Monday, July 22, 2019

In defense (again) of Sitcoms

The Dramatist Guild puts out an excellent magazine called “The Dramatist.” In the most current issue there is a roundtable discussion between playwrights Stacie Chaiken and Mildred Inez Lewis and moderator Josh Gershick. Ms. Chaiken and Ms. Lewis are both very accomplished dramatic playwrights.

At one point the discussion turned to comedy and this was the exchange:

Josh: You’re describing a form of comedy as “sitcom.” What are the elements of that?

Mildred: When the humor is too dialogue-based and there’s not enough richness built into the human comedy. When I see plays written by people who are crossing over from television, the dialogue is very funny, and then afterwards I feel that I’ve not been left with as much as I would have liked.

Josh: Sitcom writers often go for the laugh.

Mildred: Yes. And I think it’s possible to go for the laugh and have some depth as well. I think classics like (Norman Lear’s) ALL IN THE FAMILY show us that you can do both.

Josh: I’m thinking of classic plays that do both: BORN YESERDAY by Garson Kanin comes to mind.

Stacie: Sitcom comedy is kind of glib. But real comedy, deep comedy – that’s character based, where the stakes are life and death. That kind of comedy in a moment like this, is essential.

As a television writer who did cross over to write comedy plays I’d like to respond to those observations.

We all know that the theatre considers comedy to be second-class citizens. This goes back to ancient Greece. Everyone knows Sophocles. How many know Menander (and he was a funny guy)? But to these serious writers who churn out “important” plays, let me ask you this:

Do you have any idea how hard it is to make 200 strangers laugh for 90 straight minutes?

Let me tell you, very few writers can do it. Very few.

I invite you to try. Ask a comedy writer to write a drama. I bet he or she can.

Comedy writing is a unique skill-set that audiences appreciate even if serious “artists” don’t. Numerous articles have been written lately about how daring and provocative recent dramas are and that no one is going to see them. Comedies fill the seats. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is still playing on Broadway, long after Tony nominated plays have closed. 

Ms. Chaiken claims that comedies need to be about “life and death.” That is “essential” to use her word. So there are levels of comedy now? MASH is a better comedy than CHEERS because it deals with the horrors of war? I was the head writer of MASH and find that statement laughable.

“Sitcom” is a derogatory term in the theatre. Make no mistake; whenever a review uses the term “sitcom” it’s a negative review. Theatre critics use “sitcom” the way music critics use “bubblegum.”

But name me a comedy on Broadway any better written than FRASIER (and no one died in that series). They did flat-out farces. When Kurt Vonnegut said: “I’d rather have written CHEERS than anything I’ve written” doesn’t that say something for the art form (and it is indeed an art form)? And hey, “Sugar Sugar” is not a bad song.

Ms. Lewis acknowledges there are some classics like ALL IN THE FAMILY, but she claims it’s because it has “depth.” So SEINFELD is not a classic? Nor is I LOVE LUCY? Or THE BIG BANG THEORY? For all its “depth,” ALL IN THE FAMILY is now dated and rarely shown. Lucy is stomping on grapes right this minute on someone’s TV screen.

Does every play have to “leave you” with something as Ms. Lewis suggests? Is an evening of sheer entertainment ultimately just an empty experience? Are dialogue laughs not as worthy as reaction laughs? And what percentage of dialogue laughs are acceptable? 40% is okay but 51% is a sitcom?

TV comedy writers learn to write on-demand. They are constantly fighting deadlines. They must turn out product every week, not once a year or so. They know how to rewrite and solve script problems because their rehearsal process is eight straight months year after year, not an occasional four-week workshop. There is no greater training ground for comedy playwrights than being on staff of a situation comedy. Neil Simon wrote for SERGEANT BILKO (another classic sitcom that featured an episode where a chimpanzee joined the army).

The truth is this: Almost ALL former TV writers/now-playwrights derive their comedy from characters. It’s the amateurs who load up their plays with a barrage of glib “jokes.” The crossover crowd knows that comedy comes from character and human foibles. But to maximize the comic potential you need to apply great pressure on these characters and take them out of their comfort zone. It’s the exact same principle with serious drama. But that means that true character comedy comes out of, heaven forbid, situations.

