To go back and touch on the bleakness of TV comedy, Entertainment Weekly has this here feature speculating on what the problems with sitcoms might be, as surmised by a network exec, an actress, and a writer. Let’s take a look.
The Network Executive
I think the orgy of success that happened in the '80s and early '90s ruined comedy. As comedies like Seinfeld and Friends dominated the airwaves, it led to this spending spree on TV writers. Low-level writers on any comedy staff were getting multimillion-dollar deals. And if you made a list of all those deals, almost none of them amounted to anything. As comedy became more important, more executives got involved [in the creative process], which has been incredibly unhealthy. I also have seen a real lack of creativity on the writers' part. If you go back, comedy was truly born on the streets, with a real kind of immigrant sensibility. Sitcom writers were the least educated of the bunch, which led to comedy that had guts. Now you have lots of overeducated young guys, who don't have a lot of life experience, making lots of money.
Okay, that hurts. The thing about comedy writers being immigrants from the streets feels a little overly mythologized, but I don’t doubt there’s some truth to it. Even so, you take his description of the comedy writers who ruined comedy, drop the “making lots of money” part, and you’ve got me.
They go from the dorm room to the comedy room.
Oh, if only. But this isn’t quite fair. I mean, come on. I had an apartment.
I also feel the talent agencies are filtering what the networks hear. If you want to sell a show to CBS, then you need a fat guy with a pretty wife, set in the middle class.
Oh, like The Class, or How I Met Your Mother?
For NBC, it better be young and hot and set in New York.
Like My Name is Earl? Or The Office?
And your ABC show should have a bunch of precocious kids in it.
Like Ugly Betty?
I’m not sure if he (or she, but I'll keep writing he) wasn’t really thinking very hard when he said this, or if his conception of network brand identities really is five years old. Maybe he's just describing the atmosphere that led to the initial wane of sitcoms, but the networks have obviously changed tacks since then and things haven't turned around yet.
The networks are complicit in all of this, not really pushing any of the writers for fresh stuff. And it just has reached a tipping point where the audience has said, ''We've had enough.''
Look back at The Honeymooners. You really don't need more than a room with four people who are related in ways that bind them together. I've seen sitcoms in their first seasons rely on very empty jokes that were not character-related or plot-related in terms of telling a story about something real. Even if you have the most charismatic, fabulous star, if the writing doesn't spring from a true consideration of how people relate to one another, it's not going to fly. Our attention is so limited these days.... I don't care how jazzy [the show] looks, how much it goes on location, I don't care about stunt casting! If writers don't put in a fun mix of characters, I ain't gonna watch.
She is pretty dead on, actually. And the value she puts on a “fun mix of characters” gets at something else that I think contributes to the downfall of sitcoms.
Reality shows, when they’re good, are pretty funny. As Crystal mentioned at some point in some old post I can’t be bothered to find, reality shows, with their colorful idiot characters, fill a lot of the void that people used to fill with sitcoms. And the naturalism of behavior found on reality shows makes it that much harder to flip back and watch a stagy looking sitcom. This may be one reason why The Office is doing okay—its mockumentary format is perfectly suited for capturing many of the strengths (or at least the look and feel) of reality shows and importing them to the sitcom format.
It doesn’t help that many new sitcoms, especially multi-camera shows, seem to have a problem creating characters that act like human beings. This is partially due to the writing, as the actress above claims—when you have shallow, non-character-based jokes, just to fill out the three-jokes-a-page quota that’s become so ingrained in the multi-camera format, you inevitably force out some unnatural clunkers. But just as culpable are bad direction and bad acting. Compare a new multi-camera show with a classic multi-camera show like Frasier or pre-season 8 Seinfeld*. On older shows, even when someone delivers a punchline, they say it like a person would. Actors on too many newer shows seem so hyper-aware that they’re on a Sitcom that they start saying everything in Sitcom Character. Exaggerated delivery, overemphasized sarcasm, a hold for laughter so practiced it’s practically ironic—it’s like they hate sitcoms so much they’re turning their show into a parody of a sitcom. Sitcom acting doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t. And, while I’m still not sure just how much influence a director has on the acting in a sitcom, I would think a good one would try to do something about that.
Now, I don’t think multi-camera is the problem. It’s more an issue of perception, where the familiarity of the format has given viewers the idea that it’s boring and old hat, when really the problem is that they have not found anything they like there lately. And, as hinted in my previous paragraph, that familiarity also often leads writers into a rut. But if writers can get past that to create a good multi-camera show, I think it could get viewers. Maybe not as many viewers as the hit multi-cam shows of yore, but it could do all right.
