Monday, July 11, 2011

Has the sitcom bar been lowered?

In a hotel room not long ago I found myself channel surfing. First I checked the pay channels. None of the recently released Hollywood features were any good. God, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston have made some bad movies. And their one together is biblical in its badness. I bet hotels are really starting to take a bath on this feature. Now that everyone has a laptop we can Netflix and see the same “blockbusters” for free (although warning: that Sandler/Aninston bomb will likely crash your computer faster than any Trojan Virus). And who needs to pay for softcore “Adult Fare” when there are only a billion hardcore porn sites right there at your idle hand fingertips?

So I just surfed through the stations. I had seen the LAW & ORDER, LAW & ORDER SVU, LAW & ORDER: UK, and LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT that were all playing. ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT has become CHARLIE SHEEN TONIGHT. Some college basketball game from only two months ago was being replayed on ESPN “CLASSIC”. And FOX NEWS was blaming Obama for the tornadoes.

Finally, I came upon a CHEERS episode. It had just started. From the teaser I recognized it as one my partner, David Isaacs and I had written. It was from one of the later years and I remember it not really being our best work. When you write 40 episodes of a series there are going to be your favorites and your least favorites. This was in the latter category. Not that I thought it was bad per se, just… “okay”. One of those episodes that fills out the season.

So needless to say, I hadn’t seen it in awhile. Years actually. Why would I want to go back and watch something I didn’t particularly like?

Okay, I can almost hear you screaming at the screen. “Which episode was it??!!”

It was the one where Norm & Cliff, as a goof, cancel Frasier’s credit card, so the card is rejected when Frasier tries to settle up his tab, and this ultimately escalates into a big fight between Sam and Frasier. The B-plot is Woody becoming addicted to the shopping channel.

Anyway, I decided to watch it. And was pleasantly surprised. There were some really good laughs in there. The stories, although trifles at best, zipped along. Woody, in particular, was terrific. It was a lot funnier than I had remembered it. And let me just say that’s not always the case. More often than not a show I originally liked I see again and want to give back my WGA card.

But when this episode was over I was left with an odd reaction. You’d think I’d be very pleased but I wasn’t. I was more puzzled than anything else. Why? This one question kept surfacing:

Was this episode actually better and funnier than I had recalled. Or has the bar of television sitcoms just been so lowered now that what still is an average episode of CHEERS seems better than it is?

Now I’m not talking about the truly excellent episodes of today’s best comedies. I’m sure you can put this year’s Emmy nominees up against the best from any era. But this was hardly an Emmy-worthy episode of CHEERS. So pitting this against the general quality of sitcom today, does it stand on its own or rise in comparison?

I have no answer.

And you, from your perspective, might say this episode of CHEERS is far worse than what’s usually on today. That’s fair too.

So I’ll throw it open for discussion. One middling episode of CHEERS aside, do you think the bar has been lowered in today’s situation comedy? I’ll be checking back from time to time to see what you say. At the moment though, I’ve got to chase a few kids off my lawn. Thanks.

On another note:

I just made 20 short videos in which I answer the questions I'm most commonly asked about writing sitcoms. You can check 'em out here. I'll be hurt if I don't go viral.


Rory W. said...

Just tried to go to and got this message from the (work) firewall, "Potentially Damaging Content."

Ah, Ken, they know you so well.

Mike Bell said...

I watched a Cheers marathon over a recent holiday weekend. Watched almost all of it. In fact, I had to tear myself away from it to get some stuff done around the house. I can't say I would do the same for any current sitcom.

Brian Winkeler said...

I actually feel like sitcoms are generally strong these days: Community, Parks and Rec, The Office, 30 Rock, Modern Family, The Middle, Cougar Town… last season gave us Happy Endings, Raising Hope and the underrated and now cancelled-by-Fox Running Wilde and Traffic Light. And I'm still hanging on to How I Met Your Mother though I jettisoned The Big Bang Theory because it's entered the hamster wheel phase. I can't forget Curb Your Enthusiasm which just started, or Archer, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Simpsons, Futurama, or my top sitcom: Peep Show from the UK. I understand the above list is my subjective one but I don't know if there's every been a time when the vast majority of comedies were so good. I wouldn't be able to watch an all-day marathon, though, but that's because I've got two kids and they watch goddamn Kick Buttowski for hours on end every day.

ajm said...

Ken, I thought that CHEERS episode was pretty funny even back then -- and the denouement neatly tied up the plot AND subplot, which earns the maximum degree of difficulty in sitcom writing.

brian t said...

"God, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston have made some bad movies."

I agree - God was pretty awful in the "Almighty" films, for example. I haven't seen "The Tree Of Life" yet, but I hear he makes a few off-screen appearances, like Marlon Brando in "The Godfather Part II".

I really don't have a problem with Jennifer Aniston. When she's been offered more challenging material, she's been up to the job e.g. in "The Good Girl". Shakespeare may be some way off, but not off the table entirely ..!

Anonymous said...

I actually don't think the bar has been lowered, and it surprises me to say that because I think television stinks as a rule. But, you know what, it stunk as a rule in the '80s too. Cheers was an exception. It is one of the all-time great shows, and you should be proud of every single episode you were involved in, Ken (although the one in question isn't one of my favorites). But there are some terrific series on today. Modern Family, Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother would be good viewing no matter in what era they aired... though I'm sure that viewers from 1962 would stroke out at the content!

rockgolf said...

POSSIBLE FRIDAY QUESTION: I never put it together before, but your use of the phrase in the context of Cheers made me think.

Was having Cheers set in tavern that you had to enter by going downstairs an obtuse reference to "lowering the bar"?

Terrence Moss said...

