Monday, August 4, 2014

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #1: SYLLABUS & INTRO TO SITCOMS



Okay everyone, Horshack, Barbarino, Epstein, Washington, shut the hell up! Class is in session, and if you don't know who any of those four names are, you probably need this class. Welcome to TV Viewing 101, and we are gonna teach you how to watch and read television correctly. Over the next few months, we're gonna go through a lot of the proper ways to analyze many different kinds of television, that will hopefully make you a smarter and more educated viewer. I know some of think, that television is a lower form in the medium, but we are going to correct that.

Part of this is gonna be history, but more importantly than a simple history it's understanding how that history plays into television today, as well as how it's evolved, and how the past of television if frankly still apart of modern television. It's just like film, there's a way they did it, and then "Citizen Kane" came along, rewrote the rule book, then "Star Wars" rewrote it again and every other film, did something new, and the same with television. And you gotta realize even younger, then we're really making it up as they went along. Now, the big difference between film and television is that, films are essentially a vacuum, that is that, one movie isn't related or connected to another. You see a movie, separately from everything else in the world. Television however, A. you have a choice what to watch. So you can change the channel anytime you damn well please, and B. all that history of television, is a choice, and it's constantly repeating itself, and other channels have to compete with it. What do you watch, a new show that might good, or a "Seinfeld" you know is good? (Shrugs) Reruns folks, how do you compete when you have everything that's ever been good and created in your field as easily accessible as it is, continuously on rotation in the other channel. I mean, imagine, if in every art gallery, there was the Mona Lisa. And every time you come up with a great new painting, the Mona Lisa is still right there next to you, while everything else is constantly changing and is the never best of the day, and it's all good, but you still got to get the patrons to stop looking at the Mona Lisa to go look at your painting. That's television folks, get them to stop staring at the Mona Lisa, and stare at The Scream or The Persistence of Memory, or Dogs Playing Poker, whatever it is, that gets you away from the Mona Lisa, that's what television. You don't watch "Casablanca" while "Citizen Kane" is playing next door, TV does that. Even with the internet television, it's still the same concept, get them away from the Mona Lisa, make sure they see you instead. Hard enough when there was three choices, now there's 3,000.

So, when the first televisions, and when I say television, mean "television sets," first came into regular being in the late '40s early '50s, it's not like movies, where you had to physically go to the theater, pay and then be entertained. With television, you had 24 hours and you have to be entertaining someone the entire time. Something has to be on the air. Even if it's the Star-Spangled Banner and a signoff color bar, or a station logo, or a burning log. People watch those things, seriously, they did, and they do. Cause it was a huge, strange thing to suddenly have a little box with lights and wires, suddenly sitting in your house, it was strange. The blank screen was entertaining on it. And you all wonder why "The Real Housewives..." are watched by people, 'cause people were used to staring at a blank screen; that's the level of entertainment. You wonder why reality shows play in marathons most mornings, 'cause there's a lot more channels now, and just like in the old days, they struggled desperately just to come up with stuff to put on. Game shows, there were dozen, hundreds. Kids shows, they produced dozens of those things, many of them locally, and usually these things aired live btw in the early going, it was a lot tougher. That's how the "Today" show started, time to kill, tell them the news. More time to kill, put on pro wrestling. I'm serious, pro wrestling, roller derby, things like that, received some of the highest ratings of early days of television. Television's no joke, and as strange as all of it is, it's all essentially circular and related to each other. Reality shows now, game shows back then. Variety shows then, are talk shows now. Etc. etc. It all was simply a way to put something on this new medium, so that the audience would watch. A search for content, and all channels go through this, in one way or another, and every channel, all three of them, in the beginning did too. (4 if you count the DuMont Network, but most of their archives were destroyed unfortunately)

That's the mindset of television, put it on first, and then, when they figured out how to do that, then they started finding the artistry in it, and finding out, exactly what television can and can't do. But we're not there yet, first have to find content. So, where do you look? Late '40s, early '50s, you're looking, movies, true, although most movie people look down at television people, and that's still true today btw. But, radio was the first place people looked, and much of early television ideas and concepts, really originated with radio. Even just watching television, started with people sitting around and staring at the radio. Seriously, that's what people did. It's all storytelling, it dates way back to Homer if you really want to go that far, but anyway....

