Parks and Recreation and Single-Cam Sitcoms

That laff-track, studio-audience sitcoms still exist in a post-30 Rock / –Office / –Scrubs / –Malcolm in the Middle era is as confounding to me as the length of hockey season. What’s the allure, exactly? Sitcoms have always been my favorite genre of TV—and I say this as a fan of Six Feet Under, Twin Peaks, and the Sopranos—but one of the difficult things about admitting that you love sitcoms is how unbearably formulaic and plodding they can be.
For, oh, fifty years, every sitcom was built of scenes the dialogue to which fell into a nice rhythm. Line-line-line-laff. Line-line-laff. Line-line-line-line-big laff. It got depressing. Even at their funniest, your laughter was always supplanted by recorded laughter, and always met with the hammy patience of the actor waiting to proceed. And now there are sitcoms that don’t do this. There’s no waiting for laughter sounds to diminish, and so rhythm—i.e. timing, that which any comic will tell you is key to a good joke—is so much more loose and interesting. A belabored analogy: whereas Everybody Loves Raymond is a waltz, 30 Rock is jazz.

It doesn’t take an Alessandra Stanley to know that sitcoms are America’s least favorite genre of television. We’d much rather watch reality television—American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, specifically—or one hour dramas, preferably in a multi-program franchise, definitely about crime and the solving thereof. In the top 20 Nielsen-rated shows for the 2008-2009 season, there’s only one sitcom listed, and it’s currently tied for the number 11 spot with a show named Criminal Minds that I’ve never heard of. That sitcom is Two and a Half Men.

Fine. It’s a fine show, laff-track in place and everything predictably fun and I’m not here to disparage the show. I’m not here to be some kind of TV snob who knows what’s best for U.S. audiences. But this is pretty bleak news to me. I know that some of the best TV-writing happening right now is with the one-hour dramas, particularly those on HBO, but for me TV comedy writing is where the interesting work is being done. And nobody seems to be paying any attention.

Is why I was excited about Parks and Recreation, the new Amy Pohler vehicle. If you haven’t seen it, Pohler plays Leslie Knope, a government official in the eponymous department in fictional Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a poor choice role for an actress so great at improvisation and offbeat characters. Knope’s not so much the straight-woman on the show as she is the idiot among a group of wiseacres. If you’ve seen The Office, she’s basically a female Michael Scott, which makes sense given that the shows have the same creators.

But even though I like The Office, I’m starting to see it in the same kind of plodding, predictable way I see laff-track shows. Because of course the thing about these shows is that they’re mockumentaries, which has been great for movies, but not so much for TV shows. Who would make a documentary about such undistinguished people for so many seasons? Who are these characters still talking to? In the 20th century, canned laughter would signal to us that something funny has just been said. Now, Jim Halpert (or his P&R twin, Tom Haverford) looks deadpan into the camera.
It gets a bit predictable. Couple this with the hyperspecificity of its central premise—Knope isn’t just a parks and rec official, she’s a parks and rec official who spends every day of her job trying to turn an eyesore into a park—and now half-a-dozen episodes into the series I’ve no interest in what’s going to happen to these characters. Each episode is the same general story. All the characters act according to their three-sentence bios.

This post may just be a way for me to articulate why I love 30 Rock so much. It’s so fast! And it’s not like Gilmore Girls, overwritten-dialogue fast, it’s fast in how unconcerned it seems with its audiences getting its many, many incredibly good jokes. Just this past week, a scene opened with a throwaway line from one of Kenneth’s studio tours: “And here’s where Gracie Allen took Jack Paar’s virginity.” The wonder hidden in such a line. All the possibilities it seems to suggest. And it was practically interrupted by a plot-forwarding line. You had to pay a lot of attention to get it.

Or, you have to have a DVR. We watch TV so differently now,* it’s nice to know some people are writing so differently, too.

* This is maybe code for N & I bought an HDTV this weekend.

2 thoughts on “Parks and Recreation and Single-Cam Sitcoms”

  1. Yes! Those camera glances and sidelong looks between Jim and Pam in the American Office have always annoyed me, and they’re a big reason I can never get into the show. You have put your finger on why. Nothing ruins a joke like being told that it is funny.

    You omitted Arrested Development and Larry Sanders in your list of single-cam, no laff-track comedies. They are also kind of in the mockumentary style, at least AD is, and of course they are both pure genius. But maybe you were listing hit network shows: AD was far from a hit and LS was not on a network. I’ve never seen 30 Rock, but your description of why you like it is the exact same reason I love AD.

    For some reason I can not bring myself to watch TV shows on the air. I always wait a few years and start on DVD. Mad Men, Weeds, AD, The Wire, The West Wing, I never saw them on the air. Unfortunately I think I’m to blame for the networks giving up on scripted shows!

  2. Oh gosh, duh. Arrested Development is exactly on par with what I’m talking about with respect to laff-track-lack and comic rhythm. And I guess if I were to be more thorough and write this up as like a pop-culture conference paper or something, I’d have to give credit where credit’s due: The Simpsons being clearly the first laff-trackless sitcom on TV.

    Then I could try to make an argument that the Seth-McFarlandian non sequitur does for his shows what laff tracks once did for others, though I think here’s where the argument would begin to break down.

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