Monday, March 17, 2014

My rant on the state of sitcoms

A recent article on Vulture.com by Josef Adalian argues that "Shrinking Sitcom Ratings May Be the Best Thing to Happen to Smart Comedies.” He points to the recent Fox pick-ups of NEW GIRL, MINDY PROJECT, AND BROOKLYN NINE-NINE despite their low ratings and thinks in this day and age, only niche comedies will thrive. Gone are the days of the big mass market sitcoms. Even mainstays like THE BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY were introduced before so many viewers had DVR’s so they were able to get a toehold. Adalian believes this new niche trend is a good thing. Who needs mediocre shows like SEAN SAVES THE WORLD (an example he uses)?

In a desperate attempt to make money from these low rated shows, networks are selling heavily on demographics and looking for other revenue streams like streaming.

Adalian makes a lot of good points, but where he loses me is when he says all of this is good for the future of sitcoms.

Since when is shooting low a good thing?

In all of his arguments as to why the current crop is struggling to maintain an audience he neglects to mention that these shows are not really funny. Not to most people.  Do you really laugh at THE MINDY PROJECT? Or NEW GIRL?  You may smile but do you laugh?  They’re quirky, they’re titillating, they depend a lot on irony (“Well, that worked out well.”) but they don’t make you laugh. BIG BANG THEORY makes you laugh. They have jokes, jokes that are funny. FRIENDS had jokes. Since when did “jokes” become passé? MODERN FAMILY sets up funny situations. So did FRIENDS. So did SEINFELD. So does BIG BANG THEORY.

I've spoken to very successful showrunners who lament that very few of today's young writers can write "jokes."  Shouldn't this be a basic skill?   It is if you're a comedy writer that hopes to be around for length of time.  

We’re living in an age where GIRLS is considered a comedy. Any humor derived is a result of humiliation.  And most of the time it's depressing or angry.  Call it a slice-of-life if you like, call it a character study, but don't call it a comedy. 

Someone will come along with a sitcom that is FUNNY and you’ll be surprised how many people absolutely flock to it. People of all ages. The humor won’t rely on humiliation, or pop culture references, or a gaggle of catch phrases (HAPPY ENDINGS), or juvenile vagina jokes (TWO BROKE GIRLS – a show whose ratings have plummeted), or joke-like structures but no actual jokes (THE CRAZY ONES). It’s a tall order I grant you. But why not shoot for that? One monster hit comedy can turn around a network. It can help launch other shows. In success and syndication a big hit comedy is the absolute motherlode. Warner Brothers will make a lot more money off of FRIENDS than Batman.

I don’t care if it’s a show about twentysomethings sharing an apartment, a police precinct, welders, senior citizens, single women, single men, single gynecologists, nerds, families, or aliens. I just want to LAUGH. I just want to be genuinely entertained. Make those shows. Let that be the next trend. Not celebrate shows that in truth deserve to be cancelled.

Don't kid yourself.  If Fox had anything else, those three "smart" shows would be gone. 

93 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Big Bang Theory" is funny and I'm surprised that you haven't cited it as an example of an "old school" sitcom. There is often a warmth and depth to the characters that is sometimes emblematic of Cheers. Sure, there is dopey stuff and obvious sex jokes but I think that's the exception rather than the rule. "Enlisted" has the potential to be a strong sitcom but it's being buried by FOX (Fridays, with shows being shown out of order to the point that certain events are illogical).

Shows like "P&R" and "Community" are often mean spirited but Vulture and HitFix love them so they are seen as smart. We want funny. To me, BBT is funny. Just make me laugh.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I didn't want to post anonymously but logging in to this site is more difficult than highjacking a Malaysian airplane.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. You did cite BBT. There is no edit function. Please get a new website.

nerkul said...

You're an idiot, Ken. Cheers was funny. Community is funny. Big Bang Theory is shit.

Andrea Mann said...

Interesting post, Ken - and what's clear to me as I work my way through the entire Cheers boxset is that it's a sitcom with proper jokes. Actual, standalone gags. And they're jokes that stem from the characters, to boot - the perfect combination when it comes to sitcom writing, I think.

It's one reason why Parks And Recreation stands out for me, too - it has proper, laugh-out-loud one-liners. Not ones that are about being witty or dry or clever (although they're often that, too) - just plain old funny. (And I respectfully disagree with Anonymous commenter who says it's 'often mean-spirited'. I think that P&R has heart, in abundance.)

Jim S said...

I keep reading from the hipsters how Big Bang Theory is just a Chuck Lorre sitcom beloved by the unwashed masses. Yes, Mr. Lorre can rely on the crude (Two and a Half Men). But that's not what that show is about. Yes, in the early years there weren't a lot of women on the show, Sarah Gilbert aside. But guess what? They added women. And the women are funny, and their arcs don't always revolve around the men.

