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Sitcoms in the age of 'be funny or else'

Classic Tv Was Built On Cheap Conventions And Quirky Characters, Eccentric As 'The Addams Family.' It Was All Strangely Comforting. Today? Well, It's Hard To Relax Around A Show That Needs To Be Loved.

September 05, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

In the end, when my father was dying, I kept finding myself in front of "The Addams Family." Television that week actually served a purpose: It was a salve. One night I flipped to TV Land, saw Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Cousin Itt and kept flipping.

Then, for some reason, I flipped back.

"The Addams Family," like virtually every other network situation comedy that has ever come into being, is about a family (more or less) of eccentrics. The eccentrics live in a bubble of their own making; it's the outsiders who are strange. See "Bewitched." See "Gilligan's Island." See "Hogan's Heroes."

Stylistically, these shows feature many of the same things that make today's sitcoms feel fossilized: A boisterous laugh track, cheap sight gags, conflict-resolution setups that flagrantly cheat credulity.

Nowadays we're supposed to be beyond bored with this construct, waiting for sitcoms to do some other trick, show us some other way of being, but this argument, it seems to me, gets way ahead of itself. We are not talking about art. We are talking about providing consolation and amusement for 30 minutes. Twenty-two minutes, with commercials.


Maybe it was my mood (probably it was my mood), but what I felt in "The Addams Family" that week was the soul of wit. The lines, though corny, were as soothing as vaudeville; the characters the kinds of beloved friends you check in with every once in a while (which is a good thing, otherwise they would become strange, annoying and too much, and soon you would never phone them again).

One night, Gomez was in the living room, playing croquet. Morticia, with that stone-cold gaze, was primping. Uncle Fester entered. He's always complaining about something. As I recall it, he wanted a woman. Eventually, of course, he had a light bulb in his mouth.

"Oh, I love seances," Fester says in another episode. "Last time I talked to my dear, departed brother Clump."

Gomez: "Did he answer?"

Fester: "No, that's how I knew it was my brother Clump. He was a quiet one."

Shows like "The Addams Family" (which ran in 1964-66) are considered classics now, aired on cable and rereleased on DVD by studios sensing that nostalgia sells. This repackaging enables viewers to consume older series in ways that new shows can't be -- in my case, as comfort food in a time of crisis.

The new shows, by contrast, arrive desperate to be watched, like starving, unloved dogs at a pound, barking through their cages at every prospective owner. "Take me home," they scream, "love me, laugh at me! I am scheduled to be killed in 14 days!"

Simmer down, you want to say, but of course they can't. With reality TV a viable filler alternative when a show's ratings tank out of the gate, networks see ever-fewer reasons for patience. Moreover, the culture is such that competition to offer something inventive and new has become a mandate to be louder, nastier, angrier. But mostly louder.

The networks, you sense, don't exactly know what to do. They can't be cable -- where the funniest show on TV, HBO's "Da Ali G Show," resides -- but they can't exactly be themselves, either.

"Da Ali G Show" features a Brit, Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a rapper-interviewer who says "Booyakasha!" at the TV, at which point he sits down with a figure like Pat Buchanan and asks him about Iraq's stockpile of BLTs. The show is nutty, but there's also an ease to it, a sense of being playful for playful's sake. In a way, you could draw a straight line from Ali G back to Johnny Carson.

The networks rightly feel that people still want their sitcoms to look like the adored series of their youth. The template can't accommodate "Da Ali G," but executives wouldn't mind some of his edge. What they engineer as a result, though, is a contradictory mess: the dreaded family show with attitude, in which no audience is being served.

This fall, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, UPN and the WB, woozy with failure, have scheduled about three dozen sitcoms, down from recent seasons, reflective of what people take to be a continuing depression in the genre. Six of the shows are new and, having watched the pilots, I don't think anyone is thinking about TV's other purpose -- easy companionship -- very much. Rather than soothe me, shows such as ABC's "Complete Savages," CBS' "Listen Up," NBC's "Joey" left me feeling agitated and empty. What they all seemed to forget is that people who go to pounds often take home not the dog that barks the most but the one that's just sitting in the corner or pacing, acting strange. The one that prompts you to say, "Oh, look."

"The Addams Family," based on a series of cartoons in the New Yorker magazine drawn by Charles Addams, was subversive without losing a baseline of warmth, and the show worked according to its own idiosyncratic rules. What you see now is how the show combined its macabre approach with dialogue that hearkened back to a purer era in comedy. (Nat Perrin, a producer, had written for several Marx Brothers comedies.)

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