Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can a sitcom be edgy and sweet at the same time?

The LA TIMES “Calendar” section ran an article Tuesday maintaining that today’s newer comedies like RAISING HOPE and COMMUNITY, even though they’re edgy, also want to feature warm emotional moments. And that’s fine except for one thing – you’ve got to earn it.

Otherwise you’re WILL & GRACE. Every week they would do twenty minutes of sheer burlesque then suddenly switch gears and have this overly schmaltzy moment. The audience (or laugh machine) would go “Awwwwwww”, there’d be a big hug, one more tit joke for luck and “that’s our show for tonight folks!”

Those emotional moments always felt completely bogus. Why? Because the characters were cartoons and suddenly they were asked to be real.

You can’t have both.

Nothing wrong with mounting a very funny show set in an exaggerated world but then be true to that.

Emotional moments land because you care about the characters. You have empathy for their dilemmas. You can relate to them. And to achieve that your show must be grounded in at least some reality.

I love COMMUNITY. I even watch it this year over BIG BANG THEORY. I find it very funny and fresh. But when show creator Dan Harmon says in the article he wants to have those periodic emotional moments along with the laughs I say that's not going to be easy. The tone he’s created goes counter to that. His characters know they’re in a comedy. They’re very self-conscious of everything they say and do. How do they stop and suddenly become genuine?

Thanks to Alison Brie we can see the difference between a real vs. exaggerated character. Compare her “Trudy” in MAD MEN to her “Annie” in COMMUNITY. Both are wonderful characters but don’t expect Trudy to deliver you big laughs and don’t depend on Annie to tear your heart out.

Greg Garcia, creator of RAISING HOPE, also wants to integrate emotion with edgy comedy and I believe he can pull it off. A low life family having to raise a baby is a very real predicament. And depending on just how extreme the characters are it seems entirely plausible that they are capable of genuine sentiment.

One key is never sacrificing the integrity of your characters just for the sake of a joke. Yeah, it might get a big laugh but if it damages the audience’s perception of the character it’s not worth it.

Another new show that gives lip service to wanting to include emotion is RUNNING WILDE but that show is so stylized it’s ridiculous to even discuss it.

The only sitcom of the new crop that does pull off it off consistently is MODERN FAMILY. But it’s also the most grounded. I get the sense that these other shows wanted to establish themselves comedically first where as MODERN FAMILY placed a high value on emotion right from the get-go. But that’s just my speculation.

And by emotional moments I mean just “moments”. None of these shows are looking to become LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE for the last five minutes. No one is seeing if they can get clearance on Celine Dion songs.  I’m a huge believer that less is more. When David Isaacs and I wrote the “Goodbye Radar” episode of MASH, having Hawkeye and B.J. just find Radar’s teddy bear on Hawkeye’s bunk seemed so preferable to a long tear-filled farewell pathos-fest.

Quick side note: When George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote plays and musicals together Kaufman hated any sentimentality whatsoever but recognized it was necessary. So whenever there was an emotional moment or scene he just walked out of the room and let Hart write it.

The bottom line is I applaud any show runner who wants to add depth and dimension to his show. As Greg Garcia said in the article, “I don’t want to do a show that’s just outrageous and funny things and shocking things and at the end of the day it’s like, ‘OK, that was funny, but do I want to watch that again?’ It’s important to me to have some heart and emotion to it.”

I read that and thought, now I’m really rooting for the show. But you know me, I’m just an old softy… when I’m not ripping Bristol Palin, Katherine Heigl, award shows, movie previews, cheesy reality shows, Paula Abdul, Hugh Hefner, Traci Lords, Jeff Zucker, Fox News, Claudine Longet, satellite radio, parades, Las Vegas, Ann Coulter, National Anthem singers, museums, myself, Scientology, Tim McCarver, Jay Leno, Celine Dion, Time-Warner, or WILL & GRACE.

23 comments:

Brian said...

IMO, the biggest offender in this category was "NIGHT COURT".

You'd have flying monkeys dropping whoopie cushions on costumed defendents in the courtroom...

...and then 20 minutes later in chambers Judge Harry Stone would be delivering a 5 minute sermon on brotherly love and orphans.

Episode dismissed!

carol said...

Appropos of nothing, really, except you mentioned it, I just feel the need to tell you that 'Good-bye Radar' was the episode that got me watching the show faithfully. I was...oh, 11, 12? I forget, and my parents watched MASH all the time, and I would sometimes join them, but I was probably into Dukes of Hazzard at the time. And the Monkees.

Anyway, that night they were out, and for some reason I watched it. I wasn't all that familiar with the characters, but I cried for probably hours after seeing it. When my mom came home that night I remember trying to tell her what happened, and couldn't get through it without crying.

