Thursday, September 04, 2014

Sitcoms are hard

There seems to be a new trend in sitcoms – the knockoff Romy & Michele’s. Two single ditzy twentysomethings who sort of blunder through life. The difference is that the characters of Romy & Michele were carefully developed, well crafted, and there was a definite story.

BROAD CITY on Comedy Central, GARFUNKEL & OATS on IFC, and PLAYING HOUSE on USA are all very similar. Two comediennes who have worked together either as an act or a musical comedy team write and perform their own sitcoms. They’re all single-camera with a very loose format. Most of the dialogue sounds improvised, and occasionally they say some very funny things. But for the most part it’s just vamping. You’re listening to two people grope around in search of something genuinely funny.

So at times it’s forced and other times it’s vulgar for the sake of being edgy.

Now it can be argued that these new R&M-lite sitcoms are fresh because they don’t follow established rhythms, and the fact that the performers are somewhat amateurish is the great appeal. And that’s fine for five-minute webisodes.

But for my money, if I’m going to devote a full half hour I would prefer a great comic actress like Julia-Louis Dreyfus who has acting chops delivering lines from seasoned comedy writers who really know how to create stories, get the most bang for their buck out of comic situations, and can provide funny lines on a consistent not sporadic basis.

All three of these comedy teams are talented. I am a huge fan of Garfunkel & Oats’ songs. They’re funny, razor sharp, and inspired. But every word is clearly tailored. They didn’t just start riffing.

Abbi and Ilana from BROAD CITY are fresh faces, and it feels like they’re trying to do a funny GIRLS, but again, it’s so uneven.  Agreeing to clean someone's apartment half naked for $200 and then learning the guy can't pay, thinks he's an actual baby, wears a diaper, and has an accident is an example of their hilarity.    "Bad job.  Really bad job."

At least Lennon & Jessica on PLAYING HOUSE have a premise – they’re two friends trying to raise a child.

But in all of these shows, they could use some direction and creative guidance. Y’see, here’s the dirty little secret:


Real hard. Real fucking hard. You can’t just point a camera at two amusing women and expect a successful sitcom. The characters need a purpose, the show has to be about something, there have to be relationships, the comedy must payoff, and you have to care about the people. Just stumbling through life, encountering quirky characters, and slipping on urine isn’t enough.

These shows all feel like they’re taking short cuts.

Maybe that’s the Faustian contract they have had to make. Their sitcoms got picked up simply because they are cheaper to produce. They don’t need big staffs. They don’t need elaborate sets or four days of rehearsal. “Let’s just do a scene where we go to a tax accountant with a bag of receipts and drive him crazy.” “Cool. Let’s do that.”

But I think for the stars, they’re doing themselves a disservice. Whether it’s true or not, it appears they’re settling. All three R&M’s have great potential. They’re naturally funny. And with time, some direction, and being really really tough on the material their shows could blossom. At the end of the day, you are competing against Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. Game on.  Do better. 


An (is my actual name) said...

Ahem... Laverne and Shirley. The OG and best two-women-gettin'-by show.

Jim S said...

That was the problem I always had with "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It always struck me as "Seinfeld" but without the ruthless editing and refinement.

Funny ideas just got run into the ground. As opposed to to Seinfeld, where Jerry and Larry took a fining idea sifted through the debris and what was left was comedy gold. "Curb" had some gold nuggets, but also a lot of dirt and sand that should have been sifted out. (Do you get that I'm going for a panning for gold metaphor?)

VP81955 said...

If sitcoms weren't hard, the amazingly talented Anna Faris -- who'd proved herself with "The House Bunny," "Smiley Face" and other big-screen successes -- wouldn't have waited to make one before latching on to a Chuck Lorre project, with the wonderful Allison Janney in support.

Dan Ball said...

"You’re listening to two people grope around in search of something genuinely funny."

Sums it up perfectly, Ken. I was surprised you went that easy on them, Ken. But it was great constructive criticism and well-said.

Poehler's an EP for BROAD CITY, too.

Anonymous said...


Have you seen the article in the August 31st NY Times Magazine about Jill Soloway and her sitcom 'Transparent'? She says some interesting things about how her writers' room differs from the usual.


