Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sitcoms could be better

Here’s a Friday Question worth a whole rant (I mean "post".)

Sean S. asks:

In her book IN SUCH GOOD COMPANY Carol Burnett repeats the following from a conversation she had with Larry Gelbart.

BURNETT: I don't know, but when I watch a comedy show on TV today, I know exactly what's coming so far as the writing goes. No surprises. No originality. Usually it's the 'setup' first, and then comes the obvious joke, and then you hear that awful laugh track. It's as if all the shows are alike and repeating themselves.

GELBART: I think it's because most of the writers today grew up watching television. That was their childhood, so they're writing about life once removed.

BURNETT: What do you mean?

GELBART: They never played stickball in the street.

Thought that was an interesting observation from Gelbart and wondered if you had any thoughts on it.

I agree with him. And right away I know that makes me seem a hundred years old. But there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying.

It’s evidenced by the pop culture references that fill sitcoms today. For many young writers their frame of reference is television, not life.

Not that my generation worked on oil rigs and pretended to be Jack London until we were 30, but our references came from literature. Most writers my age didn’t start out wanting to be comedy writers. We all sought something else. For me it was radio. Once we hit our middle to late 20’s we decided we wanted to go in another direction and that’s when TV writing called to us.

So when we started we already had some other background to draw from. As a disc jockey I bounced around the country so got to live in different cities and associate with people outside of LA. Heaven help me, I lived in “flyover” states. Also, being in the Army I was introduced to a whole new world. No way could I have written MASH without that personal experience.

As for TV itself, I turned to comedy writing back when sitcoms were enjoying a golden era. Smart, sophisticated, adult shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE, RHODA, and THE ODD COUPLE provided a high bar to shoot for. You had to really know social issues. You had to really delve into human relationships. You couldn’t get away with wry irony or Kardashian jokes.

Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, Alan Burns, James L. Brooks, Gene Reynolds, Garry Marshall and other showrunners of that era had extremely high standards – including the fact that their shows needed to be really funny. The jokes had to land. Audiences, not machines, had to LAUGH. The story telling had to be fresh. They were very tough on the material. And YOU.

So I think back then we fledgling comedy writers felt we needed a lot in our arsenals just to survive. We needed a formal education, life experience, and talent.

Today I think you can get by a little easier.

A couple of weeks ago I saw an improv show starring a group called OFF THE WALL (pictured above). They’ve been together for over 40 years, and they were phenomenal. And the thing I noticed was how literate their humor was. They knew author styles, classic dramatic forms, world history, current events, Shakespeare. And as a result their show was not only hilarious but so smart (and timely). Does UCB do any of that? I wonder.

Our society today is much more insular. We don’t hang out with friends, we follow them on social media. We spend more time looking at pictures of places than visiting them. And it shows in the shows.

Yes, I know. I’m ancient and you kids are on my lawn without permission, but isn’t it always better to strive for something higher? Pop culture references are easy. Crutches are easy. Why bust your ass to come up with a really witty joke when you can just say “vagina?”

I’m not saying go back to the style of Larry Gelbart, James Brooks, et al – just the standards.


Jim S said...

You make a good point. Back in the 1980s, there was the classic TV show "Wiseguy" that had a format not only radically changed TV, influencing such shows as "The Sopranos" "Buffy" "The X-Files" and "Breaking Bad" it was really well written.

I still recall 30 years later a line of dialog. Two mobsters are talking to each other about what to do with a third criminal. One says to the other "if he's not careful he'll end up being the poster child for rigor mortis." What a great line. Now I know no real mobster ever said anything that clever, but actually having network standards forced the writers to get really creative.

Now, the show would be on HBO and the line would be "he'll get fucking whacked if he's not careful." Huge difference.

Covarr said...

This is what I love about Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There are three characters who regularly make pop culture references, and each makes DIFFERENT references. In all three cases, it isn't to replace actual jokes, but because that's who the characters are. Gina makes basic references to the drama-filled Kardashians and whatnot, Jake makes Die Hard references and pretty much nothing else, and Holt makes references to classical music, NPR, and the New York Times.

Instead of coming across as a show relying on pop culture as a substitute for actual jokes, it comes across as jokes at the expense of people whose frame of reference is too deeply rooted in pop culture. Like everything else in the show, it's done for the sake of character building which is frankly funnier AND deeper than a lot of what else is on television.

blinky said...

Remember when Dennis Miller was funny? He would drop in sly references to Pliney the Elder and Kurt Cobane in one sentence.

Glenn said...