So...thanks, I guess, for writing something that touched me like that. And I hate you for making me cry!

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Can't help but think about The Simpsons on this issue. Both episodes that you and David wrote were very much grounded on reality and emotion, while having plenty of room for jokes.

Animation has to be an even harder medium for a writer to be able to pull that kind of balance consistently.

Some shows could get too sappy as well, and have no edginess at all (I'm thinking about Full House).

It's impressive how Al Jean's been able to keep that balance this far into The Simpsons. Jokes have become more dominant, but there's still an earned sweet moment every now and then (that was particularly true in the movie, during the 2nd to 3rd act transition).

Anonymous said...

It's somewhat off-topic but you might want to note that your blog received a mention in The Independent (a UK paper that enjoys a fairly good reputation) in a story about Aaron Sorkin and the controversy that The Social Network seems to have engendered relative to its portrayal of women. Here's the link:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/diary/diary-a-screenwriter-writes-2106162.html

Mike Bell said...

Everytime I've heard an announcer say, "Tonight on a very special...." I knew I wouldn't be watching that episode.

I would say though, that for it's time "All in the family" was very successful at being edgy and funny, and if not sweet, at least grounded in the real.

DJ said...

Both are wonderful characters but don’t expect Trudy to deliver you big laughs and don’t depend on Annie to tear your heart out

Um, did you see Trudy at the height of her pregnancy wearing that baby-doll nightie?

Zach said...

SCRUBS had a very special episode every week. It was the part of the show that worked least.

As for COMMUNITTY, most of it's episodes are based around personal growth. It's not over the top, and it is true to the characters.

Steven said...

The trend of producers gravitating toward this edgy sweet formula is one of my biggest pet peeves about sitcoms today. It may have been used in earlier shows like MASH but I think it was reintroduced into mainstream TV shows by Scrubs and ever since then it seems like it's used to a varying degrees by every dramedy and single camera sitcom on TV, not to mention the Judd Apatow movies.

I don't think injecting a little levity into a sitcom is bad, I just wish it was presented a different way in each episode other than with a sappy instrumental /song with exactly five minutes left in the episode while one of the main characters gives an overlaying voice over explaining the main theme of the episode as viewers see quick cut scenes of the other characters illustrating whatever the voiceover is talking about, such as working together.

These emotional moments can't be considered unexpected because you have a good idea of when they're going to occur in each episode and I think it can hinder your enjoyment of the funnier parts of the show because you're too busy trying to figure out the emotional theme of the episode before the answer is given to you in the voice over narration at the end of the episode.

If an episode is written well enough I shouldn't have to be told what I should take from it.

Pacollywood said...

I think it's definitely a case-by case debate. In answer to your title-question, I would say yes. It can be touching to see Michael Scott fooling himself over and over -or realizing he is not fooling himself- and yet, it was an edgy comedy when it first aired. 30 Rock was edgy but, because it was a comedy about cartoon characters, a touchy-feely moment would have been nauseating. I also agree with Eduardo and his comment about The Simpsons: even though it's a cartoon, the characters portray human emotions, so there is room for tender moments -even for Moe.
The beauty of it, though, is to weave it in small doses in the episode, so it doesn't pop up as a contrived happy ending that clashes with the entire mood of the episode.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Of those three shows Modern Family is my least favorite partly because of the preachiness -- like Scrubs it's constantly telling you what the moral is. I think single-camera shows can get away with this because they're inherently considered "edgy," but even Very Special Episodes of Night Court tried a little harder to integrate the moral into the story instead of just telling us what it was.

I guess some of this is just a reaction against the multi-camera sitcom glut of the '90s, which -- led by Seinfeld -- tended to shy away from sentimentality. (Frasier might have sentimental moments, but in many if not most episodes, he would learn nothing, or what he thought he learned would be disproven.) But like everything else, it's gone too far in the other direction.

I think The Office at its best is my favorite example of having a "moral" in an edgy show because they're not presented as morals per se. Instead (like on the same producer's King of the Hill) the episode will have an overall theme which is driven home in some way near the end, but the characters themselves won't always be able to tell us what the theme is. We have to figure it out.

A_Homer said...

I think "Malcolm in the Middle" managed its own form of identifiable sensitivity with fully three-dimensional characters with a range, while still also managing to have quick-cuts and cartoon pacing at points. There is a problem with the Family Guy, fart jokes and then awwwwwwww insights style today too, but luckily there were examples in each era that introduced something else.

David said...

As soon as I started reading MODERN FAMILY came to mind.

On top of the writers, it's Ed O'Neil that really brings that show together. Why does he get ignored all the time?

A few weeks ago, where Gloria was talking about kisses ("keesis") and Ed's character put the finger kiss on Manny's head was a great moment.