I recently watched the final season of "Cheers" on the Netflix as well as several other episodes throughout the series and found it a lot funnier this time around than when I was a child watching it on NBC (which makes sense).

With the exception of "Modern Family", which is far more situational and therefore more universally appealing than most of today's sitcom, a lot of today's comedies are more gag-oriented, subversive and insider.

There seems to be a prevailing "get the joke or not because this is what we find funny but you don't have to" school of thought with a lot of today's sitcoms.

Tip Wonhoff said...

I believe the quality of sitcoms has diminished in recent years, as well.

My favorite sitcoms of yesteryear--Wonder Years, Wings, and Roseanne--were the types of shows that could have you laughing out loud in one episode, and tearing up in the next. And, the ability of the show to connect with viewers on those poles of the emotional spectrum are what, in my opinion, made those programs different from those of today.

It seems like today's shows are a series of one-liners that appear too desperate for laughs. If the audience isn't lauging every 30 seconds, the show isn't any good--which isn't the case at all, to me.

There are exceptions, of course; but, I would say the sitcom world is trending towards more laughs. When was the last time Two-and-a-Half Men made anyone tear up?

croquemore said...

I agree with Ken. I think the bar has been lowered. I watch a lot of TV. I'm a big fan of the 70's sitcoms as I truly feel the 70's was one of the best decades for was when television grew up and wasn't about Munsters or Witches and talking horses, Oh MY.

The MTM sitcoms, Norman Lear's shows, MASH and others showed us what TV could do and still gave audiences what they wanted. Remember when these shows first came on you had 3 maybe 5 channels to watch.

Today, with the exception of a few sitcoms like Modern Family and Raising Hope, there are very few witty, or even thought provoking shows out there. And yes, I do believe Raising Hope is thought provoking and very witty, but I also think it is a tribute to absurd, farcical comedy which I appreciate as well and both shows generally send a heartfelt message about the power of family.

The main point is, what makes a sitcom last and what makes it a classic in most people's lists are the characters. At the heart of any good show, book, movie or sitcom, there have to be good characters and characters that we can relate to and ultimately would want to have a beer summit with.

The shows today just aren't doing that for the most part. It's really not that hard to write likable characters. If Thomas Harris can make us root for the serial killer Hannibal, then writers should be able to write sitcom characters that are likable and relatable.

iain said...

I don't think the bar has been lowered, but I do think that with the dramatic increase in outlets, we viewers get "more," both good & bad. Let's face it, for every "I love Lucy," you had Uncle Milty doing what could charitably be called low-brow shtick, for every "Dick Van Dyke," you had a "My Mother The Car," for every MASH, you had "Hello Larry"...& so on & on &....

Get Off My Lawn said...

I do think the quality has dropped, mostly as a result of pacing. Sitcoms used to be like short plays; the scenes were long enough to allow for character depth and emotional weight, so that the humor came from the characters. Clock the average scene length now... Who has time for character depth or real emotional connection? Of course, there were always lousy sitcoms in every era, but even the goal was different then. How I Met Your Mother is the only sitcom still running that really accomplishes the simultaneous comedy and character that the best sitcoms did (and no, I didn't forget about Modern Family), and even HIMYM has been struggling at it for a couple of years. But to see the state of the art now, look at the Emmys. A glorified sketch show like 30 Rock, which is sometimes funny but in a burlesque-skit way, is smothered in honors for writing and acting. What's the message conveyed there?

Michael said...

If you don't think the quality is lower ....

Sam Denoff died. He and Bill Persky wrote some of the most brilliant sitcoms. Go to You Tube. Search for Dick Van Dyke That's My Boy, which was, I believe, their first episode. Then sit back and watch and ask yourself, nearly half a century later are we doing better or worse?

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Where the bar lies so depends on each viewer's personal experience; not many of us watched everything. My feeling is that the bar is pretty much where it's always been, it's just that content and media delivery of that content has changed.

Fifties TV seemed when I was a kid, and even moreso now, to be aimed at the lowest common denominator. (There is a YouTube clip of a talk show with Nabokov and a couple of other famous figures, all white males, all smoking like fiends, and the general discourse is at a stunningly simple level.)

The seventies seemed to me an utter wasteland of drivel. About the only thing going was Robin Williams, who transcended godawful material. At the end of that era I was working for Lorimar, reading every script as I labored in the xerox room, and thinking that no one was ever going to break the chokehold of cliche.

From my limited perspective, the speed and snap of Williams' delivery seemed to force writers back to the fast wit of the early days of Laugh In and Smothers Brothers, because along came Cheers. At the time it was a welcome relief. I remember driving home from events in order not to miss the latest episode.

Watching it with my daughter last year, and comparing it to Frasier, we commented how rough it appeared now, at times; some episodes stand out with brilliance, others reflect old patterns. How women's roles were beginning to break the horrible old mold, but Diane Chambers still had to be ridiculous if she tried to combine a career with love, for example. Because there were still no adult relationships.

Frasier smashed that tiresome rule. It had interesting women whose agency balanced with (and against) interesting men.

The Daphne/Niles sequence was (to this viewer) not only the real story, but showed that adult relationships could be made interesting, that we wouldn't have to forever see "courtship/breakup" with ever-aging characters.

I think now that the series arc is the best thing going with television. So many superlative ones.

Mike said...

You eliminate network censors, and the writers get lazy and take the cheap way out. Frankly you can see this with Becker as well.

Garth said...

If sitcoms hadn't changed over the years then the writers would have to be blamed for failing to recognise the changes in the world.

Perhaps Cheers stirs up feelings of vitality, of being at the pinnacle of your powers, of a true and earnest intent to understand the world, the universe and everything.