David Schwimmer was on a podcast recently and mentioned that a show like “Friends” would be difficult to pull off today, since the idea of six characters sitting around and actually *talking to each other* is a foreign concept to most young writers.

Michael said...

Agreed, the form has become formulaic. That being said, there are writers breaking the traditional mold - Aziz Ansari's Master of None comes to mind - which leads me to a related Friday question.

Like so many others I've become invested in the characters on Chuck Lorre's Big Bang theory over the past decade - it's reliable comfort food. The show generally has some good jokes, but the majority of the story lines are weak and rarely resolve themselves. In comparison Frasier always came to a strong comedic finish that on its best days left the viewer sated and wanting a cigarette. On Big Bang they just seem to run out the clock. Why do you think this is and did you and David ever consciously write anything without a proper ending?

Thanks and belated 12th anniversary. Silk and linen are the traditional gifts, but all I can offer are bits and bytes. Keep up the great work.

Terrence Moss said...

Follow-up question: How much of that responsibility is on the writers versus the producers?

I imagine there are a lot of smart writers out there who don't get the opportunities or are asked to dumb down their work because some higher-up thinks that's all they think that will sell.

Brian Fies said...

I always see this point through the narrow lens of Star Trek. The people who created it--Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, Bob Justman--had lives before television. They'd been cops, pilots, writers, reporters, and served in the military. They'd known real-life Captain Kirks. Their characters and stories reflected their rich, broad experience. In contrast, a lot of the people making Star Trek since the 80s grew up...watching Star Trek. The special effects are magnitudes better but I don't know if the stories are.

John in NE Ohio said...

30 years from now, the pop-culture comedy light programs will be forgotten. There have always been TV shows that are not as well done as others. They may be popular then, but not later. OR they may still be popular for the same reason they were popular then - sometimes we just don't want to think, and seeing someone get hit in the head is funny. See Gilligan's island.
However, the shows you reference as being the gold standard were a step above when they were on. Sometimes that translated to ratings, sometimes it didn't. Almost everyone who actually watched it though Freaks and Geeks was great at the time. Problem was, that was 10 people.
Cheers wouldn't survive today, as well as a lot of other shows we look back fondly upon. Today, you have to come out of the box a hit. Smart and sophisticated doesn't always do that. Better chance on Netflix, etc., but still, it is difficult to get quality to be seen.
Jim S mentions WiseGuy. I always liked it, but it struggled. It probably wouldn't even make 13 episodes today.

Wow-rereading this, it is disjointed and rambling. You can tell I'm not a writer.

TimWarp said...

In general I agree with you. But I think you need to give "The Good Place" another look.

Also - Maybe nothing is new to us because we're in our 60's? We've seen it all because we've seen it all!

gottacook said...

It's not just sitcoms that need humor. Gene Reynolds ensured that every Lou Grant episode had at least one amusing moment. That led to even more opportunities for humor in the MTM hour-long shows of the 1980s and their descendants. In the case of Lou Grant I don't know whether the imperative came from Lou being previously a sitcom character, but the predominant hour-long dramas until then were (as I recall) pretty much 100% serious - Medical Center, for example - and it made for a refreshing change.

VincentS said...

I know what you mean, Ken. I grew up on television and in the suburbs, which meant that you and your peers didn't go ANYWHERE by yourself until you got a driver's license so my early writing was primarily about things I saw on tv but the older I get and the more personal experiences I accumulate and the more I learn about different subjects the greater my writing pallet has grown. I recently wrote a play that was based solely on my personal experiences, although there are references to television since, as I said that was a part of my upbringing. Fortunately, I am not a comedy writer and I look forward to dramatic writing gigs since I can now generate more original material as opposed to "life once removed."

Diane D. said...

See, this is why I LOVE this blog. Today, Ken's post is terrific, and the first 5 comments are almost as good!! That's why I always read all of the comments; you never know when you're going to miss something like this: "Frazier always came to a strong comedic finish that on its best days left the viewer sated and wanting a cigarette." Hahahahahaha! It's not only funny but true.

And you know you will always get something like this from Ken: "why bust your ass to come up with a really witty joke when you can just say "vagina." LOL!!

Zach said...

Ken go on Chapo.

MikeN said...

The Orville with Seth MacFarlane is closer to classic Trek than the new series.

Yes, lots of pop culture references, with the characters watching Seinfeld and other shows. He uses it for jokes, where one person says something about American Idol, and another says 'What's that?'

Another joke was where they were teaching the robot humor, play a practical joke on him, and say it's no his turn to think of one. Next day, the guy wakes up with his leg amputated.

Steve Bailey said...

