Today’s TV Sitcoms Lack Charm

Herbie J Pilato

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Bob Barnett

In a recent discussion with a friend about the state of contemporary television comedies, he said something quite brilliant:

“Sitcoms are not variety show skits.”

Or as Buster Keaton once relayed to Lucille Ball, “You have to play comedy, dead straight. You have to believe that your nose is on fire [a reference to the classic I Love Lucy episode, L.A. at Last, in which Ball’s famed alter-ego Lucy Ricardo accidentally set her snout a flame).

In other words, for a sitcom to be funny, it has to be based in reality.

As another example, The Wonder Years, ABC’s original classic sitcom from the mid-1990s, was based on reality (of the 1960s and early 1970s), opposed to that same network’s more recent sitcoms like The Goldbergs, which (set in the 1980s) thinks it’s The Wonder Years. But it’s not. Far from it, actually…mostly because The Goldbergs, and other manically-performed shows like it, lack charm…which the original Wonder Years so perfectly imbued.

There simply is not an ounce of reality in most, if not, all of today's TV sitcoms.

Does every character on every contemporary sitcom have to be snarky, cartoonish, or say things that nobody would say in real life — every five seconds — just to get a laugh?

Ultimately I blame Gilmore Girls, which debuted in 1999. This show ignited the manic unrealistic dialogue that is infesting today’s sitcoms. All that chipper-dense chatter then let loose by the likes on-screen mother and daughter team Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel was just plain exhausting.

Notably, Bridesmaid actress Melissa McCarthy was a featured supporting regular on Girls, and she partook in the manic play as well. Later, the then-newly-crowned Emmy-winning star took the lead in her own hit sitcom Mike and Molly, which aired on CBS, and was produced by Chuck Lorre who also produced The Big Bang Theory, another misguided CBS hit.

All of which brings us to the comedic assault of contemporary sitcoms.

Sitcoms of today or in recent years lack charm.

Sitcoms are not variety show skits, just like my friend said. They are not mere singular scenes. They are an extended arc of scenes that are intended to tell a story with consistent and distinguishing character development along the way, whether in the premise of one episode or over time, throughout the season.

Also, too, sitcoms should not be tailored more in production, than in performance. That is to say, rapid camera movements and manic flashbacks to back up speedy present dialogue are all aspects of today’s TV sitcoms that are manufactured in post-production, as NBC’s once-great 30 Rock or Fox’s New Girl.

Conversely, a few classic sitcoms are not without their flaws either. In the latter years of the previously-mentioned Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, the actors, more times than not, started playing to the studio audience, instead of against one another.

Today’s sitcom actors, in general — not all, but in general — no longer tape in front of a live audience, and mostly now play to only the cameras.

How about if sitcom actors, in single-camera shows or even those taped before a live audience, actually just stay in character and play to and relate with the other actors portraying the other characters in their given shows?

How about the writers creating words and scenarios based on reality settings that develop and have to do with the actual characters that they have created?

How about just making sitcoms based on real-life situations and allowing the comedy to come from those situations?

Like they did on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Dick Van Dyke Show.

It’s not as though classic sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show were not at times silly or periodically based not totally in reality. But how the characters responded to those situations was always real and believable. Each of the characters, like Rose Marie’s Sally Rogers on Van Dyke or Ed Asner’s Lou Grant on Moore, had their own definitions. One never sounded like the other. None of the characters chirped out words that any other character would say. Each character’s words were their own.

As was the case when Mary Tyler Moore played Laura Petrie on Van Dyke and later Mary Richardson The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She played two different characters in two different ways, and neither sounded like any other character that she may have or may not have been playing against in either series. Mary Richards never sounded like Valerie Harper’s Rhoda (who could easily be defined as snarky indeed) or Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens (who was snippy and horny). Laura Petrie never sounded like Marie’s Sally Rogers or Laura’s needy next-door neighbor, Millie Helper (played by Ann Morgan Guilbert).

In today’s sitcom world, the dialogue between characters is interchangeable. It’s all the same. Again, snarky, snippy, and mean-spirited, and minus, yep, charm.

I measure a new TV sitcom’s credibility by using the “Ann and Don Barometer of Realism and Charm,” as presented and performed by Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell on the 1966–1971 ABC TV sitcom, That Girl.

If an actor’s performance of their character in any new sitcom doesn’t measure up to Thomas and Bessell’s quite likable and believable performances on That Girl, then I don’t bother watching that particular new sitcom again.

What other sitcoms have I found where the characters’ chemistry with one another measures up?

Not many.

In my opinion, Frasier (NBC, 1993–2004) was the last great sitcom, in general. Reba (The WB/The CW, 2001–2007) was the last great family sitcom, in particular. And I haven’t found one that I’ve liked since these.