Curt Alliaume said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curt Alliaume said...

Side note: it's Garfunkel & Oates (like John Oates, Daryl Hall's partner).

Remember, I lie awake at night wondering if "anal retentive" is hyphenated.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear your take on Welcome to Sweden, Amy Poehler's brother Greg's attempt at a sitcom.

But be aware that when it was (deservedly) slammed by Sweden's premiere TV site, Greg Poehler had a meltdown and started spamming their comments sections under several assumed names.

Daniel said...

Odd. Garfunkel and Oates is just about the only sitcom I can stand to watch these days. I particularly liked the "no talking" episode, which I thought was really insightful. The women decided to go out on a double date and not say a single word. The two men found them incredibly attractive when they didn't speak. It says a lot about gender relations these days.

Katt said...

@Daniel: DESIGNING WOMEN did that one back in the '80s. The details were different but the outcome was the same.

Alex said...

Totally disagree on Broad City, I think it's fantastic, and out of those three it is the only one that has a singular, unique worldview that dictates where the comedy comes from.

And I'm surprised you like Garfunkel & Oates' songs that much, to me they seem to be the weakest part of their act. Musically they all sound the same, and lyrically they overuse that thing of stuffing too many syllables into a line (which also makes the songs sound similar musically).

Anonymous said...

Hi all,
Just wondering, are there any SUPER HERO-styled sitcoms out there on TV or in development?


Mark Fearing said...

Interesting POV Ken. The issue of refinement is definitely something that is up in the air for modern TV isn't it? It's almost like abstract art as a reaction to centuries of refined realism, and everyone goes, "What else can we do? Let's just do something different."
Sitcoms have become such machines, hitting all the beats, delivering catch phrases - none of that is evil or bad, but maybe it's just too refined and people are looking for things that feel less 'perfect'. I think that's an important aspect of this. And of course the success of 'reality' shows which are really just very cheap ways to put stuff on the air and get just as good ratings as a million dollar an episode show.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Broad City...funny show I seem to remember from earlier in the year. I guess Comedy Central wanted to give us more reruns of Tosh.0 instead. Same with Jeff Ross's "The Burn". Because you can't have enough of Tosh, I guess.

jbryant said...

Funny how so many comedy shows gain a realistic effect through improv, while so many reality shows destroy their realism by scripting lines for non-actors who can't deliver them convincingly.

Kirk from Kansas City said...

I generally agree with your take on these shows, but have a different thought about the reasons behind their very loose styles.

I think much of the "sloppiness" of these shows is entirely by design. The performers and writers largely come out of the alt-comedy world. When you listen to podcast interviews with performers from this scene, they generally talk as if they are rebelling against sitcom tradition. What you or I may appreciate as a tight and refined comedy bit, they often take as artificial and old-fashioned. The alt-comedy group also seems to have a very negative reaction to multi-camera sitcoms in general, perceiving them as the bastion of canned laughter.

For what it's worth, I enjoy the Garfunkel & Oates show, although I find it to be quite uneven, much like Marc Maron's IFC show.

Lou H. said...

Ken, is there room for improvisation on scripted three-camera comedies? I heard in an interview that the answer was a resounding "no" on Dharma and Greg, but the actor didn't go into any details about why.

DBenson said...

The idea that casting a good comedian somehow removes the need for anything else but a camera brings to mind Groucho arguing with ice man Chico in "Horse Feathers":

"For that kind of money I can buy an eskimo and make my own ice!"

Mike Barer said...

Sad to say, Joan Rivers died today at 81.

Pat Reeder said...

I like Garfunkel and Oates. I think their songs are terrific (although I wish they'd branch out more from sex and scatology), and I've been very impressed with the writing for their show. It's the first sitcom since "Seinfeld" that I've seen that presents original ideas and characters that are so well-observed from life that they could enter the language (for instance, saying that a woman who attracts a man by never talking is "Little Mermaiding" him).

Also, I saw them live at the House of Blues last week, talked to them after the show, and they were really nice. They let me do all the talking, which made me like them.

