Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Who needs comedy writers?

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".


Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

Actually the American The Office and the British The Office both use full scripts. The beauty of these shows is that it seems improvisational when in fact, they're not. Which explains my total worship of Ricky Gervais as a comedy writer.

Anonymous said...

I also thought "The Office" was a scripted show?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well, if I want to see "amusing in spots", I'll just watch our cats doing stupid stuff in the living room. They have a far better chance of making me laugh than the so-called "improv sitcoms".

It's all horseshit anyway... let's call a spade a spade here. 99% of TV sitcoms aren't funny anymore because they are noted to death by studio and network execs who just HAVE to say something in the room in front of their bosses... and the pressure on the writer is enormous to accomodate their moronic "notes".

Anonymous said...

The Office is all scripted. The fact that it feels improv-ed and is still so funny is a testament to its (mostly) great writing, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

The Office may be scripted, but funny it's not.

About the only funny sitcom I've seen in ten years was Coupling, and they killed it when they tried an American version. Hurray for Netflix!

Anonymous said...

One thing I still don't get about "The Office." The never-ending documentary they're supposed to be shooting. Even March of the Penguins had a beginning and end point. I'd say the birds' journey was more documentary-worthy than this group.

Dwacon said...

Hmm... why did I think this article was going to be about Michael Richards?

Anonymous said...

I never understood the office.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the actors on The Office DVD commentaries mention they are allowed to improvise on takes if they think they can improve the joke.

Diane said...

Anon at 8:04 - the British version did have a definite beginning and end - it was 2 seasons of "filming" the documentary, and then a 2 hour special that supposedly went back to see where the Office personnel were 2 years after the documentary aired. How they will handle this in the US version remains to be seen, but I think it is the funniest sitcom on TV today.

Ben said...

I think that just as the new improv model isn't the savior of TV comedy, neither can it be completely dismissed out of hand. As Ken notes, it depends wholly on the personnel involved.

Certainly, most actors aren't equipped to create a half-hour show out of thin air each week, but I think performers with a solid foundation in improv training (think Del Close, not Drew Carey) approach the creation of new material as writers first, and performers second...while accomplishing each with aplomb.

Improv as a collaborative writing tool can work for television, provided the people using the tool have the training, experience, and "group mind" required. Curb is a great example, but they are late to the party started by (in my opinion) Comedy Central's late lamented Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist.

Ger Apeldoorn said...


Thanks for a great analysis of the troubles of sitcom. But you did leave out one more factor contributing to the feeling af staleness that permeates most traditional sitcoms the last couple of years. A failure that the improvised style does adress.

In the last couple of years the comedy of comedy has come to rely too much on the words and not enough on character and behavior. It is one of the unfortunate side-effects of the fact that all the good comedies were completely in control of the writers. Following that model, writers who not as good were given the same privileges... and they couldn't handle it. For one thing, if you are a showrunner, you must have knowledge of all aspects of story-telling, including casting and editing. Having a good director helps as well. I have read many interviews with lesser writers who dismissed the value of the director and said they could not be bothered about the editing process. They just fought for their own contribution... the words. The same happened in the television animation industry, where lesser (and lesser paid) writers acting like prima donna's had to be taken a peg down and the power had to be shared again by the 'actors' (the animators) to get to the point where the stories were about more than just the words. A thing which is even more important in animation. This overthrow started with people like John Kricfalusi completely burning down all worth of the writers. A bit harsh, but apparently necessary. Since then, everything has been normalized and animation the last decade has been better than the decade before that.

In sitcom we have seen two movements to see the power of the prima donna writers taken down. First, there was a move away from tapes studio sitcoms, which in effect means that the director and the editor get a far greater role. In some cases movie directors were used, in others former writers stepped up. The current interest in improvised comedy does the same for the actors. It gives them back some of the power to invent and create. Not the words themselves, but the living and breathing people who speak them. Because it is not about the words and if we attack the wish of the actors to not be put in a straight-jacket by pointing out how bad they are at making up the words, we belittle them.

A good writer does more than provide the words. He creates a story for the actor to shine in. As you have always done, so you may not see the distinction at first and just call it bad writing.

