Thursday, October 16, 2014

Different sitcom styles -- where do I fit in?

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a rambling rant about sitcom writing styles. Notice the irony that I take issue with lengthy speeches yet this post goes on way too long.

The question itself is even long. But stay with it. It’s from Mark.

I've noticed, Ken, that the scripts you and David write and the shows you work on rarely tackle social issues (in the Norman Lear manner) or engage in the kind of sometimes over-the-top preachiness that was common in 1980s-early '90s sitcoms. Nor are yours and David's characters even particularly inclined to learn anything. (It seems like almost every episode to come out of the Garry Marshall factory had to end with the scene where the principals in that night's episode discussed the lesson they'd learned, while a slow version of the show's theme music played softly in the background.)

Does this come from yours and David's personal tastes and preferences in comedy, or is it more a reflection of the kinds of shows you guys have tended to work on?

Both… although I would argue that we did get into social and political issues on MASH; the topics were just more universal than contemporary.

But our comic preference has always been focused on character – exploring human foibles and examining relatable behavior. How people deal with frustration, obstacles, absurdity, emotions, and each other. The “funny” comes from all of us.

People do learn lessons but rarely every week. We searched more for the truth in a given situation than the lesson to be derived from it.

But let’s be perfectly honest, we were incredibly lucky. We got hired on shows that encouraged that style. Were we hired on GOOD TIMES we would have been writing long speeches about urban decay. (Those speeches were so cringeworthy. They even had statistics in them. J.J. just happened to know that “34.7% of Americans made less than $22,500 a year.”) Ugh.

My other problem with long gooey speeches at the end of the show with the requisite soft music in the background is that the speeches were rarely earned.

WILL & GRACE was guilty of this all the time. 25 minutes of rollicking burlesque humor and suddenly this unbelievably sappy speech. The show just changed tones on a dime. The sentimentality came out of nowhere. So it always felt artificial.

Of course, no sitcom was more guilty of this than MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY. This was a series back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s starring Danny Thomas.
 They’ve been running it again on one of those nostalgia channels. Every week Danny yells and screams and then has this long, maudlin, treachly speech that makes your teeth rattle. At least when Gleason got sappy on THE HONEYMOONERS it was only for a moment. “Alice, I’m a mope.” He didn’t deliver the State-of-the-Union.

David and I try to avoid long life lesson speeches at all costs. I know I’ve told the story before, but for “Goodbye Radar”, which we wrote, we purposely constructed the story to have casualties arrive just as Radar was departing. That way all the goodbyes were one or two lines delivered on the run. Otherwise, we felt the show would just be a series of graduation commencement speeches.

But I reiterate, we were lucky. Had we not landed on MASH early in our career we might have been writing for GOOD TIMES or THE SMURFS. Work is work, especially when you start out. I see bad shows today and often wonder if the next Larry Gelbart is a staff writer on that piece of shit. Writing stupid speeches is still better than the Dairy Queen. The fact that we were allowed to write what we write is a true blessing. There’s a lesson in that. I’ll wait until the soft music starts. Where’s the music? I gotta have music! It’s just not the same without the music.


Thomas W said...

So along those lines of the learning speech at the end of the show, what shows did this on a regular basis and were actually able to pull it off?

Carol said...

Two things -

One - have you ever watched Coupling (The real one, not the American one)? Steve tends to do one rambling speech per series, but they are hilarious.

Two - I'm still not sure I forgive your for making me cry so hard that I didn't get over it for hours after Goodbye Radar aired. Heck, I still tear up a little when I think about of Hawkeye holding that teddy bear. Sniff.

Karlos said...

Hi Ken. Growing up with shows like Taxi, Cheers and MASH, I never felt like there was any shoe-horned in schmaltz or "this week's lesson was..." purely because any and all emotional beats always felt earned, thanks to great writing and great performances. Even as I kid, I quickly grew to resent other, lesser shows that simply tacked such things on at the end.