I couldn't agree more with you, Burnett, and Gelbart. And this was true even 30 or 35 years ago. I know people who can still quote jokes or moments from M*A*S*H or ALL IN THE FAMILY. Try finding someone who can recall any plotlines from BENSON, ALICE, or DIFF'RENT STROKES.

E. Yarber said...

I think in an even deeper sense the problem is that the majority of wannabes I run into are less interested in writing to express something about life than to join what they consider some sort of cool club of celebrities. They feel that becoming part of Hollywood will enable them to escape the everyday concerns of the audience, and write scripts expressing what they consider the deep truth that someone who would rather take a 9-5 job and raise a family rather than try to flog spec scripts around LA is some sort of dimwit loser. Naturally, their own work would express an obsession with pop culture trivia, since that's all they really care about, but it looks out of touch and shallow to viewers who have to take responsibility for more than the TV shows they've watched.

When you think about it, some of the most acclaimed TV of recent years, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and such, are concerned with such adult matters as career choices, holding family together. David Chase has said he could never have written the Sopranos until he became a father himself. In some ways we can see a split in the 70s between movie hits like Coppola's Godfather movies, which are also about family relations at their heart, and the Star Wars phenomenon built more around pieces assembled from older movies. ("Luke, I am your father," really isn't relevant to a guy trying to put his daughter through college on a stock room salary.)

In the end, younger viewers are drawn toward the shiny objects, while adults with more life experience respond more to storylines that relate in some ways to validating their own concerns. Likewise, there's humor that depends on observation and humor that gets by solely on recognition of a popular reference. Which you use depends on your personal priorities.

Karan G said...

I loved how intelligently Frasier was written. The T.H. Houghton episode was funny even if you didn’t get the reference to J.D. Salinger, but it was even more interesting if you did.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question about the answer to today's question.
Why such defensiveness about age?
Twice in one blogpost - a get off my lawn reference and a 100 years-old reference.
i realize it is a youth culture and the advertisers are appealing to a narrow age demographic but why do the rest of us have to apologize for not being part of that demographic?
if today's stuff is not funny, it's not funny.
No amount of rationalizing will make it funny.

Sure humor changes over decades - but not that much.
It's their loss, not ours if they can't relate to the best of an earlier age.
Whoever said it won't be funny is another generation was right.
Art, like other things in life, does not always progress in a linear progression

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've made these points before, but they're worth mentioning again. Ken, I'll bet you and the other creative giants you referenced NEVER took a sitcom writing course in college, if they even went to college. That's as much the problem as age and/or experience. Most if not all of today's writers for T.V. and film have degrees in screen writing, or drama, "communications," etc. They're taught, this is how you write a sitcom. This is how you write a screenplay. Shows look the same because today's writers have been taught the same formula. They also substitute EDUCATION for experience. (There's a political rant in that, but I won't bring it up here) And pardon the cliche, but "the cream will rise." We fondly remember the good shows, but conveniently forget all the crap shows that came and went. Decades T.V. recently aired their "Lost T.V." weekend; old sitcoms from the 50's and early 60's. Most of which I never heard of. The fact that those writers and producers didn't grow up watching television didn't make those shows any better. I hate to say it, but some got it and some don't. By the way, the Second City program wants it's students to be well rounded in general knowledge and styles and genres. But that's relative.

Tom Galloway said...

I'll disagree a bit on The Orville. Pretty much every episode has both several and significant pop culture references...and *always* to late 20th/early 21st century pop culture. Heck, one episode made a point of having an alien deity be named "Avis" (at least pronounced that way), leading to the self-acknowledged idiot navigator make multiple comments about rental cars and Hertz.

Given the show's set a few hundred years in the future, this is like a current show only referencing pop culture from the 1800s (and all its characters having seeming encyclopedic knowledge of same as no one other than the alien crew ever indicate they don't understand the references). It annoys the hell out me, and a friend has proposed it's really a show about a bunch of semi-competent role players in the present playing a Star Trek like game with a very forgiving DM letting them get away with the current pop culture stuff, and the visuals are the imaginations of the players.

Frederick Herman "Freddy" Jones said...


I read your post with great interest.

Now, I want to suggest from the outset that Mary Tyler Moore is probably my most-favorite comedy followed by Seinfeld. Today, I consider Nathan For You as an outstanding, outside-the-box, comedy on Comedy Central.

That being said, I must be a strange bird and a strange screenwriter, because nothing really makes me laugh out loud. I generally don't laugh at stand-up, and I don't laugh at most of today's sitcoms. I may think something is really clever, but I seldom roll on the floor with laughter. I have a good sense of humor, I think, but I can too often see a joke coming from a mile away.