Ger Apeldoorn

Anonymous said...

Well, there's probably a certain amount of improv at work in all sitcoms, within the context of the scripts and multiple takes. I attended a taping of a MURPHY BROWN ten years ago when a friend was in an episode. The great Tom Poston was guest-starring. Nine or ten times over the course of shooting the episode, Posten ad-libbed some outrageously funny line, vastly funnier than the already pretty funny line in the script. Everyone else on the set fell over laughing. They reslated and shot the bit again, but this time with Posten's new line, sometimes honed a or polished a bit more. It sometimes took three or four takes to get the new line shot without Candice Bergan falling over, but ALL of Posten's improvised lines ended up in the final show.

At the WILL & GRACE tapings I attended this same practice ocurred with three of the four leads over & over, but never with Debra Messing, whose talents don't lie in that area.

I suspect that this sort of improv graces all good sit-coms when you have really funny, creative actors at work. Some actors can improvise, some can't. Lucille Ball could not improvise her way out of a paper bag, nor was she at all funny in person, but her tremendous comedy talent at performing rehearsed, written material was unsurpassed.

I worked in improv for many years, teaching it and practicins it, with many of the best in the world at it. It can make for lively, great, exciting, hilarious theater, and it can make for Comedy Hell, but no comedy professional in their right mind intends it to replace writers. 80% of the best improvisers I know are comedy writers also. Like you. Over my years of teaching improv, more of my students went on to careers writing sit-coms than acting in them.

Improv is a tool, a good tool, a fun tool, and a great way to work out and develop material, but no one intends it as the be-all and end-all of the comedy process.

But I'd take it over notes from an executive who never got a laugh on a stage in his life any day.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Douglas, I would love to talk some more with you about improv and teaching it. Could you contact me privately at geapelde@eurnonet.com?

Anonymous said...

I think that's probably the truth of it. Like American politics, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. What Stephen called - a "hybrid of script and improv"

There's no question in my mind that quality writers seem to be strangely elusive (or passed on like Fritzell & Greenbaum).

Witness the endless string of comedy remakes over the last decade. And as Ken wrote recently, (sorry to paraphrase, Ken, but)- a lot of the comedy we are seeing lately has no actual "Jokes".

Just silly situations and farts. (Not that farts don't have their childish charm)...said the guy with the nom de plum Popsfarter.

I really agree with Ken, I find the heavy reliance on improv for comedy a little tenuous.

Anyway, would it be wrong for me to admit that I find "SCRUBS" quite hilarious?

Oh well, there goes MY credibility!

Anonymous said...

This is off the subject, but I just wanted to let Ken know...my cable system just added the Hallmark Channel, so I again have M*A*S*H at a civilized hour (not just the 2:30 AM showing on broadcast in Boston).

Anonymous said...

Amen to all that indeed.

maven said...

This is a very interesting post and the comments are very thought-provoking. Having grown up with a comedy writer for a father (my dad, Stan Burns, was Steve Allen's original writer. He did a lot of variety shows in the 70's and 80's, and wrote a lot of "Get Smarts", etc.), so I think I have a little perspective on what is going on sit-coms nowadays.

There's a lot to be said for improv. But, as uaual, it boils down to the talent. The Office (one of my favorites) gives the impression of improv...but it's the talent of the cast that makes it work. The viewer feels like they're actually watching the goings on in an office. There's no big guffaws (although I have laughed out loud), but the humor is much more subtle.

Sit-coms from the past relied more on the big laughs. That's where the term comes from...a situation comedy! The shows that we all loved had the best talent we've ever seen...from the writers, cast, directors, etc. Except for a few exceptions lately, talent seems to be lacking in the current crop of 1/2 hours sit-coms. The quick use of toilet humor demeans the genre. My father and his fellow generation of writers never relied on that kind of stuff. He and all his buddies up there in Writer's Heaven must be glad they're out of it now.

I think NBC has come up with a good line-up on Thursday nights: "Earl", "The Office", "Scrubs", and "30 Rock" (although the Tracy Morgan character is a little over the top for me). However, I still miss the good ole days of "MASH", "Cheers", "Frazier", "Seinfeld", "Raymond" (I could go on and on listing others), etc. Those were clean, classy comedies.

