Monday, October 12, 2015

The Comedy Debate Continues

WARNING: Donald Trump is not part of this debate. There are no angry responses, no personal attacks, no grandstanding, no hidden agendas. If it were televised it would be on C-SPAN-6 not CNN or Fox News. Don’t expect to see portions of it discussed in op-ed pieces. If you’re okay with that then please read on.

Fellow writer Earl Pomerantz and I have had differing points of view recently on the “new” style of television comedy (geared almost exclusively to Millennials) where showrunners purposely avoid doing anything that might feel like a conventional joke. I took them to task for this. Here’s one of my articles. I contend the end result is tepid shows that aren’t funny. I don’t want to recap the whole piece. You may have been bored reading it in the first place.

Earl Pomerantz has credentials as good or better than mine. In his terrific blog on Friday he felt this new trend was not as a result of showrunners being lazy or less talented or arrogant. The full text of his article is a click away. But here’s the crux, excerpted from his piece:

the point I am focusing on today is that a mini-movie’s (Read: “single-camera” comedy’s) sensibility feels realer than a mini-play’s (the artistic antecedent of the studio-audience situation comedy.)

And with that preference in format comes a commensurate alteration in writing style.

Meaning (at the undeniable cost of greater laughter):

No “Big Jokes” (or traditional joke-writing structure whatsoever.) No “accidental misunderstandings.” No “mistaken identities.” No comedic “reveals.”

Nothing, in conclusion, that would only happen in a sitcom.

(Like you expect one thing and you get not something surprisingly different from what you expect but its diametrical opposite.)

As dependable as those comedic devices may be, they are incongruous with the template, by which I mean, not only the “single-camera” format itself, but the sensibilities of today’s viewership, most particularly, the younger viewership the networks are struggling hardest to attract, which prefers comedy more reflective of their everyday experience over the comedy – albeit brilliantly conceived and executed – of contrivance.

Earl makes some excellent points. And I would agree with him except for this:

It’s not working.

These shows get terrible ratings. Even among Millennials.

I don’t like Hip Hop music. I don’t get it. It doesn’t speak to me. But if I owned a record company I would sign as many Hip Hop artists as I could. Hip Hop music is HUGE. I tip my hat to Hip Hop artists. Their music might not be my cup of tea but those artists have obviously tapped into something that really resonates with the 12+ crowd.

And I would tip my cap to showrunners of this new comedy style if indeed it was attracting a large following the way Hip Hop is. But it’s not.

Fox tried to justify it a year ago when they inexplicably renewed THE MINDY PROJECT. There was room for niche comedy. A year later they couldn’t cancel it fast enough. (It has been picked up by a streaming service where a sizable audience is not the goal – getting and keeping paid subscribers is.)

One only need to look at the performances of THE BIG BANG THEORY and the new show that follows, LIFE IN PIECES. BIG BANG aggressively tries to make you laugh (at times exhaustively so) while LIFE IN PIECES opts for “realism” and avoiding comic tropes.

BIG BANG gets huge ratings (among young people) and PIECES drops 50% of its audience. 50%! That’s a staggering drop off.

Meanwhile, much maligned out-of-touch multi-camera shows bring in the ratings.  What's disturbing to me is they don't even have to be good.  2 BROKE GIRLS has made 100 episodes, and you know the only new sitcom that is doing well this season?  It's also the show with the single worst reviews.  DR. KEN.   Not only do Millennials want jokes; it seems they want ANY jokes.   Good God!

The only multi-camera shows that don't work for Millennials are the ones that are self-conscious or apologize for being in that format.  MULANEY and WHITNEY are two such offenders.  

From what I understand, there is currently a big renaissance for FRIENDS among young people.  Re-runs are flourishing as a new generation has discovered it.   That makes me happy.  FRIENDS is a good show.

I'm sure there are new formats and fresh ways of making Millennials laugh.  Someone will come along with "their" FRIENDS.  But the key take away is make it a COMEDY.

And by the way, this is nothing new.  In the early '80s they were saying that sitcoms are dead and "dramadies" were the new thing.  Same reasoning.  The form was old and musty and baby boomers wanted something "different."   A few years later CHEERS came along, and then FAMILY TIES, and COSBY, and NEWHART and by the end of the decade there were something like 60 sitcoms and dramadies were nowhere to be found.