Or maybe it was just better.

Anonymous said...

I watch far fewer sitcoms these days and more of the brilliant hour-long dramas on TNT, AMC, and a few on regular network TV.

As far as network television, I think Blue Brothers is excellent. Selleck is a strong role model for all good moral and ethical, which is SORELY lacking on television these days. Good to see a fully fleshed out character in NYPD Police Commisioner Francis Regan. His family are upstanding, ethical moral people. Danny, his street-wise detective may be rough around the edges, unlike his dad, but he has strong morals, as does Selleck's father, a retired police commisioner of NYC. Very well written, it blends good, honest drama with nice humorous touches. Watch it people, because it's a wonderful show. It's a family - cop show that is all about responsibility and accountability, sorely lacking in our speeded-up culture.

Another superb one hour show is SOUTHLAND, another cop show, but extremely realistic. Set in East LA, it follows a hardened uniformed cop and his rookie, two women detectives, one black, one Hispanic/Latina, a crack young detective who is conflicted about his job, who's just lost his partner to a gang banger. He feels so bad for his late partner's wife, he moves in and takes care of her and her son. The black woman detective, Lydia, has a big heart and gets emotionally involved with the victims of crime maybe more than she has to, but she honestly CARES about people. Superb character, Lydia, she's the heart and soul of the show. Watch it! You will actually be entertained and at the same time really LEARN what good cops go through everyday on the street. You will love Lydia.

Other high quality hour long dramas you must watch at least once, and then get hooked: Leverage, with Timothy Hutton and his gang of ex-theives who con bigshot millionaire business men who have screwed people out of their money. Great, whimsical show. The Closer is wonderful with Kyra Sedwick and her detectives, combining dry humor with drama...more on the humorous side with Kyra playing the sometimes it seems "dingy" police captain, but brilliant at getting a perp to confess the crime they did. Watch her in action, she is brilliant.

Of course, there is ALWAYS Mad Men, on my list of all time favorite shows. Brilliance...sheer unadulterated brilliance, consistently well written and acted. Very strong show. See it, on AMC. Watch the reruns ON DEMAND.

Sitcoms? I just started watching The Office again after a two-year hiatus. Still pretty brilliant, the quality hasn't gone down much. I still am in love with Jenna! John, still a great guy, hasn't sold out, I relate to his sensibilities. And Carrell is still brilliant.

Started watching Parks & Rec again after a long hiatus. Strong show, good subtle humor. I love Amy Poller's boss...very dry humor, wry sense of humor - great character who gets better every week.

Modern Family has really grown on me over time. Love, love Gloria. I just started watching Raising Hope, pretty excellent show...I'm now HOOKED. Don't miss this one.

But nothing is even close to the brilliance of MAUDE back in the mid-'70s. Sooooo damn funny; the whole cast was brilliant - Maude, Walter, and Florida - the late, great Esther Rolle...god, she was so great on that show...the lines she muttered under her breath after Maude told her something ubsurd. And Maude? Her character was the best on television back then. Bea Arthur, nothing short of extrodinary. Had the funniest lines. "God will get you for that." The way she delivered that line. Brilliance. Go out and find Maude and watch and be amazed out of your mind. Hasn't dated. Best show in the ' good as MTM's show. God will get you for that if you don't check the show out.

Steve M. said...

Has the bar been lowered? Yeah, I think we've been doing the limbo for years now, and it's all David Letterman's fault. No, really.

Okay, maybe not David's fault directly, but something in which he played a big part - the switch from a culture of humor that was rooted in vaudevillian traditions to one rooted in irony, a series of constant winks at the audience saying, "Yeah, we know we're only making jokes here and we know that you know it, too, nudge, nudge".

With the rise of irony, detatchment became synonymous with "hip, cutting edge", while sincerity equated to "lame, dated". Unfortunately, when you drain the lame, dated, sincere bathwater, down the drain also go some jokes, which in the mouths of memorable characters are actually sometimes funny. And funny vs. unfunny is - or should be - the comedy litmus test. Not hip, not cool, not necessarily new - but, "does it make me laugh?" - period.
Lest this sound like a completely geezerish wish to return to the the three-camera, laugh track accompanied days of yesteryear, let me state that the show that's probably gotten more laughs out of me than any other in the past 10 years is Curb Your Enthusiasm, which on the surface would never be mistaken for The Beverly Hillbillies. But go a bit deeper, and Larry David as Larry David is as traditional a comedic character as they come. Give him a red wig and a Cuban bandleader husband and he wouldn't have been out of place fifty years earlier.

Mac said...

That's a very difficult question, and I try not get all Grandpa Simpson about it.
Stuff like Frasier got enormous ratings. It was sharp and smart yet totally accessible to a huge audience. While smart, witty stuff is still being made, it seems to be restricted to smaller audiences, with the dumber stuff getting the ratings. Like it's just accepted that clever stuff is not meant for a wider audience.
The Holy Grail was of course The Simpsons (in its classic era). Jaw-droppingly clever yet it could be enjoyed by anyone, and by all ages and backgrounds. I do wonder if something of that standard could find a huge audience these days?
Maybe it's down to the overall fall in viewing figures with the proliferation of entertainment options, but I miss the days of big, smart shows that everybody got, no-one felt anything was over their heads, yet they had wit and smart gags.
While there are still plenty great shows being made, I think the 'bar' is perhaps as high as it was, it's just that it's not as visible, because shows that keep the bar high aren't as high-profile as the older shows that kept the bar high.

Mike Schryver said...

I definitely think the bar has been lowered, but...

I always thought that episode of Cheers was one of the better ones, certainly among the later episodes.

Frank Paradise said...