Curt Alliaume said...

By the way, both Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome from Garfunkel and Oates have appeared in The Big Bang Theory - Lindhome was in one Season 2 episode; Micucci had a recurring role in Seasons 5 and 6. So if you don't get IFC, those episodes are bound to show up sooner or later on TBS.

Mac said...

Hi Anon,

"Just wondering, are there any SUPER HERO-styled sitcoms out there on TV or in development? "

Sure. "No Heroics", "My Hero", "Super Clyde","Misfits" . There's also rumours of "The Tick" being adapted.

I'm sure I've missed a few.

"No Heroics" had an attempted US Adaption a few years ago.

McAlvie said...

Haven't seen these shows, but I was thinking something along these lines the other night while watching a TBB rerun. So often the laughs on that show come not from funny things being said by oddball characters, but rather from the reactions and responses of the characters around them. For example, Sheldon would be more annoying than funny without either Penny or Leonard playing the straight man ... or girl. And I think that's often where comedies go wrong. There needs to be a character who grounds the show by being relatable. The Millers has a great cast, but it would be much funnier if they let the amazingly talented Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges do the funny and toned down Wil Arnett. In fact, I suspect they could do the whole show without Arnett and nobody would notice. They could put Nelson Franklin in the middle. His deadpan one-liners are a great foil for Martindale and Bridges. I also like the little girl, who has a pretty decent delivery.

Anonymous said...

Una Merkel writes:

Some theories...

1. Advertisers and marketers have concluded that women, especially young, professional women with disposable income, have a high primetime viewership, as men (in general) might also be downloading movies, watching DVD's, playing games or on the computer seeking self-actualization.

2. The noncable networks also employ many of these women.

3. Experienced actors cost more than young inexperienced actors. The networks assume they have the "young voice," work cheaper and may become breakout stars, which Saturday Night Live often proves.

4. Networks never skim the cream off of successful cable shows, they always go for the easiest, most sensational material. It's easier to market in promos, can go viral and keeps viewers watching commercials to see if something tittlating might happen next.

8. Men are stupid in most commercials and sitcoms, which is appealing to women, just as parents are stupid in many tween shows (except the superb INSTANT MOM).

9. Reality shows have replaced daytime soaps, with recurring characters that seem real to viewers. The picturesque people on The Bachelor are not models with acting aspirations.

Or maybe not.

Anonymous said...

Una adds:


The people on The Bachelor ARE models with acting aspirations.

Michael from Belfast said...

Hi Ken, a Friday Question for you.

Over the years you've given some shows - and people - a rough ride in your blog but then, after a while, seem to soften your stance a little. For instance, you were pretty harsh about Jane Krakowski when she was hired for 30 Rock instead of Rachel Dratch, but subsequently said some nice things about Jane's performance. And I sense that you've been won over by Veep too, despite initially not being impressed by the show. Is there anything else you'd like to add to the "Maybe I Was Wrong" list?

Thanks Ken

VP81955 said...

Glad to see someone use the pen name "Una Merkel" (while trying to hide behind the skirts of "anonymous"). Una was one of the most delightful of '30s character actresses, invariably cast as the heroine's best friend (to Jean Harlow in "Red-Headed Woman," to Carole Lombard in "True Confession").

Later this month in TCM's pre-Code Friday extravaganza, you can see Una be Loretta Young's pal -- through angles and forced perspective, they even get to play themselves as children -- in William Wellman's terrific "Midnight Mary." Young's extensive pre-Code work (the Code wasn't strictly enforced until she was about 21 1/2) has helped rehabilitate her reputation as an actress; before her passing in August 2000, she called this her favorite film.

Comedy Writerix said...

I'm way late on this article, but I was a little taken aback by the casual sexism of the last line "you're up against (LIST OF FEMALE COMEDY ACTORS)", uh, aren't these performers up against, also, let's say, Louie CK, a Big Bang Theory rerun and a Candy Crush Saga update? Casually pitting women against each other, like there's a finite amount of female laughs an audience can stomach and these gals gotta catfight for it, feels low from one of my favourite writers and a blog I cherish. Just saying!