Sitcoms, they actually started with radio originally. Ida Goldberg, who later did television, she's someone who's credited with inventing the situation comedy, and btw, it's been a little blurred nowadays, but a situation comedy, unlike say sketch or stand-up comedy, is a long-form narrative comedy. So that means, we're following the same characters in the same situation over a long period of time. That's the first basis of a sitcom, we are following people, in a situation, and it's for comedic purposes. We tend to think of it, as something new, every week, same characters doing something different stupid every week, and that they're really connected, but they actually are in a narrative, it's just not the same narrative that we think of as soap operas (Another success of early television and radio) or with dramas. We'll talk about them another time, but sitcoms on television, started shortly after. Wikipedia list the British series "Pinwright's Progress" as the first official TV situation comedy, but early ones, essentially stuff like "Amos & Andy", and "The Jack Benny Program" (Which was only a sitcom actually but...) other stuff that essentially came from radio, those were the very first things, and most of the time, it wasn't a hard transfer.

But we're gonna start by talking about one of those shows, and that show is "I Love Lucy". You knew, we were gonna talk about it folks, but this is where essentially, we start to veer into, what we think of as, the modern sitcom. And it wasn't Lucy actually, this was her husband Desi Arnaz that created this. and it was done, because he was trying to figure out the best way to showcase, Lucy's talents. The problem is, TV is a very limiting medium. It's very small, at that time, most of it was shot live, and even then, set and props are expensive and time-consuming to build so you have to be creative. You can't just go to a chocolate factory and shoot, a scene of comedy, in fact, the cameras at that time, probably wouldn't fit through the door if they tried. Now, when they first were pitching a TV show, first of all, Lucy was somewhat known as a movie actress, but she wasn't really a big star, she kinda worked with a few people but, mostly bounced around from studio to studio without too many huge hits, she was actually more of a dramatic actress than a natural comedienne, but her and Desi had a successful tour, where he performed his music, and in between they would performed some sketches and comedic bits, and that's a bit how they got the TV show, by that tour being such a hit. Now, he realized two things, one, you kinda need an audience to bounce of, especially for comedy. For drama, you don't really need that instantaneous reaction, but for comedy, it's actually really essential. For instance, when you're doing a comedy you don't know if it's gonna be funny, until you screen for an audience, but say in theater or stand-up, the audience is right there. So, television, Arnaz figured out, that you need a studio audience. Now, if you have a studio audience, you got to be able to record everything that's going on, similar to a play, so not only did he bring in the studio audience, he brought in the 3-Camera Format.

The 3-Camera Sitcom, and it's still used today, you have, one or two set, maybe three but you're main and your secondary are the big ones, and that's where most of the action takes place, so, you use three cameras to record everything, and cut in between them when recording. So, you get both, the audience reaction, and that helps especially with a comedienne like Lucille Ball, who was a physical comedienne, so half of what made her shows stand out was that an audience was watching and reacting to her, when she actually doing all this stuff, and that's really the core language of sitcom comes from. One or two main sets, the novelty of both, doing stuff on camera, as well as in front of in audience, and the audience reacting. And still, the most popular sitcoms, "Two and a Half Men", "The Big Bang Theory", they're still following this classic format, and yeah, a few people are shying away from it, but A. They're not shy that far, 'cause single-camera sitcoms have been around forever too, but I think the other general complaints, are A. that those shows are too broad, which,  you gotta realize they are doing theater. This isn't a movie, where it's a big screen, well it's a big screen now, but it's still the small screen, so you need something, big to explode and pop off of it, and B. they're still playing to a studio audience, and you know, nuance is great, if the back row can't see it, who gives a shit? I mean, that's- it's supposed to be broad and broad, is still very good.

