Tuesday, September 9, 2014
TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #3: SITCOM STRUCTURE: LONG-FORM AND SHORT-FORM!
(As I walk into class)
Hey Everyone. (Long pause, louder) Hey, everyone! (Class motions slightly, some random "Hey"'s and "Hi"'s, barely vocal) I know it's been almost two weeks and we're still on Emmy's hangover here, but, you were supposed to yell, "Norm!" All of you, five points deducted today. Oh, don't grown to me, if you had been prepared you would've known to catch it.
Alright, we've been talking about sitcoms, and today we're talking structure. How is a sitcom structured? And we're gonna talk about this, is the short-form and in the long-form, because I find too many people, who do not understand, sitcom structure. And nothing pisses me off more when people don't get it. I hear this one, all the fucking time, for instance, "I hate 'The Big Bang Theory'. It's the same jokes all the time. Sheldon's crazy, Leonard likes Penny, Raj is Indian, they're all nerdy, it's always the same!" Like, the next week, we're gonna it's gonna turn into "Breaking Bad" or something. And Sheldon's a meth cooker in his spare time, or something, and suddenly Amy's an actress or whatever. You see, there so used to modern dramas and HBO sitcoms, and they're good, let's not pretend they're not, but they're under this horrible delusion that sitcom have to continually move forward and have a serialized story in order for it to make any sense?
Really, the same jokes? I could say the same about "All in the Family"? Couldn't I? Archie, a lovable bigot, he argues with Meathead over politics or modern culture, Gloria's caught in the middle, and Edith is a dingbat, isn't that every episode of that show? Or better yet, "M*A*S*H". Hawkeye's a lousy letch, drunk, an thoroughly unmilitary, Trapper and BJ we're his comrades in arms, so was Col. Blake and then Col. Potter. He fought with Frank and Hotlips, and then Winchester and Hotlips. But that show changed over time didn't it? Yes, it did, went from a straight dark comedy to a realist dark comedy, and to a dramedy altogether. Character left and changed, the amount of focus on the characters change. Tone changed, types of episodes change, reason for existing constantly change. You see it's not new that a sitcom changes over time, but- what stayed the same? What was the constant? Anyone? Hawkeye, he was the constant. He was always the drafted goofball surgeon performing meatball surgery, and fighting for the lives of the kids he performed on, even when combated against incredible odds, not the least of which the ineptness of the Armed Services of the United States. He, was a smartass, he was always funny, he was always drinking, he wanted to go home, he was always going after a girl, he was always telling jokes, he was always doing the craziest things he could things he can think of in order to keep his sanity intact. 11 seasons, of him, being the same brutal, realiable, funny, Hawkeye Pierce, and then in the very last episode, where is he? Dr. Freedman's office. Taken out of the war, for psychiatric treatment, having gone crazy. 11 years they built that up. and 106 million people in the U.S., 60% of the country, something, even the Super Bowls that finally broke that number-of-viewers mark, couldn't come close to getting today, wondered "What the fuck happened to Hawkeye?!" So, the same jokes, right? Really? If they had done that, in season 3 or something like they would've done in most than it wouldn't have lasted that long. Yeah, things happened during the series, characters slightly changed, sometimes they majorly changed, and many times, things that happened affected them greatly, including Hawkeye, but not like that.
Believe it or not, sitcom structure, is not that different from the structure of any other piece of literature. It's basically, 3 acts, beginning, middle and end. They're not reinventing the wheel, they're not claiming to. What some people don't understand is that, the changes have to be minimal most of the time, even when they seem to be huge changes in their lives, long-term changes, and they're in all sitcoms too, even before Lucille Ball got pregnant with Desi Arnaz Jr., but much of the time, a sitcom is weekly. Once a week, we get to look inside the lives or homes of some other people, and see what's going on, and you know what? People don't change that much from week-to-week do they? No, they might do one, or two new or interesting, and they might get into a little pickle or conundrum or quandry, but nothing earth-shattering usually, nothing out of the ordinary of any kind. Well, out-of-the-ordinary for the show anyway. So, that's really the key, you're writing, not, one long story through the chapter device of episodes, the way a modern cable drama seems to do, or a soap opera does, but here you're writing episodes, which are essentially, able to be contained within that half-hour, usually, but are then however, pieced together, when done correctly, they do make a coherent story. This is what's a bit tricky, 'cause that part, really originated accidentally. For many years, it really did, just use to be half-hours that weren't exactly, treated more like sketch comedy. There were still long-running gags and quirks. Take "I Love Lucy" for instance, Lucy always scheming to try and find her way into the show, or be famous, that never really changed, that desire, Ricky's Cuban accent, they couldn't exactly hide or pretend that wasn't there, so they used it, in many ways, sometimes he actually spoke Spanish. This led to comedy. The Mertz's were the neighbors and landlords and their best friends, they're partners in trouble, these are the essential constants, but then Lucy got pregnant, (Which they couldn't actually say at that time, they had to use more euphemisms than "The Contest" episode of "Seinfeld" back then) so, she's pregnant for awhile, and then they have a kid, and then there's a whole new dynamic and more material for comedy in the show, and the show begins evolving. Then, they do other things like leave their home and apartment for other places for prolongued period of time and so-on and so-forth in that regard and so-on,... and btw, I'm using "I Love Lucy", as an example to really show, just how long this basic concept of trying to formulate a half-hour that makes sense, and will satisfy the audience for a week, just long enough for them to come back and watch again.