Peering down your nose at anything that resembles comic conventions is not working.  Try something else.  What's the next Hip Hop?

I still contend when a comedy writer says to me he doesn’t DO jokes, what he’s really saying is he CAN’T do jokes.

Prove to me you’re funny. Or at least that lots of other people find you funny.

Earl-o? Back to you.  


Gerry said...

I didn't want to be the first commenter if all I had to say was "I agree with you Ken", but I agree with you Ken! My only specific comment is that we did try to watch Life in Pieces, and my overall impression was that they were trying too hard to be Modern Family, which we pretty much adore.
But I think the show I laugh hardest at may well be The Good Wife as closing credits roll. Last night's was fabulous!

Total said...

the younger viewership the networks are struggling hardest to attract, which prefers comedy more reflective of their everyday experience over the comedy

This (by Earl) should actually read like this:

the younger viewership the networks are struggling hardest to attract, which tv critics and show runners think prefers comedy more reflective of their everyday experience over the comedy

Jim S said...

I pretty much agree Ken, with a couple of exceptions. I was watching METV, or Decade or one of those weird stations that are on cable but apparently can be picked up on a non-cable tv if you have the right antenna. They run the Dick Van Dyke Show. The jokes keep coming. I recently saw the episode where Rob has to stay awake for 100 hours and gets interviewed by Alan Brady and Mel. The way Dick Van Dyke would just fall apart when a kitty was mentioned was comedy gold. The jokes were funny and kept the story going. Nothing wrong with watching a comedy and laughing.

Now to the exceptions. Greg Garcia's "My Name is Earl" and "Raising "Hope". The shows create a wacky world in which the characters make sense. The jokes work, but not in the studio audience sense. When Garcia went back to audience comedy with "The Millers" and featuring everyone's favorite Mags Bennnett Margo Martindale, it just didn't work.

So I have nothing against one-camera shows, but the good audience shows really do make me laugh. Fraiser, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends have all been off the air for at least a decade and they still dominate syndicated comedy. That should tell you something,

croquemore said...

Funny is funny. End of story. I think how funny a show is depends on how much we relate to a character or characters. There has to be some common ground or something we relate to, to make a show work. We've all known characters like Norm or Cliff, or Sheldon or Phil and Claire Dunphy. Or we love a character for taking a stand like Hawkeye or wished we had a president like Jed Bartlett. Sticking bland characters in a situation and giving them "funny" lines isn't going to give you anything but a bland show with characters that no one cares about. I've tried Life in Pieces. I don't get it. It's not funny, unfortunately. It has a great cast, but I couldn't care less about what happens to them and for me, that's a problem. Smart comedies can be funny. i.e. 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, etc. I also agree with Jim S. about Greg Garcia's single camera shows "Earl" and "Raising Hope." Not necessarily smart shows, but they had characters people could relate to. And the shows had heart. While they may have had goofy characters and situations, they nearly always executed well and to a point, demonstrated that you can be funny without being hurtful or degrading. I think one of the best new comedies in recent years, was this summer's The Charmichael Show. It really reminded me of some of the early MTM shows and was even compared in some reviews to Norman Lear's shows. I think that was a bit much, but they told a story with about issues, with funny lines and with characters I at least could relate to...and apparently others could as well since it was renewed.

Thomas said...

I'm going to gently disagree, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

I like the multi-camera fashion, and I think many are on par with your old favourites. But, I think there is value in more than just comedy, as having genuine character development or heartwarming/wrenching moments add a lot. These shows aren't trying to have punchlines every 3 seconds, correct. But they do have punchlines, and when they do they are generally boosted by just how invested we are in the characters.

Of course, multi-cams can have that too, but the forced situations remove something. It's a careful tightrope, and for me personally, the emphasis on better characters is more important than an emphasis on more quick jokes.

As for the ratings, everyone with a bank account under 25 has Netflix. Sucks for the networks, and makes ratings evidence a bit hard to use to justify points about the content rather than the content delivery.

Jerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mighty Dyckerson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Erich617 said...

I posted this comment on Mr. Pomerantz's blog last week, but I'll post it here too because I think it's still relevant (and animated shows like THE SIMPSONS, FAMILY GUY, BOB'S BURGERS, and a lot of others on cable and streaming, as well as single camera comedies like 30 ROCK-- which lasted for seven seasons-- actually do resonate with millennials):

One point that I would like to add is that I think a third, let's say, language of television comedy has developed in the past few decades. I think the ur-source was THE SIMPSONS, and a lot of animated shows have adopted this style, though some live action shows have as well.

This language of comedy does have big laughs but it willfully disregards verisimilitude in a way that more naturalistic shows don't. It makes sense, of course, that this would start with an animated show. Animated shows also do not have a studio audience so in that way they are like single-camera comedies, and the audience has already suspended their disbelief to a certain degree by watching a cartoon.

I think the best example of this would be a moment in THE SIMPSONS where Homer is watching television and says, "It's a cartoon. It doesn't have to make sense." Then another Homer walks past the window.

Tina Fey has used this language of comedy on both 30 ROCK and THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, and both shows genuinely make me laugh out loud. I think that the reason this more absurd comedy is able to extend to live action shows without completely alienating the audience is that, when done well, the characters and worlds are consistent. Homer is always Homer. Tracy Jordan is always Tracy Jordan. And their worlds are very familiar to us but heightened and internally consistent.

This language of comedy might not lead to funny climaxes in the way that, say, "That's My Boy" or "Chuckles Bites the Dust" did (though it's not impossible). In that way, you might say it's less artful or less likely to create those huge moments of laughter with a live audience that don't seem like they will ever end. I think that comes from crafting a story rather than individual jokes and moments that are funny. But that third language of comedy does exist, I believe, and can be artful in its own right but doesn't seem to have entered this discussion thus far.

Unknown said...

What is this drivel? If you are trying to make a point, you need to go after Earl. You have call him a loser, and how your shows are the best, and his are cat phlegm. Making points, and explaining things with evidence is no way to prove you are right. You NEVER ONCE mentioned his wife or kids, how can you win an argument being logical? We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, on TV: A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy. STRIKE FIRST. STRIKE HARD. NO MERCY SIR.

Canda said...

If the present COMEDY WRITERS say, "I don't do JOKES", then what label should he or she use to describe they're style of writing, given what we see on television?

Would it be I do Amusement? Cleverness? Cultural Reference? Neurotic Recognition? Self-Concious Wordplay? Upscale Foodie Restaurant Behavior? Hip Metropolitan Apartment Decor on a Budget? Male-Female Sexual Relationship Cliches? Streaming Critically Praised Out Of The Mainstream Webisodes? Or, last but not least,would it be I Do Continuous Disdain For Those Who Don't Get What I'm Doing?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

On this topic...a question.

We really like UNDATEABLE on NBC. We liked it when it was taped before a live studio audience and now that it's always LIVE before an audience.
The show is consistantly laugh out loud funny and we smile the whole way through.
I know NBC forced it to play live (twice a night) for it to be renewed and on the air (Friday nights).

However, doesn't this eventually hurt the syndication of the reruns? I can't imagine LIVE shows play as well on a repeated cycle. Doesn't this hurt the property and the payments for the future?

Mike said...

No, I still don't know what you're talking about. Would someone care to provide a list of these offending programmes, perhaps YouTube-ready?

The only example cited so far is blog bete-noir Mindy Project. Life in Pieces seems to be an attempt at traditional comedy. I've suggested Him & Her but that won prizes. Perhaps the UK Office? I was somewhat bemused as to why I should work with these people all day, then go home and watch them on TV. But then, I'm similarly bemused as to the point of The Good Wife, wealthy & comfortable lawyers who's supposed domestic & professional strife bears no relation to my own, or inferior Friends copies like How I Met Your Mother, New Girl, etc. The criticism I'd make is that these programmes are too derivative, with nothing original of their own.

