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‘Friends’ and the Death of the Sitcom

‘Friends’ and the Death of the Sitcom

The big rumor emanating from Hollywood this month was the alleged return of ‘Friends’, the colossally popular sitcom which pretty much defined the television comedy landscape through the entire course of its 10 year run, stretching from the mid 90s to the early 2000s. It made perfect sense why NBC would be interested in a possible short term revival of the show. At its peak, ‘Friends’ was watched by an average of almost 25 million U.S. viewers and its finale pulled in an audience of more than 50 million. It won numerous awards and made multi-millionaires of its cast members.

Numbers aside, the show established itself as the classic blueprint for various subsequent character-driven sitcoms. Just as the spirit of the ‘The Simpsons’ runs through every adult animated sitcom, so too does the specter of Friends continue to hang over most of today’s mainstream sitcoms.

That’s why I was glad that the rumored “Friends” revival turned out to be a hoax.

‘The Simpsons’ is (on average) a funnier and much smarter show than ‘Friends’ which is why its serves as a healthy and constructive template for modern animated sitcoms. As a torchbearer for the modern half-hour live-action comedic sitcom, ‘Friends’ has irreparably damaged not only the genre itself but, much like ‘American Idol’ in relation to music, it has devolved user expectations of what constitutes ‘funniness’ in a comedy.


Scene of the crime.

To be clear, being funny isn’t easy. Unlike other literary devices, jokes are defined by their fairly finite shelf lives, i.e. after a certain amount of repetition, they lose their utility. Rich girl falling in love with poor boy will forever work as a romantic/dramatic tool, but irresponsible husband married to practical wife was milked to death by ‘Home Improvement’ and isn’t as funny as it used to be. Sure, certain well-established comedic themes may continue to be funny if executed well or in an ironic sense (as in ‘Modern Family’s post-modern send-up of traditional family-unit based sitcoms). But such laughs are either derivative or cheap.  In my opinion, a comedy which utilizes atypical concepts and themes to genuinely tickle you on a consistent basis is worthy of proper artistic merit, given the ruthless creativity and originality the medium forces of its exponents.

‘Friends’ was an incredibly funny show for most of its run. It felt fresh not because of its approach to comedy but because it featured relatively novel and moderately idiosyncratic characters played by wonderful actors. It also connected with a lot of late-teens and 20-somethings who took vicarious pleasure in a show featuring a set-up they could relate to. As Marta Kauffman, the show’s co-creator succinctly put it recently, ‘Friends’ “was about that time in your life when your friends are your family”.

As such, to accommodate its easily vicarious vibe, the show was able to play it safe. There was no redefinition of popular comedic tropes or the creation of new ones – just six very likeable characters being just amusing enough to make us admire their world but not so amusing to suggest that their world was too far from the realm of possibility.

With its reliance on its characters, ‘Friends’ pioneered the concept of a character-driven comedy, where the laughs were a function of, either, the zany personalities of the central characters or the juxtaposition thereof, e.g. Monica the control-freak or the interaction between dumb Joey and sarcastic Chandler. Every episode pitted these characters either against each other or, once their psychologies were well defined, against external stimuli. Given the show’s unwillingness to move away from character-specific plots, it eschewed creativity and exploring other comedic devices, and instead focused on character development.

If your jokes are going to be based on your characters, said characters can only be static for so long before the jokes feel stale. So ‘Friends’ compensated by having its characters evolve, e.g. wealthy party-girl Rachel becomes responsible and career-driven; Chandler and Monica engage in a long-term relationship. Pretty soon the show became less of a sitcom and more of a soap opera to the point where there was history to the majority of the episodes. You can jump into any episode of ‘Seinfeld’ without any pre-requisite of back-story because ‘Seinfeld’ has no narrative history but, with ‘Friends’, a joke may be predicated on knowing what happened some night between Joey and Rachel.


Lets bang ‘coz we’re running out of jokes.

Despite the show’s mutation from a straight-up sitcom to something like a drama, the ratings kept on coming because by now everyone was sort of invested in these characters. Very sneakily, by focusing on evolving characters, ‘Friends’ became not about making people laugh but more about what would happen to these interesting people. That’s a fine premise, but if I want character development and complexity I’ll watch ‘Breaking Bad’.

In its interests with playing it safe, ‘Friends’ discouraged the wildly ridiculous and absurd, preferring to keep its characters and plots safely rooted in reality so that the writers wouldn’t have to look too far outward from their characters for their laughs. Joey could be stupid but not outrageously unhinged from reality like a Tracy Jordan from ’30 Rock’.

Friends’ paid rich dividends for NBC and so saturated the sitcom market through the course of its 10 seasons that it grew to epitomize what a popular sitcom should look like. So it has come to pass that character-driven comedies dominate prime-time and ratings giants such as ‘Two and a Half Men’, ‘Big Bang Theory’, and even ‘Modern Family’ have become the spiritual successors of ‘Friends’. The philosophy expounded by such shows, that comedy emanates from characters instead of the situation, does not bode well for the genre as it has given rise to sitcoms that eschew comical creativity for cheap laughs and formulaic plot contrivances delivered by familiar characters we are expected to relate to.

I wouldn’t dare to suggest I don’t find ‘Two and a Half Men’ or ‘Big Bang Theory’ amusing.  The concept of a lecherous, amoral ladies man is always going to be comical. Socially awkward nerds are also endlessly entertaining. However, I would argue that the laughs that such shows manage to elicit are merely cheap. There is absolutely nothing imaginative about their writing. If you think about it, ‘Big Bang Theory’ is pretty much one joke stretched across the shows entire lifespan, i.e., the alienated nerd dynamic. Similarly, every single episode of ‘Two and a Half Men’ centers around the dynamic created between an easy-living ladies man and his uptight brother. It makes you laugh sometimes because of the different predicaments those characters are placed in but, ultimately, the laugh always originates from the same place, i.e., the characters’ respective personalities.

Modern Family’ annoys me the most from the current crop of comedy sitcoms because of its formative conceit. Here was a show which promised to toy with established sitcom motifs and conventions and operate as a post-modern satire of the historic family show format.

It was anything but.

I was never fooled by the show’s higher artistic ambitions. If any literary device is intending to be subversive, it rarely wears its intentions on its nose. I found the choice of title itself troubling, in its use of “Modern”, as if screaming out to the audience: “Hey! This is something new and different, so be prepared”. True satire is never so openly premeditated. The appeal of subversiveness is that it’s supposed to take you by surprise.

Then there was the use of the gay couple as a family unit, which I find almost offensive for a show claiming to challenge norms. What’s the message here? Is ‘Modern Family’ saying that it is fresh and innovative because gay people are different and portraying their lifestyle in the modern era is subversive? Even if I’m over-reacting, isn’t it a little lazy to use homosexuality as a way to break up a historical comedic pattern?

As it turned out, ‘Modern Family’ had no intention of redefining the family sitcom archetype. Much like ‘Friends’, the characters were portrayed by very good actors and the laughs were a function of their personalities, i.e. the uptight wife, emotional foreigner, grumpy dad. Sure it seemed fresh but that’s only because the family is portrayed as being not as cohesive and idyllic as those in ‘Home Improvement’ and ‘Full House’. The bickering, while a very negative aspect of the show, fools the audience into thinking there is something slightly more edgy going on when, really, each episode recycles fairly predictable plots and resolves them in neat, sappy conclusions.

Of course all this is very well-executed and the characters of Phil Dunphy and Manny Delgado are a resounding triumph. But after the first 2 seasons, when the novelty of the characters wore off, the show began to creak under its own self-conscious weight. Once you get over the fact that Phil is awkward, Cam is over-sensitive and Haley is an idiot, it’s the same joke every episode just within a different plot context.

A sitcom cannot possibly expect to be genuinely funny, and certainly not funny over a stretch of years, if it is going to premise its comedic ambitions on its characters. Once you understand someone, they can stop being funny and simply get old and, if you take that person on a journey of personal growth, you are likely to run out of patience if that development is prolonged (e.g. Ted Mosby’s never-ending search for the “one” in ‘How I Met Your Mother’).

