30 Rock, My Boys, and the New Sit-Com

If two is a trend, one TV trend this season is the sit-com about a girl surrounded by guys. Of all the Fall '06 class of programs, I get most excited to watch new episodes of 30 Rock, Tina Fey's SNL-inspired backstager on NBC. Another one worth checking out is TBS's My Boys, a group-of-friends show set in Chicago and led by Jordana Spiro playing a sportswriter (you can watch episodes online, but not on a Mac.) Both of these shows take existing elements from classic and contemporary iterations of the sit-com genre and put a fresh spin on them. When genres revive, as I agree is happening with the sit-com, it's usually because of a combination of the old and new, of things that still work in the genre's arsenal and things that are innovative, that haven't been tried before. 30 Rock and My Boys are especially good illustrations of how new TV shows appeal to audiences by offering imitation with variation, by fitting our expectations of what a particular kind of show should be like, but also by introducing bits of novelty. Most good shows begin not as revolutions of form or meaning, but as evolutions that modify existing models in subtle ways.

Not that long ago, the situation comedy was among the most popular and the most formally predictable of television genres. Sit-coms were shot on video on a limited number of standing three-walled proscenium sets (a workplace or living room) with multiple cameras and bright, flat lighting. The basic pattern of scene development was setup-punchline, setup-punchline, and a laugh track made clear whether a joke was merely amusing or full-on hilarious. Music was reserved for credits sequences, transitions, montages, and laugh-free message moments as when on Happy Days, Howard would offer Richie one of his wise lessons. The basic sit-com structure was good at showcasing both verbal and physical comedy and it encouraged a broad, theatrical performance style characterized by sweeping gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, loud and often obnoxious voices, and bold entrances and exits. It exploited the talents of great comic artists from Lucille Ball and Don Knotts to Roseanne Barr and Jerry Seinfeld. Lazy movie reviewers might compare film comedies unfavorably to sit-coms (search Google for "Kissing Jessica Stein" or "Little Miss Sunshine" and "sitcom" and you'll see what I mean), but the sit-com formula was until recently remarkably productive. Shouldn't it be an honor to compare films to a genre that has produced great shows like All in the Family and Cheers?

The past few years have seen both an explosion of the sit-com form and a decline in its significance. In terms of ratings, the genre is a shadow of its former self. But in terms of artistic inventiveness, the sit-com has been undergoing a renaissance. Just about every one of its basic conventions has been overturned in one way or another, to the point that in today's American TV schedule, comedies using multiple cameras and laugh tracks are no longer the norm. NBC's new Thursday night lineup of My Name is Earl, The Office, Scrubs, and 30 Rock offers two hours of comedies with nary a laugh track or proscenium set among them. The anti-sit-com has become the new sit-com.

But the anti-sit-com has its own standard elements, and now these are starting to seem familiar. In place of the video, three-camera, three-walled setup, we have a single-camera film aesthetic that makes television seem more cinematic and less theatrical. This is universally perceived to mean a step up in artistic ambition (interesting considering that in the 1950s TV would have seemed more artistic for being theatrical). In place of a laugh track, we often get an ironic first-person voice-over and aggressive, sometimes zany musical cues, as on Everybody Hates Chris, Scrubs and Arrested Development. In place of a theatrical performance aesthetic with longish scenes, entrances and exits, and scene-ending coups des théâtre (picture Jack Tripper's expression as we cut to a commercial), we get lots of very short scenes. Some anti-sit-coms offer lots of cuts to absurd visual jokes offered as characters' wild fantasies or as preposterous alternate-universe flashbacks and flashforwards. In place of setup alternating with punchline, every bit of dialogue is meant to be funny and the absence of a laugh-track means there is no need to pause between jokes. The laughs-per-minute tally can be amped up and up, like everything else in the style of contemporary media. Faster, more impact, more energy, more edge. It used to be enough to be incisively funny; in the anti-sit-com, it's necessary to be outrageous. Once The Simpsons, a cartoon, had become the ultimate in contemporary comedy, many live action shows started to seem more like cartoons, defying the conventional sit-com's limitations on space, time, and scenography. Meanwhile, South Park, Family Guy, and Comedy Central's stable of programs continued to push the edgy envelope.

Alternatively, there are anti-sit-coms that defy the laughs-per-minute formula in the other direction, preferring to be smart and observant rather than depend on jokes and gags. The Larry Sanders Show pioneered this tradition, using dry, dark humor that flatters us by not making jokes too obvious, and amuses us in part by making us feel uncomfortable. The British and American versions of The Office and Larry David's magnificent Curb Your Enthusiasm are in this tradition, and in its own way so too is Sex and the City, which is also is a key text in the other major innovation in the past decade of TV comedy: serialization. All of these anti-sit-coms have in common with many TV dramas that they tell arcing stories that stretch across episodes and seasons, and this trend has suffused the formally traditional sit-coms too, the shows like Friends. All of these arc sit-coms shift some of the emphasis away from the comic situation and onto to the character's ongoing romantic entanglements, and in doing so also shift the narrative emphasis to some degree against traditional, episodic sit-com storytelling. Weeds is another good example of a show in this mold.

My Boys and 30 Rock offer new permutations in the sit-com form that take the anti-sit-com formula and add or subtract elements so as to seem novel as of Fall '06. My Boys at first seems like a Sex and the City clone (which perhaps is partly a function of airing on the cable net that airs Sex reruns): it has a pretty young woman introduce each episode with a breezy voice-over dominated by cutesy analogies, and its plots center on relationships. My Boys's P.J. is a baseball reporter, so her metaphors come from sports and are all subsets of "life is a ballgame": having a new boyfriend is like signing a free agent slugger; some players upset the clubhouse chemistry; etc. Like many other anti-sit-coms, My Boys is a single-camera show with a voice-over but no laugh track. But its freshness is its restraint. Scenes play out over a minute or two as in shows from twenty years ago rather than the dozen seconds we often get on many anti-sit-coms. Long scenes are so unusual on television today that the pace of My Boys seems pleasantly relaxed compared with that of other shows.