In all honesty, you don't think that many episodes of All In the Family are both dated and not funny? Sure, there were controversial and funny moments, but a lot of it is stereotypical commentary on a time in society that modern audiences can not understand and have no frame of reference. We're not totally there yet, but we've come a long way from the misfortunes of the past. We now have and accept gay marriage and things are looking brighter for many, and it's not because of All in the Family.

Plus, it's not really "clever" writing when all you're doing is mocking someone or throwing a quick line out the for shock value.

Speaking of shock value, I remember an episode of Almost Perfect. I believe one of the writers was moving out or something, and his wife was nagging him. If I recall, he trips, falls down a long flight of stairs and his wife asks him if he's alright. His response as the topper? "No, you crazy bitch!"

The show ended with the line, "No, you crazy bitch!" which struck me at the time as being weak, unnecessary and totally out of place.

For every "Golden Era" sitcom there were still plenty of clunkers. The reason why it looks like there are so many clunkers now is because of volume. More is being produced and delivered, so the number of clunkers is skyrocketing.

Also, there is nothing "groundbreaking" about the medium now. When television was in its infancy you were forced to watch CBS, NBC and maybe the DuMont network. Everything was new and the rules were not established, so it all crackled with life. Still, most of it was bad.

Friends is another sitcom that was not funny, in my opinion. Just go to YouTube and search "Friends no laugh track" to see how stellar the writing is. It's nothing by barbs and quips. Maybe they should have called it, "Barbs and Quips" instead. If you don't generate a laugh in someone without the aid of a laugh track, then something is wrong with the fundamentals.

I do know this. Writing is hard. It's rewarding when you've put something down that's meaningful and hits the mark, but it's a tough row to hoe.

I admire and appreciate good writing, especially when it's in script form because you have so many other considerations beyond dialogue. You have to work with setting, tone, action lines and a million other variables just to make a (hopefully) great sitcom stew.

Yes, people today are distracted and social media accounts are making people (ironically) less social as they ignore everything else and type out the next Tweet on their iPhone X. But, there is comedy to be found there as well.

So, the challenges have become greater. You have to fight harder now for a sizable audience. You have to work hard to interact with the audience. You have to understand the concerns and lifestyles of the kids today, and you have to make sure what you're doing is relevant.

Oh, yes. Being funny at the same time helps.

VP81955 said...

How many sitcom writers today are well-versed in classic-era Hollywood movie comedy, written by legends such as Ben Hecht, Robert Riskin, Norman Krasna and the like? (Even Dorothy Parker helped perk up many '30s and '40s scripts.) There were some topical references, to be sure, but the screenplays were based on the human condition and hold up well today. (Writers on "I Love Lucy" and other early sitcoms were directly influenced by such films.)

James said...

I think the best thing is if you
did move out. Does she love you,

I'm not sure she's capable of any
real feelings. She's the television
generation. She learned life from
Bugs Bunny. The only reality she
knows is what comes over her TV

-Paddy Chayefsky, NETWORK (1975)

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Superb, thoughtful, important commentary, Mr. Levine.

Diane D. said...

I'm not one of those annoying people who laughs out loud at every line in a stupid comedy, but I can't imagine never finding anything funny enough to laugh out loud! In fact, the scene Freddy Jones described in ALMOST PERFECT had me laughing, and when he said it was the last line of the episode, I laughed even harder. I never saw that episode, but I'm sure I know which character said it so I was imagining his delivery of the line, of course. This is an example of radically different taste in comedy; Freddy Jones found that line to be "weak, unessesary, and totally out of place." I found it strong, hilarious, and completely in character.

By Ken Levine said...

Diane D. I agree with you. The episode in question is called the "Break Up." It was the premier episode of season two and the one where we had to break up Kim & Mike's relationship. So it was a very tricky show to write. It's available on YouTube in three parts. Here's part one:

The line in question is at the end of part three, but works better in context if you see the whole episode. The stairs figure in a big way.

Frederick Herman "Freddy" Jones said...

Please don't get me wrong, I respect Mr. Levine and my respect for him is strengthened by his approving my diatribe and allowing it to be posted.

Diane D., I am thankful for your response, and your opinion is valid. Of course I laugh, but it takes a certain type of humor that triggers it. Like I said, I'm a strange bird.

As for the line, I may remember it wrong, but it has been a while ago since I saw it. I just think that throwing out a name for someone like that is not "sharp" comedy. I agree it may be funny for some. The audience probably liked it, but the writing in that show was normally smart and it hooked me in. The show actually spurred the idea of screenwriting as a possible profession, so it will always be a cool show to me.