The UK is currently producing both multi-camera & single-camera shows and the single-camera comedies, even the mockumentaries, can deliver jokes as fast as any multi-cams, e.g. Bad Education or W1A. There's nothing fundamental to single-camera that precludes this. There's also plenty of surreal, experimental comedy, e.g. House of Fools, which is a multi-cam parodying multi-cams.

H Johnson said...

I agree with a lot of what's been said about this topic, but I think it's a bit apples and oranges. I like Mr. Pomerantz' 'mini movie' description for single camera shows. Because multi camera shows are basically a stage production similar to a play.

When Happy Days came out, it was single camera and was geared at the American Graffiti audience. Very nostalgic and sometimes poignant. When it switched to multi camera it felt like it went from trying to be a film to a part of the vaudeville circuit. The comedy was broader, less real and kinda goofy. Very successful, but it's original premise (and what I personally liked about the show) had been abandoned.

Same with the Odd Couple television show, although it was just a matter of choice. To emulate the film or the original stage show. Started like the movie and switched to stage like.

I suppose it's a matter of preference. There is certainly room for both, just so long as it's funny.


Igor said...

No “accidental misunderstandings.” No “mistaken identities.” No comedic “reveals.”

Nothing, in conclusion, that would only happen in a sitcom.

(Like you expect one thing and you get not something surprisingly different from what you expect but its diametrical opposite.)

As dependable as those comedic devices may be, they are incongruous with the template, by which I mean, not only the “single-camera” format itself, but the sensibilities of today’s viewership, most particularly, the younger viewership the networks are struggling hardest to attract, which prefers comedy more reflective of their everyday experience over the comedy – albeit brilliantly conceived and executed – of contrivance.

I must be missing something. Seems to me that is the absolute opposite of how they do it in Modern Family. I.e., the characters there constantly discover the "diametrical opposite" of what they'd thought.

Or, does this mean "the younger viewership" doesn't watch Modern family?

Igor said...

Whoops. For clarity, that big quote I just posted is from Earl Pomerantz.

Stephen Robinson said...

No “Big Jokes” (or traditional joke-writing structure whatsoever.) No “accidental misunderstandings.” No “mistaken identities.” No comedic “reveals.”


SER: I'd argue that is the root of comedy going back to Shakespeare. Austen expanded on the established style -- arguably making it more "realistic" by not literalizing it. So, the "mistaken identity" is that Elizabeth Bennett thinks Darcy is a creep and Wickham a charming gentleman. Emma "misunderstands" Elton's true intentions, which leads to the "comedic reveal" that Elton has been pursuing her all along. Austen's novels still resonate with audiences today.

It's astonishing to me that anyone would argue *against* these comedic conceits. They were evident in all classic comedies that aren't just hits at the time but the ones that still find new audiences in syndication or on Netflix. I fear that modern comedy writers are falling into the THREE'S COMPANY trap. It was very much in vogue long ago to point to THREE'S COMPANY as the worst example of the TV sitcom (Bill Cosby, who is not much in vogue these days himself, was a chief critic). The result was, I think, a baby with the bathwater approach. "OK, all these comedy elements are garbage!" But the problem -- in my opinion -- with "Three's Company" was not the "mistaken identity" or the physical comedy but the lack of dramatic states, lack of developed characters, lack of true emotion. I *care* about Frasier, Niles, and Lilith in the FRASIER episode "Room Service." Their relationship is real and convincing (as siblings and as ex-spouses), so when that is coupled with "big jokes," accidental misunderstandings, and comedic reveals, you wind up with 30 minutes of inspired comedy that I can watch again and again.

FRIENDS once Chandler joke that "This is the episode of THREE'S COMPANY where there's a misunderstanding." That was a knowing wink -- not a rejection of the form. I can think of several FRIENDS episodes that used that conceit just off the top of my head.

What separates SEINFELD and FRIENDS from WILL & GRACE or even 30 ROCK when it comes to repeated viewing success years after its initial run? Mastery of the classic comedy forms.

It's strange to me that anyone would argue that young audiences don't want classic comedy or rather situations that aren't like their own lives. I can't imagine a dramatic writer arguing that young audiences wouldn't be interested in the style of HOUSE OF CARDS but would want something more "realistic," which just feels like watching an episode of C-SPAN.

Mike said...

