If a team of tasteful, classy evaluators were to compile some sort of chart or graph or list of human entertainments, graded and categorized according to relative cultural value, I'm sure the top would be weighted with the expected highbrow fare, i.e. ballet, classical music, Shakespearean drama, the Western literary canon, opera, painting, sculpture, certain foreign films, etc. Tele vision, while not occupying the extreme nadir of bearbaiting, public stonings, and monster truck rallies, would definitely fall into the lower third, and within television's vast array of options a separate system of classification would probably place sitcoms in the lower third of that. Well above infomercials and reality dating shows, but significantly below Masterpiece Theatre and the like.
I happen to be an aficionado of the form and I don 't care who knows it. Not just the “acceptable” ones, either, your Seinfelds and 30 Rocks and Frasiers and what have you, the “water-cooler” comedies of yore, in those quaint days when a show being on at 8:00 on a Thursday meant you had to be parked in front of a television screen at that very time. As I understand it, the way it works now is you just think about what you want to watch and a cloud drifts over and projects it directly onto your brain . This sucks — the future is happening without me .
Anyway, for every Cheers or Mary Tyler Moore there' s a dozen One Day At A Times and Too Close For Comforts. The dumber the better, I say, and while I do have some standards — I won't watch Two and a Half Men, for instance, or anything featuring Kevin James — there's something very satisfying and comforting about the tropes, patterns and gags of situation comedies and their endless recyclings through the years. I applaud and rejoice when a show breaks new ground and gives the form a boot in the ass, something like Community, but I'm nearly as pleased to see the venerable plot lines and jokes of Lucy or Andy Griffith dressed up in modern garb and trotted out yet again, as long as it's done with a little verve and brio. If it ain't broke, as they say, don't fix it. Some may argue that it is in fact broken, irretrievably so, and the only thing for it is to gather the pieces and throw them in the trash but I say loosen up and obey the commands of the laugh track.
It can be difficult when enjoying things that are allegedly “humorous” to pinpoint the moments when laughter is appropriate. Sitcoms take the guesswork out of it and allow for free and easy enjoyment of their hilarity. I have often thought that literature could benefit from similar assistance, perhaps employing a color-coding system to warn readers of abstractions, which can be tricky to extricate from all those words . If an ironic passage, for instance, were presented in blue type, then I would know the spirit in which to take it and the appropriate response, perhaps a wry chuckle or knowing nod. Symbolic figures could be given in yellow, and foreshadowings in red. This way we wouldn’t have to worry about misinterpreting writers who can be unaccountably dense and verbose, and can all enjoy the highfalutin’ tomes previously reserved for the intelligentsia.
While we're at it, I suggest labeling all the pretty pictures either "ART" or "NOT ART" and clear that business right up.
My own writing, while free of the kind of linguistic, semantic, and semiotic trickery alluded to above and therefore free to be enjoyed at face value by people of all densities, I fear is becoming plagued by a sameness and settling into a formulaic groove, not unlike that comprising the text of sitcoms. Which presents me with an interesting dilemma, because I assume that sitcom producers feel similarly when they command their writers to effect fundamental changes in their programs, and nothing pisses me off more than tuning into a new season and finding my favorite show to be a victim of “retooling.” In the history of television, no successful show in decline has ever benefitted from the insane last-ditch efforts of producers to recapture their viewership. Rather than letting their shows die with dignity, they introduce new characters, move to new locations, drag Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner out of mothballs and give them guest spots, and, in extreme cases, bring in a monkey. Happy Days famously "jumped the shark" and in doing so gave a name to the phenomenon, but before that they implemented some of the most ill-advised changes in small-screen history. Why did we love Happy Days? The Fonz, of course. Why did we love The Fonz? Because he was tough and cool and dated women in groups. What made them think we would accept instead a civic-minded, monogamous teacher whose rebel spirit was ludicrously transferred to his idiot nephew Chachi, deliverer of television's worst all-time catchphrase, “Wah-wah-wah”? It almost makes me think they didn't have a very high opinion of us, their viewing audience, or our intelligence and discernment.
Then there's the Brady Bunch, a show perfectly contained on one set with nine characters and the occasional guest star. If there's anything the show didn't need, it was a one-fifth scale John Denver simulacrum thrown into the mix, and yet one day out of nowhere comes Cousin Oliver to reiterate the same mischief got up to by the boys years earlier, only with glasses. Not cool.