It always rankles me when someone says “Yes, it’s funny BUT…” Again, do you know how incredibly difficult it is to write something that is genuinely funny? Please don’t consider it a “given” when critiquing a comedy. Menander really hated that too. Have we not progressed from the Hellenic world?

The theatre should be encouraging TV writers to crossover, not look down their noses at them. A major reason there is so little good comedy in theatre is because those who have the rare ability to do it abandon the stage for television. And why not? They make way more money in TV. More of their stuff gets produced. Top-flight actors do their material. Literally millions of people see and appreciate their work. And there are far more Emmy categories than Tonys. So welcome and embrace the few who forgo all of that to return to the theatre.

I feel like Gordon Gekko. “Sitcoms are good.”


Jim S said...

"Ms. Chaiken claims that comedies need to be about 'life and death.' That is 'essential' to use her word. So there are levels of comedy now? MASH is a better comedy than CHEERS because it deals with the horrors of war? I was the head writer of MASH and find that statement laughable."

At least she made you laugh. I guess she can write comedy after all.

But seriously, the best dramas are very funny. Look at Casablanca. The stakes are literally the fate of the world, but it's got great laugh parts. Like why did you come to Casablanca? For the waters. But we're in the desert. I was misinformed. That has always gotten a great laugh when I've seen the movie in a theater with people.

Then there's the exchange of "I'm SHOCKED, SHOCKED there's gambling here." Then the corrupt cop gets his cut of the evening's take. Always a huge laugh.

In more modern times, "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul." All great dramas, but it's no accident that Bryan Cranston and Odenkirk - both more famous for things like "Mr. Show" and "Malcolm in the Middle," are able to hit the dramatic parts. Odenkirk was hired by Steven Spielberg for a very dramatic part in "The Post" and he nailed it.

I can still rememeber a great laugh from "The Sopranos." Tony has taken cookies to his mother in a four-star retirement home. She doesn't care and he leaves angry. He meets a corrupt cop outside the home and they talk business. The sees Tony with his tin, and the cop has to know - what's in the tin. Tony says cookies and doesn't believe him. Tony opens the tin. The cops is surprised and then takes a cookie. On paper there's not way this is funny. On the screen, I and my father laughed out loud.

Actor Edwin Booth was on his deathbed, literally. A friend was visiting and said it must be hard to be dying. Booth replied "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."

This kind of anti-comedy just won't stand. The greatest playwrite in history, a guy by the name of William Shakespeare (Bill to his friends) wrote great dramas and great comedies. A true five-tool player. I don't think he thought he was slumming it writing comedy. It came with the territory, so he wrote comedies.

Keep up the good work.

blogward said...

What does, "Not enough richness built into the human comedy" mean? Let me guess, this person struggles with dialog.

blogward said...

Cancel your subscription to that magazine!

Friday sport question: Does stuff like this happen in baseball? I mean, are umpire errors accepted, even in world cup final games?

England recently beat New Zealand in the "One-Day Cricket World Cup". Except they didn't really. They were awarded victory because although the scores were level, England scored more 'Fours' (bit like a home run) than New Zealand did.

Still with me? THEN it transpired that England were awarded an extra run by mistake (a throw back to the catcher hit a running player's bat and went on to the outfield; they were given six runs instead of the correct five).

OK, somebody has to win and the NZ team didn't protest, but would US fans accept this as a 'victory'?

Sean said...

Everybody looks down on someone else these days, it seems. Then those same people who judge get the "high hat" from somebody else.

It's getting pretty exhausting to keep track of the web of snootiness.

Karan G said...

Couldn’t agree more. The so called taste makers have been known to ruin things for many of us. Rock & Roll died…which I’m still mad about. To this day, I still quote I Love Lucy episodes. I’m not quoting Peaky Blinders. Just his morning, I made a reference to a Cliff Claven situation….it had something to do with the stress of the Sears holiday catalogue coming out at the same time as another catalogue. (I don’t recall the exact joke, but got the context.) Incidentally, the mind that came up with that joke is brilliant. Taste makers and influencers are often wrong yet manage to steer people in their direction.

