Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #2: SITCOMS: UNDERSTANDING, ADAPTING, and RECOGNIZING HOW THE METHODS OF THE OLD APPLY TO THE NEW



Hey, hey, hey! How's everybody doing today, good? Everybody ready for class? Was that "Hey, hey, hey", from "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" or was it from "What's Happening?" What do you think? Think it'd be easier if you actually heard it, instead of seeing it written down? Yeah, it would be.

Alright, sitcoms, I hope you all did you homework, folks. Oh yeah, I wasn't kidding. Three, four, five of you, out of 150 people, minimum will read these a day? I hope you at least watched television at least. Especially a sitcom, at least once? Well, I didn't get too many personal responses. One involved, somewhat of an interesting show regarding this topic of 3-camera vs. single camera, and that's "How I Met Your Mother". Great show, and it was an interesting choice, because they're a 3-camera sitcom, but they actually don't have a studio audience. They use a laugh track, and actually they're a little more free-form with the form, they can have flashback and other ways of playing with the timeline and dream sequences, aberrations, musical numbers, they're a show that can rather easily, I would say, switch to a single camera show. It would lose, the romantic perspective and look of the 3-camera sitcom has, you know, the Woody Allen-esque New York look the show went for, although you can do that in single camera also, but that classic 3-camera look is the television equivalent of that. 

Oh, and when I talk about a 3-camera show, btw, somebody also thought that, "How I Met Your Mother" was a 5-camera show, I could not confirm that, but I'm almost certain it's 3. It's not, how many people are on the show, that you put a camera on them, what happens is that sitcoms are rehearse, and then, there's a way in which a TV director, figures out the camera positions, which are moving much of the time, and they're, when done well, really-organized, and it's very hard to do btw; other than James Burrows, and since it has become such a lost art, the 3-camera directing, that's another reason why a lot of shows, are choosing the single-camera format instead. That said, there are variations of the multiple-camera sitcoms, where they do use more than one camera when needed. Garry Marshall for instance, invented the 4-camera sitcom. It wasn't really that big of an invention actually, it was just that it was impossible to make sure Robin Williams stayed still and hit his mark every time, and it took about five minutes to realize you didn't want to do that anyway, so for "Mork & Mindy", there was a fourth camera who's job was just to follow Robin Williams around, and record whatever he does, 'cause it was usually funnier than most of everything else they could come up with. So, yeah, I know bad timing to bring him up, but it's not the first time Robin Williams has been the exception to the rules. 

Well, that was the only response, good job folks, on your homework. (Thumbs up, sarcastically) Well, the Emmys are next week, so let's just use them for this. Think of how those shows would be different, first with-eh, "The Big Bang Theory" could that work in single-camera? It could I think. You can see them more at work, instead of mostly around the two apartments and the hallway. They are scientists and professors remember? You think you'd see more of Sheldon's classrooms don't you? But you lose the quirks a bit, and a part of what makes Sheldon's behavior so palatable is that, it is in front of an audience, so the outlandishness he does is benefited from having an audience react to his eccentricities. Plus it helps us feel more insular to the world of these characters having a 3-camera format. If it was single camera, the world would be opened up, but you wouldn't feel as close to them and within their own environment, especially since it's a bit of a rule-of-the-universe show, where you kinda have to get used to the show to begin with, so the closer we are to the to the characters, the more used to them we get and the more we relate and understand them, in their own world. 

Although, let's look at "Veep", a show that's single-camera, but would it be that weird if it was three-camera? Might be a bit like "Spin City", but based on the Vice President and not the aid, and you can create the show often takes place just in the office, a lot of it. You could have a lot of the disasters occur elsewhere on set and offstage, I think it could work, but would it work as well, maybe not. She's not exactly a likeable character Selina Mayer, so maybe it wouldn't work to be too intimate with an unlikable character. Although that worked for "All in the Family", not so much for "Buffalo Bill" though, which is a better example 'cause that was a workplace show that also dealt with media relations and perception. I know you haven't heard of it. Look it up, it got two Emmy nods for Best Series, and got canceled after two years. 

Now, "Modern Family"'s an interesting one. In many ways, this show is the ultimate throwback. The family sticom. This goes back to Ida Goldberg. It's broad, it's over-the-top, there are misunderstandings, and the whole series is based around the struggles and dramas of a family household. You'd think actually that, a show like that would be 3-camera, and not borrow the new mockumentary format of the single-camera, which started in film with people like Woody Allen, Rob Reiner, Fellini a bit, and then used in television starting with Ricky Gervais's "The Office", the British version, but actually when you go back and think of those more classic family sitcoms, the "Leave It to Beaver", "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", "The Brady Bunch", they weren't necessarily traditional 3-cameras either. They had sets, but similar to the freedom of "How I Met Your Mother", they didn't have audiences, they had laugh tracks, they often went outside the stage to shoot- 'cause A., since there's so many more people in a family cast, you can't have them all in the same space all the time. It's not realistic or believable, plus, you can do a lot more with the dynamics of the family sitcom, if they're separated most of the time, and out doing other things. So, actually, "Modern Family" is more of a throwback than it first seems, especially considering the family sitcom dynamic. Would it work, with 3-camera, probably not as well, but there's plenty of examples of it working there too. Not as much with children though, but it becomes more of a domestic tale than it does an overall look at a family. But really, other than the fact that it's a different kind of family, it's not that different from other shows of the past. Humor is about the same combination of wit and slapstick and farce. It's done well, there's ways to reinvent the wheel, and then there's reasons not to, 'cause it's a wheel, it's already pretty perfect as it. 

