Being sick is a perfect excuse to outsource your blog to other, better blog posts, but even if I were in tip-top shape, I couldn’t pass up the chance to direct you to the excellent post Earl Pomerantz promised he’d deliver, about why the multi-camera sitcom collapsed under the weight of its own rigid rhythms and structural rules.
He’s indisputably right about almost every point he makes, as you’d expect from someone who’s written more good sitcom episodes than most of us have watched. I don’t personally believe that the multi-camera sitcom will never come back, if only because the world loves comedy (especially in syndication) and one-camera has a provably, indisputably smaller audience than multi-camera. But it’s hard to see what the next hit multi-camera comedy could be like, exactly.
The reason The Cosby Show saved the sitcom in 1984 is that it brought a new rhythm and new story structure to TV comedy. The rhythm was that of Cosby’s own comedy, and never settled into predictable joke rhythms because Cosby never bothered to stick to the script. And the stories sort of embraced the inherent triviality of sitcoms by having tiny little stories that didn’t inflate themselves into anything more important than they were. That was kind of a one-off, because most other shows didn’t dare to go that small or have that bizarre a comic rhythm (no wonder — Cosby couldn’t sustain any consistent quality for more than a few seasons, precisely because it was so slapdsh).
Here I originally had a bit more about what makes a show a big groundbreaking hit that saves the sitcom, but the server ate it, so I’ll summarize it briefly: shows can be big hits, beloved hits, great shows with the standard setup/punchline formula (Cheers is basically nothing but setup/punchline followed by the big Act 2 comic set-piece), but to “save” the sitcom, a show needs to create the illusion of offering something new, which means creating the illusion that the characters aren’t making jokes. Cosby was like that. Jerry Seinfeld was rightly proud of the fact that “we don’t sound like we have joke writers on our show.” Archie Bunker rarely thought he was saying anything funny, and that’s what made everything he said so funny. Someday a producer is going to take the lessons of The Office, where the funniest, weirdest things are said by people who think they’re being serious and sounding natural, and apply them to the more broadly popular multi-camera format. Or they’ll learn from the comic rhythms of The Colbert Report, which may be the best multi-camera sitcom on the air at the moment (and, again, is about a guy who doesn’t intend to make jokes). But somebody’s going to have to get away from that Cheers type of setup/punchline humour because there’s no longer anything to be said in that rigid rhythm, if there ever was.
Another thing that may be affecting the sitcom in the modern age, though, is that the sitcom by its nature is oriented towards the second half of the story, and requires a slow buildup. Pomerantz notes this in talking about an episode of Phyllis where, like many sitcom episodes, the writers started with an idea for a good climactic scene and the rest of the episode was just waiting to get to that one scene:
The recital scene was hilarious. But the rest of the episode, structured to set that final scene up, felt like five scenes (out of six) of empty filler. Would the last recital scene have been as funny is it hadn’t been skillfully built to in the earlier scenes? No. But it’s not enough. There has to be more to a half-hour episode than one, albeit very funny, payoff scene.
That of course is the way lots of sitcom episodes are built — right back to Lucy, whose writers would start with the big set-piece and work backwards — and the best ones do a better job of making things interesting on the way. The fact remains though that the first act of the traditional sitcom is mostly buildup, setting the table for the complications that will produce the funny stuff. That means that the first half is by its nature less interesting than the first. “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is the most famous sitcom episode of all time, but most of the first act seems lik kind of a dullish story about Ted wanting to be grand marshal of the circus parade (it’s all buildup to Chuckles being killed). All television episodes start out a little lower-energy than they end, but the traditional sitcom all but requires that nothing much should happen at the beginning, so that everything can happen at the end. This worked with fewer viewing options; it doesn’t work when people can easily change the channel to a network where the story has already gotten into gear.