E. Yarber said...

It's not like comedy writers didn't know from the beginning that they were regarded as second-rate no matter how good they were. Here's how the second-century satirist Lucian began one of his most famous pieces:

"Athletes and people who take an interest in the care of the body do not confine their attentions to physical exercise and attaining a good condition. They take thought also for relaxation at appropriate intervals; indeed they consider it the most important element in training. Similarly, in my opinion, literary people should after extended reading of serious authors relax mentally, to refresh themselves against subsequent exertions. They will find this interlude agreeable if they choose as company such works as not only afford wit, charm, and distraction pure and simple, but also provoke some degree of cultured reflection. I trust the present work will be found to inspire such reflections."

Right off the bat you have the writer almost apologizing for himself, saying, "I know this isn't lofty material, but it's still pretty good and has a purpose of its own." Even in the days of the classics there were pop culture writers like Chariton, Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus who wrote the earliest versions of what we'd call romcons. In a time of minimal literacy, they had to compete for the attention of readers who'd sneak their works inside a scroll of Homer and Plato to conceal their interest in a formulaic melodrama about "boy meets girl, pirates steal boy and girl, pirates take an uncomfortable interest in boy." Likewise The Arabian Nights got short shrift among scholars of ancient Arabic literature because they were considered lowbrow common fare instead of the more literary efforts that never got greenlit by Disney.

The main difference may be as simple as writers who aim their work at the general public as opposed to those who want to claim the appreciation of a presumed elite. Of course, one's definition of "elite" may vary. Albert Einstein was a devoted viewer of Bob Clampett's TIME FOR BEANY puppet show and T.S. Eliot not only corresponded with Groucho Marx but pointed out where Joyce made a reference to the latter in FINNEGANS WAKE.

In the end, the "second-class" status of such creators may be less in the minds of audiences than of writers who set up such distinctions with themselves naturally at the top of the totem pole. It's always been that way, but the reality may not be as bleak when you get away from letting the class-conscious set the terms.

blinky said...

Deep Comedy. WTF? Ingmar Bergman meets Mel Brooks? That makes me laugh.

Pat Reeder said...

For a few years a while back, my wife and I were voters in the top local theater awards, which required us to see every production for whatever category we were assigned to (I hoped for musicals, but often got straight plays.) That meant we had to see a lot of shows, both revivals and new works, by both major names and newcomers just getting some buzz around them. I was often struck by how many new plays we saw in the "art festival" category that had obvious problems anyone should have been able to spot, or plays that were hailed as brilliantly original or bitingly hilarious that I thought were predictable cliched artiness or would have benefited immensely from cutting 15 minutes or rewriting the dialogue to remove the flab and pretension (although sometimes, pretension was the only form of dramatic tension on stage.)

I'm sure many of these writers had very high opinions of themselves and, like the people you quoted, looked down their snoots from their lofty artistic perches onto the lowly scribes writing sitcoms. But you have no idea how many of those self-important pieces of crap I sat through while thinking that I'd rather be home watching "Frasier." Or even "Car 54, Where Are You?"

Glenn said...

Totally agree, Ken. I do a lot of theater and the "theater snobs" couldn't look down on comedies any more if they tried. Every show has to change the human condition or leave you thinking about "issues" long after the show ends or it's not worth doing. One of my acting friends (who only does the heavy, dark shows where she's always screaming, crying or fighting) thinks that farces and comedies are beneath the theater world. (And yet, ironically, some of the shows I see her in are so over the top hammy, they make me laugh.)

Mibbitmaker said...

These people seem like those who usually "satirize" television by using GILLIGAN'S ISLAND as the example, one of the dumber shows in a not-very-adult era of TV.

While one of the complaints is that sitcoms are dialogue heavy, I'll bet they'd really look down on a comedy with slapstick humor in it as well. Even that which is performed with some subtlety, like with Tim Conway. And he gets belly laughs! Plus, dialogue heaviness can include great wit, exemplified by the first 3 seasons, especially, of MASH. Wit is one of the things that made Larry Gelbart a genius. And they certainly weren't afraid of visual humor, either. Not to mention life-or-death being the main theme of the series.

They completely ignore the importance of the great sophisticated sitcoms like MTM, The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Cheers, etc. Cheers certainly had complexity in its characters and situations, especially the Sam & Diane saga. Just the extended break-up scene closing the season 2 finale alone is multi-layered: slapstick, wit, drama, each one ready to give in only to have their timing off, and Sam's reaction when he finally looks at the painting.

And if prose novel like complexity would impress them, the hidden jokes, callbacks, call-forwards, layered plotting, etc., of Arrested Development might work for them. It even has enough absurdism in it to get actual laughs. I'm not sure, though, of the characters' "richness" (monetarily riches aside), since they often stay in their archetypes. But, overall, another example of how these playwrights' self-congratulatory complex intellectualism falls for the more simplistic prejudices about an entire art form. Like Diane Chambers in her more pretentious moments.

Jim Kearney said...

When Ms. Chaiken says that comedy where the stakes are life and death is essential "in a moment like this" that's a tip-off, a tell, a skirt lifted to reveal her Achilles heal. Is earnestness limiting the range of her comedy radar? Comedy can be high stakes, but it's more often about mistakes. Don't miss the little things for the big. Show affection for your favorite characters by tripping them on their flaws! To paraphrase Don Corleone, make light of your enemies, and belittle your friends mercilessly.

Comedy does derive from human foibles. We've all laughed at the hypocritical minister, the preening lecher, and the occasional sexually repressed psychiatrist (in bed with his brother's ex!) Let's also see the earnest snowflakes, censorial speech code enforcers, parasitic family anarchists, and other industrial byproducts of our time.

Jeff Boice said...

To quote one of my comedy idols-Bugs Bunny-"Oh, brudder". What really got to me was the line
"That kind of comedy in a moment like this, is essential." Seems that all my life we've been stuck in that moment- or "in times like these" or "this day and age". It's a cliched line that we were banned from using in our high school English Lit essays.

Peter G said...

You lost me at "The Big Bang Theory." It's hateful dreck that is appallingly written.

benson said...

As Carl Reiner, Jack Guss and Ray Brenner wrote in one of my favorite DVD episodes,

These dramatists have

"the gift and the ability to say things that, uh, uh... uh..."

Rob Petrie: Well, uh, uh, seem vague but are in reality meaningless.

Michael said...

This reminds me of a story related to Ken's other life. A young, would-be announcer asked if he could use some empty space in the Shea Stadium press box to do some taping. Sure, he was told. After the game, he walked up to Lindsey Nelson and said he thought his calling of plays was fine, "But how do you fill the time between pitches?" Lindsey said, "Well, sir, that's what we do for a living." People who think it's easy to broadcast baseball because there's so little action should try it.

Of course, I say the same thing to people who think umpires should just learn to put up with a little more from players and managers.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Speaking of the fate of the world, what about DR. STRANGELOVE? It's full of laugh lines like "You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company" and "Gentlemen! Fighting in the War Room!" (I guess they call it the Situation Room now, but War Room is funnier.) True, the characters are fairly cartoonish, but good writers can create good dialogue in any situation. And then the world ends.

Larry Gelbart knew his classics, too -- he and Burt Shevelove based A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM on the works of the Roman comic playwright Plautus.

Amanda said...

Unfortunately "looking down their noses" seems to come with the territory of "true" theatre person. I am a theatre student (hoping to finally be done with it after 5 years) and something I've discovered from certain people is that they are always making slights against the TV/film, even though all of them watch it! There's a constant implication that theatre is superior, especially from the acting professors, which is utterly absurd since they just happen to be two very different styles, in fact I would argue that TV/film acting showcases more believable acting. Uta Hagen, whose books I've been forced to read for classes, claims that people who work for TV are inferior because they just want attention. However, other times when I have seen theatre actors lambast film folk their defense about why they feel mistreated was, "because theatre actors have talent!" Translation: we have talent and are hardly recognized. But...if you're so superior shouldn't you not NEED the recognition? Hypocrites...and most the professors I have failed at working in TV so clearly there is some bitterness. However, how pretentious is it that I spell "theatre" the British way, haha?

zapatty said...

For what it's worth, a sitcom like GILLIGAN'S ISLAND has/always will be, pilloried as the worst of it's form. That said, the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode called "The Producer," in which the castaways stage a musical version of Hamlet, is quite clever.

Frank Beans said...

The comedy/drama conundrum. These things are never mutually exclusive.

I think people conflate purpose of premise with seriousness, or lack thereof, and comedy value with how many cheap laffs it can get, or not. Both things are difficult to do well.