And for the most part, that half-hour, average sitcom, it starts with a teaser, some people might call it a cold open, but it's a two minutes or so opening bit or joke that establishes the characters, the locations, give you a sense of the show and usually the episode, might hint towards a beginning to one of the, usually two storylines each episode deals with. There's usually an A, and a B storyline, even in some of the most progressive of television shows. Think "Will & Grace," for this, main story involves Will and Grace, and then Jack and Karen are usually off in their own subplot world, their could be more too. "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" often has more, or less plots sometimes. Anyway, teaser, then commercials, usually some kind of credit sequence either before or after the teaser, which also in many ways, stands as, a guide to the exposition of the show. Sometimes, the theme song lyrics, just told you all the backstory, eh, the visuals in the opening credits are great. The opening of "Sex and the City" tells you everything you need to know about the show going in, and it's just Carrie Bradshaw, walking down the street in New York, and then a bus with her picture splashes her. Brilliant, simple, no words, you established locations, you established the main character at least, and set the tone for the show, perhaps giving an indication of what that particular episode might be about. Occasionally that might involve a "Previously on" opening, but that's more with drama than sitcom, usually other than that, exposition gets established through the dialogue and actions.
Then the first act, about eight minutes or so in length, and these are rigidly timed, they have to be to take commercials into account, btw. And in case you're wondering, I am looking off some notes for this, I'm getting this at this webpage below, but it's the format I learned when I was in film school, and taking classes from a professor who wrote on numerous sitcoms, and I've written in this format, many times myself, yada, yada, yada...:
Anyway, Act I, after the teaser, about seven or eight minutes, (Time may vary but not much) Three scenes (So do scene counts btw) but we get the main protagonist, runs into a problem with his main storyline. Somebody shout out a TV sitcoms? Doesn't matter which one. Not, "Louie", cause he usually doesn't have a secondary plots (Well, he does sometimes, actually but...) oh, "Arrested Development" perfect, there's dozens of secondary plots in that show. So Michael, runs into some problem, probably involving his mother and his father, or whatever, this is the core conflict, meanwhile, there's some other conflict, involving, either Gob or George Michael or maybe Lindsay or Tobias, or maybe Maeby. Sometimes there's two or three, and usually they're in some way interconnected. Now normally, Michael will come up a reasonable way of solving the problem, that will inevitably blow up in his face, after refusing to solve, or badly solving most everybody's else's problems, but that's not important, mostly, Michael's solution blows up in his face, that's the main issue. We get it to the point, where something blows up and then we get to commercial and then to Act II.
Okay, so Michael, in Act II, which Michael tries to find another solution to the original and/or also find a solution to the new problem. Meanwhile, let's say Lindsay, searches for her ridiculous solution to problem, something which definitely won't work even if it ever did come out as planned for once, it would probably never work. Then Michael, finally sorta figures out enough to at least solve the problem for now, in other shows, it might be for good, but this is "Arrested Development", and we usually arrive, hopefully at something, reasonably satisfying for the ending, 'cause while, it is a good tool, to bring people in, next week, you actually don't want to keep leaving up in the air, eventually audiences, especially for a sitcom, they tend to get tired of shoved, so even for a more profoundly serialized sitcom like "Arrested Development", you need a satisfactory piece of closure to the end of episode. It's any other kind of screenwriter. Begin with the current stasis, change/catalyst arrives, screws up the stasis, solution inevitably found, but there's a new stasis, usually similar to the old one, not always though, usually. There's a normal to go back to something close to it, 'cause A. the situation really changes so dramatically, and frankly it shouldn't, okay. I love "Roseanne", but c'mon, never should've made them millionaires. (Even though the last episode of the show, if you ever got that far, did actually find a way to make it makes sense in the overall story of the show.) We're not looking, for the drastic, science teacher becomes meth cooker change with sitcoms, changes like that, 99% of the time, far more gradual anyway, and B. those subtle changes of characters are way more interesting anyway, and they play better for television storytelling anyway. You want to establish the characters and establish them well, one way, and that way, when suddenly, Chandler and Monica are in bed together in London, or Sheldon, suddenly meets Amy Farrah Fowler, Hawkeye, finally going crazy.