In fact, the show has done something interesting. It is actually taking the characters through actual arcs. These nerds are growing up. And yes, it makes me laugh. Also, that live audience vibe and energy really pay off. I miss those shows. The filmed comedies often lack that punch. But not all. The Middle is quite clever, and I still like Modern Family.

For the record Brooklyn 9-1-1 is funny. You're right about the the other two shows. I have tried to watch them, but have never laughed once. Not even smiled.

Greg Ehrbar said...

The only current series that makes me laugh is THE NEIGHBORS. Sure, it's hit and miss, but not for lack of trying -- and it's loaded with jokes. And the characters are likable, even lovable.

Also, all of its leads are not drop-dead gorgeous (some are, but not all) and it's hanging by a ratings thread as precarious as Spider Man on Broadway.

We're enjoying it as long as it lasts, hopefully another season or two. Most people I recommend it to have never heard of it.

Jessamyn said...

Amen, Ken!

Joe Adalian is a garden-variety hack who treats every Fox press release as if it came from the burning bush. Fox rewards him with Mindy Project stunt-casting scoops. No one in the industry takes Adalian seriously.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The sad thing is that some shows have a low opinion of themselves. 2BrokeGirls and 2&1/2Men are obvious. When they deal with the characters and how they relate to each other, it makes you laugh. When they just say, "we need to right gross, illegal, disgusting material" then it's a complete turnoff.
It's LAZY and un-amusing.

The writers need to have more faith in the characters and actors, and allow the humor to flow from there.


Anonymous said...

"Shows like "P&R" and "Community" are often mean spirited "

All due respect to the person who wrote this in the first comment, I don't think that's the case at all. Certainly not with Parks.

I like Big Bang, but yeah, shows like New Girl also make me laugh out loud.

John said...

Too many new comedies remind me too much of the skits they dump in the final half-hour of "Saturday Night Live" -- the ones which tend to be in love with their own quirkiness, which in itself is supposed to substitute for actual jokes, and if you don't like it, you're the one who's just not getting it.

It's the idea that oddball situations and off-beat characters are in and unto themselves enough to qualify for a successful sitcom, and to actually have straightforward jokes would somehow be beneath the dignity of the characters (and the writers, actors and producers). The result is the sitcom version of a high-priced restaurant with small portions and an over-hyped reputation, where you're just supposed to take the limited amount of food (jokes) you're given and not say anything critical about the poor customer service.

Scooter Schechtman said...

What's wrong is greed, greed, and also more greed. Actual programming is squeezed into ever-shrinking time periods to support massive blocks of ads. Eventually we'll just get a "comedy haiku" sponsored by Flo,Chinese phones, and Wendy's.
I'm also ranting I can't even find one channel showing "The Quiet Man" on St Patrick's Day.

Mitchell McLean said...

@Scooter,

MOVIES! Is showing The Quiet Man this evening. It's typically broadcast as a subchannel.

You can check if it's available in your area:

http://moviestvnetwork.com/where-to-watch.php

BigTed said...

Both "Happy Endings" and "New Girl" started out slowly, but really got funny as the writers figured out the characters' strengths, both individually and as ensembles. In fact, I'd recommend giving "New Girl" another try. (This is coming from someone who also enjoys joke-fests like "The Big Bang Theory.")

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

I half agree with you. I've watched the New Girl & The Mindy Project from the beginning. New Girl was good its first 2 seasons. Season 3 was OK. The show now is a total disaster- not funny, not likable, not nothing. Too many characters added to the mix, too contrived. The writing has gone straight down hill.

Mindy was rough its first season. The show has steadily gotten better its second. The last 4 or 5 before winter hiatus were very good. They got rid of some bad characters in S1 and added some good ones in S2. Plus James Franco cameos in S2- you can never go wrong with him. Looking forward to it coming back in April.

But you are 1000% right on when you say the "big blockbuster" comedy is on life support. I've never seen Big Bang or 2 1/2 Men so I can speak to those but networks milk the life out of comedies like The Office & How I Met Your Mother- they become unrecognizable from their glory days.

Modern Family is still good & still has its moments but the only shows where I will literally laugh out loud are: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia & Family Guy. ---LL

Hamid said...

Just read about an earthquake in Los Angeles. I hope all is well with you, Ken, and everyone else there.

Dana King said...

I'm old enough to have seen several cycles lamenting the death of comedies. As Ken says, someone will write a good one and the pendulum will shift back. Creative people are going to have to be allowed to be creative for that to happen, which may delay the process.

Uki said...

...complained the old man, sitting on his porch, shaking his cane and grumbling about how things aren't what they were in his day.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken's right. There's a big gap in the market right now for something that really makes people laugh. But I don't think it's just humour that's missing, I think there needs to be something that taps into the Zeitgeist.