The best comedies, I believe, rely not on the characters but the almost absurd situations they are placed in or the unusual stimuli they are exposed to. Sure, you need a character to enhance the situation but that is secondary to the goal of a great laugh. It is the inherent ridiculousness of a situation or plot device that creates the initial potential for comedy while added hilarity is imbued to the situation by the particular quirk of a character. The concept must always preface the character, and this principle was most elegantly articulated by a show which set the standard for sitcoms around the time ‘Friends’ was fooling everyone into ascribing to a different ideology.

Anyone who has seen ‘Seinfeld’ will attest to the fact that the characters are fairly one-dimensional. Jerry Seinfeld himself is one of the emptiest characters ever on television; Kramer is basically nuts; Ellen and George are different degrees of lonely, awkward and uptight. However, ‘Seinfeld’ proposed that so long as you can keep coming up with unorthodox, irreverent and downright ludicrous concepts and situations for your cast to toy with, your characters do not need to be anything more than sketches. Once you run out of those concepts and situations, you close-up shop.

In this manner, the concept-centric approach operates almost as a self-regulating mechanism for the comedic utility of a show.  Rather than artificially stretch out a sitcom’s lifespan by repetitive use of the characters, the concept driven approach allows writers to cut the cord once they exhaust innovative situations to expose their characters to. Characters themselves cannot carry comedy for multiple seasons; ‘Seinfeld’ maintained its quality because of the concepts and quirks it was able to introduce into the world inhabited by its characters. Once it ran out of novel ideas, it departed gracefully into the night without the added burden of having to tie up loose love stories/triangles or character dilemmas.

‘Friends’, ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Two and a Half Men’ dominated television viewership for most of their runs but, once the shows started to wane (or, in the case of ‘Friends’, concluded),  it became clear how negligible an impact they were capable of leaving on the pop cultural milieu. Characters are forgettable, especially in a genre where they are so often repeated; concepts, however, are timeless. We will forget ‘Two and a Half Men’ and ‘Big Bang Theory’ because promiscuous playboys and awkward nerds are a dime a dozen. But concepts such as the soup nazi, man-hands and the coffee-table-book-table will live forever, primarily because the more unique the concept the less capable it is of duplication.

It’s not surprising that shows based on the ‘Seinfeld’ model are objectively funnier than those adhering the ‘Friends’ template and this is no truer than in the case of ’30 Rock’, a show which took the principles of ‘Seinfeld’ and pushed them relentlessly to their apotheosis.

’30 Rock’ is one irreverent situation after another and carpet-bombed with one-liners which can sometimes overwhelm the narrative. Didn’t like one joke? Wait around 15 seconds for the next. The plot, like the characters, are wafer-thin (e.g. Liz trying to find a man; Liz feeling disrespected by colleagues; Jack being competitive). This economy is a deliberate strategy by the writers who care less about character and plot development than they do about putting their characters in completely ridiculous situations (e.g. Neurotic Jack being competitive isn’t what clinches the laugh but the fact that Jack has to play homosexual mind-games with his deranged gay competitor).

’30 Rock’ really gives us one actual character, Liz Lemon, that too drawn very sparsely, while everyone else is basically an absurd caricature. In fact, Jack, Jenna and Tracy are better understood as plot devices rather than actual characters because of how unrealistically outrageous those individuals are. It is because these characters are so absurd that one should resist the compulsion of believing this to be a character-driven show. Jack Donaghy will probably go down in the comedic canon as a classic character but is he actually a character? Through the 5 seasons of the show he undergoes no real development and, in fact, the show is less funny when it tries to humanize him.

Given that Jack, Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney are plot devices instead of actual people, it is possible to keep them funny for a lot longer than it is to keep a Jill Dunphy or a Chandler Bing funny.  The writers have a lot more freedom to toy with these characters since they don’t have to be grounded in reality. For example, Jenna Maroney plays a stereotypical narcissistic diva. We’ve seen that before and that character type is perhaps always going to be amusing, just like the nerds in ‘Big Bang Theory’. But ‘30 Rock’ infuses the concept of a narcissistic diva with additional comic potential by taking it to improbable lengths (e.g. Jenna is only able to find true love in a cross-dressing man who mimics her).

