Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Another rant: in defense of "jokes."

As expected, yesterday’s post generated a lot of comments. I want to further the discussion by defending the use of “jokes.”   There are several definitions for jokes.  Here's one:  A joke is something spoken, written, or done with humorous intention.  

In some cases it has a punchline, or just something you didn't expect, which amuses you. 

 Jokes have become uncool, passé, something to sneer at and scorn. Writers who resort to jokes are hacks or old or worse – old hacks.  A commenter yesterday who's a writer on a sitcom said his showrunner threw out anything that was too "jokey."  And I will grant you there are many bad jokes, lame jokes, racist jokes, old jokes, formula jokes, juvenile jokes, and blonde jokes.

But there are also good jokes. And good jokes make you laugh. Not smile, not nod in appreciation, but laugh.

That monologue you loved at the Golden Globes delivered by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – those were jokes. The riotous plays that Neil Simon wrote for Broadway for over fifty years – those contained jokes. My Oscar review that many of you enjoyed – those were jokes.

CHEERS had jokes. Single-camera war comedy MASH had jokes. So did ultra-sophisticated FRASIER.  ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was crammed with them. 

THE DAILY SHOW relies on jokes. So does THE COLBERT REPORT. And Louis C.K. builds his entire stand-up act around them.

You get the point. There’s no shame in writing a line that evokes a laugh.

Recently, Chuck Lorre became the first producer to have four shows in the top ten. That is a remarkable achievement. And the one common denominator in all four shows?  Guess.

Now you may say, “I’m just looking to reach a niche audience. I don’t want to pander to the masses.” Again, the jokes don’t have to be stale or "vagina." And if you’re putting in all that time and effort to make your show, don’t you want the largest audience you can get? Plus, always remember that television is a business. Unless you have a big hit you’re vulnerable. Your show drops from a .08 to a .04 Deadline Hollywood will announce you’ve lost 50% of your audience. If your show gets hard to sell or the network has something else in the pipeline they think might do better, you and your niche show are gone.

And the good news is you don’t have to be on a major broadcast network to have a hit sitcom these days. BIG BANG THEORY reruns on TBS get better ratings than THE MINDY PROJECT on Fox. Imagine an original sitcom. Cable networks are trying and sooner or later one or more of their comedies will break through. Then, if you have a .08 share you’re even more vulnerable.

To me, a sitcom avoiding jokes is like an NFL team not employing a passing game.

I’ve been reading all the current pilot scripts, and the good ones just pop out. I’ll reserve identifying them until I see how well they’re actually executed. But on paper at least, they clearly rise above. They’re very funny. There are jokes that are sharp, fresh, and surprising. I’m keeping a list of these writers and should I ever get another show on and they’re available, they’re my first call. Other pilots are forced, familiar, and mild at best. I’d be reading one and think: “I guess if they get the perfect cast and the perfect director who sets the perfect tone and the lighting is just right and the camera angle is just so – then maybe this line will get a half-smile.”

And please, network development divisions, I beg you – no more slacker men-children.

I think agents and execs do young writers a disservice by telling them the industry is only looking for fresh new voices and different points-of-view. Here’s what showrunners are really looking for – young writers who are FUNNY. Their scripts can be single camera, multi-camera, two characters, eight characters, urban, rural, whatever. Just put some laughs in there. And what’s a real good although not trendy device for doing that?


the Old Hack


Jim S said...

So I guess modern sitcoms are the Big 10 of comedies.

Gary T. said...

Note to Joe Adalian: Attacking Ken Levine on Twitter -- as you did yesterday -- is not helping your case. When it comes to comedy, a guy who wrote M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Frasier has a bit more credibility than a PR hack from Vulture.com

cranky again said...

There's a 2x2 'joke matrix': down is the premise and across is the outcome: on both axes it reads, 'logical' and 'illogical'. So you can have 1) an illogical premise with an illogical outcome, ie the sort of circus clown, bizarre, surreal joke. You can have 2) an illogical premise with a logical outcome - eg Gary Larson's flies driving a car with a 'larvae on board' sticker. You can have 3) a logical premise with an illogical outcome - most of the funny things that happen in real life, and you can have 4) a logical premise with a logical outcome. But that isn't a joke. So there are only three kinds of joke, and only two are funny.

Igor said...