That doesn't mean characters don't change, or that even the show can't change, but it's knowing exactly when to change and how to change that really separates the good and great shows. Knowing when Samantha on "Sex and the City" should have an episode about a one-night stand or two, or whether she's having a far more prolonged multiple-episode/season relationship with the guy that played Dexter's father. Even when you're doing a serialized sitcom, you gotta understand what can change, when it can change and how, and why. And don't mistake, the necessity involved in staying consistent with sitcoms not needing to change, sitcoms do need to change over the years. It's a balance, but things need to remain consistent, while other things need to change. You know where this really comes into play, any show with children. 'Cause they friggin' grow up, you know can't keep a kid the same age forever, you gotta get the show to evolve. That's why so many kids shows have short lifespans of quality. You know, I don't know why all of you were watching, "Glee", I'm like "2 years, tops and it's not even good, why is everybody watching?" Most of you, got caught up in it, I went, "High school's four years, musicals never last on television, the only interesting character is Jane Lynch, and she was already famous,- Nine, ten strikes against the show, from the beginning. Wasn't gonna be "The Wonder Years", or "Malcolm in the Middle", or even "Blossom" or "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", it just wasn't. "Family Matters" evolved the second Jaleel White stepped on the stage, and then they kept at it. They didn't particularly evolve well, but they evolved. "Married... with Children", eleven years, kids grew up. "Modern Family"'s doing it now, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", 14 years, they did it back then. Grew from kid to Rock'n'roll pioneer. Gary Coleman was ten forever, while his siblings were drugged and robbing video stores, so "Diff'rent Strokes" not that good a show. These infinitesimal changes of a TV show and character, over a long term, because we get so used to them, doing those same old things every time, they're more noticeable and they mean a lot more to us, than if we had just seen them change. Dramas, I love, do this all the time, they spend their characters through the ringer of these dramatic events, and they're completely altered, but we barely get to know them to begin with? So, were not as engaged, naturally, than we would with a sitcom. Especially since, most typical dramas nowadays are so, intent on being so primarily focused on a serialized story structure.
Now of course, like any typical rule or structures, in film, television exceptions, some good, most not-so-good, but it's the distinction between the long-form structure and the short-form, parallel structures, I really wanted to focus on, 'cause, first of all, when you're trying to write or get on a sitcom writing staff, first thing they look for is a spec script of the TV show that your writing for, which is basically an average episode of the series, that will probably never get aired, but you write it to make sure you know the tone of the show and understand how to write a sitcom. In fact, you're specifically not supposed to change the sitcom significantly in a speck script. So, if you wrote, hmm, an episode of let's say-, let me find a current show, "Mike & Molly" and you write them an episode where Mike & Molly break up, you'll never get hired. The show's about them trying to be together, so that would defeat the whole purpose of the show. If a show is about the sexual tension of the characters, don't write the episode where they get together. But besides, most of the time, the structure is God, and frankly the best shows, have been using all the successful and best structures forever.
Girl is a TV producer who's always fighting with a headstrong, overbearing male boss, while struggling to deal with all the other crazy personalities around her, just to get a TV show on the air, and hopefully have a full and active social life, even though it always comes second to her work. Did I just describe "30 Rock" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"? Or course you don't know, it's the same show; it's the things that are different that separate it. There's no reinventing the wheel, it's just in how you decide to make sure it rolls. Everything circular, we keep going back to that, everything on TV, everything's still on TV, everything's referential to the past, which is still the present. Gotta know where a show comes from, how it's made, how it's structured, formatting, what it's about! That's a big one; I think a lot of people miss those some times. I hear that now, people complaining about "How I Met Your Mother"'s finale, and how, supposedly, it turned on the audience, didn't give us the ending they wanted, 'cause it wasn't about inevitably, how the guy met the mother. Really? Was it about that? If you weren't paying attention for nine years, you might think so, but it was not about her. It's a good storytelling device, but it was actually telling other's stories wasn't it. It was good, we were sad, that's why it was good, but you know, if you pay attention, not about the storytelling device; shouldn't have been that pissed at the end. It's not what's it's about; it's how it's about it, and most people mistake the how, for the what. The how, determines whether the show's good or not, the How's is why "2 Broke Girl$" sucks, but why "Laverne & Shirley" still holds up in reruns.
So, your final HOMEWORK, for SITCOMS! Take a favorite sitcom, past or present, tell me, EXACTLY, what it's about, how is it about it. Take an episode from that show, and give me the structure of the episode, according to the format given at the link above. You're going to be dissecting a sitcom episode. Also, if it's a newer show, what other shows, what past shows, are they borrowing from? And how are they borrowing from them, and what distinguishes what they're doing, from what the previous show did. If you pick an older sitcom as your favorite, do the opposite. Find a newer show, preferably a sitcom, that's clearly inspired by the older one. Any "Barney Miller" fans, might want to catch up on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" for a bit, for instance. Or on "Car 54, Where Are You", if you still consider "Barney Miller" recent. Even the original-seeming ideas have roots somewhere else, if I made you really go back all the way, we'd be talking about the Comedia Dell'Arte, so be thankful, we're only talking, about a 60-year window or so, so be happy.
Anyway, next week, we'll discuss a little more of your homework, see if you really understand sitcoms and how to consider, watch and analyze them better. And then, hopefully, we're gonna start on TV dramas series, when they became serials and before when they were more structured like sitcoms as well. We'll Intro to Dramas, so alright. If you missed an earlier class where the hell have you guys been?! Anyway, links to the previous two classes, both primarily on Sitcoms are below, and one of those includes a loose syllabus btw, of exactly how this will sorta hopefully go. That's about it, see you all next week.
And Hey, let's be careful out there. And you better all know what that's from next time btw, I'm still pissed nobody got "Norm", from the beginning.