Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sitcoms--What Works and What Doesn't

Since this blog only gets occasional follower adds (it reads 3 but I've got a gazillion notices of followers) I only occasionally post here. I kind of keep it as a sort of dust bin of posts that don't really belong anywhere else but I want to rant or postulate on some random subject. Today I feel like the big P. 
So, we're going to talk. Rather, I'm going to talk and you're going to read. And if you don't I'll find out about that too. That line is from Seinfeld and the correct and much better line is given by J. Peterman to Elaine and it really is about twenty years ahead of it's time:
"Oh, and if you are undead, I'll find out about that too." delivered flawlessly by John O'Hurley.
And of course that got me thinking about sitcoms and what works and what doesn't.
First off what does work: settings in apartments or houses with multiple residents. 
Now I could ramble off unlimited pilots and successfully established television shows over the decades since radio performances morphed into television but let me just list a few:
Golden Girls
and the new and hilarious Raising Hope.
Why do they work?
Because they're a microcosm of real life, shown in all its sanity and insanity. As in, truth is funnier than reality. And skewed truth is the funniest of all. There are so many great lines that stick with people and if they don't they should. 
Simple lines are best: Rose Nyland of Golden Girls being prepped for meeting the President:
Presidential Aide: "Do you support the overthrow of the government by force or violence?"
Rose: "Violence!"
Plus there are the characters who are both constant and have developed personalities. You could rarely mistake Rose Nyland for Blanche Devereaux or Sophia Petrillo and I don't mean height either.
Seinfeld has the same qualities.
Not one of the four characters could possibly be mistaken for the others. 
And yet that is not the main reason why sitcoms fly or fail.
Guess what it is.
Almost all successful, beloved sitcoms are set in homes and or apartments. Think about it:
Golden Girls
Again, Cosby.
You have the continuity and relatability of the same characters that you can grow to love (or hate).
What doesn't work?
With the exception of Fawlty Towers which succeeded by the sheer virtue of the talent and writing, nearly if not all, sitcoms set in a hotel have either failed dismally or fizzled out slowly. And for the reasons listed above.
No real sense of continuity, many of the funniest characters come and go as hotel guests, not residents. Those who are stable characters must deal with a constantly changing cast and plot lines. While it might not be boring, it's not identifiable. People don't live in hotels unless  they're luxury suites in major cities. Most of the time hotel rooms are simply functional. You're squeezed into a small room with one or two beds, a bathroom,  TV with nothing really watchable on it, desk, chest of drawers, and a table and chair by the window. That's how I picture hotels where the lobby is more comfortable than my room. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that's your memory too.
Speaking of lobbies, most of the time, as gorgeous as they can be, they're impersonal unlike a home or apartment. Home is where you live. Hotels are where you stay on occasion. Once more, impersonal and uncomfortable. Think Who's The Boss. People live together in myriad ways either with family, friends, or live-in help. 
In a hotel setting, besides the main 4-6 characters, they have to deal with help: cooks, maids, generally unknown people unless there's a romance or other subplot. Then again, those people have to become regulars or what's the point? Where's the resolution? What happens to that lesser character? They might have great lines but unless they become a regular, who cares really?
It's like a huge unmanageable dirigible. And even then, I think that might have a regular cast of character too that regularly interact with each other as the blimp meanders over nations, oceans, mountains but that's another sitcom plot and I think it's a little Steampunkish as well not to mention a worn out sci-fi plot too. AND DON'T EVEN THINK OF STEALING THIS IDEA. Like J. Peterman said, "If you try, I'll find out about that too."
The Egypsy Has Spoken.