Ken, using yesterday's and today's posts as data points, an estimate of your trajectory has you transitioning by Thursday from a writer's "rant" about wanting to see jokes, to the Rain Man wanting to see The People's Court.

Igor said...

@ cranky again

Our chief weapon is surprise... surprise and fear... fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise... and ruthless efficiency.... Our three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our four...no... Amongst our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again.

Igor said...

@ cranky again

But actually, I do like your matrix post. Almost Mendelian. (By which I don't mean Howie Mendelian.)

Angry Gamer said...

I agree... and now I know why I hate most sitcoms these days.

Frasier was to me the ultimate sitcom. The characters had such depth and complexity... heck Daphne just delivering a straight line with her accent got laughs.

Much like how Ken talked about the structure of M*A*S*H the comedic architecture of these mega-hits shows how the creators WANTED the show to be organically funny.

It's no accident that Fraiser's dad was a blue collar guy. (a foil for his pompous sons)

It's no accident that Daphne had that accident.

It's no accident that Martin brought his ratty recliner or the dog.

It's no accident that once David H Pierce jelled with Kelsey that those two had dialogues of absurd snootiness.

The Foundational premises of Fraiser were setups for epic comedic storytelling. It's too bad that most sitcoms seem to put all the work on outstanding actors (I'm looking at you Big Bang) and have pretty much a mediocre premise set.

But that's my opinion I'm Angry not Funny.

Angry Gamer

H. Rumpole said...

I'm just an Old Bailey Hack.

Nick said...

"Please no more slacker men-children."

Amen. As a new father, I was looking forward to the new influx of television shows about men who learn to embrace responsibility and fatherhood. When it became obvious that they were all variations of the same joke already told in the movie "Knocked Up", I tuned out.

Hamid said...

CHEERS had jokes.

BARS WARS V was on TV last night and it was full of great laugh out loud jokes.

Norm: "Going through art books looking for paintings of naked babes, huh?"

Cliff: "Really liked 'em fat back then, didn't they?"

Lilith: "Freddy is, of course, bedecked in the garb of superhero crime fighter Spider-Man. Interestingly, Spider-Man acquired his supernatural powers from the bite of a radioactive spider.
I tried to explain to Frederick what would happen if one were really bitten by a radioactive spider, but he just cried."

Jee Jay said...

"Recently, Chuck Lorre became the first producer to have four shows in the top ten. That is a remarkable achievement. And the one common denominator in all four shows?"

Slacker men-children.

MuffinMan21571 said...

OK, I gotta ask...WTF is your problem with Mindy Kaling anyway (I'm guessing either jealousy, or a deep-rooted 'woman' problem)?

Maryjo G said...

Ken, my daughter (26) and I (56) HAVE laughed out loud, we actually had to wipe tears from our faces on a couple of occassions watching The Mindy Project. Both times the scence featured Mindy with Chris Messina. His secret santa gift to her being one example. I think you should give it another chance.

Stephen Robinson said...

There is a tendency in the arts to go too far in one direction. There was a time when sitcoms got treacly with long mawkish speeches and a bug hug. SEINFELD's "no hugging, no learning" was a pleasant reaction, but at the same time, it never had moments like the season 2 finale of CHEERS, which is heart-rending and brilliant. SEINFELD's characters couldn't withstand real drama (and when the series made the mistake of having the characters face *something* rather than nothing, the dearh of George's fiancee, the reaction is so awful that we realize rhe characters are monsters).

I think there's something similar to be said about jokes. The sitcoms we mention (CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS) use jokes that are reliant on character and consistently delivered. Yes, there was a period in the late '80s when you'd have a single mom who works at a factory deliver a monologue of one-liners that should have her headlining Caroline's. Real people didn't talk this way. Whereas, I could buy Frasier and Niles's rants about the perfect restaurant because they were in character.

And, yes, there were shows where a neighbor would come over just to deliver a few zingers and the leave. There was no rational motivation for the character to be there other than to deliver jokes,

So, pointing to bad sitcoms as an excuse for why there aren't any more CHEERS, FRASIERS, and FRIENDS is a cop-out.

I recall hearing Brandon Tartikoff speak in college. This was 20 years ago and he was already pushing hard against the slicing of ratings among demographics, which would later lead to "niche" programming. He said a "a true hit reaches everyone" and I agree.