The bar has gotten so low only a very thin snake can crawl under it.

Justin in Minnesota said...

My knowledge of 70's and 80's television may be limited (as I wasn't alive, let alone watching TV for most of that time) so I can only base my comments on what I have seen, and read about the era.

I think there is an interesting point to be made that there should be a distinction made between the 70s and 80s. It seems to me that the 70s were much more focused on social consciousness- ie “All in the Family” “Maude”, and “Mash”. In contrast the 80s which were less directly aware of the world they lived in, at least until “Roseanne” came on and “Murphy Brown” had a fight with Dan Quayle. The 80s sitcom was in some ways about re-imaging the tropes of television comedy which were viewed as tired (this is the argument proposed by Todd VanDerWerff in his AV club primmer on 80s sitcoms which seems apropos to this discussion,50003/). One of the problems with mainstream network comedy recent era is that it hasn’t innovated the form since the 80s. In catching up on Cheers, which she had never seen, culture reporter, Alyssa Rosenberg recently wrote “And oh my goodness, you guys. It’s like watching Casablanca for sitcoms: things seem like cliches because they’ve become so deeply embedded as tropes and references in our culture that it’s easy to forget that this is the wellspring, or one of them, anyway.” ( The tropes that we now have were fist established in the 80s, and these tropes are funniest when they are new. This is one reason why networks, which seek to recreate what has already worked. How many “Seinfeld” or “Friends” clones where there?

Because of that innovation there were great shows some great shows, “The Cosby Show” “Newhart” and “Roseann” are the ones I have seen the most of. “Family Ties” and “Night Court” also come up as really good.

What seems important to me is that with time we hold on to the best of the era, and forget the rest. The VanDerWerff article I mentioned above, notes how Brandon Tartikoff's time at NBC was a period where the network developed great shows like “Cosby” and Cheers” but they also had a talking orangutan show in “Mr. Smith,” and I could name plenty of other dreadful shows from that era, they just don't fit into the cultural zeitgeist, or if they do (cough 1987's“Full House”) we ignore them .

I exceeded the charter limit so this is part 1/2

Justin in Minnesota said...

Part 2/2
Today, while drama seems to outpace comedy in terms of excellence, there is still great stuff out there. HIMYM is well past its prime, but it was once a good 3 camera show, even if quite different than any other 3 camera show ever before. At times “The Big Bang Theory” has been good. “Modern Family” is the best family sitcom on TV. “Cougar Town” is a fun show about people I want to hang out with. NBC still has a solid night of low rated shows “Community” is not ever ones cup of tea, but I love it. “The Office” is old but can still be good when it has heart. “Parks and Rec” has had two great season, and is probably the best comedy on network TV.

Beyond that FX is doing great work with “Archer” and “Louie” which isn't just great, it is awesome in the sense that it actually inspires awe. Adult Swim’s “Children's Hospital” just brings 12 min of laughs a week. And I liked Fox's “Bob's Burgers” and can't wait to see what they have in season two.

Also it is important to note that the 80s, or the 70s or the period Cheers was on (the early 80s to early 90s) are longer periods than trying to take a snap shot of this moment. If I look at the last 10 years of television then “30 Rock” had a period of excellence, “Party Down” is a show that you should be streaming right now since you didn't see it on Starz. Hell going back 10 years I can get “Arrested Development” (and if I push it beyond our boarders the brilliant UK version of “The Office” and “Extras” and a few other great Brit shows).

I don't really have an argument, the 80s had some great sitcoms. Today, if by sitcom you mean three cameras and a audience, then maybe we are in a weaker era, that does not mean there aren't some hilarious shows, or that everything that is old is gold. We all know its only gold if Ken worked on it.

-bee said...

Ken, there is no comedy as beautiful to me as that of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd in their heydays - but I presume they (and some who followed in their wake like the Marx Brothers, etc) were unique products of vaudeville, which shows no signs of making a comeback, so...

Having survived the black hole of 60's TV (with a handful of exception), it's been all uphill - comedy-wise starting with "All in the Family" and "Monty Python" onwards.

cube said...

The campaign slogan "Wim with Jim" being so Joyce-ian is another example of Cheers not writing for the 7th grade as Max Clarke commented.

Too many comedies today (not all) are too heavy handed with vulgar
toilet humor and not a well-balanced combination of both low and high brow comedy.

Anonymous said...

Without putting down some of the brilliant shows of the past - and the best of them are still funny - some of the absolute best comedy ever done is being done now. But the big difference between then and now is then you had three stations only so the chances were everyone was influenced by the same material. Now the comedy is spread over 30-plus different networks which means fewer people see any given show. So with few exceptions even if they are the among the top five comedies ever, they won't have the impact of the shows of the past.

benson said...

Funny you should blog this today, as I was thinking similar thoughts last night while wandering through Direct TV's choices for Sunday night, and finding practically zilch. The two exceptions were CSN showing the Bulls' 1991 championship victory over the Lakers, and Reelz' showing Cheers. (One of your earliest, with Julia Duffy reciting Russian poetry: “Mischa the dog lies dead in the bog. The children cry over the carcass. The mist chokes my heart, covers the mourners. At least this year we eat.”)

I don't know if the bar is lowered or if we're just in a rut with endless reality crap and endless procedural legal shows. But as you wrote before. One of these days a Cosby show will come along and the mix maybe will shift in another direction. Dear God, I hope so. I think a lot of people are completely bored with darn near everything that's on now.

NotTheWorstWriterEver said...


Phillip B said...

Wow - long posts to today. I'd suggest it is simply that a sitcom no longer has to appeal to as many different kinds of viewers to succeed now.