Kathleen said...

Oprah Winfrey once asked Keenan Ivory Wayans what advice he gave to his siblings and he responded that the first rule was to be funny. He told them it was OK if they were angry about something, but they first had to make it funny.

Denis M said...

Taxi (like the original Mary Tyler Moore show) was a textbook on how to bookend sentiment with a great last laugh.

I would argue that you guys did it brilliantly in the first season of Cheers in the episode where Sam reads War and Peace for Diane to impress her old boyfriend. The last scene becomes a little gooey when she asks him to read War and Peace to her (it helps to remember that Norm and Cliff has recommended the book in the first place) - she sits on his lap and her starts to read. She then nuzzles his ear and says, "We can watch the movie," (I'm paraphrasing here), There is a pause as this registers with Sam. He then gets up grabs a golf club while saying furiously "THERE WAS A MOVIE??" and strides into the bar. The laugh was HUGE and earned.

Similarly, in TAXI when Alex meets the woman he had been flirting with over the phone and realizes she is overweight and bitter, it could have been played for either bathos or just jokes. Instead there was a human moment between them ending in the dreaded hug. But in one of my favorite moments in sitcom, as they hug there is this:
WOMAN (sniffling): Do you know how long it's been since I've cried?
ALEX: No...
WOMAN: A half an hour!

Perfection. The audience was allowed to have an honest feeling and then BAM! A great joke.

I do remember a late Cheers where Sam is in the hospital for a hernia, and feels he's getting older. He flirts with the (female) doctor, who he realizes is patronizing him. It ends on silence, with Sam looking out the window. No joke. It was such a departure for CHEERS I felt it was a cheap moment and not in keeping with the sensibility of the show.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Much as I loved WKRP, they tended to lay on the mucous at times, like with the censorship episode, or the PSA about lookalike diet pills. That censorship ep really grated because it showed the normally clueless Big Guy engaging in an an articulate debate about morality.

Unknown said...

I think one of the best sitcoms to include learning situations without preaching was/is The Andy Griffith Show, especially those involving Opie. Very deft touch of writing on those. Opie, for example, learns about sticking up for himself against a bully or the value of letting the baby birds fly the coop. Andy never preached, but was constantly giving valuable life lessons in practically every episode, especially in the way he treated Barney after Barney would create one of his classic disasters (Remember when Andy and his girlfriend go back into the cave after they escape so Barney can rescue them and be the hero?) Brilliant.

Michael said...

About Andy Griffith: his greatest sermon was his funniest. The episode in which he explains to Opie why history matters. Yes, I'm a history professor. It's an incredible piece of writing, perfectly delivered.

Ken, MASH COULD get preachy, but not when you and David wrote it. That said, when Hawkeye picks up the teddy bear, after seeing it at least a hundred times, I still cry.

Hamid said...

I'd never heard of Make Room for Daddy till today. I had a quick look on Youtube and it seems exactly the sort of bland "wholesome" crap that was churned out back then, like My Little Margie. I checked out the cast on IMDB and read about the suicide of Rusty Hamer. Even if I wanted to watch Make Room for Daddy, which I don't, it would make for gloomy viewing knowing that the sweet, happy kid on the show would go on to take his own life.

On a happier note, I'm delighted that Neil Patrick Harris has been chosen to host the Oscars next year!

Dave said...

Russ Woody once referred to something called "the 8:55 hug" when referring to these maudlin moments. Referring to Family Ties at the time, I believe.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Catching Will and Grace on the rebound in reruns I guess I'm missing the preachy piece at the end. To me, it's a well-crafted set piece with two vain friends unlucky in love surrounded by two narcissistic friends who don't know what the word love means. The tag on most of the shows was usually a put-down on one of the characters, closing out with a laugh.

I watched Modern Family last night, a show people love but I don't find funny, and my opinion didn't change. I find Sofia Vergara grating. I loved Steven Levitan's work on Wings and Just Shoot Me, but have to pass of MF.

