Thursday, 19 March 2015

Comment: The 90s Was Arguably The Best Decade For American Sitcoms.... Will We Ever See A Run Like This, Again?

As far as most American viewers and fans of traditional American sitcoms are concerned, they believe that today we are in the golden age for sitcoms. I beg to differ. For alas, that golden age has long gone. 

You go into any room and overhear or partake in any conversations regarding American television, and it is mostly related to either some reality show, drama or a sitcom. But this is not any ordinary sitcom; we are past the traditional sitcom phase and in the stage of the single camera sitcom. It mostly tends to be single camera sitcoms that attract the most attention, conversation and interest. The last 6 years or so in American television has seen a shift towards dramatic programmes and dramedy, and the decline in multi-camera sitcoms with audience laughter. Shows such as the CSI detective series, Breaking Bad, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, The Good Wife alongside the mediocre reality shows have drawn in and delighted many drama and reality TV fans; hence, seeing a spike in interest towards their TV genre. Meanwhile, fans of traditional 30 min multi-camera sitcoms have seen the sub-genre go into directions that render it almost non-existent and practically unrelatable. 

Listed below are the 6 eras of the African American sitcom, according to University of Communications professor Robin R. Means, as well as the traditional White sitcom:

The 6 eras of Black situation comedy

  • TV minstrelsy - 1950 - 1953 

Blacks objectified as comical, operating for the amusement of Whites.

  • Non-recognition 1954 -1967

Black situation comedy is absent on network television.

  • Assimilationist 1968 - 1971

Blackness is rejected to the extent there is no reference of Black culture and no sociopolitical conflicts. 

(above: Julia) 

  • The Lear era: ridiculed Black subjectivity & social relevancy - 1972 - 1983

Norman Lear introduces social commentary into situation comedies. Black situation comedies thrived during this time, due to the popularity of shows like 'Sanford and Son', 'Good Times' and 'The Jeffersons'. Race and class were dealt with head-on, but Blacks were segregated from the White world. 

  • The Cosby era: diversity & family - 1984 -1989

This era marked an explosion of Black situation comedy programming. It improved depictions of the Black nuclear family, and set a standard for non-ridicule by presenting Blacks with equal status. It was, however, devoid of racial and economic struggle. 

  • Neo -minstrelsy - 1990 to present day

Defined by its sambo, coon, prized criminal character types, this era places a renewed emphasis on the ridicule and subordination of Black culture as homogeneously deviant. 

The last 4 decades of the American situation comedy


 - Family life and parent -child relationships, centered less on social issues 

 - Saw the birth of the teen sitcom 

- Shows were targeted towards specific audiences, rather than general or adult audiences. Sitcoms made for teenagers, i.e. Saved by the Bell and Clarissa Explains it All


- Story-lines featuring long term story arcs, cliffhangers, developing relationships 

- Focused largely on relationships between single adults and the gradual development of the relationships of the characters over the course of the series 

- Friends used soap opera elements such as end-of-season cliffhangers

2000s & 2010s

- Saw a rebirth of the single camera format for sitcoms 

- Mockumentary format utilized in sitcoms

The U.S sitcom is the very sub-genre that has undergone the biggest changes and transformations of them all, - and yet, it has by and large made its identity virtually unrecognizable. The current state of the American multicamera sitcom is somewhat worrying in fact, that these days, if a multi-cam sitcom is to be found or made, it is most likely to be on a Cable network channel, or be it kids cable channel such as Nickelodeon and Nick Kids. More-so than on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox. 

There are very few multicam sitcoms existing today on mainstream US networks, in contrast to 20 years ago, where there was over 8 sitcoms debuting on a range of networks including NBC, WB network and CBS, as well as existing sitcoms that were on the air such as Friends, Frasier, The Nanny and Sister Sister to name. 

Many 70s - 90s sitcom shows in today's line-ups, along with all the reality and drama shows, would feel totally out of place. Had shows like The Jeffersons, Frasier, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Mork and Mindy, Cheers and Seinfeld been released in the late 00s or post - 00s, then chances are they wouldn't attract the massive viewing figures that they did when they were first broadcasted. & most likely they'd be cancelled. 

Post - 9//11, the feeling I get with the multi-camera sitcom, is it just isn't the same, anymore. The multi- cam sitcom format that I grew up with and loved watching, as a child and a teenager - through the likes of Diff'rent Strokes, The Jeffersons, A Different World, Frasier, Taxi -, has been almost decimated. And networks do not seem to care for its demise and the fact it is heading into a direction that I don't seem to relate to, nor fully accept. 

The Chuck Lorre Effect 

The biggest issues I have with today's sitcoms, is due to the way the character development is handled these days by the creators, writers. It's about the stars carrying the show, rather than allowing the characters to develop, to grow, to see them evolve with the changes in their work life, relationships and friendships. Not to mention characters changing and evolving with each season, over time. They also relied on puns, quips and sarcastic exchanges and banter. There was a lot of that in the 70s up to early 00s, then after that, it just disappeared. 

Many of the characters on these current sitcoms, as well as the sitcoms themselves are written in a snarky, sarcastic way - too sarcastic if you ask me - to the point where I find them less enjoyable or likable. Yes there were sarcastic characters in sitcoms before in the past, but the level of sarcasm wasn't over-used to the extent it becomes a huge part of the show that it turns viewers off.  This snarky, cynical & acerbic brand of humour in today's sitcoms needs to be better managed by directors, producers, writers and creators. 

I also prefer my sitcoms with an audience laughter in the background - as I tend to find the single camera sitcoms format difficult to get used to. 

With The Big Bang Theory looking to be on its way out, & NBC - which was home to hits such as Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld - eliminating sitcoms from its evening schedules, I think it is fair to say the future prospects of the American multicam sitcom on mainstream US TV, is looking more and more bleaker. Still, I wouldn't go as far as proclaim the multicam sitcom is mathematically doomed forever. Sure I don't connect with today's multicam sitcoms, but I still connect with the traditional sitcoms of the 1970s to early 00s.    

Even with talks of 'A Different World' being remade with a new cast, it is all the more intriguing & encouraging to see this realization come to life. But the question remains is that if it does happen and it becomes successful, whether it would lead to a spate of more African American sitcoms on US television. Would the success of A Different World's revival on Cable or whichever network it ends up on, be a catalyst for producers to create more Black sitcoms? Would we then see a successful era of the African- American multi-camera experience that echos and brings back memories of the neo - Minstrelsy decade of the early 1990s to early 00s, when there were shows such as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Martin, Living Single, The Jamie Foxx Show and Hangin' with Mr Cooper? 

The successes of Malcolm in the Middle and Everybody Hates Chris led to the outpouring of scripted comedy series without a laughter track. Before that, single camera sitcoms were few and far between. Nowadays, it is as though for networks and producers, it is the only way forward for them to attract viewers that they rely on them too much, and at the same time relegate multi -camera sitcoms to the basement. 

People complain that because the multicamera formula was more popularised right into the 1990s, it led to more and more multicam sitcoms that according to cynics, didn't measure up. There were a lot of 90s sitcoms that I personally enjoyed and found entertaining for numerous reasons, in spite of the criticism they received. People lauded the single camera formula because for many of them it feels more 'authentic'. It feels like more of a movie and a theater-type show, actors play to the camera, rather than the audience. Plus, compared to multicamera sitcoms, single cam sitcoms contain less jokes. 

Well, you know what? I couldn't get into single camera sitcoms - I found them very insular and difficult to get used to, and I will probably never get used to this formula. 

As much as people complain about the audience laughter - and yes, some of it sounds so irritating and forced, it becomes tedious -, it was a tradition to have them in sitcoms, as it is one of the conventions that made it stand out from other TV genres. It was a necessity to have the laughter track because it was what made the sitcom unique and easily identifiable as a genre and sub-genre. 

The sitcom is an abbreviation of situation comedy, but I would also call it conversational situation comedy; given that most of the humour generated in multi-cam sitcoms is generated through spoken word dialogue, witty and amusing banter and puns. 

I grew up with American sitcoms as a young child, into my teens and early 20s. Most of these were 90s sitcoms, but I also gravitated towards 1970s shows such as The Jeffersons, Good Times and What's Happening!!. I like the idea of seeing characters develop as the show gradually continues over the seasons, I like seeing so-called flawed characters transform from being not perfect to almost perfect. The transition element made the series more watchable and thus, it made you want to care for the characters and longing for them to be successful and happy, in the end. 

Unfortunately, that is not the case any more for many of today's sitcoms - multi-camera and single- camera wise. 

The difference between the sitcoms pre-Chuck Lorre age and before Reality TV first arrived on TV, is the sitcoms that date back to the 1970s to early 2000s contributed to lengthy on-going discussions about American society and culture that transcended themes such as race and ethnicity, gender and independence and personal responsibility. Sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, A Different World, Diff'rent Strokes, Taxi, Frasier, All In The Family weren't just existing for the sake of entertainment - they were talked about by thousands of viewers for the issues they addressed and values they evoked.  

But suddenly then came reality TV, 9/11, Chuck Lorre and Grey's Anatomy...... they were & are indicators towards the demise of traditional multi camera sitcoms on national television in America. The US TV industry- well, broadcast TV are currently living in a world where to them multi-camera sitcoms have no place on TV. That, or they are reduced to characters we don't care about, sitcoms that are rarely funny or amusing, and lack innovation and interesting characters and story lines. 

The relationship between the audience reaction and the performer's sense of timing & delivery of their lines, is that exact special connection you get with the characters on a multi-cam sitcom, & it is something you don't really get with a single cam sitcom. You can feel their interaction, their relationship, the emotions, the chemistry of the cast developing, which doesn't always happen on single camera sitcoms. 

In my own imagination, I would envisage a TV world where there will be a place and equal billing for multi-camera sitcoms alongside single camera sitcoms on NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC. Though I'm not a huge fan of single camera sitcoms, I wouldn't get rid of them entirely, because there will always be interest by viewers of those types of shows. I'd long for a balance between the two with single and multi camera sitcoms, and not have this unequal divide with more single cam sitcoms, and be it 1 or none multicam sitcoms. 

It looks increasingly likely the American sitcom will never see a repeat of its longevity of success, and of shows that illicit the successful period of the 1990s, where there was an abundance of them on network TV. Which is a shame; however, all it takes is 1 or 2 hits - be it from A Different World revival or whatever, good ensemble casts, good writing, funny humour and characters that we want to know more of ourselves, - just to get the ball rolling again for the multicamera sitcom. 

Because like I said earlier, once that happens and once the momentum of that enthusiasm and hype continues and transcends into good ratings and viewing figures & more viewers demand that type of programme to be on air, it should be only a matter of time until we see the multicam sitcom rise from the ashes and return with vengeance & TV glory. 

Thus, reminding us how great it is have multicam sitcoms back, and hopefully back for good.

I just want my American sitcoms back and want them in the style and format as they were in the 70s up until the early 00s. 

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