In Defence of the Sitcom
Posted by therebelprince on April 11, 2012
I have a lot of free time at the moment. I could use this to write, to go to the gym, to work on those thousand paper cranes that I’ve been meaning to get around to… Instead, I watch classic sitcoms. And all this time spent in front of the idiot box has got me thinking about laugh tracks: they’re something most older audiences took for granted, but which far too many people my age are willing to write off as “dated”, “fake”, “patronising”, and what have you. These can all be true (anyone who ever watched travesties like Less Than Perfect or According to Jim can attest), but it’s by no means universal. The laugh track is a vital part of sitcom history, and I think it’s more important than many would like to believe.
It’s common in my part of the world to bemoan the constant presence of loud-mouthed, crass, laugh-track-heavy American sitcoms, while delighting in “quirky”, “intelligent” Britcoms. Quite frankly, this is a crock. It’s like comparing a cheesy-but-slickly-formulaic Singaporean sitcom (of which there are a surprising number) with a wittier but incredibly cheaply produced Iranian one. Even aside from the cultural differences at play, it’s easy to ignore the different reasons for the birth of each sitcom style, and the level of talent and intelligence that the best comedies provide. Contrary to popular opinion, Britcoms aren’t written in short seasons out of a desire for script quality, at least not in an immediate sense. As with the rest of British television, Britcoms evolved from theatre, and developed in a very different financial model to their trans-Atlantic counterparts. While the U.S. was quick to recognise the practicality of production-line television, with a clear-cut season, so that every show was up for renewal at the same time, and actors were locked into the system for life. In Great Britain, this format wasn’t entirely discarded (Doctor Who used it for decades, and endless soap operas and police shows still do), but – without the existing film studio model – the trend was towards shows as individual entities. Actors could divide their year between film, television, and theatre, with very little of the stigma attached to their American counterparts. Yes, the upside is that sitcoms could attract talented theatre actors because of the short gigs, and yes, one of the best things about British television is that – whereas American actors are seemingly trained for TV, theatre, or film (and “comedy” or “drama” at that) – British actors generally tackle all three, leading to more resounding performances, for the most part. Beyond this, the presence of one writer for most or all of a series’ episodes allows for an even structure and tone, whether a series runs for one year or ten. But, come on, folks! We know that just as much British television is as dire as mainstream American stuff (I mean, have you seen My Family?). All of the above positives can easily be negatives in the wrong situation. By treating each “series” as a separate gig, Britcoms risk losing pivotal cast members much more easily than their American equivalents. Having a single writer for nine years can lead to monotony or single-mindedness, at the expense of developing secondary characters. Besides, the best long-running television series develop their own shorthand. Character growth, development of atmosphere and recurring jokes, the ability to take risks with your storytelling methods: churning out 22 instalments every calendar year is a brutal task, and it’s no wonder most sitcoms end up heading endlessly back to the same well. In some cases, quite directly: Bewitched, for instance, would effectively reuse its own scripts after a few years, since the likelihood of anyone remembering an episode from six years earlier was fairly slim. But those who can best manage the gruelling task of a weekly American sitcom reward us with a wealth of episodes to be treasured and rewatched. On DVD and in syndication, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Frasier offer blessings that even the best British comedies like As Time Goes By would never achieve.
One of the most frustrating things I ever saw was a Youtube clip of Friends with the laugh track removed. Now, I’m no fan of Friends for all the reasons that most comedy lovers cite, but I’m saddened by the smarmy mouth-breathing geek who undoubtedly posted this. I saw an hilarious stand-up show the other night and, I have to say, if you filmed that and removed the audience’s laughter, he too would look like a dick. As with the difference between writing live theatre and, say, a comic book, sitcom writers are designing their scripts with an audience in mind. The jokes are different, the beats are different, the acting style is different. The downside of this, let’s be honest, is that there can sometimes be an immense gulf between what’s funny to an audience member, and what’s funny to the viewer at home. When you’re attending a sitcom taping, you’ll view an episode or two to get loosened up, listen to a stand-up guy, perhaps have a Q&A with cast and crew. Some things are naturally funnier in the studio – aided, perhaps, by an audience amused by numerous bloopers or what have you – while other, subtler jokes may get no laughs for similar reasons. I recently learned that a fair chunk of a sitcom audience may often be made up by ring-ins or bored tourists, who book tickets through places like Audiences Unlimited. This is again going to upset the balance; just as a group of obsessed fans may scream and holler at a secondary character’s entrance, bemused neophytes are less likely to get any jokes based on subtle character development, for instance. But at the end of the day, to ask “would sitcoms still be funny without the laugh track?” is self-defeating. Remove the music, atmospheric lighting and make-up from an episode of Law & Order and you basically have Christopher Meloni doing his Stanislavksy exercises in front of a confused person in a chair.
