As 2008 draws to a close, I am again dealing with a cacophony of voices proclaiming that the sitcom is dead. Now, television is a cyclical business, and this news comes every time a long running show leaves the television landscape and no one steps up the following year with some zeitgeist consuming hit. The last one was Everybody Loves Raymond, which ran for nine seasons and was probably the quietest 90s bred hit sitcom. It never had the buzz of a Seinfeld or a Friends, but it was a good quality, funny traditional three camera sitcom in the vein of a family comedy. I was never the biggest fan of the show, but I know funny and I know quality funny, and it was that. Companion piece King Of Queens ended two years later, another quiet 90s bred hit sitcom that was never an overwhelming success.
The truth is, the last decade or so has been pretty uneven for sitcoms. I get that. The last blow you out of the universe success was Friends, and it debuted in 1994. It’s not that sitcoms haven’t debuted in the last eight ( nine) years that haven’t been successful. According to Jim on ABC is going into a truncated eighth season. No one knows why, as no one I know watches it, or knows anyone who watches it. It’s a bland, often unfunny show, and I have never seen a moment that redeems it in my eyes. But clearly someone is watching it and kept it on the air for eight seasons. But it’s an unmitigated success as it has lasted almost as long as Seinfeld. I wish I was kidding.
Why the drop? Well, that’s hard to communicate. The 90s had brilliant shows that helped grown the sitcom brand that lasted for nine or ten seasons and that’s hard to over come. Funny hasn’t changed. People still laugh at pratfalls and double entendres. It’s also not cable’s fault. Cable has focused on dramas, not sitcoms, although there are charming funny shows on cable. There is also a lot of crap. But the cable channels are more interested in pushing the drama envelope, as there appears to be more taboos to break in that genre. Funny is funny, but funny also has sketch comedy and stand-up to bust the FCC’s balls with. We can’t blame it on September 11th or the wars or the economy. The golden age of film comedy happened during the Great Depression on through World War Two. Preston Sturges, one of the funniest men who ever worked in Hollywood, wrote an entire film about it called Sullivan’s Travels. Plus, the economy didn’t start tanking till this year, so what excuse does Chuck Lorre have for giving Charlie Sheen a regular gig.
When I posted my top ten television shows/ moments, I made a rule to not be too heavy on one genre. Thank God for that, because it was actually sitcom heavy. The ten shows I watch every week, without fail, are:
The Big Bang Theory
How I Met Your Mother
Life On Mars
Project Runway/Top Chef (whatever is currently running)
The Simpsons ( still a family ritual every Sunday night)
Throw in Mad Men, Damages, Dexter whenever they’re on.
I love funny. Funny makes my day. I’m a sad, angry human being, folks. We dominate comedy. Look at Chuck Lorre, fer chrissakes, the man is an angry genius despite the existence of Two And A Half Men.
I can understand the general appeal of that show, and I bash it perhaps a little unfairly. No, I don’t. I find the men perverted sex crazed lunatics, and the women are crazy or shrewish. These are standard comedy stereotypes, and they annoy me even on shows I love. But I forgive a lot if the jokes are funny, and as much as I adore Chuck Lorre ( and I do), the jokes aren’t there. Not that Charlie Sheen is horrible, and Jon Cryer has saved a few episodes from complete idiocy by being naturally persnickety funny, but overall, the show disappoints simply by refusing to burst through comedy boundaries. It’s a classic sitcom with unfunny jokes.
Classic sitcoms ( typically, three camera, filmed in front of an audience, laugh track is usual, but not necessarily used anymore) have fallen by the wayside as single camera shows like Scrubs and Arrested Development stole the thunder and are now the gold star comedy standards. The most successful of these traditional sitcoms on all artistic and comedy levels is Chuck Lorre’s other CBS Monday show, The Big Bang Theory. It is a standard friendship, hot girl next door comedy ( think… well Friends was a version of this, as was Seinfeld, except the latter had no hot girl but wacky neighbor, which is an acceptable alternative to hot girl). But we take a quartet of atypical protagonists and turn the sitcom standards on their ears. How many sitcoms can you name that stars for geeky physicists/engineers ( Wolowitz is still only an M.Eng., after all)? The hot girl, Penny, lives across the hall, and at first I was suspecting she would be a typical dumb blonde ( and was played like that in the pilot, which was why on first view, the pilot was a massive fail for me, despite the appealing comedy stylings of Jim Parsons). It became clear by mid season Penny was not dumb, but normal- she was insecure, struggling, and smart without being- well, the guys she knows. She’s clever enough to play against Sheldon in a game of one upsmanship, but normal enough to be bored at the Physics Bowl. Not only that, she is learning and growing as a human being ( throwing out the Schrodinger cat theory on a date- Sheldon had told her the story two episodes before). She likes her scientist neighbors genuinely, even Sheldon. She’s understanding to their quirks ( even if she desires to challenge them- The Party Pinata episode, anyone?). She is refreshingly normal. She is our every-woman dealing with these hyper-intelligent goofs next door.