Not even Friends (NBC, 1994–2004)and certainly not The Big Bang Theory, or a comedy like The Neighborhood, presently airing in its second season on CBS (and unsurprisingly, also produced by Bang’s Chuck Lorre).

As with Bang, the characters on The Neighborhood are showcased as caricatures, and not presented as “real people,” again, as with Ann and Don on That Girl.

As also with Bang, The Neighborhood actors perform their roles as if they were stand-up comedians, as which its leading man, Cedric the Entertainer, began his career.

And that’s fine. Cedric is a stellar talent and a great comedian. And The Neighborhood is a cute show, but it’s not a great sitcom.

It follows the set-up of “Joke, joke, joke,” but features no real characters who relate in any real way.

Friends is a likable show, and it even featured Marlo Thomas in a guest role as Jennifer Aniston’s mother. So, that was cool. But it was still too “jokey,” and did not present the kind of elegant class comedy that was showcased on Frasier, though it did have a measure of charm like that of which was presented on Reba.

Some may argue that, although characters like those shown on The Big Bang Theory may not be realistic people, they do have many real-life interactions, and the actors performing as the characters may be top-notch.

But that’s not really the point.

The acting on recent sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, and any new sitcom like The Neighborhood, is not acting, but just the performers delivering their lines in funny ways.

I see no real “characters,” on these shows, but rather, I observe a bunch of people just trying to be funny with lines they are given that have nothing to do with any true storytelling…again, unlike That Girl, and shows of that ilk.

That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Frasier, Reba, and other classic sitcoms like them, which were crafted comedy stories with a beginning, middle, and end…featuring characters that were performed without constant spastic delivery of lines.

Marlo Thomas’ performance as Ann Marie on that Girl was energetic, and spastic at times — when the comedy of the situation called for it. But Thomas’ performance or the character of Ann was not frequently and/or overtly energetic, as those performers/characters on The Big Bang Theory.

The same goes for Seinfeld (NBC, 1990–1999) in its later years.

This classic “show about nothing” was sprinkled with nothing but class and charming and very likable performances in its first few seasons. However, as the show continued, the actors overdid it.

The characters may have been defined as unlikable throughout the entire run of the series. But at least the actors’ performances as those characters were likable — in the first few years.

And that’s an important distinction.

TV (or movie) characters may be unlikable. But all that matters is the given actor’s performance as a character.

Prime examples: Larry Hagman on Dallas (CBS, 1978–1991) and Joan Collins on the original Dynasty (ABC, 1981–1989, and not the present reboot on The CW).

Even though these shows were dramas, the point is relative:

Hagman as J.R. Ewing on Dallas, and Collins as Alexis Carrington (Colby) on Dynasty, delivered such stunningly likable performances, that their unlikable characters on the show were fun and charming to watch.

See the difference?

In the early years of Seinfeld, Kramer, as played by the manic Michael Richards, was the only spastic-acting character on the show. As Seinfeld continued, all of its characters, played by Jerry Seinfeld, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and Jason Alexander, all started screaming, yelping, and over-performing like Richard’s Kramer.

Translation: not real — not likable, and relatively incomparable to the many likes of That Girl and Frasier.

The constant “mugging” of the face from characters on a TV sitcom, where those said characters all speak lines that could be interchangeable between them, does not a funny show, make.

Most of the lines spoken on any contemporary TV sitcom could be spoken by any of the characters.

Whereas most of the lines that continue to be gloriously spoken, heard, and delivered by characters on That Girl, Frasier, and Reba, etc., are lines that are indicative to specific characters — and just aren’t said or delivered as punch lines and to be funny just for the sake it — at the sacrificial expense of logic, consistency, and charm (the most operative word) of the given sitcom itself.

To further drive the point home, television comedy writing legend Ed Scharlach, who worked on classic sitcoms like That Girl, Happy Days, and countless classic sitcoms, puts it this way:

"When I was writing we would spend many days crafting a solid story scene by scene. Character development was extremely important in each script. The dialogue and jokes were merely frosting on the cake. This largely came from the school of Carl Reiner, who believed comedy should come out of the humor of real life. So — his [Dick Van Dyke Show] disciples Bill Persky and Sam Denoff developed That Girl and disciple Garry Marshall developed Happy Days. Garry Marshall and [his writing partner] Jerry Belson learned the value of story-[telling] from the best.

The early Seinfeld seasons had show co-creator Larry David in charge — also a serious proponent of constructed stories. When he stopped running the show, that dissipated.

The writers today don’t know how to write something that is actually funny but go to the easy place — often below the belt, and sadly audiences are getting used to that."

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Writer/producer Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including biographies of Mary Tyler Moore, and "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery. He also writes for Emmys.com, TVWriter.com, and is the host and an executive producer of "Then Again with Herbie J Pilato," a classic TV talk show.

Los Angeles, CA
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