If no-one can provide any examples of these programmes for millenials, I'll call this a straw man argument.

ODJennings said...

Ken, I would love to agree with you, but I think comedy has changed in the last 25 years, and not just comedy in the media.

When I was a kid working in a grocery store every salesman that came through the door had a joke to tell me (the milkmen always had the best ones for some reason). When I was in college everyone would quickly turn to the jokes in Playboy and find a couple they could steal, and it was a big accomplishment if you were the first in your crowd with the joke. Even my Grandmother would snag a couple from Reader's Digest every month.

When was the last time someone came up to you and said, "Say did you hear the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter . . .?" Or when was the last time you heard someone repeating a joke, an actual joke, they had heard on late night television?

I think the joke has been replaced by the link to the funny cat on YouTube. As a result, what passes for "funny" in the media has changed along with it.

Bill Avena said...

Why not get John Swartzwelder to weigh in on this? Maybe he could do a Siskel-and-Ebert type of podcast with Thomas Pynchon.

Mark said...

Of course, a lot of those dependable comedic devices were developed and/or perfected on the single-camera Andy Griffith Show.

And as for the comedy of mistaken identities, has anyone ever done it better than Nat Hiken did on Car 54?

Peter said...

You don't like hip-hop? I was wondering why you hadn't reviewed Straight Outta Compton.

But you and David wrote some dope lyrics for Sam's groin injury rap. Now that was a funky tune. If I remember correctly, that was the episode in which Sam asks Carla how he did as a TV sports host and she said "it was like watching old people eat." Classic.

Johnny Walker said...

I love Earl and his work and his blog. Super talented and funny. However I really felt he missed the point of your original post, and you've hit the nail on the head as to why.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I recently was watching recent re-showing of TCM's series on Hollywood movie heads titled THE MOGULS. They showed a clip from a Harold Lloyd movie - didn't catch the title, but I'm sure someone will reply with it quickly - in which he's courting a girl and daydreaming he looks down at a basket and imagines twin babies in a carriage - with his trademark glasses. I screamed with laughter. Which got me to wondering what's your feeling about sight gags in sitcoms? I could think of classic ones from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE HONEYMOONERS and I LOVE LUCY but couldn't think of any recent ones. Are they outdated like the silent movies, which relied on them and made comedies by Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd truly universal (except for the translated title cards) and timeless?

Pat Reeder said...

I tend to side with Ken on this. There have been single camera shows for years that were genuinely funny, from Andy Griffith to "My Name is Earl" to "30 Rock." Even the comedy of self-conscious embarrassment was funny the first time ("The Office"). But when people pull this Emperor's New Clothes stuff about how "This is the 'new comedy.' It's not SUPPOSED to be funny, and you're just too square to get it," I take that as a pretentious excuse for not knowing how to be funny. I've also never bought that younger generations can't appreciate older generations' humor. When I was 12, I loved silent movies and my favorite comedians were the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, whose great work was done decades before I was born. I just gave my niece and her two small daughters a set of Abbott and Costello DVDs, which they love. Her kids also love the Disney Channel sitcoms, so I guess that means that in 15 or 20 years, the post-Millennial generation will all want nothing but multi-cam shows.

But let's be frank, Ken: neither you nor Earl understand what comedy is these days. After the Emmys, I complained about "Transparent" winning all the comedy awards, when it is not only not funny, it doesn't even seem to be trying to be funny (for all I can tell, its sole purpose is to annoy me). But someone on this board explained that the definition of "comedy" has nothing to do with content, just length. If a show is 30 minutes, it's automatically a comedy, and if it's an hour, it's a drama (And if it's 30 minutes and feels like an hour, it's "Two Broke Girls"). Using the Emmy standard, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a laff riot, and "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" is the most serious drama since "Hamlet."

Tom said...

I still think a good joke starts with character. I can see why people are irritated by a clumsy contrivance that clearly only exists to set up a gag. I suspect in many such cases the writer came up with the gag first and had to find a way to set it up. But if a writer sets the main scene and lets the characters drive the action, the jokes will be (to use a tired cliche) more "organic".

I found it annoying at times to see characters act wildly out of character just for the sake of one joke. Yes, I know none of it is real, but it annoys me nevertheless.