Anonymous said...

"...count the guffaws not the cameras."

Ken. May I steal that quote for educational purposes??

I myself have done improv too. And I think Larry David is brilliant. However I never latched on to Curb. And felt bad about it because I felt I was the only one. Main reason? To me it seemed there was more talking than listening unlike how the Christopher Guest crew and my improv education has taught/shown.

Anyway, I always appreciate improv specialists who leave room for space.


By the by, I'm so glad I took your advice and bought Rosenthals book. Laugh out loud, brilliant and educational.

Thanks for your blog,

Mark Bennett

A. Jonathan Cox said...

Reno 911? Anybody? Reno 911 is improvised and hilarious - even though several of the main players have "Herbie Fully Loaded" on their resumes.

Anonymous said...

I think Adult Swim's Venture Brothers has some of the sharpest writing on TV right now. Pity it's on cable.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes! I really like the Venture Brothers, too. But I thought perhaps it only appealed to my quirky sense of humor.

EditThis said...

I totally agree that it's the writing and network notes that are dragging sitcoms down. There's a lot of funny things on the show I work on that get lost in editing because they don't pass the S&P notes. And the Office is definitely one of the funniest shows on TV.

Anonymous said...

It's weird, but while I find The Office chuckle worthy at times, I'd never go as far as to call it a great show. If anything, I find it decent, but still sub-par when compared to the original (I know, I know, enough with the comparisons).

For me, the creme de la creme of improv comedy at the moment is It's Always Funny in Philadelphia. That said, there are a lot of other shows that try, but it just ends up being kitschy, and I can never stop thinking it's just the networks trying to get an undeserving piece of the comedy pie.

Anonymous said...

Sorry "Ger", but my server says there's no such thing as "euronet.com" so emali bounced back.

Anonymous said...

all right, it was email that bounced back. My emali is just fine.

Anonymous said...

Just to go back a few posts to your thread on The Honeymooners and my comment about the greatness of the "Better Living Through Television" episode, there's an example of the pros and cons of improvisation in that show, when a piece of the Handy Houswife Helper comes off and goes flying towards the camera.

The audience notices this, and Gleason goes forward, almost right up to the camera spot, picks the piece up, walks back to his mark and says "Maybe ... maybe we should have put in something about spear fishing." It's a line that works, adds to the comedy already written into the scene and which kept them from having to stop filming and do a retake. But Art Carney's ensuing line about a skate key comes off as flat and slightly forced; it puts a bit of a dead spot into a wonderfully written, staged and acted scene.

So Gleason pulled his improv off, Carney was less successful, and that's working within a great group of comedy writers, actors and directors. Many of the shows today that try the same type of improv efforts have far less going for them to begin with as far as comedy writing and acting talent, so the off-the-top-of-their-heads remarks might not be as noticable as a weak improv line/riff in a stronger comedic scene (But in cases like that there are a few more inherent problems that need to be dealt with before they even start worrking about unfunny unrehearsed lines).

Ger Apeldoorn said...


silly me, it's euronet.nl


Anonymous said...

Alright, I'm a day late and a dollar short to this post...story of my life. Pro'ly why I'm writing an indie online sitcom and not honing my craft on spec scripts for soon-to-be-classics like "The Class" and "How I Met Your Mother".

Point is, I read an interview online tonight with the EP's for NBC's newly revamped (their words, not mine) "Must See TV" (again, their words-yes I know the legend of MSTV) Thursday night. And what is it that the EP's point to first as the secret of their success?

You got it - their new "style" of comedy is the secret. You know, the one where they don't setup jokes. The one where they have the "room" to create quirky characters. You know, because the audience loves the silent moments between jokes.

They also go on to say that they hope no one copies their newfound brilliance...right. The chances of that happening with any success are about as likely as Michael Richards being invited over to Snoop Dogg's house to watch the OJ interview.

Atta you, guys. Keep pattin' the 'ol back. I'm sure, in ten years everyone's gonna be mentioning "Earl", "The Office", and "30 Rock" right behind "M*A*S*H", "Taxi", "Cheers", "Cosby", "Wings", "Seinfeld", and "Frasier".