The other complaint I hear about is the laugh track, and this gets into the other kind of sitcoms, and they're not new either, their single-camera sitcoms. Sitcoms, that are shot and edited just like a movie. You can debate where these started, but I tend to think of "The Andy Griffith Show" as the first big and still the most successful one. That show's also the one I point to because of the reasoning behind why they did single camera, 'cause certainly three done a three camera sitcom, but they decided to let that show take place in a small town, Mayberry, and they really used the whole town, in fact they built the town as a whole set in fact, and you can't do that with a studio audience. So, they used a laugh track, not to make the material funnier; that's not the main reason you use a laugh track, you use it because it's apart of the language of a sitcom. Sometimes you can get the reaction without it, other times, even the best shows, for whatever reason, get help from it, but it really begins with the real key to the show being that a studio audience is watching the performers, and it's theater. This is the other thing that makes sitcoms so distinctive, other than being the big true art form of television, it's that they're very distinctive. It's part theatrical performance, part television program, very unusual structure. There is no other equal and there's also no other medium that's better suited for it than television, but back to a laugh track, it's not going make something funnier that wasn't already funny. All that does is replicate the studio audience effect, it's apart of the language of television. And many sitcoms do decide to go without them. I know modern ones like "Arrested Development" or "30 Rock" are the ones others will point to, but shows like"M*A*S*H" and "Room 222", were experimenting with more or less laugh tracks or a lack thereof of them from the beginning. Shows often make jokes for the laugh, for the specific kind of laughs they get, sometimes they get it in the show, other times they might not, so they switch a laugh from earlier, or fabricate one completely, it's not always the writing, sometimes the acting is being covered up, sometimes it's a poor director, sometimes it's a bad show and no amount of real or fake laughter is gonna help it. A laugh track, the best it can do, is help emulate the live audience reaction. That's all. It helped "Bewitched", it helped "The Muppet Show," it helped "Seinfeld", it helped "Friends", it kinda helped "M*A*S*H", a little, it didn't help "Sports Night", "Murphy Brown", never needed it. It always got the audience reaction it needed; it's just how that works. It's one tool, of many in helping tell a story.

The tools elements of a good sitcom, are still the same, and we'll talk about those elements of what separates a good and bad sitcom next time, and dive more into the language and structure, next class. I wanted to end our first class a little early, before we forget, here's our Syllabus pass it around, reminder dates and times are not in any way set in stone, and the subjects may vary also.

1st SET OF CLASSES: Sitcoms
2nd SET ''    ''               : Primetime Dramas
3rd SET ''    ''                : Variety/Sketch
4th Set ''        ''              : Reality
5th Set ''         ''             : Talk Shows
6th Set ''        ''              : Game Shows
7th Set ''       ''               : Soap operas
8th Set ''      ''                : Miniseries/TV Movies
9th set ''       ''                : News/Informational

And this will take, a few classroom sessions obviously, I recognize that, and you know, there's numerous parts of television and television viewing to discuss and analyze. Some of it's history, and a lot of it's again, taking that history and transplanting it, into modern television today, but if you guys want to discuss something that's not mentioned, let me know. I'm not dedicated to this rigid structure; I might add it or replace one segments with something else, you want me to talk about Bill Cosby more, or Carol Burnett more or something like that, let me know, 'cause there's so much of television. Sports coverage for instance, cable vs. network, animation, HBO, MTV, how they or others influenced and changed television..., there's so many ideas and theories out there and many things that we can discuss and people and so many innovations and things that influence TV today, that-, just let me know, and I will try and discuss certain specifics or generalities more if you want. If you have a question, please ask. We can focus the material in a lot of different ways.

HOMEWORK: Yes you all have homework. 1st, tell me who the four names are that I yelled at in the beginning of this post. A little trivia. Second, the big one. Pick a sitcom, preferably your favorite one, preferably one from today, doesn't matter what it is, if you really don't like sitcoms, then just pick one you hate passionately, and reconsider how that sitcom would be different, if it switched from 3-camera to single camera, or vice-versa. How would "The Big Bang Theory" be different if it was a single-camera show, or how would, eh, "Veep" be different if it was three-camera format. Pick any sitcom and switch the camera structure, and consider how it would change, how it would be better, how would it be worst, what could they do that they can't, why can't they do that they have already, etc. Really consider your favorite show, and think if it's really the best format for that show. And some shows have switched camera-formats btw, most famously "Happy Days" probably, the most successful anyway, so this is something that people think about and consider. If it's an animated sitcom you're picking, btw, switch it 3-camera, live action, 'cause essentially, while you can do certain things in animation that you can't in live action, it's still similar enough essentially, so... we may talk about animation later.

So, that's your homework folks. Think it over, and we're gonna use that to bounce into more on how to read a sitcom, next class. Nanu-nanu. We're letting you out early today. Remember, re-imagine you're favorite sitcom with a different camera format.
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