Maybe I'm romanticizing, but I feel that M*A*S*H, Cheers, Friends, The Simpsons, et al, tapped into something larger at the time of their airing. They were funny, but, to use Dan O'Shannon's comedic terminology, I think they tapped into something larger, that became an "enhancer" to the comedy. Funny became hilarious.

The problem, it appears to me, is that popular culture is so fragmented these days. From TV to music, and everything in between. There just don't seem to be things that capture the spirit of the times anymore. Everything is a cult hit -- unless it's forgettable dirge like X Factor/American Idol -- and until something comes along and speaks to the masses and the outsiders alike, I don't think there's going to be anything as big as it used to be, in any field.

Question is: Is that even possible any more?

Tracy said...

I have a theory that the U.S. version of THE OFFICE was extremely damaging for scripted comedy. It ushered in a crop of single-cam comedies that used weak irony, writer's-room-inside-jokes and "like-a-joke" lines in place of actual joke construction.

Shows in this vein -- Happy Endings, Parks and Rec, Community, 30 Rock, New Girl, Mindy, Brooklyn 99, etc. -- are low-rated because though they may make the audience smile at times, they never deliver big laughs. (And no, one audible laugh per episode is not enough.)

Ken is completely right on the point Adalian misses (perhaps intentionally): the shows are low-rated because they're not very funny.

VP81955 said...

Ken, were you the TV writer whose Emmy broke when it fell off the shelf in the quake? Just heard about that on KNX.

VP81955 said...

Was delighted to see my favorite new sitcom, "Mom," renewed. Ken, I know you've had some reservations about the series due to its basic subject matter (characters in recovery), as well as its working-class setting, but I think Anna Faris and Allison Janney make it work, and the writing has some real heart to it. No, "Mom" isn't going to revive the sitcom form -- but I think it could help, as long as some of the sitcom snobs can forgive it for being a Chuck Lorre multi-camera series.

Hamid said...

VP81955:

You were close. It's a fellow Simpsons writer, Jay Kogen:

https://twitter.com/JayKogen/status/445559823078146048

Jack said...

My wife and I constantly crack up at both New Girl and Mindy Project - in a way we rarely did for the "big 90s sitcoms". Never watched Brooklyn 99.

OTOH I've also laughed out loud at Modern Family as well. About the only 3 comedies we watch - along with a Canadian show "Mr. D" which is sort of a Michael Scott rip-off but it's about teaching and hits so close to home that sometimes it hurts to laugh

Covarr said...

I see a good deal of The Big Bang Theory complaining here, largely by people who have totally missed the point of the post. Tastes differ, but these other shows mentioned don't even attempt comedy, while BBT does.

I don't personally care for the show, I find its jokes more annoying than funny, Sheldon's personality is incredibly inconsistent, and it relies far too heavily on outdated stereotypes, but at least it has actual jokes with actual punchlines.

apocalipstick said...

First, if you want a show crammed with well-written jokes and shrewd character study, get the DVDs of Corner Gas.

Second, I don't understand the "Community and P&R don't make me laugh" comments. The only reason I don't laugh continually at Community is because episodes such as "Modern Warfare" set the bar so high that not everything can be that brilliant. P&R mean-spirited? Sorry, but I need a citation. No other show is so suffused with the warmth and love of its characters for each other.

I watch BBT on DVR and syndication. It's pleasant; it has a few outstanding jokes. It also has one performance (Parsons) that continually lifts the dross around it to the level of tolerable entertainment.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stoney said...

Valid points here Ken but I think you're in danger of turning into a third Sunshine Boy!

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I'm old enough to have seen several cycles lamenting the death of comedies.
Remember when Bill Cosby 'saved the sitcom'? That was appointment TV, and now (IMHO) it's hopelessly dated.
New Girl lost me when Whatssername started doing those "look how twee and adorable I am!" iPhone commercials, and Brooklyn99 leaves me cold, but I like The Mindy Project, which is definitely in the vein of cringe humor (but having Mindy hook up with the other doctor? Huge mistake, the should've stayed Jack and Liz/Mary and Lou). and what others have said: P&R is all heart, about the formation of a family-by-choice, like Cheers, Taxi and MTM. And Community can push that envelope, the same is true there. The episode where they all came together to let a lonely kid know he had friends was really touching, even if they named the character Fat Neil.
I just started watching Big Bang in syndication (like a lot of people, I gather) and I think it's a decent sitcom built around one really original character (Sheldon)-- the Lorre-isms do show, though. The supporting cast can be good, but does Johnny Galecki ever make up his mind as to whether he's gonna stick with the Broderick-esque high pitched nasal voice affectation to let us know that His Character Is A Nerd? Same with the blonde girl. Stop it.
Huh. I guess I ranted too.

Andrew said...

"Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is hilarious. I laugh out loud when I watch that and "P&R" and "Community." Seriously, we have to pause and skip back to catch stuff we missed because of laughter. I understand that not everyone gets those shows, especially not "Community," though I think "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" has much broader appeal and is genuinely funny. For the record, I also watch "BBT," and I think it got tremendously better once more women were introduced---I really like Amy and think that Mayim Bialik is very good and very funny in that role.