But quality is not the only issue. How I Met Your Mother is probably the best multi-cam on TV right now, and it deserves to do better. It’s easily a better show than Friends, in my opinion (whatever you think about Friends, it didn’t break the mold, but it filled it capably and people loved it for that). But it is only mildly successful, ratings-wise. In the single camera arena, The Office and My Name is Earl are both excellent shows, yet they too are only hit shows when compared to other comedies.
So this is why it is disingenuous to say that comedies are failing because they are not funny. Sure, a few punching bags like According to Jim are still out there, so people can still feel clever making hackneyed fat-guy/hot-wife observations, but even the best, funniest comedies remain shows that relatively no one is watching. Comedy is not dying because the shows are not funny. The top rated comedy on TV is Two and a Half Men.
…which I would gladly work on.
Actually, I think the continued success of Two and a Half Men, while baffling, is instructive. If we could crack the mystery of this show, it might tell us something important.
But first, let’s see what the writer has to say.
I think networks and producers think the one-camera sitcom is the solution to their problems. [EW 101: Popular single-camera comedies include My Name Is Earl and The Office; multi-camera comedies are more traditionally filmed and have a laugh track, like Two and a Half Men.]One producer actually told me you don't have to be as funny if you do an hour-long, single-camera comedy. So I'm thinking, That's great. Not funny for twice as long! The networks think the audience won't laugh if there's no laugh track. But we still do! The funniest movies we go to have no laugh track and somehow we find them funny. Single-camera comedies are not edited properly. They think a fast pace is all that's necessary and it's not. The production schedule on a single-camera show is so grueling because they're making little movies every week, so there's no time to worry about the content or the jokes.
This is true sometimes. Everybody Hates Chris is a fine show, but it’s more warm and pleasant than laugh-out-loud funny. Earl used to be this way too, but it’s grown—the show regularly stretches to break out of its list-item-of-the-week format, and now has a naturally quirky, meandering vibe that’s genuine, unpredictable, and often hilarious.
There are exceptions like The Office, but I would say that's about it right now. As for multi-camera comedies, the networks seem to care less about story, character, and content and more about style. They think the look of the show is more important. And everything seems to be pitched at a younger audience. Take that CBS sitcom The Class: There was a bidding war for that show because it came from a Friends writer and everybody in it was 28. Shows that deal with really old people — like anyone over 40 — are not wanted. Twenty Good Years is an exception; I hope it's good. I'm rooting for it.
I'm rooting for any comedy, myself. Unfortunately, based on the pilot I saw, Twenty Good Years came off as a perfect example of the sitcom as self-conscious, unintentional parody, as described above. Partly that’s just because John Lithgow is such a ham, but the writing fell prey to the same syndrome. I hope it gets better.
Let’s look back at Two and a Half Men. It may have the same old multi-camera sitcom rhythms, but what it does have is a talented, charismatic cast with chemistry, who can deliver lines in a natural yet funny way. It has a simple, easily accessible premise (The Odd Couple with a kid). It offers jokes that are easy to understand, clever enough to not be stupid, and clearly recognizable as actual jokes. (That the jokes are uncomfortably crass on an increasingly frequent basis is something we will ignore for now.) Its stories are simple and usually confined to one or two sets. And finally, it has a distinctive underlying thematic vision (all women are either controlling bitches or idiotic sex objects, but either way they will manipulate you and ruin your life, so it is better to use and discard them like so much Kleenex tissue than to fall into their trap by attempting to treat them like humans). Okay, so that last part probably isn’t crucial. Or maybe it is. Who knows?
Is the lesson of Two and a Half Men that it’s not all that complicated? While people may crave increasing complexity in drama like Lost or 24, that hasn’t extended to comedy. Laughing, presumably, ought to be easy. Maybe people just want something that’s easy to watch and easy to get into.
Then again, the simplicity formula hasn’t worked for Fox’s ‘Til Death or Happy Hour. I would argue that the acting on both those shows could stand to be more natural, too, but I don’t think that’s why they’re struggling.
I don’t know, okay? These are thoughts. When I finally crack this nut, you’ll know, because I’ll be too famous to talk to you anymore.
*In seasons 8 and 9 the acting got more broad, cartoonish and unnatural, more like what I'm describing is wrong in newer sitcoms. The change coincided with the departure of Larry David and the show's shift to goofier and more surreal stories.