Given the current amassment of comedies which adopt the character-driven format to the detriment of the sitcom genre, I figured ’30 Rock’ was perfectly placed to satirize the conventions of the medium to brings its flaws into sharp focus. However, ’30 Rock’ stops just short of lampooning sitcom conventions, though its writers are talented enough to effortlessly pull it off. It respects the history of the genre too much (as embodied by Kenneth Parcell) to comment on its foibles and, in any case, it’s too busy redefining the ‘Seinfeld’ model of absurdist and irreverent humor.

‘Modern Family’ was supposed to expose the limitations of the character-driven approach but the show wussed out supremely by embracing those traditions wholeheartedly. Unbeknownst to most, it was ‘Community’ which rose up as the white knight of sitcoms, aggressively tackling the limitation placed on the genre by derivative and character-based shows. While it suffers in the ratings for boldly challenging our expectations of what to expect from a standard ensemble-based sitcom, the first 3 seasons should be immortalized as some of the most ambitious, creative and offbeat comedic storytelling we’ve ever seen.

‘Community’ starts off with a very ‘Friends’ like premise – disparate individuals forced to interact in close proximity with the show sometimes pairing certain characters off. And, in fact, in the beginning this did seem like another ‘Friends’ with Jeff and Britta engaging in a Ross-and-Rachel will they or wont they. But then the two hook up, a tryst which didn’t count for shit emotionally for either character, and we’re like, “what the fuck?”. Isn’t intimacy supposed to be this magical watershed moment for characters in a sitcom?

The fact that ‘Community’ chose to place this moment in its zaniest episode where the zaniness had absolutely nothing to do with the characters but the ridiculous situation they were placed in (i.e. paintball fight morphs into post-apocalyptic survival warfare for the sake of priority class registration) was ‘Community’s way of waving its middle finger at genre stereotypes.

The characters of Community are economically sketched because they don’t need to be more complex than “pretentious environmentalist” or “indifferent wise-cracker” to make the show funny. The jokes are not a consequence of how eccentric the characters are (except Abed but then, like Jack Donaghy, he is not a real character) but a result of external stimuli  (e.g. characters placed in a law firm party) or the show’s experimentation with conventional concepts (e.g. sweet and innocent Annie dressing up as a slutty Santa). Sure, ‘Community’ allows its characters a modicum of complexity now and then (Britta falling for Troy; Jeff being insecure) but even these enhancements are done to further the hilarity of the situations they are put in (Jeff’s inferiority complex when confronted by the smoldering machismo of the Black Rider).

Recently ‘Parks and Recreation’ came along and attempted to merge the character-driven, real-world-relatable approach of ‘Friends’ with the more absurd leanings of ‘Seinfeld’. Leslie Knope, Ben Wyatt and Anne Perkins are fairly complex characters and the show is interested in getting its audience invested in their growth. However, ‘Parks’ is able to remain fresh and genuinely funny by virtue of the absolutely ridiculous characters who round out the rest of the cast or the zany situations the characters are placed in.

Ron Swanson is from the Jack Donaghy mould of characters – more a device than a person. Even the so-called complex characters have ludicrous roots which make them funnier for much longer than anyone from ‘Two and a Half Men’ (e.g. Ben’s background of crippling his hometown economically and financially when he was elected mayor at the age of 18 and established the ill-advised skating rink). However, ‘Parks’ is first and foremost a show about characters which is why it has begun to show signs of wear and tear, since we know enough about the characters to predict how they would deal with each other or when exposed to certain situations.

The creator of ‘Community’, Dan Harmon, once mentioned that a key element of his creative process was to treat his audience as intelligent and this strategy is also apparent in shows such as ’30 Rock’ and ‘Parks’  which do not condescend to the viewer. However, the damage has already been done ‘Friends’ and ‘Two and a Half Men’ and their ilk which resort to easy laughs spoon-fed to the audience by its characters that have so drastically lowered the expectations of what the majority expects from a sitcom that shows in the ‘Seinfeld’ vein have little to no commercial viability for their networks.

’30 Rock’ is over, ‘Community’ has lost its offbeat satirical appeal with the departure of its creator, and ‘Parks’ is also winding down, leaving a sharp paucity of genuinely funny shows on television. Which is why I’m glad we’re not getting another season of ‘Friends’ to remind me of how bad things are in the medium at the moment.

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