I'm reminded of the fictional Pritchard Scale in DEAD POETS SOCIETY, where a textbook editor claims that poetry can be rated by the dual measurements of relevance and quality, as if axes on a grid. Obviously, the film takes a negative view of this approach ("excrement"). Robin Williams as the teacher orders the students to rip out the introduction pages.

There is however some truth to that point of view, even if it doesn't capture the whole thing.

I think MASH is the best serious comedy of all time, and THE WIRE is the funniest drama. Both shows are pointed social commentaries. Both know how to write, direct, and act the parts to convey the ideas, and are funny and profound in their own measures, and make it flow naturally. No need for a Pritchard Scale when a series accomplishes that.

VP81955 said...

Comedy indeed can involve "life and death" situations, as Ken can vouch from having been in the studio audience of arguably the greatest sitcom episode in history -- "Chuckles Bites The Dust" from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1975. To me, that's the TV equivalent of attending a perfect game, as I did for David Cone at Yankee Stadium 20 years ago.

More recently, my favorite current sitcom, "Mom," has had two of its characters die -- Alvin (who fathered Christy, then abandoned Bonnie once the baby was born) and Jodi (Christy's protege in recovery, who lapsed and had a fatal overdose). In both cases, their deaths were handled deftly, and the episodes revolving around them managed to be funny, yet tasteful.

Dinwar said...

The statement about character-drive comedy vs. glib remarks reminds me of the episode of MASH where BJ and Hawkeye are trying to figure out who's funnier. In the end, Klinger lists all the character-driven insanity around him and said "You guys just tell jokes. What's so funny about that?"

What strikes me about these discussions is that "shallow" refers not to the depth of emotions, but to the emotion itself, specifically to happiness. This is nonsense; happiness can be as overwhelming as sorrow--I've had moments of joy that have caused me to re-evaluate my entire life! A father holding his son for the first time is experiencing a depth of emotion that rivals anything "deep" plays or TV shows can offer. And including happiness makes the darkness worthwhile. I don't care about the characters in some grim-dark horror-fest where everyone's a brooding jerk. I care about Michael Weston and Fiona, because I've seen how much they love each other.

It's the same with bubblegum pop. Anger, sorrow, and sadness aren't inherently deeper than joy; at this point, I would say they are more shallow, being the easier option. It takes more to write "Ode to Joy" than it does to write a mopey song about how bad you feel about things. For one thing, you have to understand happiness.

And sometimes you want brain candy. I don't watch TV for deep insight or commentary; I watch it for relaxation. Similarly, I don't eat birthday cake for the depth and nuance of flavor; I eat it because it tastes good and I'm enjoying the party. The idea that absolutely everything you do must have as much depth as possible is untenable and impossible; relaxation is as important as work.

D McEwan said...

Some years ago I spent five weeks seeing plays in England, all over England. I soon found I was annoyed every time I went to a new "Comedy," because every one of them turned into a drama in act 2. What the hell is wrong with laughing for two hours? Even a play ("The Weekend") by ex-Monty Python Sir Michael Palin turned into "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe" (A play that, when done well, is very funny) after intermission. (Excuse me, after "Interval.")

Finally one of the plays was a farce by Feydeau, and Feydeau, bless his dead little heart, did nothing but provide riotous laughter for three full acts. Oh, and Shakespeare managed to keep the laughs coming in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night without them turning into Titus Andronicus in act 5.

Perhaps today's comedy playwrights should take Feydeau as their model, and not Tennessee Williams (Whose plays are also, often very funny).

As for whether the Greeks respected comedy, sure, few have heard of Menander these days, but everyone knows Aristophanes. (Some years ago, I had a job "punching up" Aristophanies's Lysistrata for a modern production that was putting songs into it. When the LA Times was panning the show - it was pretty bad - the critic ended with "'Additional Dialogue' is credited to Douglas McEwan, probably the weakest link." I would still like to know how the fuck that critic divined which lines were by the translator-rewriter-updater, and which were by me. By pulling them out of his ass? There was a way to tell. I was in that same audience with that critic, and my lines stood out because they were the only lines that got laughs, and they got every laugh I intended.)

J Lee said...

"Dramadies" seem to be what Chaiken wants here, as if there's something wrong -- or at least something less to be admired -- in a sitcom that declines to pause the laughs for dramatic moments. Which is wrong. A unfunny sitcom that declines to pause the laughs for dramatic moments simply gives you more unfunny moments, and you're likely not going to care about the dramatic parts because the characters haven't been entertaining enough to make the audience care about them.