When the only choices were the three networks and PBS, each show had to reach out beyond a hard core audience. Now they can be content by taking a smaller share the whole -- people who get the joke.

Personally, I don't think "All in the Family" could make it now - many people tuned in for the comedy and stayed for the message. And I don't think "Friends" could have made it pre-1980.

How many contemporary sitcoms could have gotten (and maintained) a 40 share if they were transposed to the the days before cable?

Kirk said...

Don't really watch enough present-day sitcoms to venture an opinion. Not because they've declined in quality; my tastes have just changed somewhat in recent years, that's all. I do remember that Cheers episode, and found it funny at the time. That was the season Sam regained ownership of the bar. In my opinion, one of the best season, maybe THE best season, in the post-Shelly Long era. Just about every episode that year was good.

Mr. Hollywood said...

I've read through the responses and always find them enlightening and thoughtful. However, one show has not been mentioned and I nominate it as one of the truly great "sit-coms" ever done ... THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. Truly comic perfection, from writing to acting to direction. Curious what you think of it Ken....
oh, and to go back to the original question: I vote for the shows of the past as superior to what is on the air now.

Johnny Walker said...

Firstly: I think the things you have bad memories of always are more enjoyable, and the things you remember being brilliant are disappointing. The reason? Expectations.

Secondly: Holy crap, 20 free videos! That's so freaking wonderful. Thank you so much!

Lisa Hunter said...

I think age probably has a lot to do with what we find funny. My parents like certain sit-coms that I find unwatchably slow. I love 30 ROCK, which they don't get at all. My teenage son likes shows that my parents and I both think are just gross. Humor is relative.

Ron L. Palmer said...

I'm guessing there have always been the really bad sitcoms that go along with the really good ones. After watching "Arrested Development" get canceled I was concerned that truly creative and actually funny shows were on the verge of dying. But along came "Community" and "Modern Family" and my faith has been (somewhat) restored. I'm still surprised at some of the shows that get green-lighted. If they're looking for some crappy shows to fill the schedule, I can come up with a few of those. :)

Pat Quinn said...

Allow me a little stream of conscience writing ... It is taking me some guts to post this. But I feel that this is an okay forum to share some writing if only to prompt another discussion about ways to distribute ideas for entertainment. a blog onto which I have posted a writing project.

It's not a sitcom, it's actually started as a short story that is probably only amusing to the writer, me. But as a hobby while I work as a marketing consultant I attempted to turn this old short story into a teleplay.

I've edited it quite a bit, but as it hasn't been on my front burner till earlier this summer, I seem to have lost some of the good edits and am left with just this...which I link to above (hope that's okay too).

Anyway, while it is not professional, and acknowledged to be a very much a wordy feat, I would welcome any feedback from this forum, good or bad. The comments can be about the content or the way it is presented.

I hope that this is not inappropriate and I also hope that this does not come off as badly as I can imagine it...thanks again.

Unknown said...

I think now that I know what goes into writing an episode and how much stress the production is and how fast the episodes zip by, and how fallible our brains are (it is highly likely that you didn't even think that the episode was that bad yourself but rather OTHER people's reactions towards it or a misplaced bad comment about it skewered your own thoughts about it - and then you never went back to take a look at it like you said and that thought manifested more and more) it could just be you...

And, as a viewer, I have a completely different perspective. I didn't make that episode and I didn't make any episodes. I can only compare your experience with my viewing habits and let me tell you - 10 years ago when the Friends DVDs came out I watched them in one sitting, within three to seven days (the more DVDs the longer it took), having to flip the DVD every 4 episodes (they were two-sided) and I just loved the show. I wouldn't want to watch them now if you held a gun to my head and I think it will take another 10 years or even more until I've forgotten enough about it to be able to enjoy it more.

Oh and to get back to the brain: once you hit 50 your brain starts to atrophy so the process of forgetting will accelerate. It could very well be that your marble just shriveled up enough that you forgot all your bad memories.

I'm kinda looking forward to that. Right now in my mid-30s so many TV shows I loved are still so vivid in my mind that I'm going "meh" just thinking about re-watching them again. I watched "Smokey and the bandit" around 200 times when I was a kid. I wish I could be amazed like that again by one 90 minute movie.

So just be glad that you got Netflix, don't have to flip channels, and that the older you get the fresher TV seems to be again ;-)

David T. said...

Cheers was a Rolls-Royce, and even a mediocre Rolls-Royce is still pretty good in comparison to other cars. I think previous times seem superior because we tend to remember the best things, and forget the other 90%. It is hard to forget the bad 90% of today, because it's right in front of us, and the good seems overwhelmed by comparison. But there are Rolls Royces out there on TV, even now. Just not enough of them.

Brian said...

I was curious whether your daughter Annie is the Annie Levine who co-wrote the new movie "Act Naturally" about 2 sisters who inherit a nudist colony?

DyHrdMET said...

First, I don't remember that episode of CHEERS. I had thought I'd seen them all. It sounds like a funny plot if well executed.

Second, I think I'm ALMOST at the point where I can identify episodes of CHEERS and MASH that you had worked on just by the jokes.

And on to your question...I think the bar has been lowered for sitcoms. After 60 years, the genre has needed some reinvention a couple of times. That's not to say that there can't be one or two series that are better than CHEERS or MASH, but if you take out the best from each era (and from each show), take out the worst from each era (and from each show), and look at the median and mean of what's left, I think overall, today's sitcoms just aren't as good.

I think part of it is that today, networks don't give shows a chance to develop. They bounce from show to show trying to fill a slot, and the quality diminishes after going through the pile. And with that quality, our standards have gone down to meet what stays on the air. Think about if CHEERS were getting on the NBC lineup today with the ratings that they had received in the first season. It may never have made it to the end of the year.