I'm sure even Ken and David have on occasion stretched things for a joke they love, but I suspect that Ken's skepticism about the current state of writing talent stems from a lack of people who can (or choose to) take this character-first approach.

VP81955 said...

I wish "Mom" could be included in this debate. Remember "Mom"? Anna Faris, Allison Janney et al? Two generations of recovering alcoholics, part of a dysfunctional, struggling family? A well-written blend of jokes and character development. I'm guessing many of you don't remember it, since its final episode of season 2 aired April 30, and thanks to CBS football commitments, its season 3 debut won't air until Nov. 5 -- a span of more than half a year between episodes. Hard to get any kind of traction in that situation, and if it weren't for trying to placate Chuck Lorre and his 800-pound gorilla "The Big Bang Theory," I doubt "Mom" would still be on the schedule (though last year it averaged just under 10 million viewers). Too bad, because it's quietly terrific and easily the best sitcom in the Lorre stable, proof that a multi-cam indeed can have substance.

VP81955 said...

MikeK.Pa. said...
I recently was watching recent re-showing of TCM's series on Hollywood movie heads titled THE MOGULS. They showed a clip from a Harold Lloyd movie - didn't catch the title, but I'm sure someone will reply with it quickly - in which he's courting a girl and daydreaming he looks down at a basket and imagines twin babies in a carriage - with his trademark glasses. I screamed with laughter.

Sounds like "Girl Shy," my favorite Lloyd feature. It doesn't have the iconic thrill of the building climb in "Safety Last!", but it does feature a multi-modal chase -- using everything from streetcars to chariots -- through 1924 Los Angeles, as Harold attempts to stop the woman he loves from marrying someone he's found out to be a bigamist. (It inspired a similar "stop the wedding" scene in "The Graduate.") A truly funny film with clever character development.

mmryan314 said...

So laugh at me but I like to end my day happy. Not one of the new shows, save Brooklyn Ninety-Nine even makes me smile, so I revert to the old feel good humour of MASH or Cheers or Seinfeld to soothe my soul. They are all shows based on relationships not just on jokes. I`'ll have to watch Mom- I think I`d like it. Millennial? I guess I`m not, I simply like funny.

MikeN said...

Ken, you left out the biggest new comedy of the season - Quantico. They should just advertise it as -If you think State of Affairs is too realistic...

MikeN said...

My Name Is Earl may not have a laugh track, but it is quite funny.
The part where his brother says 'Can we finish with the list' is one of the funniest moments in TV history. I would compare it to the end of the fourth episode of Lost with Locke's flashback scene in terms of long term setup.

M said...

Out of curiosity, Ken, have you watched The Mindy Project lately? In my opinion, it's a hilarious, well-written show. In terms of tone and joke density, it's far closer to 30 Rock than to Life in Pieces. I attribute its low ratings partly to the fact that it took a while to find its footing (the pilot is a poor representation of what the show has become). I also wonder if sexism played a role. I think men saw the ads, assumed it was a "chick show," and stayed away, even though I've watched the show with men who've laughed out loud with me. You've mentioned the show's low ratings many times, but do you have any theory as to why that is? Other than your original theory that Mindy Kaling is just not leading lady material?

VP81955 said...

"Mom" is female-oriented (just by the nature of its title), but I don't think men view it as a "chick show" by any means.

As for "The Mindy Project," I watched an episode for the presence of guest Francine York, a good Facebook friend of mine, and while I found it funny, the absence of a live audience made me feel disengaged from the episode. (Perhaps it's generational.) There's no reason "Mindy" couldn't be done before an audience, with exterior scenes shot and played back during the filming. Unless you're doing something like "M*A*S*H" that's almost entirely filmed outdoors, or a fantasy series such as "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" with a heavy reliance on special effects, there's no reason most sitcoms can't be done before a live audience.

mmryan314 said...

@M- I have tried to watch The Mindy Project several times and just don`t think it`s funny or enlightening. ( My taste I guess). When I watch a Seinfeld episode I`m guaranteed a laugh.I even liked the finale of Seinfeld that no one else in the world liked because it showed the funny and complete narcissism of the characters. I don`t know what it is- character, chemistry...?