That's half the battle, recognizing what a show is doing, frankly, and then making sure it does it well. It's the simplicity of it, where's the conflict, why do we care about these characters, what do they want, are they trying to find it, are they succeeding at it, what's the situation, "situation" being a key word, it's a situation-comedy, remember, that they're stuck in and half to deal with. If you don't have answers to those questions then you really don't have a sitcom, and it's not about, being the most hip or new, or groundbreaking, or controversial, if a show is just about those things, then it's not gonna be good. I don't remember who it was that said it, probably Norman Lear, but as groundbreaking as "All in the Family" was (And it still is, btw.) if you replace all the talk about politics and philosophy and modern culture and whatnot with Archie yelling at Meathead "I can't believe you married my daughter without being able to take care of her!!!!" then the show stays the same. It's those things that make a sitcom. 

"What about "Louie"?! I'm waiting for someone to scream. Yes, why not, what about "Louie", could it work in 3-camera? I think it could. He tried a 3-camera show once, with HBO's "Lucky Louie", it wasn't that successful, but it absolutely could work. What, it's about a comedian, as he struggles he endures and adventures he has to get through his day-to-day life, that can be 3-camera. Worked for "Seinfeld". Now he's doing other things with the show, being more irreverent, sometimes he's going on aberrations, sometimes, he's sticking close to and advancing continuing story line and plot, sometimes it's very inward and intimate, other times, it's very relatable. Sometimes, he's barely doing what we'd consider a sitcom, you know?  Sometimes, you can go week-to-week-to-week and see three entirely different episodes of his show, and have almost nothing in common, other than Louis C.K. That's not new either btw, Jack Benny did that all the time on "The Jack Benny Program". One week, variety show, next week, sitcom, next week, dream sequence, next week, behind the scenes of his variety show, the next week, and little of the variety, a little sitcom, a little something else..... He had that same kind of freedom back then, that Louis C.K. that Tina Fey, that Lena Dunham have now, where they basically were given a half-hour to do whatever they wanted. Is it still a sitcom? Well, yeah. The situation changes week-to-week, but it's still a sitcom. He could go in front of a studio audience and with the 3-camera format if he wanted, and it would work.

Situations can change on a show all the time too. 1st season, "Will & Grace", they were roommates, then they weren't the 2nd, then they were again. "Cheers", started the "Will they or won't they" thing, with Sam & Diane, and then they had to completely change the show when Shelley Long left. The core situation was the same, people in a bar. That's key too, what can change in a situation comedy and what can't? If the core of the sitcom, is the location, then the location can't change. If the core is the characters then they can go anywhere they want and they'll stay the same while everything around them is different. (Look at how many times "Weeds" changed their whole series over the years) Even "I Love Lucy" changed all the time. First they were in the New York apartment, then they traveled to California and Europe and Florida, and then they moved to Connecticut, not to mention they had a kid. So the whole series, constantly was in shift. Lucy wanted to be a star and she and Ethel would get into some ridiculous situation, because of Lucy's pursuit of stardom usually, or to make a point to their husbands or something like that. Knowing the situation, and knowing what the core of the show is. That's what's key to most everything. "Louie", himself doesn't change too much generally. That's not a bad thing, but he explores that in many ways, and he takes advantage of the things you can’t really do with the 3-camera structure, but it’s that no matter he does, the situation is him, and that's what the core of the show is, and that's what he's really doing. No matter what Jack Benny was doing that week, he was always Jack Benny, same with Louis C.K., whatever he's doing that week, he's Louis C.K. And Louie is an aging, overweight, stand-up comic. Divorced, couple kids he watches on the weekends, he has a few friends, he sleeps around occasionally. He wants to be in a relationship, etc. etc. Whatever he does, it sticks within that, Louis C.K. persona and perspective Sometimes life’s good, sometimes it’s not, the situation of him doesn’t change, while the situations around him, often does.

We can do the same for “Silicon Valley” and “Orange is the New Black” too, and figure out what the cores of those shows are and any other good ones. Even bad sitcom have good core ideas like this. “2 Broke Girl$” it a great situational comedy base. It really is, I’d rewrite it to make it good in a heartbeat. 2 girls, in New York City, struggling to survive, one used to be rich, the other’s used to it, living together, working together. It’s “Laverne & Shirley” meets “The Odd Couple”, but they take the wrong approach to the material. They think if you create outlandish, over-the-top characters with a quirk and can be used as a punchline then that’s a sitcom? Nope. Can’t just say vagina and make it a sitcom you know? (Although I might watch that, admittedly.) That why the show goes wrong, if could still be funny, but if they went to find the comedy more in the situation, it’s be a stronger show; the situation itself is filled with great interesting comedic material, you got to approach it correctly. This is where the skill comes in, in really figuring out, not just what’s good or not from a situation standpoint, it’s how will they manage to find comedic value in that situation.