Larry Gelbart's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" didn't stop at all for any deep introspection of the characters and it was a major hit on Broadway. It's just really tough to be funny for roughly the equivalent of four sitcom episodes in a play. But it can be done, and you've had TV sitcom writers in the past cross very successfully over into long-form plays, as Neil Simon did going from Sgt. Bilko to Broadway (going the other way, Simon at first wasn't very happy with the sitcom version of "The Odd Couple" in it's mediocre first season, but eventually was coaxed to re-watch it later by his kids in the later, very funny seasons, to the point he wasn't looking down on the show anymore and was willing to briefly return to his TV roots.)

Stephen Robinson said...

Comedy *can* have compelling stakes. The problem is when people assume only *literal* life and death stakes matter, which is like the antiquated take that only "great men" (i.e. royalty) can truly experience tragedy. Neither is really the case.

CHEERS and FRASIER had great stakes in their comedy because the characters were human beings with grounded desires. Snooty "hip" comedy puts characters who are barely human and just catch phrase generators into these situations and they of course fall flat.

When Woody sings the "Kelly" song, there are stakes that sell the humor because we know how important it is for Woody to impress Kelly. We also know he genuinely loves her and their relationship matters. It's not like the "annoying girlfriend of the week" on SEINFELD.

Frrasier and Niles's disastrous dinner parties have stakes because of how important their success is to them. It is more than just a party -- I recently watched the one where they are desperately trying to entertain the snobby co-opt board at Niles's building so that they won't evict him. The writers establish that Niles's home is important to him ,especially after the awful past year he's had.

Mike Bloodworth said...

When I first thought about writing plays I bought several "How to" books on the subject. In almost all of them there are some snide comments about television. In one chapter the author says this, "Television is loaded with glib, facile writing. The theater somehow demands more rigor." This author, whom I choose not to name didn't use the term "life and death" as above. Rather, he chose the word "passionate."
I can kind of see their points. There is a lot of bad TV out there. But, one can't, or at least shouldn't try to use a worst case scenario as a typical example.
At Second City we're taught to not go for the joke, but to let the comedy come from the relationships. In other word find the "truth" of the scene. In improv that does make for a more satisfying laugh. Yet, when writing, one has a lot more flexibility in finding that "truth." You can go for the joke if it is true to the character and logical within the context of the piece. The problem comes when someone pulls a joke out of his ass that has nothing to do with anything. It may be funny. It may get big laughs. But, if it's out of context it can seem lazy. Or to use Ms. Chaiken's word, "glib."
A well crafted play or TV show can be very funny and light and still be very fulfilling without having to be psychodrama.
I just hope that someday I'll be able to write a comedic play that's half as good as one of Ken's. .. Let's make that 3/4.
P.S. Once again E. Yarber managed to get the Greeks in there. Although, this time Ken brought them up first.

Anonymous said...

And hey, “Sugar Sugar” is not a bad song.
I don't think that this statement strengthens your argument.

Tammy said...

For what it's worth, when I think of lines from shows that have stuck with me because they made me see something differently, they're all from sitcoms (All in the Family, Murphy Brown, Frasier, and believe it or not, Growing Pains).

Unrelated Friday Question (I realize this might be a tough one to answer diplomatically): I once wrote a fan letter to a screenwriter (I cringe thinking about it now). I didn't necessarily need him to reply (though he kindly did), I mostly just wanted him to know how much his film had meant to me. I think in this kind of interaction, the fan's need to give praise is greater than the artist's need to receive it, as the latter has heard it all a 1000 times already. As an established writer yourself, what's your take on it, if you don't mind sharing? Thanks!

Dr Loser said...

I'm with you on all of that, except for the "Menander? Menander? Funny, funny guy. Bigly so."

As far as we can tell, the man wrote 100+ "comedies," and it's worth remembering that a 5th century BC (let alone a 4th century one) bears little resemblance to a modern comedy. On the rare occasions that I;ve tripped over Menander's work, perhaps a sentence or so, I've never found it funny. Not even in the original Greek. And the man claimed Euripides ("Wall me up for naughtiness!" "Let me rip your body to shreds in an orgy!") as his prime inspiration, for goodness' sake.