Ralphie said...

What did I hear somewhere? Let me think... Oh yeah! Somebody said, "Make 'em laugh"!

cadavra said...

There were plenty of single-cam sitcoms back in the old days--GET SMART, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, McHALE'S NAVY, CAR 54, F TROOP, et al--that were hilarious and remain so. They didn't need a studio audience to get big laughs; they still had plenty of jokes.

Bottom line (IMHO, of course)--Comedy without jokes is like baseball without a bat.

Anonymous said...

And as for the comedy of mistaken identities, has anyone ever done it better than Nat Hiken did on Car 54?

Well, there was some old English guy, I think his name was Shakespeare, who wasn't half bad at it.

MikeN said...

Get Smart had a laugh track.

Andy Rose said...

If you have a little time, I'd recommend listening to Dan Harmon's commentary on this episode of the Yahoo! season of "Community."

Around the 19:00 mark, Harmon talks about how he intricately tried to establish his "story circle" (a writing concept of his own design) for that episode, but sees other shows that don't put nearly so much thought into such things getting a better reception. "People want jokes!" he marvels.

I think sitcoms became tired because there was such a reliance on old comedy conceits, some of which go back to the age of vaudeville. In a pop-culture soaked world, younger generations have heard it all before... and aren't old enough to have forgotten it yet. I'm fine with jokes, as long as I don't see the punchlines coming a mile away.

One of the reasons I really dislike The Big Bang Theory is that the joke setups are so obvious. I think the only reason they get any purchase with the audience at all is that Chuck Lorre was smart enough to change each old worn-out punchline to a reference to a random Star Trek character or obscure scientific theorem that makes the joke seem new. The point being, that show managed to combine a standard joke format with "reference humor." It doesn't have to be one or the other. (I think Lorre also benefitted from good timing in making a nerd-centric show at a time when nerd culture was starting to go mainstream.)

chuckcd said...

"I’m funny how? I mean funny, like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? Whattya you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?"

cadavra said...

MikeN: All those shows had laugh tracks. But they were put in because that was the fashion. There was no audience when the shows were being filmed, so they could have dispensed with jokes if they wanted to. They didn't want to.

Anonymous said...

Gotta say that both you and Earl make excellent points.

Where I disagree with you, Ken, is where you say that "millenials" are tuning into multi-camera hits like "Big Bang" and even, egad, "Dr. Ken" in large numbers.

Earl is right- those younger audiences aren't tuning into network TV comedy in large numbers period. Those CBS hits are driven by CBS' reliable old fogey target audience. Yes, even "Big Bang", which is full of young actors playing nerdy characters and the late-but-not-lamented "Two and a Half Men." Even "Two Broke Girls."

Neither those shows nor the "hipper" single cams like "New Girl" and "Mindy" are making much of a blip with younger viewers.

Thus the problem. The older viewers crave the traditional sitcom format, even if it's smutty like "Men" or features young characters like "Big Bang" or even if they're just plain awful like some of your other examples.

-Peter G

smoothlatinkid said...

I think Cheers is the greatest pure sitcom of all time. But this either/or argument Ken is posting is seriously weak, and alleging that ratings signifies either quality (give me a break) or that millennials prefer Dr. Ken (sorry, check the demos) is horseshit too.

All of those multi-cam shows currently on the air are dreck. The fact that they get ratings? Big fucking deal. McDonalds is the most popular restaurant in the world, and WalMart is a billion dollar business. Both places suck.

Louie is the best half-hour on television right now, and arguably one of the shows that would fall into the category Ken is railing against. There are times when the show doesn't have one laugh, and there are times when it's holy-shit funny. Go and argue that Louis CK can't be funny, and it's not a choice.

Again, Cheers, Friends, All in The Family, there is so much there that stands the test of time. But Ken's argument seems to be as rigidly adherent to "in MY day, things were like THIS". Arguing that your subjective taste/style is better and more valid, just because it's more popular, or just because this new style doesn't speak to you, is as ossified as someone that proudly sports they don't get hip-hop.

In case you aren't aware, that started out niche, and was called a fad, too.