Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Love, Sitcom Style

There are lots of little rules for beginning writers. Write every day. Show, don't tell. Avoid purple prose. Edit, edit, edit. All excellent rules, very useful to the developing writer, but by far the most common piece of advice is to write about what you know, or alternately, to write about what you love. I've always wondered what this last bit of advice has to say about a guy like, say, Thomas Harris. Does he simply just happen to know a lot about cannibal serial killers, or does he love them too? I guess he knows at least enough about them to know that he loves them, or loves writing about them in any event.

Anyway, the reason I'm pondering such things is that I'd like to focus a series of blog posts on a specific subject, and the rules say to write about something I love and something I know about...

So I'm basically looking at writing about comic books, video games or television. Oh yes, I'm a Renaissance man. Look, I'd love to be writing about impressionist painters or world travel or macroeconomic policy, but that would be going against the rules. Write about what you know... write about what you love...

But how did I settle on television over the other two?

I bought my first proper comic book, Spectacular Spider-Man 132 (Part 6 of the classic “Fearful Symmetry” arc featuring Kraven the Hunter), at age 13 and from that point forward there was rarely a weekend where I didn't manage to whinebomb my mother into a trip to the comic book store. I absolutely loved comic books, still do, but I'd also like to secure a date with a member of the opposite gender persuasion one day, and I'm worried that a six part blog series on how chronically mishandled Wonder Man has been in the mainstream Avengers continuity over the last 25 years just might adversely affect my chances.

Video games? We got an Atari 2600 in our house when I was seven years old. I got one of the greatest gaming computers ever built, my beloved Commodore 64, just a couple of years later. I was born into the age of video games, forged in the crucible of Dig Dug. I was Sid Meier's bitch. From age nine until age twenty-one video games were indisputably the most important thing in my life. (Sorry, family. Sorry, friends. Sorry, personal growth and development.) I considered writing about my lifelong love of video games, but the nostalgia inspired by writing just this one paragraph has ended with me searching on Ebay like some frantic ex-junkie, calculating how much it would cost to reconstitute every video game system I've ever owned. No way, man. I'm mostly clean these days. I won't go back.

Which just leaves television. The alpha and the omega. My white whale. No other pop culture based anesthetic quite got its hooks into me as deeply as television. You know those ubiquitous studies showing the average American kid watching between three and four hours of TV a day? Yeah, well, I was in the vanguard, baby. I put in a good four to five hours a day, more in the summers. I like to think that I was making up for all those kids unfortunate enough to be born into television-less homes. Those poor bastards.

Like any all consuming, soul absorbing passion, my television watching preferences have evolved through the years. From cartoons and game shows as a kid, to cop dramas and adventure series as an adolescent, to the science fiction and fantasy genre stuff of today. I have deeply loved it all, but there is one particular genre of television that I loved more than any other. I'm talking about the half hour situation comedy.

You want to know how much I love sitcoms? If it were legal to marry a sitcom, you'd be talking to Mrs. Curb Your Enthusiasm right now. That's how much I love a great sitcom. I even like a mediocre sitcom. Hell, I'll even tolerate the most hackneyed, laugh track ridden, 22 minute suckfest if it has a compelling ensemble character or two.

Characters are obviously the heart of any television show, be it drama or comedy, but there's something special about a well constructed half hour sitcom ensemble. In many ways it's like having a character laboratory to experiment in: You take a bunch of quirky, eccentric, flawed, often archetypal characters and mix them up in a workplace or family setting and watch to see how they react to each other. Of course, the irony of the sitcom is that the situations are often the least important part. This is evidenced by the fact that so many sitcom plots are utilized over and over again in show after show. This works because it's not the situation, but how characters in the ensemble react to the situation (and more importantly, each other) that matters. The way in which Kramer and Frank Costanza go about starting their own business in an episode of Seinfeld will differ drastically from how Frasier and Niles Crane would go about opening their own restaurant in an episode of Frasier. Same basic plot, vastly different shows.

Because I'm a deeply disturbed individual, I also really enjoy breaking down sitcoms into sub-genres.

Undeniably the most established set-up is the family sitcom. The roots here go back to the 50's with shows like Father Knows Best, but they probably enjoyed their apex in the 70's with the brilliant All in the Family. Of course there was no shortage of family comedies in the 80's either (Family Ties, Cosby Show, Growing Pains), but they all lacked an edge and their wholesome banality ultimately helped inspire a backlash of satire against the ideal family, typified by shows like Married With Children, and later, Family Guy.

Like the family, the workplace has been some of the most fertile ground for ensemble comedy. Maybe there's something about the stresses of work or perhaps it's the sheer variety of settings, but the workplace sitcom has been responsible for some of the most memorable characters of all time. The “office weird guy” is a staple of workplace comedy. Think of characters like the Reverend Jim on Taxi or Matthew Brock on Newsradio. An interesting melding of family and workplace shows would be the school sitcom. Welcome Back, Kotter and the Howard Hesseman 80's hit, Head of the Class follow this formula, wherein life lessons are heavy-handedly doled out by the teacher to the students, or sometimes, the other way around.

Then there's the “single in the city” sitcoms that we saw a lot of in the 1990's. These shows were very relationship driven. Mad About You starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt was a prime example, but mega-hits Seinfeld and Friends spawned a seemingly never ending slew of shows featuring attractive people living and dating in New York. Suddenly Susan with Brooke Shields, Caroline in the City with Lea Thompson and the Jonathan Silverman series The Single Guy all had multiple season runs in the 90's.

Another widely used sitcom set-up has been the buddy comedy. The Odd Couple, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, was never close to a ratings hit when it ran on CBS from 1970 to 1975, but the laughs generated by forcing two polar opposite characters together have been so strong that dozens of shows over the last three decades have tapped into this successful formula. Laverne and Shirley, Bosom Buddies, Kate and Allie, Perfect Strangers, Will and Grace and many others had successful runs in the 80's and 90's, and more recently the BBC cult hit Peep Show has taken the Odd Couple theme to a new creative high.

There's one final sitcom set-up that deserves mention. It's the nostalgia comedy. These shows are set during specific time periods in the past. Happy Days is the most well known, and highly regarded show within this sub-genre, but several other shows have made their mark. The critically acclaimed ABC comedy/drama the Wonder Years ran for six seasons into the early 90's, and That 70's Show capitalized on a mysterious nostalgia for the 1970's for a highly successful eight season run more recently. An unfortunately short-lived gem in this realm was the 2003 Fox sitcom, Oliver Beene. Set in 1963 New York, it followed the trials and tribulations of the 12-year-old titular character, in first person perspective, with the wonderfully dry narration of David Cross as an older Oliver reflecting on the experiences. The show also featured Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown) as Oliver's hyper-Jewish dentist father.

So there you have it. An overview of the mighty situation comedy. I now realize that I've just written nearly 1500 words on how much I love sitcoms. Clearly it's time to go have a nice long cry, and re-examine my life. Next time we're going to go in depth for a look at three of my favorite ensemble casts. One each from the family, workplace and buddy sub-genres.

No comments: