There’s a metaphor upheld in classic situation comedies – sitcoms from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to All in the Family – that may be long forgotten now but the words “filmed before a live studio audience” act as artifacts symbolizing its importance. The metaphor points to a time where comedy was acted out on stages in front of real people who laughed at jokes and digested stories in real time. The metaphor is mostly lost on those of us who’ve never had that experience – where something genuinely funny made the crowd roar and the performance itself would pause for a moment to, in a sense, fan the flame and incite a dynamic relationship between the audience and the performers. But still, the pacing and style and techniques of a traditional sitcom remain firmly embedded in our televised culture. There’s a reason Zack Morris or the Fresh Prince (or more recently, Marty Kaan in House of Lies) speaking directly into the camera, to the audience, evokes a tingling of unconventionality and the understanding that something is amiss.
The longstanding rules of a sitcom (or any of the stuff on television really) are set before the viewer implicitly and accepted unconsciously, to the extent that even if the fourth wall isn’t overtly assessed, we feel it being broken. A laundry list of tropes and methods contribute almost insidiously to the familiarity of a sitcom. But there are those (Tina Fey and Dan Harmon come to mind) that wish to break not only the fourth wall but everything – from superfluous cameras to live studio audience chairs. But to be fair, there tends to be innovation and a rich sort of pleasure that spring forth from broken things, despite the apology given to parents and shopkeepers.
30 Rock on NBC makes funny happen with a single camera setup, no laugh-track, and quick cuts. Modern Family on ABC and Parks and Recreation on NBC throw in the mockumentary stylization, perhaps popularized most prominently in the US by The Office, and garners several laughs too with the ratings to match. Curb Your Enthusiasm utilizes a cinéma vérité style to achieve the true-to-life feel without individual interviews interspersed throughout the episode, and can solicit a guffaw with the best of them. These are the quintessential situational comedies of the day, brazenly challenging what a sitcom has been long established to be. But not only do they challenge tradition, there appears to be an established new status quo for comedic delivery with new techniques and methods, which many view as superior.
Over at Salon, Kartina Richardson, expresses the opinion that “once you’ve grown used to adventurous shows like 30 Rock and Louie, the traditional sitcom feels like a relic.” She meant that in a bad way. Presumably not like a cool Smithsonian leather jacket relic once wormed by one Arthur H. Fonzarelli. Richardson implies that the very form of the sitcom has been upgraded in contemporary hands and those shows that fall behind, clinching onto tradition, appear somehow qualitatively weaker than the new standards. Supposedly, the bar has been raised. But how can the bar truly be raised by those who rely so heavily on the bar itself to stand tall upon and be funny?
30 Rock used Kelsey Grammer this past week as a gag without the need to establish why this should be funny. It just was. There was even a song at the end of the episode about it. It’s no surprise that NBC misses Frasier and its heyday of comedic glory, and refers to it whenever they get the chance. But this represents a fundamental component of the new sitcom world order: a persistent reliance on the old sitcom world order…a quality the old sitcoms surely had themselves. Arrested Development, for all its comedic envelope pushing, offered to the viewer one of the most iconic straightedge voices of the 70s-80s sitcom in Ron Howard, as a narrator. Curb Your Enthusiasm literally exists to quench a desire for a more extensive relationship with Seinfeldian story development. Resisting the lingo of the postmodern, it seems that “the great sitcom divide” as coined by Richardson and perceived by several couch-side theorists, is not necessarily a divide but a matrix yielding various shows all self-referencing the matrix.
Hot in Cleveland is just as funny as Community, if not funnier. (Let the pitchforks burn and a group of readers stop here and log back onto Reddit.) Both are on their third season and both represent modern instances of each school of sitcom-thought – TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland using not only a multi-camera setup but also a laugh track. Community is known to be tremendously clever, armed with parody in one holster, a meta-joke in the other. Hot in Cleveland instead relies on the “granny still got it” gimmick every episode (fueled by the best granny we have in the game, Betty White) and single middle-aged white woman hijinks. But whereas Community has been compared to Arrested Development in its originality (a paradox that seems acceptable among some of the most evangelical fans) and encourages a loyal fan-base to parse its subtleties, Hot in Cleveland can be readily compared to everything from Golden Girls to Just Shoot Me and has fans that were pre-cultivated to enjoy this show, to get these jokes, for the most part by the show’s actresses (and guest stars) themselves. Jane Leeves (from Frasier fame), Wendie Malick (from Just Shoot Me), and Valerie Bertinelli (51 and cute as a button) in a sitcom are inherently intertextual, if that’s what you’re into; they reference their past work outside of this show with every line they recite. And the show is damn funny. In a recent episode, flashing back to the 80s, cliches are shot off in quick succession at the comedic pace of the best “new” sitcom you can think of.
Community is great, but it doesn’t seem necessary to make a widespread qualitative distinction to separate it and its ilk from the more traditional sitcoms. The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret can be better than Two and a Half Men without attacking the latter’s set production, like the first season of Happy Days didn’t use a single-camera. C’mon! The tactic seems to cheapen more than enrich an argument. Tradition isn’t stifling creativity despite what some may believe. It just doesn’t seem to make sense that a pre-recorded audience causes a sitcom to feel stale or unfunny. And the reverse logic makes even less sense. 2 Broke Girls wouldn’t be any funnier or any better with less cameras on set. (Many people do however suggest a 0-camera setup would be optimal but remember, no Neilsen no cry.) The sitcom landscape looks a bit different today and some of us clamor for the new and cool like children not fully understanding the shape of it all, but remember all television still fits in a box fairly well. Outstanding traditional sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland still fit fairly well.