Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Modern Sitcom, Part One

don't sit so close To commemorate The Office’s sixth season premiere, the first of two pieces on the evolution of today’s prime-time sitcom.

A couple of weeks ago, Steph wrote a post damning pop culture’s collective short attention span. Blaming in equal part the explosion extravaganzas that are our most profitable movies and the brain-dead sitcoms that network executives renew for season after season, she laments the shallow storylines and instant gratification which we as a society seem unable to live without.

I don’t think she’s wrong, but I think she’s missing a piece of the puzzle –  over the last decade or so, some sitcoms have proven themselves able to rise above the milieu and establish themselves as genuinely thoughtful, maintaining densely layered story lines and running gags that span not just episodes, but entire seasons and series. Today I want to talk about the evolution of the modern sitcom.

The sitcom, or “situational comedy” as the kids say, had its genesis on the radio but is today exclusive to the land of television. For years and years, most sitcoms followed the archetypes laid out by I Love Lucy in the early 1950s – a set shot by multiple cameras in front of a live audience, who provided the appropriate applause, laughs and other reactions. The show’s main characters would get themselves into a pickle, with hilarious results! Though there were variations, and the live audience was often thrown out in favor of a pre-recorded laugh track, this basic formula would carry The Honeymooners and The Odd Couple and The Brady Bunch and Happy Days and Cheers and Friends and almost all of the sitcoms in the following decades. Even today, shows like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother continue to be made in this mold.

As time progressed, thank goodness, comedies started to ditch the canned laughs. One of the most notable was The Simpsons, which assumed its audience intelligent enough to know when to laugh. Without a laugh track, you can cram more jokes into twenty-two minutes, and you can also sprinkle your script with rapid-fire jokes and more subtle wordplay – most laugh-tracked comedies fall prey to a predictable setup-setup-punchline pattern that’s as tired and overused as any soap opera trope. So, slowly, reluctantly, the laugh track fades from prime time, and I think we’re all better for it.

The Simpsons (along with Seinfeld, the very archetype of the show about nothing) also showed people that your story didn’t need a moral to be entertaining. The Cosby Show and Full House and countless others always went out of their way to make sure that their characters Learned a Lesson by the end of each episode, a trend which The Simpsons pointedly bucked at the end of a second season episode: “It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened,” says Homer. Sometimes you don’t need any more than that.

Another comedy that (in its better years) helped to bridge the gap between the old-style sitcom and the present day is Scrubs, that comedy that over and over again refuses to die with a scrap of dignity intact. Ever the odd man out, Scrubs premiered as part of NBC’s Thursday night comedy bloc in the early 2000s. This placed it alongside the lackluster final seasons of Friends and Fraiser, two of the last monolithic dinosaurs of old-style sitcommery. There it stuck out because of its lack of a laugh track and single-camera setup.

(For those of you who don’t get the difference between “single camera” and “multi-camera” here is the skinny: in a multi-camera sitcom, the sets look like three-quarters of a room, with an open fourth wall. Scenes happen as they would in a play, with all of the actors coming into the room and performing while several cameras capture the performance from different angles. Then, editors take the best shots from each camera and splice them together. In a single-camera setup, shooting happens in real rooms, being filmed by one camera at a time. Conversations between characters are often shot twice or more, once over the shoulder of one character and once over the shoulder of the other. The more you know!)

Scrubs stuck out equally in its later years on NBC, still part of the Thursday night comedy bloc but now on the roster with The Office and 30 Rock, the two most successful examples of the modern sitcom. Scrubs’ drama-laced stories, ridiculous baby plotlines and old sitcom-style dependence on the characters learning a lesson at the end of the episode keep it from being a truly new-style sitcom, but the influence of its surreal cutaway sequences can clearly be seen in 30 Rock.

This is an awkward place to cut this post off, but the more I write the more I have to say. I’ll leave you to dwell on this for a bit, and you’ll just have to come back Monday morning to see the rest!