I really wanted to like "Mindy Project," but meh. It's just not very good. It's better than it was, but it should really be so much better than that. Not sure what the problem is there.

blinky said...

Wow. After reading all these comments I can that there is no common experience anymore. Shattered creative landscape. Opinions all over the map. Hold on I just got a text...
Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi! Sorry what was I saying?

Rinaldo said...

I laugh repeatedly at almost every episode of BROOKLYN NINE-NINE. It doesn't make a good example for this supposed "trend." Nor does ENLISTED, which is often laugh-out-loud funny.

emily said...

Shoot Low, Boys - They're Ridin' Shetland Ponies

Eddie Hargreaves said...

I agree with what you're saying, but I have to point out that I laugh at every episode of Brooklyn-Nine-Nine. I consider it a funny comedy.

J.Kessler said...

I am so frustrated reading this. I am a mid level sitcom writer who has written on some big network shows. Ken, who are these show runners that actually want jokes? I would LOVE to work for them. Because the note my co-workers and I get a lot from them when we turn in a script or a scene is "this is too jokey." It's hilarious when we get this note when we are doing punch up! I know there is a line between jokes and "jokey-jokes," but based on what actually makes it on screen, it seems show runners are afraid of execs giving them the same note. So the blandest "jokes," and the writers who pitch them, are the ones that get rewarded. Maybe this is a product of working on single-cams (believe me, I WISH I could write on a multi cam, it's just harder to get those jobs because there are so few of them). I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Why does Levitan let his writers write "jokey joke" on his very successful Modern Family, but most other single cam showerunners set the bar at a "smile" joke? It's not like Levitan doesn't have to deal with execs, too.

unkystan said...

Surprised no one has mentioned "Hot In Cleveland". Now here's a real throwback. Everything a "comedy" should be. Other "laugh-out-louds" for me are "Neighbors", "The Middle", "Big Bang", "Modern Family", "HIMYM", "Parks & Rec", "Community", "Raising Hope". A for the highly overpraised "Brooklyn 99", when Andre Braugher is the funniest thing in a comedy you've got a real problem.

VP81955 said...

Surprised no one has mentioned "Hot In Cleveland." Now here's a real throwback. Everything a "comedy" should be.

It's "old school," which is why I love it -- sitcom pros who know what they're doing, from the cast (Betty White is a national treasure, and it's hard to believe Wendie Malick is 60!) to the writers and crew. Alas, TV Land hasn't been able to duplicate its magic, though at times "Kirstie" comes close.

-bee said...

I didn't care for New Girl when it first appeared, but unlike another poster who thinks it has lost its mojo, I started watching near the end of last season am now a big fan and find it laugh out loud hilarious.

On the other hand, I find the the constant barrage of dick jokes on the Big Bang Theory depressing, although I don't hate the show per se.

When I think of all the horrible sitcoms that were on the air when I was a kid in the mid-late 60's, today seems like a golden age, to wit: How I Met Your Mother, Suburgatoroy, Cougartown, Parks and Rec, New Girl, Modern Family. RIP Better Off Ted.

Anonymous said...

Another problem is that some studio and network suits can't tell the difference, on paper, between a bona fide, laughter-producing joke and a line, usually ironic, that's merely in joke form.

Davewillie said...

DVRs were commonplace before Big Bang Theory & Modern Family. That point is rendered moot. The problem with today's comedies is they rely on crude language in an attempt to garner laughs. FAIL!

Famous! said...

I would be most interested in your take on Showtime's "Episodes".

There's an argument to be made that its humor is based on "inside baseball" about network television, but my feeling is that it's still accessible for most viewers.

Your reference to "The Crazy Ones" was interesting... yeah, it's technically "funny"... but perhaps you just don't find yourself caring about the characters. From "Mary Tyler Moore" to "MASH" to "Seinfeld"... the characters, I'm sure you'll agree, have to be fully-developed people before you can invest emotionally in a sitcom.

And I totally get what you're saying about not actually LAUGHING... all I know is, I really do find myself laughing out loud, like I do with "Frasier" or even the earlier episodes of "That '70's Show" (the thing about every cast member being a fully-developed character).

Dennis said...

Yeah, THAT'S the problem. That's why there's a lack of laugh-out-loud funny sitcoms right now. Too much crude language.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of writers who can write jokes; they're just not "young writers."

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm....Cosby....Tom Werner....

Henry said...

Based on comments by Ken a while back and some general buzz about it, I decided to try the Big Bang Theory.

The hysterical "laughter" after every other line (or "joke") was painful to listen to. It felt like I was watching a British skit making fun of American sitcom laugh tracks.

And I wondered for a bit if it was an anti-sitcom, where the jokes were bad on purpose and we were meant to take it ironically.