My mother-in-law, who has lived in Portland all her life, saw a few minutes of "Portlandia" and just didn't get it. Too many in-jokes and references required to get the joke. We later sat down to a repeat of classic sitcom and we all laughed... multiple generations and backgrounds because funny is funny.

Stephen Robinson said...

Oh, I've been watching LAW AND ORDER repeats on Netflix and even that show is funnier than most niche sitcoms to me. Briscoe and Schiff's jokes and one liners stem from character and situation and I find myself laughing out loud constantly.

Oliver said...

But you specifically called out both Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Happy Endings which both have an absolute ton of jokes. Happy Endings was a joke machine.

It's not as though they're the billion megaflop "broad" NBC comedies which weren't funny or interesting. There's a reason audiences keep rejecting them.

mmryan314 said...

@ Stephen Robinson- I live in Portland now and find that the people who don't get the jokes in Portlandia are the exact people that the show is written about. They don't see themselves and hate the show. Funny in itself really.

Gerald Taylor said...

Yes, MuffinMan, you've uncovered Ken's Great Secret; he hates shows with Mindy Kaling because he has deep seated issues with women (it couldn't possibly be simply because he finds her unwatchable, as do I). I'm sure his disdain for Steven Spielberg is because of his deep seated disdain for successful Jewish men; no doubt your degree in armchair psychology would define that as some sort of self loathing behavior.


Sharon said...

Amen! I always say that the only thing I ask of a comedy is that it make me laugh. Nevertheless, I can't tell you how many times friends/acquaintances have told me they eschew multi-camera comedies in favor of single camera. As if the number of cameras somehow determines whether or not the jokes are funny. Just give me funny, and I'll be there.

Agent M said...

And then there are Freudian jokes, which I hope was what you meant by "Again, the jokes don’t have to be stale or vagina." (10th paragraph.)

Tim W. said...

I understand the "too jokey" comment that the writer was given, I think. I love a good comedy, but hate it when I can see a joke coming from miles away. I can't stand 2 and a Half Men for this very reason (although I have only watched maybe ten minutes in total of it). The jokes are too manufactured.

I recently went through all nine seasons of The Office (I missed it when it was on originally), and I thought it was great. I'm a tough audience for comedy because I rarely laugh out loud at anything, but I did it regularly watching The Office. The jokes felt natural and usually came out of character moments.

Cap'n Bob said...

Hell with it. Just rerun The Honeymooners, Leave It to Beaver, MTM, and Dragnet and I'll be happy.

Dan Ball said...

BROAD CITY is one show that tries to stilt its humor with things that wanna grow up to be jokes someday. It's awful. What's worse is that it's getting good reviews. I don't relate to the characters, I don't feel for them, the humor is non-existent. There's no comic perspective with them. There are no comic situations. There's nothing but a couple of girls who were told they were funny by Amy Poehler and nothing else.

Ken, you gotta review this show and shoot holes through it. It very much underlines your point about The Decline of the Joke. BROAD CITY made me start thinking about that and this tangent of yours kinda confirms it with me. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was the future of comedy. It shone a light on how comedy should evolve. Now, we're regressing like somethin' fierce.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your note on voice/POV. I've been in LA for seven years, a writers' assistant for the past four, and I am so tired of being asked what my voice is. The idea of "branding" has so permeated the business that it's stunning. But you make the better point - my voice can just be FUNNY. That's all that really matters for comedy anyways.

Thank you. That's a big weight lifted off my shoulder. I no longer have to define my existential experience in a pithy sentence. Now I can do it with a setup and punchline. Or at least an attempt at a punchline.

DBenson said...

The test of a good sitcom joke is that it's funny and it FITS. If you believe it's coming from the characters delivering it, you may not even register it as a joke while laughing at it.

Anth said...

When I read this post (and the one yesterday), the first show that came to mind was actually How I Met Your Mother. In its early years, it was a very clever, very funny show with dialogue and situations that constantly cracked me up. A few years later, it's turned into a soap opera with (what the laugh track tells me are) occasional bursts of humor. It's a show that has always relied on zaniness, but it feels like, because the overall tone of the show is so much more serious nowadays, the humor has to be more over-the-top and unrealistic to make an impression. (Witness the recent episode in which the gang goes through a laundry list of crazy stunts to find the secret ingredient of a hangover cure, only to figure out...that it was love.)

