TWENTY GOOD YEARS
A LESSON IN TV COMEDY.
Comedy styles can be as different as night and day. For proof, check out a couple of newcomers in this week’s TV lineup.
By Eric Kohanik
It has often been said that comedy is a funny thing.
Not “ha-ha” funny. We’re talking funny in an “unusual” sense.
The business of TV comedy is like that these days. In fact, American comedy series are in the midst of an interesting transition.
It used to be that most, if not all, American sitcoms used a standard format of production. That format involves multiple cameras that simultaneously film a show as it is being played out in front of a studio audience.
The format was actually pioneered by Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy in the 1950s. It has remained basically unchanged ever since.
There have been a few variations. All in theFamily and its spinoffs were shot on videotape rather than film. But most other sitcoms – everything from Happy Days and Cheers to Seinfeld and Friends – basically used the multi-camera film format.
In recent seasons, TV comedies have been switching to a single-camera production format. It’s the same way that most movies are made – one camera films a scene from one angle and then the entire scene is repeated as the camera is set up to film the action again and again from various other angles.
Several comedies – Get Smart, M*A*S*H and Sports Night, to name but a few – used that format in the past, but American networks would often insist on adding canned laughter to the shows, basically because they thought television audiences weren’t smart enough to know where the funny stuff was.
That’s all changing now. Thanks to the success of such shows as The Office, My Name Is Earl and Everybody Hates Chris, most of today’s best new comedy series are forgoing studio audiences and laugh tracks, deeming them as dated relics of the past.
The two styles of TV comedy can be as different as night and day. And, interestingly, NBC gives viewers a bit of a lesson in both of them this week, thanks to back-to-back premieres of two new series on Wednesday night.
First up, 30 Rock is a wry, single-camera comedy that spins its fictional stories around what goes on behind the scenes at a TV show. Saturday Night Live graduate Tina Fey tops a good cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski.
By contrast, Twenty Good Years is a much broader sitcom that stages the bulk of its action in front of a studio audience. The series casts Jeffrey Tambor and the always-larger-than-life John Lithgow as two lifelong pals who are hit by a midlife crisis and, as a result, set out to make the most of the 20 good years they have left.
The two shows are substantially different in appearance, tone and substance. And both have pros and cons to the way they do what they do.
Together, though, they offer TV buffs a great chance to see what a funny thing television comedy really is.