Lisa said...

Another sitcom trope that urks me is the big lecture that leads to the 180. One character tells off another character, resulting in the character on the receiving end suddenly seeing the light and having a complete change of attitude or opinion.

cd1515 said...

Lisa just reminded me of a movie cliche I've never understood, the "No Way In Hell" speech.

whatever the main character will ultimately wind up doing in the film, there first has to be a speech where he/she insists there's no way in hell they're doing that.

then of course they do it.
so why the charade?

Gary Benz said...

Ken, I loved that you explained to the reader that he/she was about to experience irony given how long it takes you to explain your distaste for lengthy speeches. Weren't you just railing about scripts that spoon feed instead of letting the viewer figure things out for themselves? I'm starting to believe you've been in so many of those network notes meetings that you are suffering from some variation of Stockholm Syndrome... ;-)

Gary Theroux said...

The "lessoned to be learned" concept in comedy writing was a network edict Wierd Al Yankovic pointed out ruined his short-lived CBS series, which he had wanted to be all rapidfire humor but instead always consisted of stories in which Al "learned" some PC edict in the last few minutes. This kind of sermonizing isn't new, of course. When Hal Roach originally conceived Our Gang, his idea was for the kids to just be unaffected kids who created an imaginative world fully apart from adult interference. (In a way, Peanuts was set up in much the same way.) However, after about a decade of classic shorts, Roach sold the concept to MGM, which insisted on reversing the concept so that the kids would always fall short and have to learn some heavy-handed "life lesson" from adults. That's what ruined the latter day Our Gang episodes. The approach Ken and David took on "Cheers," "Frasier" and their other series was precisely right: building the humor around relatkionshios and evergreen human foibles. That not only universalized the content and kept it from getting dated but also allowed L&I to create in-depth stories which were not only excellent character studies but genuinely funny AND emotionally engaging -- what you might call "multi-leveled mirth." On "Cheers," for example, in between the laughs Ken and David transformed what could have been two-dimensional joke dispensing characters into three-dimensional people we felt for, cared about and related to. Norm, Cliff, Carla, Coach and especially Sam and Diane became fully formed human beings in Ken and David's hands. One of the most remarkable things about "Cheers" is that despite its initial low ratings, the concept, the characters and the scripts hit the ground running, fully fleshed out and totally believable from the very first episode. There was no awkward start and then a developmental upward trajectory. The series BEGAN at the top and stayed there for a very, very long time.

Largo161 said...

I don't recall much preachiness from W&G either. Maybe there was that one episode about Will being embarrassed to be seen with Jack at his gym...maybe.

Not only was the series not preachy IMO generally, but I stopped watching it about two years before it ended because I thought the characters had become too cartoonish/callous.

jbryant said...

SOUTH PARK parodies the "what we've learned" trope in almost every episode, and they do it so well I sometimes cringe anyway.

Will Hansen said...

Joel McHale's character on "Community" gives those long speeches, but it is meant to be a joke, as the other characters comment on it and even Jeff realizes that he has a tendency to do that. Of course it could also be to demonstrate that he used to be a lawyer.
The character of Abed is used to point out the many tropes in both TV and movies.
I love that series, except the 4th season.

chalmers said...

Another great "Taxi" twist out of an emotional speech was in the episode where Elaine catches Louie peeping at her in the restroom.

Louie gets fired and goes to her apartment seeking forgiveness so he can get his job back. She asks him if he even understands why his actions were so offensive.

After a few lame pat responses, Louie finally understands how dehumanized Elaine felt. He sorrowfully tells her that he feels the same way when he has to go clothes shopping--in the boys' section with everyone staring at him.

Elaine is touched by the fact that Louie now gets it and agrees to let him keep his job. As they inevitably hug, Louie reaches his hand down and gooses her.

Ralph C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ralph C. said...