So I guess there's a Friday question in that as well, Ken...while I'm not opposed to the occasional dramatic turn of events on a sitcom, I feel like there's a sort of bait-and-switch element to HIMYM, which evolved from a comedy to a dramedy, emphasis on the drama. Can you think of any other shows that took such a major shift during their runs? I feel like the last few episodes of The King of Queens went in a darker-than-necessary direction but that was only a brief span.

John F said...

Would you agree that context has a lot to do with the success of a joke? Example on "Big Bang" - what amounted to nothing more than a child's riddle, and not a very good one at that. "Why would a monkey have a trunk? Answer - Because a suitcase wasn't enough". But it was made brilliant through context with Sheldon devolving into one of his "fun facts", asking what animal other than humans makes intoxicating fermented beverages and adds "Hint, it has a trunk." Penny answers, "Monkeys" Sheldon's condescending retort - the riddle set up - leads to Penny delivering the punch line, with the real payoff being Penny finally topping Sheldon with the perfect snappy comeback. Very Marx Brothers.

ScottyB said...

Personally, I think the best "joke" is all about how it's wrapped up in the setup and the payoff, especially if the payoff comes from out of nowhere. To this day, I totally believe the best joke in a sitcom came out of this 'All In The Family' exchange, from either the pilot or very first episode, can't recall which:

ARCHIE: I ain't prejudiced, any man deserves my respect and he's gonna get it regardless of his color.
MIKE: Then why are you calling them black beauties?
ARCHIE: Now that's where I got you, wise guy, there's a black guy who works down at the building with me, he's got a bumper sticker on his car that says 'Black is Beautiful' so what's the matter with black beauties?
EDITH: It's nicer than when he called them coons.

ScottyB said...

Henny Youngman told jokes. As did Morey Amsterdam. Ya, Louis CK tells jokes too, but Louis' are totally way funnier to me because they're a *different* kind of joke -- one that takes a bit of time and thought because they're part of a story. Pretty much like great sitcoms like Cheers and Frasier.

"Jokes" like those aren't jokes just for the sake of being jokes ala guys like Youngman/Amsterdam IMO, because they have *context*. And that's kinda why Chuck Lorre is sitting on the mountaintop that he is these days.

Ralph C. said...

Everyone likes what they like.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Love Louie CK's show. It has heart and soul unlike so many shows. Even though Louie gets raunchy at times in his comedy bits, the show has a lot of tender moments and you can see all of the emotions he's having. Very real show, not after laughs so much. It's a show that let's the characters breathe a little.

B B said...

Room Service...still HILARIOUS!!!

Nik said...

Hey, Ken, why don't you try to get a gig on one of those 'retro' sitcoms on TVLand? They've got that 'old school' vibe you dig, and based on their casts, they're not averse to hiring people whose best years are behind them, career-wise

Anonymous said...

Just Doug

I'm not a writer. I happen to be one of the people that enjoy good writing. This is rather simple. They are called sit-coms, situation comedies. NOT situation IRONY, Not Situation SNARK. I WANT JOKES damn it! I bust my ass all day, come home, sit in front of the tube to eat my daily gruel and want to be entertained. If I can say the next line BEFORE the actor we have a problem. If I smile once or twice in 22 minutes we have a problem. I know who the real stars are, it's the writers. Sometimes I wonder if the actors are writing these scripts.

Who the hell is watching two broke girls? Why is it still wasting electrons? I'm sure Mindy is a nice person and really pleasant, just not that funny.

And why doesn't the middle get the credit it deserves. Funny show and that Sue Heck is a joy to watch work.

Testrake said...


Ken's worst, bottom-drawer script is 10,000 times better than ANYTHING you could ever hope to write.


James said...

A sitcom without jokes would be The Courtship of Eddie's Father

Mike said...

Someone mentioned Portlandia.
Portland cat attack: 22lb cat attacks a family in Portland, Oregon. Family barricade themselves in bedroom and phone 911. Cat has since been sent to pet therapy for anger management.

Moon said...

Two of the shows that I often see getting passed around as the uber-examples of "smart" and "dumb" comedies, respectively, are Community and The Big Bang Theory. Endless discussions have I witnessed wherein Community is praised as being for smart sitcom watchers with smartness and smarts, while TBBT is talked about as appealing to the lowest common denominator even if they don't understand physics jokes and aren't really clear on what a denominator is.

And both are built from floor-to-ceiling on JOKES.

I hears ya, Ken. I hears ya bigtime.