The male characters are also twists on standard sitcom characters. Leonard is intelligent geek, but he’s also the romantic lead on the show. It’s his desire to break out from this tiny universe he and his friends have created that begins the series. Howard Wolowitz is as much of a mack daddy as Joey Tribianni- just creepier, as he just doesn’t get the word “no” or ” stalker” or ” gross, I do not want to hear about how you engineered the International Space Station’s Liquid Waste Removal System”. Rajesh is the quiet type- literally, as he is so pathologically shy around women he cannot speak to them. Grasshoppers help with this, but then he turns into an ass.
Then there is Sheldon Cooper. A child prodigy with an IQ not able to be measured by any standard tests, he takes the Felix Unger type and adds in the Ted Baxter blowhole and comes up with magic. He is incapable of seeing the world in any normal way. Social relationships are a burden, but he enjoys the few he does value to an extent. Jim Parsons, though, imbues this difficult to like character type and imbues him with humanity. Sheldon is desperate for respect from the scientific community, and takes insults to his research seriously ( he would, however, be arrogant enough to deny any of what I just wrote, while plotting to dazzle the world with his next discovery). He is attempting to learn social niceties as he values Leonard’s friendship, and Leonard values Penny ( that Saturnalia hug was priceless).
The show is super smart- the science goes over my head. but it’s accessible and makes science fun and quasi-cool. It consistently makes me laugh, particularly as Sheldon tries to deal with the increasing pressure around him to behave like a normal human being. There has been criticism that the show is becoming too Sheldon centric. This is true, but honestly, the worst episodes tend to not focus on Sheldon or waylay him to sidekick status. The shows shining moments, though, are Sheldon-Penny moments, with the pinnacle so far being The Barbarian Sublimation, where Sheldon accidentally gets Penny addicted to Age of Conan and tries to remedy the situation by trying to get her a man. Priceless.
The other high quality traditional sitcom on the air that is consistently funny is The Big Bang Theory‘s lead out, How I Met Your Mother. I keep reading about how this show, which barely made it into it’s fourth season, is slipping. I don’t see it. The first thing I had to do when researching this essay was figure out if the show had a laugh track and/or studio audience ( it has one or the other). I never noticed it. Because I laugh out loud. Still.
A lot of this show’s success is based on the fact the show is a variation on the Friends-Seinfeld paradigm- it’s another buddy comedy. But it’s told in flashback, with the fluidity of memory, that allows for in-jokes and clever wordplay ( pot=sandwiches). It deals with growing older and looking for that perfect adult life without being cloy or predictable. The characters are standard with a twist. Marshall is a lawyer with a heart, ideals, and a naivete I find refreshing in a world populated by cynically men. Ted is a professional and a dreamer who actually wants to settle down. Robin is a guy’s perfect girl. Too bad that guy appears to be Barney, who is a pig, but is played by Neil Patrick Harris, so he shines and shimmers like a new penny. Even he shows suprising heart and a conscience ( a little late- he already had slept with Ted’s ex, Robin, but he really did feel bad, and ran across Manhattan after Ted was in an accident because bros before hos, dude). Lily is the world’s dirtiest kindergarten teacher- she drinks like a champ and still is unafraid to flash bouncers to get into a bar. They delight in each other, and even Marshall and Lily’s wedding hasn’t slowed down the friends life style.
The show uses a voice over technique to tell the primary story, which actually adds to the comedy ( again, pot=sandwiches. Do you want to tell your kids that you spent your first day of college getting high?). The voice over, smashingly done by the dirtiest man in comedy, Bob Saget, is both a testament to the imperfections of memory and a gift to fans- we obsess over that stupid goat that keeps getting mentioned, but never in the order it’s supposed to be, what the hell BlahBlah’s name is, and the subtle hints of the future. The series is laden with clues- the yellow umbrella, the Stella red herring ( which actually set up a series finale in case it wasn’t renewed), the Barney-Robin connection, Lily drinking water instead of scotch ( although producers insist Lily isn’t pregnant, unlike Alyson Hannigan, who is in real life), Robin’s sudden job loss, Marshall’s ginormous future office at home, which leads me to believe that he never stops working for Goliath National Bank ( there isn’t a tonne of money in environmental law, although in the future, who knows?). All these things are hinted in the voice over as being the beginnings of grand adventures for our favorite five. It’s one of the best uses of a voice over in television.
