The Sitcom Revolution

If Earl Pomerantz ever were to collect and expand his “Story of a Writer” posts into a book, I’d be the first one to buy it. (Well, maybe not literally the first, but I’d buy it on the first day.) He’s giving us a step-by-step guided tour of his own journey from Canada to L.A., of the history of sitcoms and sitcom writing from the ’70s onward, and some of the great shows he’s written for — and he’s written for many great shows.

Today’s post is his first about The Cosby Show, of which he was the first showrunner.

I don’t think many of us remember how revolutionary The Cosby Show was at the time, for a whole bunch of reasons. It single-handedly saved the sitcom at a time when, just like today, there weren’t many big hit sitcoms and there was a general belief that the format was dead. (Also just like today, a number of veteran comedy writers and producers were moving into producing hour-long “dramedies” because of the belief that there was no future in half-hour comedy.) And it broke all the rules for sitcoms, particularly in the matter of storytelling. Sitcom story structure has always been a fairly rigid thing: you introduce a complication, you make the complications more complicated, then you get everything back to status quo by the end of the episode. The Cosby Show tossed out most of those rules and did episodes that were virtually plotless; instead of a tightly-structured traditional story, there would be a small issue or problem for the characters to discuss for 24 minutes. Few shows directly imitated Cosby, any more than they would directly imitate the next big sitcom storytelling revolution, Seinfeld‘s multiple interconnected mini-stories — but everybody learned from it, and the better shows benefited from the understanding that audiences preferred real, strong character interaction to mechanical plot complications.

Pomerantz joined the show after watching the “pilot presentation,” a selection of scenes from the pilot script that were taped and then shown to NBC in lieu of a full pilot. (The rest of the pilot episode was taped after the show was picked up.) This was a famous presentation in its time; Grant Tinker, founder of MTM and then-president of NBC, said that it was the only time in his career when he saw a pilot and knew instantly that a show would be a smash hit. Pomerantz explains the impact that presentation had on the people who saw it:

The series I’m referring to, of course, was The Cosby Show, and the presentation took my breath away. The jokes were funny, a minimally structured storytelling approach was employed, and the show had a masterful comic-actor genius in the lead role. On many levels, The Cosby Show, at least at its inception, offered a revolutionary way of doing a sitcom.

TV sitcoms were failing. People were writing about it: “The Death of the Sitcom.” That’s not really something you want to hear when you’re writing sitcoms for a living. But the truth was, I agreed with them. Sitcoms, especially family sitcoms, were growing painfully predictable. There are only so many times you can discover marijuana in a kid’s locker and find out later it wasn’t his.

(Actually, The Cosby Show did that story in its first season, but maybe he’ll get to that later.)

And in particular, he talks about the impact of the most famous moment in the presentation (which of course was incorporated into the full pilot):

Accepting people for who they are. A bedrock liberal principle. The studio audience is clearly conditioned to respond sympathetically. If you listen to the soundtrack, you can hear them starting to applaud Theo’s unequivocal plea for acceptance.

But just as the audience members are about to put their hands together…the doctor proclaims,

“Theo, that’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard!”

The audience members stopped dead in their tracks. And then, they went nuts!

I mean, the roof came off!

It’s like someone had opened a window, and a liberating truth had come rushing in. Theo wasn’t mentally challenged; he was lazy. And the doctor was calling him on it, accusing his son of being afraid to try, for fear that his brain would explode and come oozing out of his ear.

The audience was enraptured by the message of personal responsibility, refreshing only because it had been abandoned. Theo would do better. And so, not incidentally, would the sitcom.

Lisez le whole thing.