Alan said...

What a narrow definition of humor. Humor is a wide spectrum. I don't understand the point of focusing so much on "jokes". The great thing about single camera sitcoms, is that they have opened the door to many new avenues of humor and ways to make us laugh.....jokes, but also facial expressions, slapstick, a certain look or reaction shot, puns and sarcasm, in sight gags, in plays on words, etc etc.

I don't actually find "jokes" all that funny. Even with stand up comedians, I prefer the "...did you ever notice..." humor to old-school Grandpa-at-the-dinner-table "Jokes".

That's why I dislike multi-cams. The entire show is setting up a joke, deliver punchline, play laugh track. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

It's like using 1 technique for humor when a single camera sitcom can use an entire bag of tricks for humor.

A_Homer said...

One important sensibility shared by Cheers and Frasier, was that the actors weren't young tweens or teens playing as if older, nor were they older adults behaving as if the world was just more high school, even when you get married and have careers -- the essential feel for Big Bang Theory and so many more. Sure Frasier had more disposable income than was possible as a radio host, but his situations, farce included, were plausible to character. Jokes are always good to have, but sitcoms need characters and relationships, but BBT and so many sitcoms, both horrible and succesful, only seem to work when everyone is still in a high school situation. The BBT nerd references still go back to there. But to be in your 30s and career scientists to be speaking only about high school experiences? The relationships copy that behavior through to marriage (Bernadette is Mom having Howard on an allowance etc.)
While I agree great jokes are part of a sitcom chemistry, the reality the jokes are situated in has to have something making the laughs even more of a rich reward. Ironically, as sitcom characters got dumbed down to cartoon types, where it is impossible to have actually wanted to be admitting they were in college to study etc... certain tv animation delivered more range in voice acting and premises - and still do - there are more real sitcom laughs in a "Bob's Burgers" than in many so called "acting" sitcoms today.
And from the other angle, there are great tv programs on that decide to work with impro-related feel, rather than stand-up feel, and absorb the payoff of a big laughtrack joke into one long comedic premise. Delivery isn't focused on the joke but on the author's script and the whole ensemble delivery of that -- Dan Harmon's Community versus Chuck Lorre's BBT for but one example.

PJ said...

Who knew that suggesting comedies should have more JOKES would prove to be so controversial?
Mindy and Parks and Rec fans, don't have an aneurysm. Ken didn't say you couldn't enjoy these shows if you like them. He's simply explaining why the ratings for the show with jokes (Modern Family and Big Bang)are 300% and 500% higher than the ratings for the shows without jokes. Yes, that's right, 500% higher for The Big Bang Theory than Parks and Rec.

No one said you're wrong to laugh at Parks and Rec.
But you are wrong if you think that's what a successful well-rated show looks like, and executives in search of a big hit are wrong to keep putting ironic-glance and awkward-"funny" shows on the air.
Jokes are necessary for a hit comedy. That is all.

VP81955 said...

The great thing about single-camera sitcoms is that they have opened the door to many new avenues of humor and ways to make us laugh...jokes, but also facial expressions, slapstick, a certain look or reaction shot, puns and sarcasm, in sight gags, in plays on words, etc., etc.

You can't do those things on a multi-cam series? Puh-leeze. They've been done on multi-cams since the days of "I Love Lucy" and "Dobie Gillis." Enough with the sitcom snobbery.

Alan said...

Enough with the sitcom snobbery.

I was prepared for that. Just as single-cam fans stereotype multi-cams as being lowbrow and unintelligent, multi-cam fans stereotype single-cam fans as being snobby and condescending.

I have lots of fondness for the multi-cams of yesteryear. But that was in the days when there were no single cams. Now that there is comparison, the humour found in most multi-cam sitcoms today is centred around lame jokes that have to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

I stand by my opinion that single camera sitcoms have a broader and more creative tools to explore "Humor" overall, as opposed to simply punchline-derived "jokes".

It's my personal preference.

Alan said...

But you are wrong if you think that's what a successful well-rated show looks like, and executives in search of a big hit are wrong to keep putting ironic-glance and awkward-"funny" shows on the air.

No argument there. I know that the top rated sitcoms on the air over the last few years are the CBS multi-cams, like Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, etc.

But the point of the Joseph Adalian article is that those will be very few and far in between.