And I also think the 1980s were the best time for sitcom television. Just look at the television schedules from some of those years. By far, it was the best time to be involved with sitcoms (and that includes watching them).

David I. said...

I don't remember writing that crap!

Sue said...

Lively topic, good going Ken. Also love the "Fox News blames Obama for the hurricanes" line. With some of the new sitcoms there is a sensitivity to the times, and depending on the premiss some age appropriate inside jokes. It is just like when I was growing up and listening to the Beatles, Cream, Rolling Stones, etc, etc my parents, who listened to Classical music said this is not music. That said to appeal to a larger audience it has to have characters and situations that we all can identify with. I think Modern Family is one of those. It has physical comedy as well as funny dialogue and many times makes a significant point. It has characters that you can relate to and situations, while exaggerated at times, have veracity. 30 Rock is another one for me. The episode where Alec Baldwin meets his past, present and future alter egos is brilliant. I have at least one laugh out load moment in all the episodes so far. I felt the same way about Cheers and Mash and Frazier. Some of the new sitcoms have a less broad appeal and I think they mean to be that way. As has been cited by some with all the channels available no one show can get ratings like in the old days. Being brought up in the 60's those sitcoms appealing to people in there early twenties may not appeal to me but it does not mean that they lower the bar and are not as funny, just not to me.

Paul Duca said...

I received your link, Ken...I hope this isn't going to turn out like Columbia House, where I have to buy 20 more videos over a three-year period (at list price, plus shipping and handling).

cshel said...

This topic reminds me of a joke I like:

Two men walk into a bar. You'd think one of them would have seen it.

To beat a dead horse - comedy is so subjective. And I guess there have been gems and germs in every time frame in TV.

The first season Seinfeld aired, it had low ratings and almost got cancelled, except the critics liked it. I kept telling everyone I talked to about this hilarious new show, and nobody seemed to know about it. Because they were watching the stupid show on opposite it, Home Improvement. Now Seinfeld is a classic, and Home Improvement is unwatchable.

On the other hand, when the character of Frasier was introduced on Cheers, I didn't like him and thought he was so annoying. When they announced he was the character they decided to spin-off from Cheers, I thought it was crazy talk. Stupid me. I watched the pilot episode and never looked back. It immediately became one of my all time favorite TV shows.

I also loved Will and Grace, and Scrubs.

My favorite comedy on TV right now is actually The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Actual sitcoms - Parks and Recreation, The Middle, and Modern Family.

I have a love/hate relationship with 30 Rock. I love Tina, Alec, and Kenneth the page. But I think all of the other characters are dumb.

I think because there are so many more channels now, it seems like there should be a lot more really funny shows on. What's the deal with that? : )

And will anything ever be as timeless and brilliant as The Andy Griffith Show again? Sigh.

The End.

Graham Powell said...

All I know is I can still remember this episode, though it's been at least a decade since I've seen it. I loved Woody's line, "I don't need help! I just need more credit."

Al said...

I have to say that like many things, we tend to remember the past as much rosier than it actually was. Quality lasts, so the fact that we're talking about Cheers at all (other than the obvious fact of Ken's connection to it) is because, even for it's era, it was of higher quality than other sitcoms on then. I was a teenager obsessed with television when Cheers was on, and remember it being immeasurably better than other stuff on at the time.

Every once in a while I will catch an episode of omething I used to love, but now can't believe I ever enjoyed. Any episode of Happy Days after Ron Howard left is awful.

I think there are more uality sitcoms produced these days than ever before, but they don't tend to last. Better Off Ted, Sports Night, My Boys, were all great shows that died unwatched after only a season or two.

Janice said...

I wouldn't know. I don't watch sitcoms anymore because I just don't think they're very funny anymore. I used to howl at Taxi and I still think that's hilarious. By comparison when I have caught a bit of anything on now (with or without Charlie Sheen), the writing has seemed labored and obvious and the actors seem to be trying too hard to compensate. There's also less wit based humor and more cheap shot vulgarity based humor. I thought it was just me, but maybe not.

bevo said...

Yes, every decade produces its (vast) body of crap. Do not judge a decade of television by its breadth but its zenith.

Today's best sit coms are horrible compared to the best of the 1980s and 1990s. Sienfeld re-runs are funnier than anything on television except for South Park (most episodes) and Archer.

Modern Family is funny even out loud funny. However, I cannot watch a single episode of it in re-run.

The same is not true for Cheers, Frasier, Wings (the most under rated sit com of all time), Roseanne, Siefneld, and most seasons of the Cosby Show and Night Court. Go farther back than that to Taxi, Barney Miller, MASH, All in the Family, and Mary Tyler Moore show.

I can (and do) watch Arrested Development in re-run. The show is that good. That's it though.

30 Rock - outside of Alec Baldwin - is simply not funny. The Office is a vanilla pale imitation of the original, which is not good in a second viewing.

I am sure there are many funny shows on the air, judging by the comments. But none of these shows can be watched in re-runs. And, that is the mark of a funny show.

gottacook said...

My theory, which is mine (in the manner of Miss Anne Elk):

Cheers' first season set such a high writing standard that the people responsible for all of its 10 further seasons (including our host) felt compelled to try to do as well, and largely succeeded. And naturally its semi-sequel Frasier was in the same league with regard to scripts, for the same reason. Note also that Seinfeld might not have broken out as a big hit in fall 1993 if Cheers hadn't prepared the way, timeslot-wise - perhaps the last time a particular timeslot was handed off in such spectacular fashion.