My Boys is also visually refreshing. Most unusual for a comedy, My Boys avoids the bright, high-key lighting that has been standard for decades, even in vanguard shows like Arrested Development.

On My Boys, we often see shadows on one side of a character's face (as on P.J.'s, above), showing more contour and volume. Interiors are lit more like the domestic spaces on hour-long shows like Gilmore Girls than those on a typical half-hour show. This has an effect of realism and sophistication, and it effectively distinguishes My Boys from all the other sit-coms on television. Compare the lighting on two other shows, Will & Grace, a half-hour comedy with the typical bright, flat look, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, an hour-long drama shot more low-key with moody shadows and lots of contrast, as is the style for prime-time dramas today. The look of My Boys is somewhere in between these two examples, perhaps a shade more like Studio 60. This might seem like a minor shift, but it is a notable departure in sit-com style.

30 Rock likewise uses the cinematic single-camera approach with no laugh track, but it eschews voice-over narration. It's a dysfunctional-workplace comedy with Fay's Liz Lemon as the only normal person surrounded by "characters." Like The Office, the comedy is often the product of absurd or deadpan moments as opposed to setup-punchline jokes. In one episode, we see Liz at home alone singing to herself "Maybe" from the "Annie" soundtrack, a cheesy song that makes her seem comically pathetic, but also the sort of tune that gets stuck in a person's head even twenty-five years after seeing "Annie." This is Simpsons-style humor, what writers sometimes call a 2% joke: one that they expect most people to miss. (Actually, 2% jokes are jokes that people are supposed to think that most people will miss so that it can make them feel superior, but which are actually not so hard to get.) 30 Rock's style of comedy is based on tight storytelling, verbal humor, and character-revealing situations, like the great sit-coms of any era. But it is short on cartoonish visual jokes, wacky musical stings, and ironic observations delivered in voice-over. It's not that Scrubs and Arrested Development and Sex and the City went too far in exploding the sit-com form, just that by offering new, more restrained variations on the single-camera/no-laugh-track style, 30 Rock and My Boys now seem fresh--at least for now.

As a comedy about a self-possessed single woman in a big city who works in television and has to deal with an arrogant male boss, 30 Rock is in the tradition of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this way its novelty is also its retro quality, its revival of an oldie-but-goodie quasi-feminist formula in an era of post-feminist sexy girliness. The show-within-a-show on 30 Rock is semi-ironically called "The Girlie Show" but Liz Lemon is the antithesis of a girlie-girl, a point underscored in the episode in which her boss, Jack, mistakes her for a lesbian. My Boys and 30 Rock both have strong female leads, both of them women negotiating their way through a man's world. Although these shows' gender politics, which I find to be generally progressive, is not really the topic of this discussion, it's worth noting that in both of these programs, a woman is the figure for our identification. The female-centered sit-com has been a standby on TV since the 50s (recent times have also brought The New Adventures of Old Christine, which formally is traditional), but lately the genre seems to be dominated by a certain kind of masculinity, by competitive how-clever-can-we-be? boy humor. It's refreshing to have women's voices in half-hour comedies, and it's a testament to the talents of Tina Fey and Betsy Thomas that their shows are succeeding in an industry dominated by men.


the sad billionaire said...

Excellent meditation on the sitcom, mzn! I have been wondering lately about why I don't like sitcoms anymore... I haven't been able to bring myself to watch 30 Rock or Studio 60.

But I do think that there are a number of great funny shows of the past few years: of course, "Chappelle's Show," "Reno 911," "Ali G."

There are a few shows that I used to find brilliant that maybe I would like watching again: "Bernie Mac" was at one point very funny, and racially very edgy (I have heard the same about the "Boondocks" cartoon show)and "Malcom in the Middle" and "King of the Hill" are more sophisticated and witty than most give them credit for being.

I have a particular pet theory about why sitcoms suck nowadays. For me, sitcoms are fundamentally a working class form, deriving from the broad ethnic comedy traditions of immigrant entertainers. As such they are best as class-critical projects: comedies of manners that send up the idiocy of the bourgeois family and the capitalist workplace. It seems to me that Popular Fronters like Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder are really the patron saints of the sitcom. "Seinfeld" for all its "about-nothing"-ness was relentless in its fealty to this principle. To me, "Friends" was only ever convincingly funny when it drew comedic material from the most old-fashined sources: Joey's Italian-American, Ross and Rachel's Jewish heritage, and Phoebe's dumb-blonde routine. The Gen X-y stuff always seemed bad to me.

Similarly, "Curb" and Reno "911," and "Ali G" are all faithful to the socialist comedy tradition: Curb portrays a utopian fantasy of wealth and leisure constantly destroyed by the impossibility of relating to others; "Reno 911" mercilessly underlines the stupidity of police power; and "Ali G" brings the demons of fundamentalist intolerance and tribal hatreds, supposedly exorcised by capitalism triumphant, back into view.

I think that many of the writers and creators of bad sitcoms are bad to the degree that they are remote from this populist-critical tradition. I can only imagine, on the basis of what the current crop of SNL writers seems to think is funny, that we are now at a moment when many of the 22-30 year olds who do a lof of TV writing, have really bad senses of humor made worse by growing up in a general atmosphere of toxic cultural conservatism and smug entitlement among ruling-class ivy leaguers.

Chus said...

This is what I think: 30 rock