Only way I can makes sense of that show's following is if somehow viewers are attached to the characters so they look past all the idiotic jokes and canned laughter.


Igor said...

Ken, what's "a joke"?

Seriously.

And, could you give some examples of what some shows think are "jokes" but that you feel aren't?

As for "humiliation". You wrote, "Someone will come along with a sitcom that is FUNNY... The humor won’t rely on humiliation." OK, humiliation does come in lots of varieties. But, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends all got laughs from humiliation.

On the other hand, I wasn't a fan of The Office precisely because of its specific sort of humiliation element.

So could you clarify? Thanks.



Henry said...

"Anonymous said... BTW, I didn't want to post anonymously but logging in to this site is more difficult than highjacking a Malaysian airplane."

You don't have to log in. You just choose "name/url" and write your name.

and too soon

Ted said...

Several months ago, I was honored to talk to a well known TV comedy writer. He told me the name of one of the funniest "joke" writers in the business. That person will never admit it here, but it's Ken! So you can understand why Ken is a little strict when it comes to funny.

Daniel said...

We're fortunate to live in a time when there are lots of different kinds of shows for lots of different audiences. The Big Bang Theory is a fairly traditional sitcom that appeals to a broad group of people. Girls is a comedy-drama; sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad, and sometimes it gets a laugh without anyone making an overt joke. That sort of humor isn't for everyone (it's definitely not for Ken), but HBO has a certain number of subscribers who are willing to pay for that type of content, and the show can survive on that audience.

I saw the Veronica Mars film this weekend. I doubt it's going to appeal to many people who weren't fans of the show, but it can still make money from that small group of people--especially since most of them already paid for the movie on Kickstarter.

Not every show is going to appeal to a wide group of people, and not every show should. Until recently, a cult show would be cancelled if it didn't get impressive ratings, or if it didn't appeal to the right type of consumer. These days, there are enough viewing options that a show can target a niche audience and still make money.

Most people in America would probably say that Girls isn't funny, but those of us who enjoy it still get to watch it. I've enjoyed a lot of cult shows, like Freaks and Geeks, that got cancelled even though the quality was very high. I'm glad that, at the moment, niche shows have a chance to survive, even when people keep saying, "That isn't funny."

Bob Claster said...

Parks & Rec and Modern Family are both very funny, as is Episodes, and also from across the pond, Outnumbered. I'd argue that the ratio of funny to unfunny is probably pretty consistent over the years. We have, thankfully, forgotten about all the unfunny shows that accompanied our beloved favorites from the bast.

Oliver said...

I watched the first six seasons of The Big Bang Theory and can count the number of times I laughed on one hand. It relies on repeating the same few unfunny jokes ad nauseam. It is also almost relentlessly mean-spirited. That said, I can't abide any of Lorre's shows.

I laugh several times each episode at Brooklyn Nine-Nine and, even more so, Happy Endings. Happy Endings in particular was a non-stop gag machine.

I find it interesting because you're an early Simpsons writer as these modern single-camera shows owe a lot to The Simpsons.

Sam said...

Oliver: The obvious question, I suppose, is why, if you find THE BIG BANG THEORY so unfunny, have you apparently watched it so faithfully?

VP81955 said...

People conflate formats with styles to an absurd degree. If a sitcom is funny, it's not because it's a multi-camera or single-camera show, or does or doesn't have a laugh track (live and/or canned) -- it's because of the characters and the writing. Those who do conflate often are the same folks who lambaste "right-wing AM talk radio," ignoring that many, if not most, of such scurrilous shows (Limbaugh et al) now are carried on their beloved FM.

Anonymous said...

Ted,
I had exactly the same experience last Saturday at a Hollywood St Patricks day party.

There are fewer laugh out loud shows around, but like ER and CSI, it just takes one sisable genre hit to change the TV landscape.

As for joke writers being underappreciated, they need to get the credit they deserve. Whoever wrote David Caruso's opening scenes in CSI Miami should have been given a comedy Emmy ever year. And to make an unsuspecting Caruso the butt of the joke, he deserves a Machiavellian lifetime achievement medal.

Gary said...

I read that Matthew Perry will be starring as Oscar in a reboot of The Odd Couple. Talk about aiming high -- the original with Randall & Klugman was hysterically funny, with perfect casting. That was a non-stop joke machine which has never been topped.

James said...

I'm not arguing your point, except that the only thing I hear on The Big Bang Theory is the laugh-track being louder than a subwoofer in a teenager's tuner-car audio system.

Cory said...

I am someone who is just getting outside the 18 - 49 demo later this year, and I would LOVE there to be some sitcoms that are as good as the dramas that we are getting on cable. I laugh more during an episode of "Justified" than I do at most "comedies".

Friends worked because the characters were funny and you gave a damn about them. Cheers worked because the characters were funny and you cared about them. Most of the modern sitcoms are either too much in love with their format or the characters are joke machines that say lines any other character could say.

