Sitcom parody paradox: Jaime Weinman on the season opener of Community

Memo to the writers’ room of Community: By its nature, the sitcom world is one of fantasy and escapism

by Jaime Weinman

This is not the time to opine on the quality of Community post-Dan-Harmon, not only because of my own ambiguous attitude to the show (the best episodes are really great, though) but because that show’s season openers are not known for being the most spectacular episodes – in quality or in ambition – meaning that it’s hard to tell much about the direction of the season from one episode, although the over-emphasis on Jim Rash’s character is a bit worrisome. I did want to make an observation about the sitcom parody that formed the majority of Abed’s “happy place” fantasy.

At first I thought it was kind of a lame parody of bad sitcoms, further evidence that intentionally bad jokes often don’t sound different from intentionally good jokes. (Digression: Have you noticed that when journalists pick examples of comedians’ bad jokes, they always sound exactly the same as examples of comedians’ good jokes? It’s not a coincidence. Jokes, in isolation, rarely seem that good or bad.) But then I started to wonder if it was even written as a parody at all. Most of the lines in those sequences were lines that the characters might normally say in the normal show setting; the opening gag, where everybody shows up trying to get on the hipster-glasses bandwagon only to give it up when “Pierce” is wearing the same glasses, is certainly something you could imagine seeing in the regular show (it might not be the greatest gag ever, but it’s hardly something they’d never do). Even the shooting of the sequences wasn’t really that much different from the way the show is usually shot, except a little brighter and more saturated (but that could just as easily describe an episode of The Middle), and with a couch replacing the table.

I don’t know if this is actually the way it came about, but the way it played was that the episode was written around a fantasy sequence with Abed imagining that nothing would ever change, and that they’d all get to stay in school forever, and these sequences were written pretty much like a regular episode with regular jokes. (Some of the weaker jokes in the “real” sequences were arguably worse than the ones in the fantasy.) The laugh track, and the transformation of the subplot into a sitcom parody, seemed almost like an afterthought; maybe it wasn’t written that way, but that’s how it felt. If you took out the track I doubt if those scenes would play as bad-sitcom parody at all, except in the sense that bad sitcoms are all about people doing the same things over and over again forever. Otherwise, the idea that it was a devastating blow at schlocky sitcoms really didn’t seem borne out by anything except the track; it was really more of a devastating blow at the character of Abed for wanting life to stay the same forever.

Update: After writing the above, I came across this interview with the writer of the episode, Andy Bobrow, who explained that they tried to avoid writing intentionally bad or corny jokes in these sequences, except for giving Shirley a catchphrase (later cut): “The kind of jokes we were trying to avoid were when the actor says something not funny and the audience howls. We were trying to do actual punchlines, and I hope we did.” So it didn’t feel like a parody of bad sitcoms because it really wasn’t, it was just an attempt to give Abed a sitcom-style fantasy.

The reason these sequences could work as a sitcom parody, even though they didn’t really sound all that different from regular Community writing, is that most sitcom parodies within TV shows that aren’t quite conventional sitcoms tend to be built around that same basic theme: the sitcom is an escapist world where characters, and by extension, the writers, go to find respite from the hardships of life. That was what the incredibly ineffective sitcom parody on My Name Is Earl, “The Hickeys,” was about, and that was what the much more effective Scrubs “My Life in Four Cameras” was about (more effective because they went to the trouble of actually shooting it as a conventional sitcom, which helped them with the accuracy that a good parody requires). The idea is that the world of the show is the “real” world, where people have real problems and nothing gets solved in 22 minutes, and the sitcom world, by contrast, is the world of fantasy and escapism. It doesn’t usually work that well as a parody, because the differences between the show’s own world and the parody world are never that dramatic – Scrubs, again, is something of an exception.

A sitcom parody that actually managed to say something different, and something unusually incisive, about sitcoms was the controversial “I Love Mallory” scene in Natural Born Killers. Subtle it’s not, or it wouldn’t be Oliver Stone, but the point of the sequence is quite a fair one: sitcoms, with their artificiality and the audience laughter, trivialize and normalize horrible behaviour, making us laugh at people and things that would horrify us in a different setting. Since we all know and to some extent accept that our favourite sitcom characters would drive us crazy in real life, this is a sharper point than the usual jabs at sitcom escapism – the point can apply just as strongly to good sitcoms as bad ones, so it cuts to the heart of the form in a way that the That’s My Bush type of parody (which really only applies to terrible sitcoms of a kind that barely existed by the time that show was made) does not.

And one last point about sitcoms, which is a bit tangential but doesn’t merit a whole post: in last week’s “How I Met Your Mother” episode, a festival of Canadian stereotypes, creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas wrote in a mock MuchMusic documentary on Robin Sparkles, which the characters watched. Whenever the characters commented on the video, the laugh track was piped in, as always – but any time there was a joke within the documentary, the laugh track was turned off; it was one of the few times I can remember them turning off the laugh track except during emotional or romantic moments. It just confirms my long-standing theory that the mockumentary form is the new laugh track; if you have people talking directly to the camera, you don’t need a laugh track and people will still know it’s supposed to be part of a comedy.




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