Setting, Son: What Makes a Comedy Good
For the week of April 16-22, the two most popular comedies on American television were Two and a Half Men and King of Queens.
The shows attracted 13 million and 12.2 million viewers repsctively, and those telling figures have appalled many TV critics, who are coming to terms with the same conundrum that has irked music writers for nearly a century.
Why can't the most innovative comedies - those that clean up during awards season - attract better or even similar numbers to the canned dreck that kills in the ratings?
Some, including Dispatch movie critic Molly Willow, have analyzed the use of laugh tracks, comparing those with tracks or live audiences to "silent" shows. Though the straight laugh track might be on its way out, she noted that shows filmed in front of crowds, like Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine, are among the most popular.
Others like TV Guide writer Matt Roush have noted many reasons why great shows such as The Office have suffered. In a recent column, he noted that some of NBC's gems have a "cult feel" and are hindered by a haphazard schedule. [More]
I don't watch much beside baseball during the spring, summer and early fall, but I've seen enough shows to know my favorites and the ones I genuinely despise.
I'm no research expert, so I can't really comment on why certain demographics don't love certain shows. But lately, I've been more interested in why I love some current sitcoms and hate others so thoroughly.
First, some lists.
The sitcoms I despise: The New Adventures of Old Christine, How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men.
The sitcoms I enjoy: The Office and 30 Rock.
Looking at these shows, which sit in two camps very far from each other, there is one difference, and I think this one difference makes the hit shows both popular and despicable.
That differrence would be a strong sense of place.
Sitting down to write this, I can't for the life of me tell you where any of the shows I despise are set. The New Adventures of Old Christine and How I Met Your Mother take place in an American city. Two and a Half Men takes place near water.
I know that much.
But beyond generalities, place is not important to these sitcoms - one possible explanation of their popularity. By defining place broadly, more audiences can relate to the generally vague plots about dating, marriage and the workplace. Set in Anywhere, USA, situational jokes could, it seems, happen anywhere.
So when Neil Patrick Harris (Barney on Mother) makes one of his blank-eyed statements about a woman he's had, she could live anywhere where sardonic singles congregate. When Charlie Sheen (Charlie on Men) rips Jon Cryer (Alan) for his fastidious lifestyle, their comic feud could be happening to any generic neat freak and slob across the nation.
On the other hand, the shows I love - especially those that I love now - couldn't unfold anywhere outside the places to which they have been expertly anchored by writers who are subtly aware that the where is as important as the who and the why.
The Office is perhaps the best example.
Daily grinds happen everywhere, but only at a mid-range paper supply company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, could the peculiar events of the Dunder Mifflin staff unfold with such depressing grace. Only there, at Poor Richard's or a strip-mall Chili's, do jokes embodying a listless life take on such comedic power.
That many can name the show's host city is important.
Taking this premise retroactively, back a decade or so, most of my favorite comedies on cable and network TV share this geographic uniqueness: the small mountain town depicted in South Park; the peculiar Manhattan bustle that propelled Seinfeld; and L.A.'s sprawling concrete jungle shown to be such a bother to those on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Even on The Simpsons, which leaves the true identity of Springfield hiraliously vague, there is a sense of the mechanics, character and physics of the mid-American town.
With its nuclear reactors, overbearing boss lord and drab convenient store, Springfield is, in fact, one of the best characters on the show.
Settings in most of the best comedies over the past decade shared this position as a primary protagonist and existed as a narrative element that if absent would destroy nearly all of the clockwork with which the best comedies function.
By playing on the quirky characters outsiders assume live in New York and the people that actually reside there, the show was able to transport the core characters into the various microcosms often contained in a single NYC block. Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George were skilled at analyzing the most minute details of a coffee shop or an angry soup chef, but their camaraderie could work only in a place chock-full of peculiar goings-on.
The town of South Park, Colorado, works in an opposite but equally intriguing way. It's bland, devoid of action, covered in a constantly drab blanket of snow, and it's a perfect complement to the lo-fi art that has defined the show. Together, the scene and setting make the epic showdowns, big-issue debates and life-or-death scenarios much funnier.
Things just wouldn't be as entertaining if Mecha-Streisand and a super-powered Robert Smith battled for Tokyo.