This is where you ask those questions, of “What’s the objective of the show,” and “How well does the show achieve that objective?”, Etc. etc. The, “Within the realm of the show, does this work?” type of things, etc. etc. How good is stuff like that? Uh, it’s fairly useful if you know what you’re looking for. This is why, you have to study the old sitcoms, which these new ones have to compete against, in order to understand how successful they are or aren’t and whether they actually are doing things new or different, or are simply doing things that have done before, or if they’re doing those things better or different in some way.

How do you tell those things? That’s the $64,000 Dollar Question, other than to say that the more TV you watch, the easier it’ll be to catch, but also the rarer it actually happens. In terms of recent sitcoms, I guess a good example for me that comes to mind, would be an early episode of “Parks and Recreation”, where Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope character was sick in bed. Now, the whole show up until then, had been, practically a joke on her, about how she’s the one lone person into a local government with strive and ambition and also a firm belief in the power of government being able to solve problems, and how she was out-of-place with this position and all the doors and red tape slammed in her face for being such a way, but this was the episode where that changed because everybody else in the “Parks and Recreation” department, none of whom had that same drive and desire had to do her jobs for the day, and they realize she had about forty or fifty things planned, that doing two or three of those things for most people would take up most days or weeks. That’s not only the moment when, we as the audience started cheering for her, but also the moment when her fellow co-workers, even the ones who thought government was useless, started respecting her and getting her back whenever it was threatened. That was unexpected, and I haven’t seen that trick, done before in that way, where the whole series found itself and its groove and perspective. And that happens sometimes, where the whole arc and structure of a TV show would indeed be changed or discovered many episodes or even seasons into a show, but we’ll cover more on the structure and arc long and short-term of a TV sitcom, next time. How shows begin, how they end, how the arc of a series is developed and planned (Or not) and when and if a show “jumps the shark” supposedly, and what do pop terms like that really mean. Stuff like that, but with “Parks and Recreation” example, that’s when we got the first real insight into that series, that really made it connect to the audience, the piece that we, as the audience, hadn’t really had before. We knew it was good, up until then, and first episodes, you usually try to dismiss a bit to begin with (Although networks don’t always think that way [in many cases they’re correct to do so, ‘cause they’re dead in the water from the opening bell but still….]) but again, there’s this perception nowadays about a sitcom being a half-hour and then you move on, when a drama supposedly is a soap opera and long-running story arc where you have to catch, and frankly that’s just as true about sitcoms.


So, that’s for next week, we learn more about exactly how they make a sitcom, from the beginning and then inevitably to the end, and the art involved in that, and sometimes just, the absolute struggle of doing that, and how exactly shows like that work. Homework, we’re gonna keep it simple, just, watch the Emmys on Monday night, the 25th on NBC. It’s part of the industry, just deal with it, and enjoy it; they’re not going away, so really, I don’t get people who fight those things; and I can do a whole lesson on Awards shows if you want. I don’t want to, but they’re there, they’re apart of television in more ways than one, so you might as well enjoy them. If you want something else, think about a few of your favorite TV shows; I won’t limit it to sitcoms this time, but try o have it be sitcoms, and try to pinpoint, a moment like that “Parks and Recreation” moment, if you can, where suddenly, a sitcom, suddenly clicked, and got it’s perspective and really became special and exceptional from just a regular sitcom or even a good sitcom. It can be a lot of things btw, adding or losing a character sometimes, it could be learning something new about a character in a different way, or a slight personality shift from the beginnings of the show; it’ll usually be an early episode, usually it won’t be the first one, sometimes it might though. The moment that a show truly finds itself. Not the moment you necessarily started liking it, but what that moment was for the show, and why exactly did it work that well? That’s big too, the why. Too many people don’t ask “Why does that work?” enough when watching a TV show, and that’s why we are doing this class, ‘cause if not, we’d actually be the mindless lazy couch potatoes that people perceive us to be, and that’s because they are aimlessly watching a screen, for no reason. We watch with a reason. Remember that.


Try to do that, although mostly just watch the Emmys, ‘cause they’re the Emmys, just watch them. We may talk for five minutes about them next time, which may just be me complaining that “The Newsroom” wasn’t nominated but who knows there might be some interesting things. And if you have a chance, look up some of the winners at the Creative Arts Emmys, btw. They’re not as exciting, but there are a lot of good people who’ve worked on some amazing stuff and you really get a sense of just how much of television there really is by looking those up. Sometimes your best and most favorite shows, they get awarded at those awards and not the main stage, and that’s a shame, but that just shows you just how much television there really is. Alright, folks, everyone Dy-no-mite! Good. This TV Viewing 101 Class was brought to you by the letter T, and the letter V, and the number 66.

For those of you new you can catch up on the previous class here:
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/08/tv-viewing-101-class-1-syllabus-intro.html
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