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Are Sit-Coms Dead?

©04 The Media Desk

       We can only hope.
       Well, that's a bit harsh. Maybe not dead, just not really healthy.

NOTE: For this discussion we shall ignore 'Brit-Coms'.

       Friends has ended. To great fanfare, and hype, with a final episode that was something between a pathetic cover of some of their better episodes and a total high-camp farce which took itself too seriously.
       Frasier is over as well. To somewhat less fanfare, but hopefully with at least a shade of the dignity and quality work that made the series one of the best to ever grace the tube.

       Friends was a prime example of everything wrong with Sit-Coms. Cut from the same cloth as Seinfeld, it was a show about something less than nothing. Jerry Seinfeld's vehicle was at least clever in its presentation of a cast of vacuous New Yorkers endlessly focusing on minutia and trivialities to the point of hilarity. Friends, counterwise, had three plot devices: who is sleeping with who, who's jealous/obsessed/possessed of whatever it is this week, who misunderstood something and reacted supidly. Then they recycled those 'plots' until you didn't need to watch the show to know what happened.
       Is it any wonder they had to use a laugh track?
       Yes, Frasier used the canned laugh as well. Everything has. But with it, it was more because they had to run it to let you know it was a sit-com instead of trying to con you into thinking their jokes were funny.
       Try this. Buy a sit-com DVD and play it with the laugh track turned off. Only a few of them let you do that, but they are out there. M*A*S*H is one where you have the option. Once in awhile something will actually be funny and you will laugh. Then watch it with the machine laughter prompts in place. You'll be amazed at what the producers thought was a joke.

A Character walks to the door, opens it, looks out, then closes the door and walks away. Uproarious laughter erupts from the laugh track.
       This was THAT funny?
       Apparently so to Sit-Com producers.
       OK, it could be if it was part of a joke, maybe a running gag, or maybe as part of something obsessive-compulsive. Red Skelton could make anything, or even nothing, side-splitting funny. But we're talking about some of these new carbon copy sit-coms.
       "You just don't get it." Well, maybe not. But still, think about it. Was it actually funny?

       We will ignore the fact that men in general and white men in particular are the only ones that can be abused, degraded, slighted, called names and otherwise humiliated without the network executives ending up in front of a Congressional Panel.

       OK, reality check time.
       And not the scripted and carefully edited reality of the so called 'Reality' shows so popular now.
       The Situation Comedy goes a long way back in TV history. Including the sketch comedy of the 1950's variety shows and before. Remember that's where Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners came from. And this type of entertainment was never high-brow. Masterpiece Theater isn't part of this equation. They went for the laughs. Lucille Ball started her string of shows in the fifties, Milton Berle and Sid Caesar put forth variety epics and others had shows that were the TV version of the One Hit Wonder. Some lasted a few months, others never got past the pilot. There were good ones, and there were bad ones. And what in the Heck was the TV series The Egg and I about? Was it based on the movie? Maybe we don't want to know.
       Some of the old sit-coms seem almost pathetic now, and most of those have been re-made and re-invented and trotted out for another go time and time again. How many single parent with smart (aleck) kid shows have you seen come and go in the last few years?
       How many re-treads of wacky work/office crew in improbable situations have you seen? M*A*S*H did it best, WKRP had a better soundtrack, Mary Tyler Moore may have made it an art, but it goes all the way back to some of the office skits on the old variety shows in the fifties.
       No, Seinfeld wasn't the first show about nothing but it may have been the first one to admit it. And it certainly took the premise to a new level.
       And the ensemble cast idea has been around since Uncle Milty put together the cast for his show, including Carl Reiner and Imogene Coca, with the assumption that if you put enough talent on one stage something worth watching had to happen once in awhile. A formula used by Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Live many years later.

       Yes more situation comedies, domestic comedies, workplace comedies, comedy comedies, personality comedies, character comedies and all the other perambulations will be on the air.
       Some will be actually funny, others will be dogs. For every hit of the Home Improvement caliber you have to put up with a few dozen The Mullets - a show about a couple of guys with really bad haircuts. Which was thankfully canceled after only a handful of episodes aired and the network noticed nobody was watching.
       And every so often a variety show will come out and catch the public's eye. SNL was the last really big one, but it most likely will not be the last of the species.

       But there is the juggernaut of 'Reality' TV. Some of them are as much sit-com as anything else.
       Others break into the realm of variety show with singing and dancing competitions.
       Their attraction is being a combination of Candid Camera and game show, with something of a Soap Opera thrown in for giggles. It is a formula that seems to have run its course, and most certainly has reached the saturation point. The new has worn off and networks are scrambling to find new wrinkles to throw in to give next season's offerings something different to garner their dwindling audience share.
       But once they start dying off, a new and improved version of Three's Company will most likely be back. Face it, until you have to pay the cast seven figures or more EACH per episode, sit-coms are really cheap to make.

       In any case, in the long run, the overall quality of Frasier will rank it much higher in the history of TV than the titillation and blush plots of Friends.
       There is at least one in TV Land that will miss Kelsey Grammer and his group.

       [NOTE: The Desk is NOT affiliated with any of the above named organizations or individuals except for having occasionally seen an episode of "Frasier". It has never willingly sat through an entire episode of "Friends" or "Seinfeld". Also, it is not in the habit of watching anything that uses a laugh track. The Desk is not on the payroll of any Media Outlet.
        The above named shows are property of their individual owners and networks. Even "The Egg and I" belongs to somebody.
       NOTE: "The Egg and I" was a 1940's book and later movie about cityfolk moving to the country and living next door to Ma and Pa Kettle. CBS brought it to the small screen in 51 where it lived a short (less than a year) but memorable life. While it was a hit for a couple of months, it just didn't have the staying power, and when its one sponsor dropped it, the Egg broke.

        Thank You ]


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