I am pretty sure I started watching Cheers regularly (during its first season) because when I first looked at it, I recognized David Lloyd's name from Mary Tyler Moore - IMDB says he was "executive story consultant" in 1982-83, which I presume means that he was the story editor for that crucial season. So: A really large proportion of all the good half-hour broadcast TV since the 1970s can be largely attributed to the skill and talent of the late great Mr. Lloyd (and by extension his son Christopher, of Modern Family fame).

Rob said...

That Cheers episode was funnier than much of the last-season episodes, and certainly better than the baby-making arc. Maybe it's because of the lack of Carla. But the earlier seasons rule, when the show had heart (RIP Coach) and emotion along with the comedy; the later seasons were just well-written jokes and one-liners.

The sitcom bar has definitely been lowered. Can anyone picture shows like Maude or All in the Family getting on the air today, or frumpy middle-aged stage actors Bea Arthur, Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton being cast as sitcom leads? AITF could swing from big laughs to tears within one show. Other than The Middle, I'd rather watch the old stuff. Even the "bad" 70's shows are still funny.

Globetrotterjk said...

I think the kind of comedy has changed over the years. in the 70's and early 80's, there semed more sitcoms devoted to social or political commentary (some were better than others). later on, the comedys seemed to pivot around relationships between friends, family, and neighbors, and their struggles/daily lives (some were great and others duds). Then comedy seemed to be more and more about how many farts, gags, and one liners could be packed into a single episode, catering to very lowest and most base of what humans find funny. that has been changing again recently with several smart and funny shows that do not rely of bodily functions to entertain. It's all about what people find entertaining at the time.
Personally, if you can watch a rerun and find it just as funny or funnier than the first time around, that is a great show. None of the new shows are old enough to be seen in reruns, so they've yet to take the test of time to know how great they really are. And again, what i find great wil be different from what you find great.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

No on ehas yet mentioned the length of the episodes. I have said it before and will say it again: the lowering of the length from almost 25 to almost 20 minutes has ruined tv comedy. A Cheers of Frasier could not be made anymore. The only ones barely managing, are the one using storytelling tricks to circumvent the shorter length like Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother.

Marco said...

I only really like 2 sitcoms these days: 30 Rock because it is just hilarious and How I Met Your Mother because I like the main storyline that everything else is lined up again (Ted meeting his wife and mother of his children). Also those constant flashbacks or looks into the future are a real attraction in this show.

But neither has made me laugh like Frasier, Becker or Seinfeld actually.

One note about Seinfeld: I was fortunate when I missed the first minutes of The Merv Griffin Show episode when I first saw it. Seeing Jerry enter Kramer's appartment and being right inside that old studio set had made me laugh like nothing else ever since. When I watched that episode again years later on DVD I saw the real beginning how Kramer found the set in the trash and I think they should've cut that part.

Mac said...

Topically enough, David Hyde Pierce has done an interview in The Onion where he says Frasier wouldn't get commissioned today. I'd be very interested to know why he thinks that, but he doesn't elaborate. Although he does say that Frasier was a less obvious choice for a spin-off, so maybe that's what he means(?)

scottmc said...

I just read that Sam Denoff died and it lead me to a previous post of yours about a classic DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode and the importance of story construction.
It's remarkable the episodes he was a part of; 'That's My Boy', 'Bupkis' and 'Coast to Coast Big Mouth'.
He even wrote a song pleading with the Dodgers not to move to Los Angeles.

Anonymous said...

Hate to get off subject, but as far as being out and out funny, hilarious and with perfect comedy writing we have to go back in time to the brilliant Michael Maltese, who wrote amazingly funny Warner Brothers' Cartoons in the '40s and '50s for director Chuck Jones. Now funny is different to different people. hilarious and brilliant is the cartoon Maltese wrote about the two mice, Hubby & Bertie. They break into a cheese factory and eat themselves sick. So sick they never want to eat cheese again. They decide that life isn't worth living without cheese, so they find a cat (Claude Cat) and tell him to eat both of them. They plead and plead with him. Claude looks at the camera and is totally, wacked-out dumbfounded. Hubie & Bertie jump into his mouth, and he abruptly spits them out...he wants no part of them...thinks something is wrong. Claude cat then flips out and goes after the bulldog, and tells him he can beat him to a pulp. He blindfolds himself, lights a cigarette and stands waiting for the dog to land into him. The dog is dumbfounded. He wants no part in pounding the cat. Now this is truly hilarious. Who wouldn't think this was a funny scene? Maltese was so damn funny because true, hilarious comedy is when something totally unexpected leaps out at you. You weren't expecting...that...and it's funny.

Like the brlliant Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote cartoon, when Wile E. comes up with a female road runner costume, prances around in it, doesn't get the roadrunner, but a few hundred other coyotes who look exactly like Wile E. suddenly pop out of nowhere...napkins around their neck, fork and knives in their hands. That's brilliant comedy, sheer brilliance.

One last's brilliant...a bulldog looks in the newspaper and notices a missing cat with an offered reward. He starts a scam with a helpless cat and a mouse, bringing the cat over with different disguises to each house advertising a missing cat. He gets free chops of meat as his reward. He always wants gravy with it, and never gets any..."What? No gravy?" This gag keeps going on for the duration of the cartoon, until at the very end, the bulldog gets paid in cash and decides to buy a butcher shop. He's going crazy looking at all the meat hanging in the window. Cut to the bulldog in the hospital, ready for an operation because his stomach is incredibly enlarged due to his gluttony ways. The cat and the mouse walk in to see him...they both say, "and this time we didn't forget the gravy." Bulldog starts sweating profusely, saying, "oh, no, oh, no." And he's quickly pumped with the gravy. Maltese wrote that one, and it's just a perfect piece of comedy. You want to watch real comedy - the real brilliant stuff? Go back and seek out the Michael Maltese written Warner Brother's cartoons. Then, maybe you will understand what comedy really was all about. Yes, The Simpson was brilliant too, perfect writing. Their writers no doubt, were influenced by Maltese.