Well, I suppose that might explain the current NBC sitcom schedule ...

Now, Aristophanes, there was a guy with the tools. Birds, Clouds, a sex strike ... Bring back Aristophanes, and he'd be a #1 sit-com guy even now.

... which isn't really what I wanted to write. Who are these self-important ignorant turds? Do they not realise that the "sit" in sit-com actually demands the sort of organic comedy that they seem to desire but can't conjure up in their own putrid works?


MikeKPa. said...

"The Dramatist Guild puts out an excellent magazine called 'The Dramatist.'”

I wonder how many focus groups they held before deciding on that witty title?

DougG. said...

MASH was a better comedy series than CHEERS not because it dealt with a serious subject like war but because MASH didn't make a silly decision to make Hawkeye Pierce dumbed down during the series like what happened with Sam Malone. I always felt that FRASIER had more smart jokes at its peak than CHEERS did. Or at the very least, more heart to it. It seems like every Cheers had to have a punchline to end an episode (other than maybe Diane Chambers leaving the series or the series finale itself) as opposed to a lot of FRASIER episodes that ended without a punchline but I still think worked just perfectly without a joke at the end.

Pat Reeder said...

Interesting how many people have had the same experience of dealing with theater people who smugly believe in the vast superiority of their medium. Having sat through a LOT of dreadful but overpraised plays, I’d reply, “Explain the logic underlying this conclusion, pray?” That’s a quote from “Monty Python,” not some current dramatic playwright, because the Pythons wrote lines that are actually quotable.

I believe it was E.B. White who summed up the elitist attitude toward comedy well by saying that the way to tell whether you are a major poet or a minor poet is that if you’ve ever written anything remotely humorous, you’re a “minor poet.” But of course, he was sometimes funny, so why should we listen to a minor poet like him?

Bill Slankard said...

There are Message plays and there are Entertainment play. And occasionally a Message/Entertainment play. Entertainment plays include comedies, musicals, and mysteries. Why anyone would compare the two is beyond me. Both types can be great.

Andrew said...

I wish I could find it, but I once read a fascinating article on the opera composer Rossini. The main point was that Rossini is underrated because he wrote primarily comedies. He is not considered as significant a composer as Verdi, Puccini, or Wagner, but merely an entertainer. The article pointed out that what Rossini accomplished was just as significant as a composer writing "serious" dramatic works (whether opera or otherwise).

Incidentally, Beethoven loved Rossini's music and considered him a genius.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Does The Dramatist have a letters section? If so, a trimmed version of this post is in order - help them out.

Also, those of us of a certain age and circumstance (having watched the The Archies cartoon) imprinted on Sugar Sugar. I doubt that Ken, as a teenager, watched it on Saturday afternoon (as I did), but heard it on the radio.

I know, that doesn't make it "good song" - but right now it's a earworm - thanks a lot, Ken!

Stephen Robinson said...

MASH was a better comedy series than CHEERS not because it dealt with a serious subject like war but because MASH didn't make a silly decision to make Hawkeye Pierce dumbed down during the series like what happened with Sam Malone.

I'll defend the CHEERS writers here. "Flanderization" results in an existing character trait getting exaggerated. Sam was savvy and street smart when the show debuted *but* his intelligence was a source of humor (usually from Diane). That got amped up over the years.

It would be hard to do this to Hawkeye because he was doctor and never presented as less than intelligence, even when the show started. I'd say his "Flanderization" -- if it occurred -- would be his self-righteous preachiness.

Anonymous said...

People should learn from a {reported) quote from Edmund Gwenn ( Santa in Miracle on 54th Street) when he was on his death bed and a friend came in to see him and said words to the effect of how hard it must be for him.
to which he replied "This is easy, Comedy is hard"

VP81955 said...

Anonymous, you mean "Miracle On 34th Street." Writing "54th" conveys an entirely different Santa, one cavorting with late-'70s Manhattan models and involved with another form of white stuff.

mike said...

Seen theater snobbishness re tv lots of times, but I think you're too hard on All In the Family; it's aired on two or three different networks in my neck of the woods in the northeast and despite all the then-current cultural references, is still a laff riot, because of the depth of the characters, the quality of the acting, and the topnotch writing.