Friday, March 14, 2014


When I first moved to Los Angeles one of the first show biz anecdotes I heard was about this veteran writer pitching at All In The Family.  Norman Lear asked him "what do you have for us?" and he pulls out a sheet and says "same stuff as always: the old flame, the high school reunion, the cabin in the woods...."

And it's true. Sitcoms try to come up with novel situations, but there are only so many. Heck, watch a Simpsons and whatever it is they've done four or five times already.  But by coincidence, on Wednesday, when I watch The Middle, Suburgatory and Modern Family, each one reminded me of a specific sitcom from the past.

First was The Middle.  One of the characters was in big trouble with the law due to a library book long overdue.  This reminded me of an early Seinfeld built around a library book out for a very long time. (Philip Baker Hall has a memorable guest shot in the episode.)

Next, Suburgatory, and this one was almost note for note (so it's interesting the AV Club gives it an A and doesn't even note the similarity): Tessa meets her male counterpart, and at first she's thrilled but by the end of the episode she realizes it won't work.  This is precisely what Seinfeld (once again) did.  At the end of season seven, Jerry meets a character played by Janeane Garofalo, who's just like him.  He falls in love and proposes, but soon regrets it and wants out.  They break up in the first episode of season eight.

Finally, on Modern Family (which has at least three plots an episode, so they run through a lot), Claire and Gloria take Lily out to by her a flower girl dress.  When Gloria finds out Claire didn't have a wedding dress, she insists Claire try one on.  Admittedly, Claire didn't much go for it, but it did remind me a bit of the Friends' episode were all the women, even if they're not getting married, try on wedding dresses.

There are only so many plots.  It's really what you do with them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How important are the plots to comedy? Superficially, they don't seem to matter because the jokes are thing. I suspect though that they are the load bearing walls to larger comedic architecture (yes I am proud of that).

I read a PG Wodehouse bio a few years back that indicated that he spent most of his time working out the plots though I'm guessing few of his ardent fans can really remember many of them as opposed to the one liners and Bertie's goofy utterances.

6:23 AM, March 14, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

On Seinfeld, Jerry and Larry David always said we can always figure out how to be funny, the trick is coming up with good plots.

I've recently been rewatching Taxi and I'm surprised at how imaginative the plots are. In sitcoms, you have to get down the characters so you know where the laughs come from, but the plots are essential and can get harder and harder after a few years.

Wodehouse's farcical novels do have well-constructed plots. Each chapters ends with a cliffhanger that keeps you going till the end. It's not easy being funny and novel-length.

10:05 AM, March 14, 2014  
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2:31 AM, July 13, 2015  

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