JP said...

I think it has. I'm currently going though the MagnificantSternin's Cheers collection and everyone so far has been a gem, and no, there is nothing as good as Cheers out there at the moment IMHO.

Series 2 of The Office (US) was pretty strong, but now that seems to be the case that even the best sitcoms peak after only a series or two, but why is hard?

I'm no industry insider, but one factor must be the increasing fragmentation of TV. Audiences per show are lower so budgets are lower - and that includes writing.

At the same time the objective could have changed. From being a *funny* show that lots of people would like the focus is on a show that the target audience age / gender / location etc would like.

Also us the audience now treat TV as something that's on in the background to web browsing (sorry)

Its a shame, as Cheers and Frasier were just wonderful, but maybe they were products of the era of small number of TV channels and large audiences.

I wonder what would happen if you were to pitch "Cheers - the next generation" with a new cast: what would the networks say?

BTW - that's not my Friday question, which is basically "Bumbershoot - WTF??". That seems to me to be an in-Seattle joke, and not something that Daphne would actually say. Anyhow, the rest of that Episode - my coffee with Niles - was brilliant.

Congrats to those writers behind it - hey, wait, that's you, right?

SkippyMom said...

I have been enjoying your archives for the past week. Thank you. They are very entertaining, as are most of the comments.

I do have a question and I hate that it is not really relevant to your brilliant career[s] but can you explain who in the heck D. McEwan is?

Is he a personal friend of yours? Why does he not have is own blog if he feels the need to expound on your posts and other comments? Or is he simply your [blowhard] alter ego.

I almost dread reading comments because the scrolling becomes tiresome just to get past his incessant self indulgence.

[And no, I don't think he is your alter ego, but that would be kind of fun.]

cadavra said...

A tip of the hat to Anonymous for singling out Michael Maltese, who was pound for pound one of the most brilliant comedy writers ever. (The third cartoon he mentioned, CHOW HOUND, is one of my absolute favorites, and the first, CHEESE CHASERS, is not far behind.)

Being a bit older, I look fondly back on the sitcoms of the late 50s and early 60s: Bilko, Gleason, Van Dyke, McHale, Get Smart, Addams, etc., and the quasi-sitcoms of Benny and Burns & Allen as the genuine comedy gold. I have as many as I can on DVD and they all still kill me.

Crystal said...

I think today's TV comedies try too hard to be clever. A few shows seem to go out of their way to pat themselves on the back for their clever, meta references. There's less of an emphasis on captivating, relatable characters. Part of the problem is a lot of shows that were great (The Simpsons and South Park especially) have become mediocre and stale.

Anonymous said...

Yesss, the sitcom bar has been mind numblingly lowered so much that we're being hit over the head with it...


RockGolf said...

To summarize the opinions of most commenters, yes, of course the comedy bar is lowered, except for my list of 5 to 8 favorite current comedies that are as good as anything in TV history.

Such short memory! For every "Cheers" in the 90s there were a hundred "Full House", "Different World" or "Hello Larry" series. The good sitcoms survive and get rerun, and if that's all we see of the era we get a wickedly skewed view of just how average most comedies are.

You can find five excellent sitcoms on the air right now? Lucky you! You wouldn't have been able to in 1961, 71, 81, 91 or 2001.

There will always be a few gems in each era scattered among the trash. This era is no different and the bar...

...the bar has never been set to a consistent height.

Tyler K said...

This was the episode of Cheers that ruined the magic for me, just a little bit. Not that it was bad---it was fine---but having Frasier whip out his credit card to pay felt strange. It made me realize, for the first time, how we'd never really seen any of the Cheers regulars pay for a drink, ever. The only time we saw money exchanged period was if the scene required it, like if Carla would complain about the size of a tip.

It certainly didn't ruin the series for me (still my favorite show after all these years). I just accepted it as a convention of the series, along with characters getting their mail or meeting out of town guests at the bar instead of home!

Robin Raven said...

I went back and watched "Cheers"...the entire series...on Netflix this past year. (Nevermind I have the Columbia House videos, etc.) As a 12-year-old in the early 90s, I discovered "Cheers" and became somewhat fairly obsessed. I noticed that "Cheers" is exceptionally funny (great job!) compared to older series, too. It's that "Cheers" was exceptional for its time period, the ones before, and the ones after. However, it puzzles me that, at 12, I thought that Sam and Diane were the ultimate romantic couple. Now, my impression: poor Diane was in an abusive relationship! That was the most striking to me in reruns. With maturity, it doesn't seem romantic to me, but it definitely seems funnier than any other show in history. Thanks for all the laughs and joy. :)

Mike in Bonham said...

I will give you, Mr. Levine, a baseball analogy:

Back before expansion (CBS, NBC, ABC only), the worst player on the worst team was a pretty decent player.

With the advent of expansion (cable's many networks, the Internet, etc) there are sure a lot of players who hang out at or barely above the so-called "Mendoza Line"...named for the .200 hitter Mario Mendoza.

Such is the case with programming. I agree with the posters who name all these great new sitcoms, but good Lord there is an abundance of effluvia on my tv screen.

John said...

This post reminded me of a question I've had over the years: why were Cheers and Seinfeld funny and most of the other sitcoms were not? Harrison Ford was on the Charlie Rose show and commented that he did the movie Six Days Seven Nights because when he read the script it made him laugh, while most of the things that were called "comedy" didn't make him laugh. I've felt the same way about Cheers and Seinfeld.