How I Met Your Mother is a classic "old school" sitcom, and I bet it'll be played for the next 20 years in syndication. The Office is already fading, feeling dated and in the end, the number of laughs per episode is below that of Justified.

Angry Gamer said...

Ken said "I've spoken to very successful showrunners who lament that very few of today's young writers can write "jokes." Shouldn't this be a basic skill? It is if you're a comedy writer that hopes to be around for length of time. "

I believe that writing jokes is one of the hardest things to do. Jokes and humor routines have their own alchemy that is really only talent based. You can't learn funny like dramatic 3 act structure. You can't skeleton idea a line of funny like outlining a plot. (well I don't think you can... I am an amateur comic my banana fu is weak)

True Story:
My daughter is an artist type (I know my wife and I are so worried about future employment *sigh*) a friend of hers was bragging to her group of friends about how he paints nude portraits of women. The male friends sat in awe of this and one asked. "who do you use for models". Without missing a beat my daughter pipes up "His Mom".

Yes the Banana is strong in this one. :)

But the Daughter of Angry must not become a Scriptwriter... she must not.

Abraham said...

Absolutely agree, Ken. Writing tv comedies is a lost art. Instead, we're being sold soap and malarkey - that ratings are low because the audience is fragmented. They're low because they stink. Why does the NFL bring in the numbers, or Breaking Bad or, well, I can't even think of another show. The comedy bar is so low tv is officially in the "boredom killing business." Give the audience situation comedies (not sitcoms) that tell great stories with realistic characters that evolve and, trust me, the numbers will be there.

We still talk about Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld. In 20 years will anybody remember Two Broke Girls, Two And A Half Men, Mom, Mike & Molly? 10 years? 5? Doubt it.

solarity said...

I've always wondered why the characters in a sitcom almost never actually laugh at the other characters jokes. The writers expect the audience to laugh yet it is extremely rare to see a sitcom character actually laugh. Must be a violation of some sitcom code I dont understand.

Anonymous said...

Where Ken is so obviously wrong is that we don't have to wait for someone to write a hilariously funny comedy...they're on tv already. But no, people aren't flocking to them. Not in MASSIVE droves. I think Community, Parks and Rec and Brooklyn are pretty hilarious. You have shows like Key and Peele that work for smaller audiences too. People saying they're not funny and don't deliver laughs...look, I like your old timey shows too...Cheers and Frasier and Seinfeld were all really funny, but I wasn't laughing out loud at them. I actually laugh more at any of the recent shows I mentioned than any of them.

Anonymous said...

You know what new 2013-2014 show has jokes? Dads. There are other areas where you might saythe show doesn't gel, but the jokes are solid.

Oliver said...

@Sam

I like to have an informed opinion, I'm interested in TV comedy plus I'm apparently a masochist.

Oliver said...

Also: at 15 min/ep (the invasive audience laugh track means you can speed it up and not miss anything), I got through 4 seasons in less than a week.

Anonymous said...

Whether it was "too inside" or not 30 ROCK had fantastic jokes - in fact, we re-watch because some scenes have so many jokes you can't keep up with them. Smart, sharp writing & a great cast.

Brian Drake said...

A lot of my comedy fix these days comes from Old Time Radio shows like "Phil Harris", "Jack Benny" and, God help me, "Blondie & Dagwood". Good clean fun and nobody says "OMG" or "LOL" or "Let me take a selfie."

JP said...

Could a factor be whether the sitcom is filmed in front of a live audience? That phrase, btw, always makes me think of the opening to Cheers. Isn't BBT unusual in the current crop in that it does have a live audience, unlike, say, P&R, Brooklyn 99, New Girl, Mindy etc (could be wrong there, just don't remember them as being filmed in a studio set)

With a live audience you get instant feedback & to get a laugh you actually have to be funny.

Am I right in thinking that a common factor between Cheers, Friends and Frasier is that all had live audiences?

Judd Apatow said...

I don't like jokes. I don't think they're funny.

Cranky said...

I'd suggest that the bar for getting material on the mainstream screen is just too high. There are too many established people, too few opportunities, and more chance that in spite of your best efforts, your best work will end up moldering in a drawer. And the chance of getting a decent living is even less. That's why these quasi-sitcoms exist - they're written and run by people who are quite happy to compromise their talent as long as their name gets on screen. You might say that TV was always like this, but I think it's worse than it's ever been. And people who can write funny now have the internet to vent, or even monetize on.

McAlvie said...

Egads. And what happens when the demographics shift? It seems to me that deliberately targeting a limited group has many pitfalls, not the least would be limiting your viewership. And while a new show may collect a decent audience initially simply be being new and different, that won't last. It will get old soon enough; and if the writing isn't there, that will be sooner rather than later. And even if the writing is half decent, your demograhic is going to age out! There have been a few twenty-something shows in the last few years that are long gone and soon forgotten because all they had going for them was a group of pretty people with no personality, and nothing much to say.