A lot of single camera sitcoms deliver strong enough ratings to a particular demographic that advertisers (and networks) will support them.

This isn't about getting 16 million eyeballs on a show anymore. In the 80s and 90s, sitcoms regularly got up to 20 million viewers a night. This is an era of micro-demographics.

Otherwise, why are networks continually green-lighting single cams? They are more expensive to produce and the ratings are lower. Why isn't every show a carbon copy of the CBS multi-cams?

Networks see a value in the single-cam. And thank God for that.

You watch Veep on HBO and then watch Mike and Molly on CBS...they are like two totally different genres of show. Hard to believe that they can both be called sitcoms.

Trester said...

No, the point of "Fat Joe" Adalian's article was to be a wet, sloppy kiss to Kevin Reilly at Fox, for making a boneheaded, desperate programming decision when he renewed a chronically underperforming, critically disrespected, unfunny show called THE MINDY PROJECT.

Adalian is Vulture.com's in-house Fox PR flack. That's all he is, and all he'll ever be.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

And ou idn't evne menion the fact that a goo joke can save your ass in a scene> Many times I have worked on scenes where a good joke could eliminate the need for a whole page of dialogue. Or better still, end a scene where it would have gone on far too long otherwise.

Micah said...


How would you peg Ricky Gervais' The Office in this context. Do you consider that show to have a lot of jokes?

Unknown said...

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I loved Friends and Seinfeld and agree that the humor in both of those have stood the test of time (I use this as an example that I agree on some of your humor analysis), and I love the Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I think Modern Family and New Girl have their moments as well (and P&R & BBT both) but I legitimately laugh out loud at Mindy and Brooklyn more than any other show. But maybe it's my generation speaking? (I'm in my early 30s). Hard to say. I always appreciate your perspective though!

Cody said...


Would you ever consider doing a drama that contained a fair amount of humor? Something like West Wing that Sorkin did back in the day? Or are you the most comfortable doing sitcoms? Or will they only let you do sitcoms because that's how they know you and your work? Or does no one know you anymore?

Alan said...

@Trester No, you are missing the point of the Adalian article. His point was that this is 2014, not 1988, when shows routinely got insanely high ratings, like 20 million viewers on an average night.

In this era of PVRs, Netflix and multiple cable channels producing some very high-quality shows, ratings like that will never happen again. Networks know this. They look to other factors...and The Mindy Project performs very well among young women (women 18-35). If a show does well enough among Young People and that it can make money in syndication (after 88 episodes)

FOX is a business. They would not have renewed a money-loser. They have had no qualms about cancelling other shows. They cancelled Raising Hope and the X Factor, and will probably cancel Dads and Enlisted.

I know the passionate hatred Mindy seems to spark in people, but it does well enough to merit renewal.

Adalian's article was to say that we live in a new era where so-called "low-rated" shows do get renewed. Get used to it.

VP81955 said...

You watch Veep on HBO and then watch Mike and Molly on CBS...they are like two totally different genres of show. Hard to believe that they can both be called sitcoms.

You intentionally chose an apples-and-oranges comparison, and not only because you used HBO vs. CBS. If you substituted "Mom" (a much smarter series) for the lowbrow "Mike and Molly," you'd have a far more difficult time justifying your single-cam worship.

D. McEwan said...

"VP81955 said...
You can't do those things on a multi-cam series? Puh-leeze. They've been done on multi-cams since the days of "I Love Lucy" and "Dobie Gillis." Enough with the sitcom snobbery."

While I very much agree with your overall point, VP, I must point out that Dobie Gillis was filmed single-camera, no studio audience.

"Alan said...
I have lots of fondness for the multi-cams of yesteryear. But that was in the days when there were no single cams."

No such day ever existed. There were always single-camera sit-coms, back to the early 1950s. The Abbott & Costello Show is but a single example. In fact, prior to Desi Arnaz and Karl Freund inventing multi-camera on I Love Lucy, there were only single-camera sit-coms.

Alan said...

You intentionally chose an apples-and-oranges comparison, and not only because you used HBO vs. CBS. If you substituted "Mom" (a much smarter series) for the lowbrow "Mike and Molly," you'd have a far more difficult time justifying your single-cam worship.

My point was that there is so much variety and creativity nowadays that old style, laugh track, fake-sets, generic multi-cam sitcoms feel very passe and very outdated. We live in a new era, where there is so much to be had from cable and internet shows, and yes, network single-cam shows.