I remember watching that episode recently, Sam in the hospital for his hernia. I thought the ending was not the usual one for that show. However, I think the ending was just right for the underlying feeling of the character at that time in his life. Being that it was a revelatory moment for him, to have a joke/humorous wnding would have undercut the emotion of the moment. I am going to guess that a number of us viewers, at some time in watching that scene, felt the same way Sam did. That ending was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. In my opinion, it was the perfect ending for that episode.

Johnny Walker said...

I think Taxi and M*A*S*H (and even sometimes Cheers and Frasier) had lessons, so to speak, but they interwove them with the story so well that you rarely needed a character to stop and explain what they'd learned to the audience.

John said...

Shows with cynical older-than-their-age kids seem to be the worst offenders as far as the 'meaningful lesson' schtick at the end of the episode (Rusty Hamer on "Make Room for Daddy" was Patient Zero for that type of tyke who seemed to have been born in a Catskills Borscht Belt lounge).

The more the show's cast is populated exclusively by adults, the less it seems the show-runners or the network executives feel there has to be a "What have we learned from all this" message at the finish, presumable out of fear they're going to turn the next generation of kids into a bunch of smart-assed hipsters (which, based on the way things are today, proves those "What have we learned from all this" messages at the finish had no positive effect on cancelling out the message of the first 20 minutes of the show).

Stephen Robinson said...

WILL & GRACE struggled with whether it was SEINFELD or whether it was FRIENDS. The tone shift that Ken mentions became more evident in later seasons. I sometimes got whiplash.

Terrence Moss said...

I liked "Make Room for Daddy" much more when it became "The Danny Thomas Show". Even with a speech at the end, it ended with a joke or a gag.

Terrence Moss said...

But I hated the speeches underscored by sappy music that ended Miller/Boyett shows in the 1990s. My brother and I were kids and would groan at it.

mmryan314 said...

I always liked what Norman Lear did on All In The Family to drive"lesson" home. A slight smile on Archie`s lips and a simple,sweet phrase from Edith could have me in tears and pondering the moment. By the way, just bought his book.

Birdie said...

I've gotta come in defense of W & G too, so sorry Ken. (I respect your taste so much Ken that the few times we disagree my heart sinks a little :))

A couple of things: any serious moments (and serious is not to be confused with preachy, which I don't think I ever detected), were either: punctuated with a few jokes to prevent it from becoming schmaltzy, or, b) they were (as these were few) true serious moments that were genuinely earned. The acting makes you believe it, the writing makes you believe it, and (I would hope you would agree with this) Burrows's directing (and he did all the episodes, I think) makes you believe it.

Because at the heart of it Will & Grace's relationship was a sad one. And when they have that showdown, where Messing says "you're happiest when I'm miserable. Isn't that our thing," I still get slightly uncomfortable watching it, because that moment uncomfortably true. I'm not a huge fan of most dramatic moments in sitcom but that's easily one of the best I've seen. Of course right after that Leo came and nearly ruined the whole show but that's another discussion.

I really can't think of any tender moments that crossed into the schmaltz category. If anything, I think they were somewhat necessary, because especially later on the characters (especially Karen and Jack) were in danger of becoming cartoons. But they were also all great actors who could carry off those transitions. I think that was as key as the writing,

If you think it's worth your time, Ken, I would love for you to devote a post to W &G, and maybe get into more specific examples (what episodes? What speeches?) that bothered you. Maybe some of us would be better able to understand your criticisms, that way.

Anonymous said...

J.J: Why shouldn't I take the job, Mama?

Florida: J.J.,'cause you're a young black man and life didn't deal you a full deck!

Woman in audience: Right on!!!

(audience cheers and actors freeze until cheers abate).

Jason said...


Probably my favorite line in the whole Cheers series.

Anonymous said...

Captain Planet was the worst for the takeaways. "So when you have a family, keep it small".

Alan C said...

Do you suppose Danny Thomas confused himself with Fulton J. Sheen?