No-one would deny that the single-camera comedies allow for more artistry, and the bounds of comedy have been stretched more by Louis C.K. and Larry David than they have by Jim Belushi or Johnny Galecki. Yet, they too can have their longueurs (as much as I adore Curb Your Enthusiasm…), repetitions (coughScrubscough), or lazy writing that never really achieves anything after several years (not that I’m mentioning any names, Entourage). Truth be told, a show like 30 Rock – which I still adore, but has had some rough slides over the years – can often feel as if it’s being written by a couple of guys in a bubble, laughing at each other’s jokes and hoping that a few people out there will share their warped vision of the world. On the other hand, as much as I mock Chuck Lorre, he’s required every week to at least get his scripts up to “passable”, so an audience can approve them.
When television first began, live audiences just seemed logical. After all, American television developed from vaudeville and variety shows. If you were broadcasting this at home, why wouldn’t you broadcast with an audience? Once it became clear that the expense of filming in front of an audience wasn’t always worth it, “laugh track” luminaries like Charley Douglass developed complicated systems to simulate audience responses. The Wikipedia article on the subject is fascinating reading, as Douglass and his ilk were devoted to the cause, right down to occasional titters and coughs. It’s interesting to note that a lot of the time, they were toning down laughter to allow for ease of understanding from audiences at home. Aside from a few exceptions such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, most sitcoms in the ’60s filmed in a studio, with laughter added later. People now can get self-righteous that they were being told when to laugh and, worse, being lied to! If there’s no actual audience, one may ask, isn’t that just the writer being self-important? Perhaps. But the need for laughter wasn’t about honesty, it was about verisimilitude. It’s an odd conceit, I’ll grant you, to film scripts and performances meant for live audiences, but sans the audience. This was most definitely the era of excess, and even delightful sitcoms like Gilligan’s Island or Green Acres feel more dated than the surprisingly fresh exploits of Rob and Laura Petrie, in large part due to the evidently phoned-in audience.
Breaking through the resistance to live audiences in the ’70s gave us the eclectic comedies of Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H*, Soap, and so on. In some ways, I don’t think the sitcom would ever be as inventive as it was during that era, when writers and comedians were feeling out a populist medium that was still willing to take risks and let a series “develop an audience” over time (an unthinkable concept in modern-day television). Yet, once sitcoms re-embraced the living, breathing audience, I’d argue that the classics were born. Golden Girls, Seinfeld, Frasier, NewsRadio: these shows employed experienced, talented, comic performers, and allowed us to view the characters as well-rounded people. At the same time, they could push the comedic envelope, but remain faithful to the idea that a genuine recording of a live audience – occasionally toned down if too much laughter appeared, or strategically edited if bloopers meant that a line was no longer fresh when the perfect take was finally recorded – was important. Toward the end of its run, Seinfeld was routinely filming twice as many scenes as other sitcoms, requiring them to either screen entire episodes for audiences after they were filmed, or re-enact complicated scenes on set, just so they could get an authentic laugh.
Maybe it’s the geek in me, but one reason I enjoy watching sitcoms with genuine audience laughter is to view the maturity of audiences over time. The Dick Van Dyke Show is remarkably fresh, but some of the gags that are now tired cliches get uproarious laughter. At the other end of the spectrum, ’90s and ’00s sitcoms often try to find new ways around plots that audiences will quickly guess. A great NewsRadio episode features Phil Hartman’s Bill McNeal trying to appear collected for a Washington Post reporter as a prank war escalates around him. We think we know it’ll end poorly for Bill, since that’s how that trope works. The writers, then, take things one step further: Bill survives the interview, only to learn that the interview itself has been a prank. (Watch also the later years of any strictly formulaic sitcoms. In its twilight years, The Nanny‘s audience can often be relied upon to guess the joke mid-way through, leaving the actors to find inventive ways of delivering their lines.)
That’s not to say everyone should use laugh tracks. That would be like expecting Sam Peckinpah to make a musical. The structure, tone, performances, and comic rhythms of Parks and Recreation or Community would flail in a live format, and many of the subtler gags would never get through to the final draft. Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night is the most obvious example. Despite Sorkin’s writing style clearly not embracing a live response, NBC sought to film in front of an audience during scattered episodes of the show’s first season, before they were convinced that it was doing the series more harm than good. (M*A*S*H is the only series I can think of, off-hand, which effectively utilised both laugh track and single-camera moments, and even that was a shitfight.) Perhaps one of the elitists’ arguments is that sitcom writing is inherently a lower art form. If you’re writing a script full of jokes that three hundred schlubs can get in an instant, you must be inferior to someone like Sorkin, whose wit inspires more of an intellectual nod than a belly laugh. While I’m not a big Sorkin fan, there’s merit in this argument. Many sitcoms grow lazy (like The Nanny) or are born that way (Hot in Cleveland) but continue to work because their cast are capable of making even the feeblest line sing. (Bea Arthur was particularly gifted at that; Golden Girls audiences automatically start laughing before she’s even finished a sentence!) On the other side of the fence, I can’t help thinking NewsRadio would have lived a more widely-sung life as a single-camera comedy, where its more idiosyncratic style of humour could find live beyond whichever random audience was drafted that week. Even then, many of the series’ best jokes – particularly its well-known knack for escalating physical gags – gain their momentum and surprise from the studio’s reaction.