The only good thing they have going in the four shows in "Scrubs", which is a genuinely funny, laugh-outloud show where comedy is setup in a rythmic pattern and punch lines are delivered by...da da dum...gifted actors.

And just because a show is given an Emmy doesn't mean it's great. Handing out an Emmy for Best Comedy today is like handing out the awards for Best Dressed at a video game convention - nobody deserves it, but somebody already paid for the trophies so bite the bullet and give it to the person with the fewest stains on their shirt.

Here's the link if anyone's interested...

But be forewarned: Enlightenment awaits. The Genuis is overwhelming. It is absolutely possible that reading the interview will grant you the knowledge to write the next "Greatest American Hero" or "Sledge Hammer".

Anonymous said...

And Jackie Gleason always considered himself an actor, not comedian, which I have seen him on interviews take pains to note.

I never understood the draw of improv to pre-recorded television. The whole point of improv is not for a line or two is it? It's not like they can adapt to the audience response, play out some idea if it works, and so on. It's just "insert-improv", allowance to steer away from the script for all of one sentence, as long as you return to the spot afterwards.

I understand that can be a hybrid of sorts, but it sounds like the actor "helping" the writer's script, which occurs I guess all the time without calling it really "improv".

"Seinfeld" was proof that the script could, and maybe should, be king for a reason. Its able to be checked beforehand, watched over, secure. And done correctly, it ages well. I could watch only so much of the so-called "improv" of Robin Williams as he relies on repetition of certain grimaces, gestures and accents, particularly if he is stuck, and would try to own the scene each time.

In "Seinfeld", The script itself seems the most versatile comedian of all the ones there on the stage. How do you improvise with a whole show where the continuity of scene order is played in reverse chronology, and so on.

Larry David aside, it just sounds like networks are selling gimmicks as always: look! we aren't just using scripts, there are potentially real humans acting here!

As for Michael Richards, I expect to read his book in a few years. But still, I wonder what occured in the not-for-tv portions of acts like by Don Rickles, and his whole era of cronies. By giving lipservice of a "just kidding" nature, he was allowed to go on. But those were "gags" being extended, or bounced off of hapless "foreign" or non-white, male individuals in the audience.
That wasn't "improv", which I think audiences want to watch for the way the actor-comedian wraps and unwraps a bundle of different situations, suggestions, to produce a kind of associative narrative, and balancing that out while experimenting in real time is part of the work. Naturally, accidents occur, sometimes ugly, but I assume that's what audiences go for. I still prefer it to the 60s and Rickles et al so called insult-comedy.

Anonymous said...

Better late than never: Venture Bros. rules.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see that a couple of people mentioned the Venture Bros and Reno 911! upthread.

I think it really points to the underlying structural problem that the networks must work under which is they adhere to stricter standards practices. Comedy Central and CN are a good deal more loose with what they allow on air and that inturn allows the networks to free up the actors. With this trust, the actors are able to widen their range and come up with some truly hilarious stuff.

The ability of cable to micro-target their audience really helps foster and nurture some of the creative process also.

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Anonymous said...

Pratice your improv!

if ya don't ya suck

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Levine,

I just want to thank you for your work on many series that I have enjoyed and still have great affection for. I think you are understating your case. I know nothing about comedy as a producer, only as a consumer, but it seems to me that producing comedy is very hard work and is a craft, not an accident. I only know that I will laugh at something I have seen a million times and I already know the punch line, and I can only assume that it is because of something inherent in the structure and execution of the joke. It just looks easy. It's not.

Mapeel said...

Ken, I would like to tell you that I am hooked on the Lifetime and WPIX reruns of Fraiser. Many of the episodes are absolute masterpieces of exposition, character delineation, and innovative, funny storytelling in just 26 (?) minutes. Sometimes I really can't believe how watching well paced, well written material bends time. I'm thinking particularly of "Mamma Mia," "Out with Dad," "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz," and "The Doctor is Out," but there's so many others. Thanks to everyone who created such a satisfying series.