The other great voice over is on Scrubs. Entering it’s final season ( again), Scrubs is the little sitcom that could. Again, it was never a great commercial success, although we fans are fanatical ( as the six current season DVDs on my self attest to- it’s the only long running series outside of House I own all available seasons for).A mix of heart, funny, and fantasy, Scrubs was a single camera comedy ground breaker. A lot of it’s success rests on the appeal of leading man Zach Braff, who plays John ” J.D.” Dorian as the goofiest, spaciest doctor in the history of television. He’s sensitive, needy, and a bit girly ( to the point Dr. cox, played by the uproarious John C. McGinley, calls him girls names). Entire episodes have taken root in parody and homage ( The Wizard Of Oz episode remains a personal favorite). They did a musical episode ( with smashing tracks like ” Everything Comes Down To Poo” and ” Guy Love”) that was funnier than any musical comedy to come out of Broadway the last five years. In fact, music plays a big role on the show- Eurasure’s ” A Little Respect” played a role in a season one episode, and the season two premiere focused on a Colin Hays song. The show reintroduced the John Cale version of ” Hallelujah” to the world ( and it’s still the best version- Jeff Buckley fans that want to kick my ass can form a line to my left). The humor is biting, but it’s soften by the serious heart of the show. Creator Bill Lawrence isn’t afraid to deal with big issues- returning vets, death, drug addiction have all been dealt with. It’s touching and funny.
The only big time comedy to debut in the last few years outside The Big Bang Theory is the Emmy winning 30 Rock, a single camera comedy that takes a look at the behind the scenes of an SNL type show. The show shines on the performances of Tina Fey as the working single every woman Liz Lemon, who is mean and cynical but in denial about it, and Alec Baldwin as NBC/GE head of Programming ( and Microwaves) Jack Donaghy, who is vicious while speaking softly. And I must say, any show that hires Elaine Stritch to be Jack’s mom is the greatest show on television ( Elaine is a legend and one of the great actresses and why didn’t she become huge outside of theater?) Again, standard sitcom stereotypes apply, from Tracy Morgan’s whacked out comedian to Jane Krakowski’s clueless star Jenna, and then there is Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth the NBC Page, who is naive to the point of absurdity. And it’s the theater of the absurd that makes this show stand out. Most sitcoms these days value the farce, sarcasm, or irony to make us laugh. 30 Rock is a modern day Beckett comedy, and you know if Beckett were alive and working today, he’d be a staff writer on this show.
The other five major comedies on the air- The New Adventures Of Old Christine, Samantha Who?, The Office, My Name Is Earl, and Two And A Half Men– all have their audience. The Office remains beloved by everyone, and manages to hold its core audience well, but with rumors percolating about an imminent Steve Carell departure, I wonder if the shows best days are behind it ( frankly, the jokes have slipped this season, and I’m not feeling as compelled to watch it). My Name Is Earl has always been funny ( it has an original premise- Karma’s a bitch, so let’s make her happy), but it’s also prone to wild swings of quality and taste. Samantha Who? has a dazzling star in Christina Applegate, but I think the material is beneath her. The new Adventures of Old Christine has actually improved since it’s first season, but I’m not as in love with it or Julia Louis Dreyfus as other critics are, and it pains me to say it. And as for the last one, well, I have already declared my issues with it, but I must admit, Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer make the best out of crap material ( that kid, though, has always annoyed me). The few other shows on the air are either in their first season ( and I’m not a big fan of any of them), or are on CW ( and I never watch CW unless Top Model is on- or Gossip Girl, which has also slipped, but that’s a different day), or on Fox ( which hasn’t had a decent sitcom since they stupidly cancelled Arrested Development).
So, is the sitcom really a dying art form? I’d love to say no, but in an ever expanding entertainment universe, I can’t be as sure as I was in the early 90s when The Cosby Show and Cheers ended and Frasier, Seinfeld, and Friends were just starting out. There will always be sitcoms on TV, there always have been. And eventually,due to the cyclical nature of television, one will be that earth shattering buzz show we wait for every year. But in a day where much of the funniest stuff is coming from the Internet, the age of the sitcom may well be on it’s way out. And I think that’s a shame.
Unless you consider all those MTV “reality” shows sitcoms. Lord knows they are laugh out loud hilarious. Granted, it’s because the level of suck is so high as to be embarrassing, but still- Funny is funny. All I know is that after watching five minutes, I need to go douse my self in bleach to get rid of the skanky feeling I get.