As an alternative (or antidote) to my recent post on this season’s comedy development, here’s James Poniewozik’s Time cover story about the current state of TV comedy. His thesis: if you don’t expect a Seinfeld or Cosby-like megahit, comedy is doing all right and has actually become more “ambitious and strong.” Especially if you look beyond the shows that are normally classified as sitcoms, and include hour-long funny shows like Glee and HBO and Showtime’s downbeat half-hour shows (which are actually less downbeat and depressing than Glee) in the “comedy” category.
As for the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’ll probably say more about that once they actually get to the reunion; this weekend’s (very funny) episode is called “The Reunion,” but it’s only the start of the arc, and I’m interested to see what they’ll do when they get to the actual filming of the episode-within-an-episode. But on the subject of Seinfeld, it was also pointed out elsewhere that it is sort of a transitional show — not just because it was a bridge between likable mass-market characters and the modern comedy of dysfunction, but because it was a multi-camera comedy that wasn’t entirely comfortable with being one, and constantly struggled against the boundaries of the form. When Larry David went in to pitch the show, he mentioned the idea that it should be single-camera, but NBC understandably, and quickly, talked him out of that idea. But almost from the beginning, it tended to build episodes out of many short scenes, like a movie instead of a few long scenes, like a play. And the longer the show went on, and the more money it had to do stuff, it started doing more and more of the show out of the view of the audience. In the early seasons they would occasionally do an episode without the audience (like “The Parking Garage”) if they couldn’t do it on the main set; that’s normal. But around season 6, they built a Manhattan street, they did more outdoor scenes, and the show resembled what director Andy Ackerman (who took over in season 6 from Tom Cherones) has called “a blend of single-camera and multi-camera.”
The key to that transition was the way Kramer’s wacky adventures were portrayed. Up until around the fifth season, most of Kramer’s big adventures took place offscreen, and then he would tell us about punching out Mickey Mantle or stopping a criminal while making all the stops on a bus (“People kept ringin’ the bell!”). That’s the multi-camera, theatre-style aesthetic. By the end of the series, any time Kramer did something wacky, we would see him do it, usually in scenes that were pre-recorded and shown to the audience afterward. In this particular case I don’t think that was an improvement — I think some shows, and not just Seinfeld, forgot that some things are funnier when described than shown. But watching that show from beginning to end, you can see a show trying to get out of the studio, away from the couch, even while it achieves more popularity than it ever would have as a one-camera show.