THE DAY THE LAUGHTRACK DIED
Apparently, the Big Brother house was ripped up and lifted off the ground by a huge tornado of networks and plunked down right in the middle of Sitcomland, crushing the stale genre and killing it dead. From coast to coast, including a guy named Goodykoontz, the demise of the sitcom dominated the analysis of the upfront presentations from the Big Four and Little Two. Last week in New York, the six broadcast networks announced their schedules for the upcoming year, trotting out their new ponies, and wooing billions of dollars in advertising money. Arguably, the biggest story was how reality television has taken over the airwaves and the sitcom has faded into oblivion. Working on sitcoms for the past eight years has allowed me to see things from the inside out, and I'm afraid I've seen this coming for some time. I may have even written about it here on Piker, I honestly can't remember. Either way, the sitcom is in crisis and here are several reasons why:
1) THE FORMAT IS AS STALE AS THE CRUST ON YOUR UNDERWEAR
Situation comedies have now been around for 50 years. Their heyday has come and gone and come and gone again. Times have changed. Audiences have become more savvy. They've seen just about every sitcom plot imaginable. So have the writers, and so have the network executives. It's a tired medium. Exhausted, in fact.
While shooting on a soundstage offers great control over production and the ability to shoot in front of a live studio audience, the artificial feel it creates visually feels like a vestige of another era. Video games, action movies, and iPods offer visceral experiences the sitcom simply can't compete with. The rhythms of sitcom dialogue are repetitive, dulling the senses, while the plots are predictable and pedestrian. And quite frankly, the ever-present laughtrack is annoying, pandering, and insulting, and never fails to detract from the viewing experience.
2) THE PROCESS IS PREPOSTEROUS
Getting a sitcom on the air is ridiculously hard. You would think that with such a rigorous system in place the best material would naturally come to the surface. It doesn't. The networks don't take enough chances. Fox takes some, but their taste is iffy. The funniest shows on TV are on cable. "Curb Your Enthusiam", "The Office", "The Daily Show," "South Park," "Significant Others", etc. And "Dave Chappelle's Show" might just be the funniest thing anywhere on the dial. I know it's stating the obvious, but you can get away with more on cable. And not only is getting away with more funnier, but not getting away with more handcuffs the networks from delivering a product that will appeal to their desired demographic.
And that's just getting a show on the air. Once you land on the schedule, you're forced to deal with the incessantly meddling presence of network executives in every decision you make. The axiom "Too many cooks in the kitchen" was never more applicable, except of course in an overstaffed restaurant. With only a handful of exceptions, network executives don't have very good creative instincts. It's not that there aren't funny people writing for sitcoms. There are many talented showrunners who simply are not free to communicate their visions to the mass audience because of all the network interference. By far, HBO has taken the best approach to building a comedy brand for it's network. They've done it by hiring good executives and making deals with singularly talented writers, actors, and directors. And the good executives know not to get in the way of the singularly talented creative people. They contribute, but they don't hover, and that leads to creative freedom.
3) THE "SEINFELD" SYNDROME
"Seinfeld" set the bar too high. With it's stated objectives of "no hugs" and "no learning," that wicked show turned the traditional sitcom on its head. And not one has approached the "Seinfeld" stratosphere since in terms of hilarity. "Frasier" and "Friends" snuck in before "Seinfeld" slammed the door shut, and "Everybody Loves Raymond" decided very early on to embrace tradition and make hugging and learning funny in spite of being old-fashioned. Now "Frasier" and "Friends" are done and "Raymond" is about to embark on its farewell tour. After that, all bias aside, the show I worked on last season and will be working on next season will be the funniest traditional sitcom left. And don't think I'm kidding myself, I'm aware that "Will & Grace" is no "Seinfeld."
But Larry David and several other brave comedy pioneers are showing us the way. The future of the network half-hour most definitely rests on the shoulders of the single-camera comedy. Shows like David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Sex and the City," "Scrubs," "Arrested Development," and "The Office," have demonstrated how the sitcom can evolve. And evolve it must. Despite the fact that all of the above shows are critically successful, none of them is what you would call a ratings juggernaut or anything close to a cash cow. In fact, not one single camera comedy has proven to be a franchise player. "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Bernie Mac" flirted with Nielson success before leveling out, and they may represent the closest things to single camera network hits. Until a single camera comedy strikes ratings gold and sells into syndication for piles of money, the sitcom's transition from the stale-old traditional format to single camera will not be complete.