The last great element of a classic sitcom is that feeling of warmth. Sure, any great TV show can make you feel a part of the characters’ world after a time, but for my money, there’s something uniquely heartening about the world of the familiar sitcom territory. Each week, we’re allowed into Jerry or Frasier’s apartment, the workplaces of NewsRadio or Mary Tyler Moore, the township of Green Acres or the nutty world of I Dream of Jeannie. It’s a home. I’ve been doing marathon rewatches of The Nanny of late, a sitcom I adore in spite of its shortcomings. While it lacks the ingenious direction of NewsRadio or Seinfeld, The Nanny – besides its staggeringly talented cast – often has the feeling of a ’50s vaudeville act, with the actors all facing the audience rather self-consciously, entering a scene merely to deliver a clearly signposted one-line gag. The Nanny openly and self-referentially notes its ancestors, I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke, in a way that would seem tragically outdated to many, but it creates that sense of a warm circle of friends that was so shattered by the discovery of the anti-family sitcom, beginning with Married… with Children and Everybody Loves Raymond, and now faithfully adopted by almost all single-camera sitcoms (even if they double back around and add a healthy dose of heart under the cynicism). But The Nanny mimics the classics in more ways. The Sheffield house – like Gilligan’s Island or the Brady home – is a bubble into which any possible story can emerge. Inside those doors, any manner of wackiness is tolerated, because we know there are safe parameters for the characters and their established relationships. And anytime someone arrives at the house? Well, they can bring in a seemingly infinite variety of story types involving everyone from homeless men and the Flushing set, to Roger Clinton or Elizabeth Taylor.
Almost all of the sitcoms I’ve mentioned as part of the pantheon had dual storylines, and I think it helps their lifespan considerably. The Golden Girls can deal with internal friendship problems, or the workplace/dating/family lives of one of their foursome. Rob Petrie can handle a storm on the homefront or a battle at the office with equal panache. Frasier is perhaps my ultimate sitcom. Boasting insurpassable performances, writing, and heart, it also allowed many different tales, due to the wildly varied lives of its five central characters. (Seinfeld, of course, took this to a next logical step, with no inherent formulaic restrictions, but it was dealing with characters who refused to evolve as a point of principle.) What sets Frasier ahead of the pack could deserve an entire post of its own. The show could deliver a tightly-focused character study or a gutbusting farce with equal panache. It excelled at delineating the complex relationships of brothers, fathers and son, friends, co-workers, and lovers, with the sincerity not to underline every sincere moment with a cheap joke, and the ability to laugh at each of the central characters even as we laughed with them. Moreso, Frasier found its own response to the inevitable problem of the longevity of a formulaic sitcom. Rather than simply making self-referential jokes about the characters’ inability to evolve their lives, Frasier made perpetual singledom a major character arc for Roz, Frasier, and Martin, deepening the characters considerably in the show’s twilight years. By the time it ended after 11 years (and a further handful on Cheers), Frasier and his extended family were some of the most well-rounded, delightful characters on television.
What has this babbling, incoherent rant led to, you ask? An attempt to explain why the sitcom should remain a cherished genre. I can understand, I suppose, why some people are frustrated by the idea of laughter piped into their television screens. It peeves me no end, though, when friends comment on how the Seinfeld laugh track, say, is “so fake”, even though it was filmed – against all odds – in front of an audience. (Then again, these same people will often tactfully omit their favourite Britcoms from that list in the hopes you won’t notice their hypocrisy.) To write off the audience reaction as some kind of condescending statement: “laugh now, pathetic viewers!” is simplistic at best.
Of course, one has to acknowledge the limitations and regular misuses of the sitcom genre. But they’re no more common than misappropriations of any other genre, quite frankly. The sitcom only works at its best under the right conditions: with a cast of truly talented comic actors (who, preferably, have some dramatic ability too), writing that is right for the medium, and a feeling of tactful experimentation even as you play to the medium’s strengths. The strained audience laughter at times for Monty Python or NewsRadio comes in part because those shows were attempting to play by their own rules, often doing the kind of comedy which would delight a single-camera viewer, but fails woefully in the multi-camera medium. (NewsRadio did eventually find the perfect sitcom blend – season three is a thing of beauty – but it took a while there.)
The intrusive laugh tracks on Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie can be draining, no denial. They could also be predictable, due to the nature of the “laugh boxes” used to create the effect (experts say they can identify the year – and possibly the month – an episode was produced just by which version of the laugh track was used during those golden years), but they were valiant attempts at the kind of comedy one usually saw live, only now it was being provided to the individual in their lonely living room. The genuine sitcom, moreover, is a damned impressive thing. The world of my favourite single-camera sitcoms is the world of I Love Lucy and The Nanny where even the most ridiculous of situations can seem inevitable; the world of NewsRadio and Seinfeld where grand physical comedy competes with subtly impressive bon mots; the world of Frasier and The Dick Van Dyke Show where characters who began their lives as seeming stereotypes become as human as our own family, aided by powerful performances, scripts with a true sense of character, and the ability to tread the fine line between scathing wit, self-awareness, and a familial tenderness., It is a world full of beautiful places, all of them worthy of a visit.
My other late night rants can be found here.