In any case, while I may disagree with Mr. Levine on may topics, there is no questioning his credentials and his love for writing and, now, podcasting.

Mr. Levine... Have you heard the "Dead Pilots Society"?

From their site:

"In Dead Pilots Society, scripts that were developed by studios and networks but were never produced are given the table reads they deserve. Starring actors you know and love from television and film, a live audience, and a good time in which no one gets notes, no one is fired, and everyone laughs. Presented by Andrew Reich (Friends; Worst Week) and Ben Blacker (The Writers Panel podcast; co-creator, Thrilling Adventure Hour)."

If you have something to submit you should do so and then the two of you can cross-promote your podcasts.


Diane D. said...

Thanks for the link, Ken! I just watched the whole episode, and it was hilarious! I remember you mentioned in a blog post that you were forced to break up Mike and Kim---you certainly found an ingenious way to do it. I knew it would be Gary who fell down the stairs and delivered that line! God, I love that show!

YEKIMI said...

But no one's has brought up the fact that a lot of the writers, like Larry Gelbart & Norman Lear, of the older shows 60/70/80s] probably listening grew up listening to those old time radio comedies. I know you said in the past [or someone did] that if you just listen to TV shows they could pass as radio shows. With a few exceptions, like when Archie is kissed by Sammy Davis, you'd have to see something like that to be able to get the joke. But I wonder if ANY of those guys were influenced by those old radio shows and if it helped or hindered their TV shows. [I still listen to them today and AM740 out of Toronto plays them every night at 10PM...usually a comedy and then a drama/mystery/science fiction show.]

By Ken Levine said...


Thanks. I'm very proud of that episode.


I am aware of that website and am friends with Ben. I proposed earlier this year just what you suggested -- doing one of our pilots on both their podcast and mine and cross-promoting. But his podcast company nixed the idea so I did my pilot myself. My one complaint with their site is the audio quality. I made sure mine was better. In fairness, they're aware of the problem and trying to rectify it. They're worth checking out.

Diane D. said...

Freddy Jones
I'm glad you were not offended. When I read it after posting, I thought my comment sounded a little judgmental, which I did not intend. In your original comment you said "nothing really makes me laugh out loud." And I took you at your word, but I should have realized that was one of those comments that isn't meant to be taken literally. Regarding the line in question, when it is unexpected, and delivered the way that actor can do it, I always find it hilarious. ( Especially in the context of the story about the stairs).
There was a similar (for me) scene/line in CHEERS that doubled me over. Episode: "Any friend of Diane's." Sam went out with a friend of Diane's, found her personality unattractive, and left her stranded in a hotel room. This destroyed her confidence in her desirability. Sam and Diane are arguing about it.
Diane: Oh, I get it. You were angry because she only wanted you for stud service!
Sam : No.....I like that.
The audience erupted along with me. And it looked for a couple of seconds like Shelley Long was struggling to not laugh. It was a comment that shouldn't have been unexpected coming from Sam, but it's the kind of thing most men wouldn't admit, especially to someone like Diane!

Andy Rose said...

Nice to see Paul Willson in the photo. I always enjoyed his performances on Cheers, especially in the last couple of seasons as he got more screen time. It seemed as though the writers were trying to develop Paul into a more significant character, but never really found a good hook. (Hard to get much mileage out of being The Barfly Who Can’t Get Anybody to Be His Friend.)

Bradley said...

This is so true, as I'm someone who grew up with television and think in sitcom patter when writing comedy. I try not to, but it's just ingrained in my brain. When a truly special series comes along, such as Cheers or Frasier or Roseanne, I do not take it for granted. I can't think of a pure comedy in recent memory that makes me laugh out loud, except perhaps 30 Rock and Everybody Loves Raymond. And those are not that recent anymore. I sat through entire episodes of Kevin Can Wait, Man With a Plan, and Superior Donuts the other night...never laughed once. Not even a smile. It makes me very sad to see such talented people involved with such painfully bland shows. I wish you were writing a new series, Ken. Equipped with swords to fend off anyone who wants to rob it of originality and intelligence.

Anonymous said...

In response to the photo posted. it has what appears to be Paul from the Cheers bar. Another frequent bar patron Pete has a very different post Cheers career. He is an administrator for a County Mental Health dept. in Southern California.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Interesting that you mention Wiseguy, it was one of the first TV series filmed in Vancouver, by Stephen J. Cannell. Cannell was so impressed by Vancouver that he moved his studio here.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Ken, here is a TV reference for you.

Calpurnia: If I told him once, I'd told him a thousand times, "Julie, don't go-"