half of the show brought up an issue, like cheating or socialized medicine (these are the two shows I remember) and the second half would be a hosted discussion on the issues raised in the short teleplay. I bet that wouldn't test well, either.

Speaking of which, I have an idea for a show about a White woman married to a Latino who live near an older couple and the wiggy hijinks...well, I guess not.

Many forms have lulls, but are never dead, one because of talent but also, sponsors gotta sell stuff.

Also, why do some horrible shows continue and others can't make a dent? I don't know, but in the case of "Sister Kate", I know that stayed on a wee past it's sell-by date because Brandon Tartikoff's daughter liked it.

Brian Phillips said...

Oops! My point about "The Baxters" was that it was originally a local show!

lizvelrene said...

Okay, now I'm curious - do you make any distinction between "sitcom" and "comedy"? It sounds like you don't, if you're talking about shows like WEEDS or CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. However, I don't consider those shows sitcoms at all - I tend to think of "situation comedy" as half-hour, live show, limited sets (or at least revolving around one or two main locations), laugh track. If it meets most of those criteria, it's a sitcom. Anything else is "comedy". Sketch shows are comedy, for example. Monk is comedy, far as I'm concerned. BURN NOTICE is action/comedy. The faux-docmentary interviews alone disqualify THE OFFICE as a sitcom, to me, but YMMV. Stuff like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is borderline as well. I don't think anybody can argue that TV comedy is dead, but there's a good argument to be made that the sitcom is flatlining, at least in America. The Brits can still turn out a good sitcom, but there's not one stomachable on US tv. Anyway, back to my question: how exactly are you defining a sitcom?

lizvelrene said...

Well, I screwed up my criteria there, but you probably get the point. *Are* there any defining characteristics of a "sitcom" anymore?

Anonymous said...

I've been a sitcomaholic since I was a little kid and I still have a few that I consider "Must See TV." How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory. I also really enjoy Two and a Half Men. (so you're not alone Christina). I personally don't get the draw of The Office. But that's just me.

Last season I watched Back to You which I think got better as it went along. But the morons at FOX well...yeah. 'Til Death remains and Back to You gets axed!

Frasier, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers are my Top 5 of all time and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Jayne said...

There are still some great sitcoms out there!

I've been a sitcomaholic since I was a little kid and I still have a few that I consider "Must See TV." How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory. I also really enjoy Two and a Half Men. (so you're not alone Christina). I personally don't get the draw of The Office. But that's just me.

Last season I watched Back to You which I think got better as it went along. (although as far as I'm concerned Kelsey Grammer could just stand in front of the camera for 22 mintues and I'd watch it) But the morons at FOX well...yeah. 'Til Death remains and Back to You gets axed!

Frasier, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers are my Top 5 of all time and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Amber said...

It seems to me that sitcoms must have laugh tracks but comedy shows do not.

I was able to enjoy sitcoms like Frasier and Cheers despite the laugh tracks; I mean, you didn't have a choice back then. ALL comedy shows had laugh tracks. But with so many shows today that don't (Weeds, 30 Rock, The Office) the laughter exploding every few seconds is distracting to me and makes me change the channel in a hurry.

Just my own preference. :)

Jayne said...

My apologies for the double post. I tried to delete the "anonymous" one but I can't! Didn't realize it was there when I reposted.

The Minstrel Boy said...

i heard jerry belson talking about fred silverman one night. he said that

silverman's viewpoint is that if the public likes something once, they'll love it again, and again....and again..........and again.........and again............and again............the only way to sell him is to put in terms of things already sold. to get a deal with him you say things like "it's just like airport (wait for it!) but this time with a TRAIN....

to see that clearly and remain that funny was a mark of true genius.

Nat G said...

And the important thing to note about the big financial success of the (quite enjoyable) How I Met Your Mother is that it's not even a hit show; it's been considered a "bubble show", uncertain of renewal, for a couple of its seasons. But there's so much money involved once you get enough episodes and even a modicum of success, because there is so much airtime to be filled off-network, off-prime-time. The smart producer will take losses for years to keep a show going, and then make it for decades after.
And there really isn't a shortage of new sitcoms, they just aren't all in network primetime. They're on Lifetime, Disney Channel, wherever. The Bill Thingvall Or Whatever His Name Show. House of Payne. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The Unrealistically Opulent Life Of The Latest Output Of The Disney Teen Machine. These things are out there. And many of them aren't for you or me because off-network,off-prime they no longer need to be for everybody, but can be precision-crafted for a specific audience.

Anonymous said...

Ken - any chance you'd write a post that reviews currently-produced sitcoms? I'd love to hear your take on How I Met Your Mother, which I think is often brilliant. (30 Rock and The Office are the other two funniest shows on TV at the moment, IMO.) Thanks.

charlotte said...

Did you make it to the TV Academy last night, Ken, for their From Standup to Sitcoms event? I'd be interested in hearing your take on the subject from sitcom writer point of view, as there was a fair bit of non-standup-comic-first sitcom writer bashing going on. Have you ever had to work on a sitcom developed for a standup comic? If so, what was your experience like?

Charles J said...

Television can be a reflection of culture. Culture changes, and so does television. Great television can often be 'timeless,' even if it's very culturally-based. Episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" stand up today as terrific comedy. "Seinfeld" does not have as great repeat value, although, I will admit to having seen most episodes a minimum of 30 times, thanks to endless syndication and a lazy remote finger.

Makes me wonder how one of my FAVORITE comedies on today, 30 Rock, will stand up in 20 years. Shows with much more timeless humor, like Samantha Who?, might stand out better in "Top 100 sitcom" lists in 2040.

dan rydell said...

I'll never understand the attraction to Two and a Half Men.

But PSYCH is one of my absolute favs. Why is this not on a network???

Jay said...

The sitcom was supposed to dying back in the '80s, then The Cosby Show came along. Same story in the '90s, except it was Friends. Yes, sitcoms are cyclic, but the form has been with us continually in broadcasting for more than seventy years now and it's not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

I want to know where the network emphasis on single-camera comedy comes from.

I understand why an exec would point to FRIENDS or SEINFELD and say "That's a hit. Make one like that."

But, in the last 10-15 years, what is the network single-camera half-hour comedy success that you can point to and say "That's a hit Make one like that."

ABC seems simply obsessed with the idea.
JAKE IN PROGRESS
NOTES FROM THE UNDERBELLY
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
CAVEMEN
CARPOOLERS
and arguably the most expensively promoted network half-hour ever -- EMILY'S REASONS WHY NOT, which aired once.

THE OFFICE is NOT a hit. EARL? NOT a hit. (They are fine shows, but cult favorites.) SEX IN THE CITY was on cable.

What is the recent single-camera comedy equivalent you can point to?
What is the Classic? I can't think of a thing after M*A*S*H.

Anonymous said...

How about, for just plain old fashioned 'how to do a three-camera comedy with an audience (and sweetening) and good writing and seasoned classy performers and funny'? I vote for "New Christine"!