On the other hand, if you have a well written show with distinctive characters played by talented actors, it will draw in everyone. Look at The Big Bang and Modern Family prove that.

MuffinMan21571 said...

@anonymous 944PM- Yeah, the 'jokes' on Duds are 'solid'- much like a bowel movement; @Tracy- you sound like you have the intellectual capacity of a paste-eater; @Ken the Old Grump- You realize there was a show that came along about a decade ago that people flocked to because they thought it was funny...namely Two and a Half Men! #ughtothat

Chris said...

Quick Friday question: how do you remove audience laughter from a scene when you don't want it there? Doesn't the stage boom pick it up anyway?

Bob McCullough said...

In my humble (30 years of TV writing) experience, the key to success as a comedy writer is simple: be able to laugh at the Head Writer/Producer's inane ramblings, redundant expletives, and pointless comments each and every time they are uttered. That will make him/her smile and their endorphins will convince their addled brains that YOU are funny as well. Trust me, this works. Oh...and you also have to be able to digest endless trays of room-temperature deli meats and stale bagels.
On the other hand, should you have an actual opinion as to what makes a line truly funny (syntax, word order, set-up, timing, putting the words in the mouth of the correct character), and should you ever whisper "but that's not really funny, is it?", you will be out the door before your agent can call you with the bad news.

Perhaps it's the age-old "to get along, go along" theory of the workplace...but that mentality and the very narrow opening into the professional TV writing market conspire to turn most aspiring writers into sniveling sycophants who will literally laugh at anything in the hopes that they will be seen as "team players".

All good writing, comedy or not, comes from character. Not "situations", but character IN a situation. The Odd Couple (ancient, I know, but still used as a template for innumerable show setups) best exemplified that. Gary Marshall never let a line into any script that wasn't true to Oscar or Felix from a character standpoint.

Why so many of today's shows fail: dependence upon casting rather than character. Great actors are only funny when their lines come from their characters, not from the writer's room where what was funny on Monday cannot possibly still be funny after dress rehearsal, simply because the head writer is, by then, bored to tears and has a last-minute "new thought" which is usually worse than what they had by the time the deli tray showed up on Monday.

404 said...

For what it's worth--NEW GIRL makes me laugh out loud. A lot. Even though the quality has gone down a bit since its beginning (contrary to an earlier post, though, it's not a "disaster." I get tired of video hipsters who feel the only thing they can add to a discussion of a show is how much better it was before everyone else started watching it).

Woops--off topic. Anyway. NEW GIRL. Always makes me laugh. Out loud.

Matt Tauber said...

"Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is a bad example. It's laugh out loud, character-driven comedy. It's quirkiness may make it a niche show, but not its lack of laughs.

I once heard Andy Griffith say they had one rule on his first show, "If it looks like a joke, throw it out." It proves you can have a show with broad appeal without setups and punchlines.

"The Big Bang Theory" is funny, but I've only watched it a few times and it never hooked me in as a regular. My 72 year old mom watches it, but I skip it...and I'm the one with the 30 year comic book habit!

Carter said...

Matt, Tony Dow ("Wally" on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) said basically the same thing about LITB, that anything that looked like or read like a joke came out, as did anything that got too big a laugh during the table read. The producers of the show were no strangers to comedy oriented toward getting big laughs. They had produced AMOS 'N ANDY. They werd just going for a different tone on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

Griffith talked about carrying on a running battle on his show to keep the laugh track reined in. He preferred it subdued and it kept coming back too boisterous. They'd have to send it back to be redone and toned down.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Brian Drake:

If you like radio comedy, I recommend "Vic and Sade."

The expression "FYI" should be retired from all scripts for the next decade.

Alan said...

I can't sit through even a minute of a multi-cam sitcom. Once go a few years of watching only single cams, multi-cam shows are unbearable. Yes their ratings are higher because they play to a broader audience but that doesn't mean they are funnier.

Ken keeps talking about the lack of "jokes" in single camera sitcoms. Not true. I laugh a lot ...I laughed at Happy Endings and 30 Rock, I laugh at Cougar Town, I laugh at Parks and Recreation, I laugh at Mindy Project. It may not be humor in the way Ken prefers...

Multi-cam humor is...set up joke, deliver punchline, pause for laugher. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Single camera humor is layered. Without having to deliver punchline and wait for the laughter, it can deliver multiple jokes at once (sometimes you have to pause and rewind the PVR to get a joke inside a joke), it can use techniques like flashbacks, real sets, outdoors..it looks real and feels real, and doesnt feature that horrifically awful laugh track.

Laugh tracks are like nails on a chalkboard. I don't need to be told what's funny. I decide!

I think the last multi-cam I ever watched was Friends, 10 years ago. Or maybe The New Adventures of Old Christine, a few times.