I think some commenters are mistaking emotion for morals, like in the gimmicky episodes. My friend and I prefer to the term "heart" to refer to those "sweet" moments.

Anyways, I agree that they're super important (just short of necessary). As a side bonus, they make your jokes a little easier, since viewers are emotionally vested.

P.S.
I thought this was a failing point of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Not enough heart.

Laurie Boris said...

I agree about "Running Wilde" and expect to hear about its cancellation any week now. I like the way "Modern Family" handles it. Sweet...a little out there...funny...and yes, without sacrificing the characters for the joke. "Two and a Half Men" rides that line, but often crosses over. And "Raising Hope" is starting to grow on me. Love Cloris Leachman.

DaveMB said...

Alan Sepinwall on COMMUNITY:

One of the things I admire most this show is the way it manages to balance absurdity with sentiment without selling either side out.

http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/community-the-psychology-of-letting-go-you-just-broke-my-force-field

WV: "suciti" -- where to go for a good time in South Dakota

Jason H. said...

@ Jamie J Weinman: I don't think Modern Family is out to be as preachy as Scrubs was. Modern Family builds to that moment with grounded character development, whereas Scrubs was following the W&G model that Ken described.

The Office used to have characters, now they're just caricatures.

I agree with you in that I think this is a reaction to the unsentimentality of shows like Seinfeld. And I guess it just depends on personal preference whether or not you want to watch a show with heart or whether you just want to laugh, no morals necessary (like Larry David's other brilliant show, Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Mike said...

I have a bunch of episodes of Raising Hope on the TiVo that I haven't gotten around to but keep meaning to do so because (A) I found parts of the pilot promising and (B) Greg Garcia can really pull off the "sweetness in a horribly bizarre comic world." I feel that My Name is Earl was really under-appreciated for exactly that reason. All of the characters on that show operated on a pretty much unbelievable moral code, but when the time came for them to "learn their lesson", it was usually done with the right amount of sweet and dark.

Gnasche said...

Judging by the success and failure of shows that fall on both sides of the fence, I've concluded that you don't have to earn it - unless the goal of professional TV writing is getting good reviews.

escalante blogger said...

It depends on the play. :-)

I love movies and TV series too...

J Lee said...

Familiarity with a shows' characters can breed audience identification, to the point you can do a change-of-pace episode and it will work to some extent, just because the viewers are invested enough in the characters already. But that doesn't mean in hindsight a few years later that show won't look like schmaltz, especially when it's on in reruns five days a week and the tone on the other episodes is an irreverence to the point of script/logic unreality.

(i.e. -- If you're willing to bend the characters' personalities, surroundings and/or dialogue from show to show simply because you've got a premise/gag that works that particular week by doing that, the gag itself may be funny, but it cuts into the characters' believability -- outside of possibly the two leads, they're just vessels to be molded from episode to episode to fit the situation, instead of building situations to fit the characters' personalities. It's a lot harder to care about a "very special episode" if there's nothing special about changing the characters' moods or actions from week to week.)

John Pearley Huffman said...

One of the greatest exaggerated sitcom characters ever was often capable of surprisingly heartfelt moments. Ted Knight's Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was totally cartoony in his conception and portrayal. And yet in stories where he met his dad, started a romance with Georgette, and met his adoptive son (among others), he elicited some amazing emotions.

Of course the writers earned it with that character. But sometimes the best characters can start as exaggerations and develop an almost sneaky humanity.

And most sitcoms aren't The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

cadavra said...

Ken, with all due respect, it can be done. Exhibit A: THE HONEYMOONERS. Each week, 23 minutes (or 46 when they were an hour) of total vaudeville, then at the very end, when Ralph realizes he's screwed up yet again, the tone abruptly changes, the orchestra begins softly playing (usually "Our Love Is Here To Stay"), he blubberingly admits he's screwed up yet again, Alice immediately forgives him (just as she would in real life), he grins, "Baby, you're the greatest!" and gives her a giant smooch. Curtain, applause.

Was it believable? Not for a second. But we love it anyway, because Gleason and Meadows were such enormous talents that they MADE us believe it.

Mike Barer said...

I enjoyed Community at the outset, but it's gotten too weird.
I could never see the "Jewish" in Annie's character. Fine in real life, but this show is suppose to be a characture.
Joel is great in the show, though.

Joseph said...

I'm feeling the Community love. It's probably my favorite show on TV right now. Without breaking the traditional mode of the sitcom, it really pushes at the boundaries. It knows we've seen all of this before, and its characters have seen all of this before, which, I think, alleviates some of the pressure on these characters to have more dimension than the average sitcom character. They have range without being slapdash, and they work in any number of wacky situations.

My personal favorite is when I don't realize the emotional sentiment is coming, and it wacks me in the face and really gets to me, yet somehow feels exactly right.