Off-hand, I can think of exactly one show that succeeded after a massive retooling — The Facts of Life. Season one featured a gaggle of unidentifiable girls, including a young Molly Ringwald, who were later pared down to four easily recognizable feminine archetypes — the funny chubby one, the sassy black one, the snooty rich one, and the urban tough cookie. Throw in a dithering Charlotte Rae as housemother and damn! Comedy gold.
There is one show which hasn't changed one whit in nearly 30 years, except when its cast members die of old age, it's been on so long. I realize it's not fair to compare The Simpsons to other television comedies or even to anything on television or television-related, because it not only transcends the medium but also human criticism, being not only the best show ever but the best thing that ever happened, back to and including the Big Bang. Yes, the bang was big, and bang-y, but after it shot its wad there was just a lot of waiting around for all that whirling space-dust to coalesce into anything interesting or useful. The Simpsons, by way of contrast, sprang as perfect and fully realized as Pallas Athene from the bean of Zeus and has continued to satisfy lo these many years. Top that, universe.
Like the producers of sitcoms (I assume), I sometimes feel as if I've dragged too much ore out of the same mine and am now pulling up mostly dross. Unlike those pandering papsters, whose opinion of their audience is so low that they think they can be mollified by the cheap tactics outlined above, I know that the perspicacity and discernment of my readership is exceeded only by their good looks and stylish mode of dress. I want to keep things fresh and interesting for them, but I don't want to end up jumping my own shark. Imagine if you were one day quietly perusing your paper, happened across my by-line, thought to yourself, Well, here's some more tales of decadence and debauchery from my favorite demented ex-tweaker, and found instead a blank-verse account of Mr. Potato-Head's existential search to find meaning in a world gone mad, or some such postmodern nonsense. You would feel betrayed, would you not? And well you should. My restlessness and dissatisfaction does not and should not equate to you blindly accepting such experimentation or exploration I may undertake to fend off any perceived stagnation. Leave well enough alone, is what I've shouted at the TV when they fiddle with my favorite shows, and I'm thinking I should probably heed that very sound advice, at least until I become aware of a general consensus raspberry blown in the direction of my work.
Still though, I feel the urge to spread my wings, to flex my talons, catch an updraft and soar into the wild blue and other avian figures for no good reason.
In that spirit, I'd say it's time for me to put those many thousands of hours of TV watching to good use by writing my own sitcom. If you think about it, I'm perfect for the job. I'm reasonably creative, though not so much that any perceptual doors are liable to get kicked in. I can coherently string together enough sentences to occupy 22 minutes of narrative, but am not overburdened with the kin of intelligence that might unnecessarily complicate this simple and straightforward form. Leo Tolstoy may be one of history's greatest writers and occupies an entirely different and far more elevated writing universe than me. But I bet I could write a better episode of Diff'rent Strokes than he. It takes a certain, special brand of savant to write this stuff, and I believe I may be just the idiot to do it.
Most sitcoms, if they don't take place in New York, Chicago, or LA, are situated in some random, anonymous subdivision or midwestern town. This one will be right here in Mendoland and will tell the tale of the Greenes, a family whose disenchanted father drags his reluctant family up from a life of luxury in the Silicon Valley to get back to the land and grow marijuana in Mendocino. Sort of a Petticoat Junction for the modern age and filled with all sorts of colorful local characters, many based on actual people. Rarely has any setting been so effectively pre-equipped with the sort of eccentrics that make for great ancillary sitcom characters. Keeping it Greene, we'll call it. The theme song will be old-school style, where the show is summarized in the lyrics.
He raked in the dough at a tech IPO
But he just wasn't satisfied
He was just as PC as any man could be
But something was lacking inside
So he gathered the clan,
Said let's get back to the land
We’ll just drive till we see a sign
So they all sallied forth
On the 101 North
And they stopped in the fields of da kine.
Now they're keeping it Greene
Keeping it real
Learning as they go…
Greene in Mendocino!
Look for the pilot in this space in the coming months, and you can bet the Greenes will have a bitch of a time getting their crop in, what with marauding tweakers, hungry deer, inclement weather, and Captain Fathom to deal with. Stay tuned!