Anonymous said...

The days of big ratings are over and networks know it. With a few CBS exceptions, networks know that sitcoms play to niche audiences and in many cases, advertisers don't mind.

Apparently The Mindy Project was renewed because, despite very low ratings overall, it scores well win a very specific demo: Women 18-35. Advertisers will pay for ads if they get a strong enough demo, even if the overall ratings are low. So what if men 40-65 aren't watching the show, if a hue amount of women 18-35 are, that's what they care about.

That's the business these days.

There are far too many choices, on cable, on Netflix, to ever find a show that everyone is going love

PS: For what it counts, I can't imagine anyone finding The Big Bang Theory funny. It's awful.

Todd A. said...

I disagree with this blog so much that I'm almost offended. There is value in a cheap laugh, I suppose. But the humor that comes from Mindy Project is much more gutteral and satisfying to me. I have not once found a character or situation on Big Bang Theory funny. If anything, it just makes me angry that it replaced my Office reruns.

I guess it just comes back to taste and whether you find humor in gags or situations. Mindy has such an intelligent, witty POV that it has become my favorite show since 30 Rock retired.

Anonymous said...

Angry Gamer Said:

True Story:
My daughter is an artist type (I know my wife and I are so worried about future employment *sigh*) a friend of hers was bragging to her group of friends about how he paints nude portraits of women. The male friends sat in awe of this and one asked. "who do you use for models". Without missing a beat my daughter pipes up "His Mom".

Yes the Banana is strong in this one. :)"

It's just as strong in your mom's vagina.

Hey, look at me. That was just off the top of my head... in your mom.

Angry Gamer, your daughter isn't talented in writing jokes because of attaching someone's mother onto a hack tagline, so for the sake of people who have to be around her besides you, don't mislead her.

Anonymous said...

Todd A. said...

"I disagree with this blog so much that I'm almost offended. There is value in a cheap laugh, I suppose. But the humor that comes from Mindy Project is much more gutteral and satisfying to me."

I find fat smarmy women full of pissy observations about men who won't fuck her so unfunny, I'm almost offended. The Mindy Project is unwatchable. If I want to see a Mindy Project, I just hang out next to the pool table at Barney's Beanery after midnight.

chuckcd said...

I caught the episode of "New Girl" that guest starred Prince(Or the artist to be named later).
I did laugh out loud numerous times.
Maybe was a one off?

Anonymous said...

Really Anonymous? But you probably do find humour in a show about ugly science nerds who can't find women to fuck them? Face it, you are not smart enough to understand or get the humour in certain shows, so don't bother watching.

Mike said...

Anonymous vs Anonymous: It's the same person. A Scanner/Commenter Darkly.

Ken Levine said...

As warned, I've had to delete a couple of comments from Anonymous vs. Anonymous. Scroll up through the comments and see why.

Anonymous said...

I understand your position, Ken, but I'm disappointed you did not delete the sexist comments above (3/20/2014 12:52 AM) that rudely degrading Mindy Kaling for her weight and looks.

Ken Levine said...

Good point. But leave your name.

Anonymous said...

I think Archer is a good example of a newer comedy with 'jokes.' Same with a lot of the animated comedies. Shame it never gets passed onto live action shows.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ken Levine said...

To the latest Anonymous poster:

1) I DID delete the offensive comment.
2) I just deleted yours because you did not leave a name and I've asked you to six times.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Said:

"I understand your position, Ken, but I'm disappointed you did not delete the sexist comments above (3/20/2014 12:52 AM) that rudely degrading Mindy Kaling for her weight and looks."

I'm impressed that with all you have to do during your day, you've taken it upon yourself to set aside a little free time to be the defender of semi-famous fat millionaires.

As we all know, they have a hard go in life, and there's not one mumbai orphan who would want to change places with Mindy if that orphan only knew of the raw brutality unleashed upon Mindy's sizable fanny in a myriad of internet comments sections on a regular basis.

Keep fighting the good fight, anonymous! Your life is meaningful, and that's almost as important as Mindy's show in general, and Mindy in particular.

Mindy! Mindy! Mindy!

Ronald

Stephan said...

First off,people shouldn't call people idiots because they disagree with them. I think my sense of humor is a bit different. I really laugh at sitcoms like "The Mindy Project",
"New Girl", and "Two Broke Girls." I never once laughed at "Friends". I didn't find it funny at all. However, I did like shows like "Cheers" and "Fraiser".I guess you can say my taste is a little weird. To each their own. What I like about television now is that there is something for everyone. I like the quirky shows that are funny stories, they don't have to be joke heavy. I like some of the other ones that have joke setups. I think shows like "The Mindy Project" and "New Girl" are in the sitcom vain when it comes to funny situations, even if they don't have concrete jokes. No matter what your preference, I think it's a good thing to branch out and try something different every one in a while, you might be pleasantly surprised.