People are more than welcome to pretend it's 1988 and watch their generic studio multi-cams, but the past decade, ever since The Office and 30 Rock, has produced a whole new world out there of great new creative shows.

Alan said...

No such day ever existed. There were always single-camera sit-coms, back to the early 1950s.

Yes, you are absolutely correct but then they died for about 30 years. I suppose I was referring to my own frame of reference, which is the late 1970's through to early 2000's, an era where the big studio multi-cam sitcom thrived and before the new era of the single cam that started with The Office.

I can basically throw out random cliches and create a 1980s multi-cam sitcom...

Name: something bland like "Times Like These" or "People Like Us"

Add-ons: A quirky neighbor or a sassy black housekeeper, often with a catchphrase (eg: Urkel's "Did I do That?")

Required Plot Device # 1: A wedding that gets cancelled at the altar.

Required Plot Device # 2: By season 2 or 3, usually a pregnancy storyline, followed by a baby that ages from 2 months to about 6 in one season.

Required Plot Device # 3: Once per season, A Very Special Episode with no laughs, that teaches us about drugs or teen pregnancy.

Presto! You have any random family multi-cam from 1981 to 2001.

Alan said...

Sorry, correction to the above, I think the second era of the single cams started approximately with Malcom in the Middle before The Office. Yes, give or take some exceptions over the years, but you have to admit thats generally that's the starting point.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

A sitcom without jokes is like The Waltons without John-Boy.

Roy said...

Interesting post, Ken. But even though you provided a definition of "joke," I'm still not sure I understand what you mean by the term. When you say, "with humorous intention," are you talking about the character's intention, or the sitcom writer's?

Let's focus on dialogue for the moment. To qualify as a joke, does a line have to be spoken by a character who's trying to be funny? (And succeeding, in the case of a good joke?)

I get that it's a joke when Hawkeye Pierce zings somebody. But is it a joke, by your definition, when Michael Scott cluelessly says something inappropriate and everybody stares in shock?

Clearly, both of those things can be really funny and can make a viewer burst out laughing (if you're the sort of viewer who actually laughs out loud at TV shows). But in the Hawkeye case, it's both Hawkeye and the sitcom writer who are intending to be funny, whereas in the Michael Scott case, it's only the sitcom writer.

So are they both jokes, by your definition, or is only the Hawkeye line a joke? Thanks -- I find this stuff really interesting to think about.

D. McEwan said...

"Albert Giesbrecht said...
A sitcom without jokes is like The Waltons without John-Boy."

Yes, and a sitcom with jokes like that is like a turgid drama.

Unknown said...


Of course, today is the 111 year anniversary
of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Orville
Wright FINALLY managed to stay up, but
only for 12 seconds.

CLIFFY turns to NORM.

Eh... much to the disappointment of
Mrs. Wright.

NORM shuts his eyes - TIGHTLY!

Stephan said...

So if this is how you define jokes, then I wold have to say that "The Mindy Project" and "New Girl" have jokes like that. I laugh audibly through the whole shows. They are just different kind of jokes. They have smart jokes, silly jokes, quirky jokes, etc. I wouldn't say the shows you mentioned are without jokes. I would say it's just a different sense of humor.

Martin said...


No, "Trester" actually was correct in his analysis of the Vulture.com article. However, you seem to be carrying water for Adalian and/or The Mindy Project, judging from your defensive posts on this site.

Joe Adalian is well-known as a cheerleader for Fox. Fox knows this, and reciprocates by giving him "exclusive" interviews with mid-level Fox executives, and occasionally with Kevin Reilly.

Adalian reprints their spin as gospel, and occasionally even gets some swag -- t-shirts, a free lunch, etc -- for his efforts.

But "Alan," you're so, so naive with your "Fox would not have renewed a money-loser" thesis. Fox cancelled DADS -- not a great show, but which outdrew THE MINDY PROJECT in total viewers AND the key demos.

Reilly simply made a boneheaded decision renewing a ratings stinker like Mindy. (Which by the way, is NOT strong enough in female audience to justify renewal.) Because of this, it's Tuesday night ad rates are going to suffer next year.

Industry trades pointed out "Reilly's Folly" the next day. So Fox -- in need of damage control -- used Adalian as stenographer to gin up an excuse for its actions.

And you ate it up with a spoon! LOL!