I am kinda sick today — then again, with the current news, aren’t we all — so I don’t have much to post. Instead, please read Earl Pomerantz’s concise history of the half-hour sitcom. Tomorrow, he plans to tell us why the form collapsed (and why, unlike more optimistic types, he doesn’t think it’s coming back).

Pomerantz’s posts usually have one passage that mentions something important that I hadn’t really thought of before. In this case, it’s the fact that most sitcoms actively tried to avoid doing difficult physical comedy, at least in front of the audience:

It amazes me that Lucy was brave enough to risk filming elaborate physical comedy set-pieces in front of an audience. With the audience present, you only have one shot at getting the stunt right; otherwise, you lose the surprise (and the peals of spontaneous laughter the surprise sets off). When I wrote for shows, I was encouraged to avoid such gambles, relying instead on clever dialogue and carefully built-to comedic “moments.”

I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s true. Even on Seinfeld, you’ll notice that after the first few seasons they saved Kramer’s most elaborate physical bits for separate sequences filmed without the audience. Also, physical comedy was considered kind of lowbrow. (Laverne and Shirley, which he cites as “the one show that took Lucy-sized gambles with its physical comedy,” was the most dumped-on show in the industry for years) .

In theory, the move toward one-camera shows could help bring some physicality back to the sitcom format, allowing for the kind of elaborate comedy set-pieces you get in good movie comedies. But it hasn’t worked out that way at all. Single-camera comedies are even more talk-heavy than the multi-camera kind.

I’ll get into this a bit more when I write about Fox’s recently-premiered comedy Do Not Disturb (short version: I’m the only person on the planet who thinks it has potential, but it doesn’t matter since the ratings aren’t good enough for it to last long enough to fulfil that potential), but I think that the almost complete association of TV comedy with verbal jokes — and not just any verbal jokes, but ones that can survive a table read, network notes, and a week of rehearsals — has helped to choke off the visual/physical aspect of TV comedy, which is an important part of what made it survive.

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  1. It’s gotten to the point where physical comedy is so rare that it really stands out as a memorable moment. Case in point for me is the episode of Frasier where Niles cuts himself and repeatedly faints at the sight of his own blood.

    So it still comes through occasionally, but it’s really sad that these days a Jack Tripper wouldn’t last a season.

  2. I can think of a few good physical gags in “Arrested Development”: Gob’s accidental burial; Tobias falling off a balcony. But they do stand out as unusual.

  3. Also things swinging down clotheslines in Wee Britain.

  4. Audience laughter seems irrelevant:

    ” One of the co-executive producers [of Life With Lucy] was Lucy’s husband, Gary Morton. Gary had produced her Here’s Lucy series more than a decade earlier, but knew very little about modern TV production. I remember once when he was in an edit bay, “supervising” the cutting of Life With Lucy, he became distressed when he saw that there wasn’t much of a reaction after a Lucy joke. The editor patiently explained to him, “Gary, the audience isn’t laughing because this is take 3. They’ve already heard the joke twice before. We’ll just cut in the laughs when we do the mix later.” Morton got very angry and said, “Absolutely not! I demand that there be no canned laughter in this show!” The editor calmed him down and explained, “No, Gary — we’ll use the real audience laughs from Take 1, when they heard the joke for the first time.” Morton calmed down… until five minutes later, when the same thing happened again”

  5. …which is partly why I – ‘accordingly’ – like ‘that’ sitcom; there’s often a physical bit mixed in.

    As for sitcoms in general, I started thinking that maybe the main problem is that viewing public doesn’t really like ’em. That is, IF the TV was a real person sitting in my real & cosy home, I’d rather the collective lot of cussing & backtalking, chip on a shoulder, characters go away.
    I read the linked blog this morning. Toronto Day school? Hey, the Varsity Blues are sitting at 2-1 this season! And they walloped York 58-7 on Saturday!!!

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