Crumbs: how to write a sit com

Crumbs_1 Crumbs premiered last night on ABC.  Marc Berman calls it "the funniest new sitcom of the season."

Pam and I weren’t very many minutes into Crumbs when she exclaimed, "I know this story!"  Art was imitating life most precisely: a gay writer from Hollywood, the family owned restaurant, the 3 sons, one of whom dies tragically, the instability of one parent, the infidelity of the other.  It was as if Greenwich gossip had taken to the screen.  The very particular story of one local family was now the stuff of prime time TV. 

And this art imitates life once excluded from prime time TV, managing, in the opening 2 minutes, to reference gay sex, interracial sex, sex in a public place, sex with one’s psychiatrist, and sex with one’s hospital attendant.

John Crook says series creator, Marco Pennette, was "convinced such a show would be too unconventional and daring for a network to consider. Fortunately, in the wake of … wildly successful shows such as Desperate Housewives and Lost, ABC jumped at his pitch."  We might add to this the license established by HBO and cable TV.

Art raiding life turns out, in this case, to be good for a sit com.  It confers a certain freshness, a new narrative range, the ability to surprise.  Many sit coms are over formed.  All the narrative excitement must come from a single pretext.  On Two and A Half Men, this means working the rich but pretty narrow formula established by the Odd Couple.   

But Crumbs reaches out of the usual situations into family tragedy, personal hardship, and most powerfully into the particular and the idiosyncratic: a restaurant, a brother’s death, a mother’s mental illness, a father’s infidelity.  These are not the things that normally "make the cut" when creative choices are being made.  It is by hewing to life (or something life-like) that Pennette is able to import the unpredictable and so distinguish his show from the usual sit com. 

Jonathan Miller once argued that the surest way to starve a stage play was to make a character overdetermined.  He noted, for instance, that if we make confer upon the character all the characteristics that say, "elderly" (i.e., grey hair, stoped posture, quavering voice, myopic gaze and so on), that the character disappears from view.  The highly redundant character is invisible. The secret is to make sure that some part of the character "plays against type."  The voice should be youthful, or the hair red, or the clothing fashionable.  Some part of the character should be, strictly speaking, unexpected, unpredictable, and "wrong."  Now the character lives.

Of course, sit coms don’t simplify because writers are lazy or because we want our comedy dumbed down.  They narrow the narrative package because this is the gesture of economy on which all comedy depends.  We always remove from the signal anything that might interfere with reception.  Charlie Sheen as whathisname on Two And a Half Men is funnier when we don’t have a back story for him.  All communication must begin with a massive act of exclusion.  There is, in short, a good reason why most sit coms pare away the idiosyncratic and the particular.  They just get in the way.

So why is it that we are now willing to entertain entertainment with Pennettian surprises?  Why is the sit com now leaning in the direction of the stage play?  Why is it bowing to Miller’s dictim, having for so long scorned it?  I raised this question on Tuesday and several posters suggested that the answer lay in the book by Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good For You

But this mistakes the question I am asking.  I get that we are more sophisticated as cultural consumers.  I understand that DVDs and dot.com communication allows us to master complexity in ways we could not before.  I am asking a different question: what makes us want this kind of complexity, especially in an era in which we so routinely suffer information overload and attention deficits?

I think the answer might be that we are in a period of transition moving from cultural consumers to cultural producers.  We get the basic propositions of a TV show in one and then even as we take up residence in the show we question casting choices, cameras angles and the actors’ comedic timing.  We’re redoing the show "in our heads."   It’s as if we having extra processing cycles to work with. 

The thing about formulaic TV is that it represents a kind of tournament approach to creativity.  One idea takes all.  We decide the show is about an odd couple.  Hey, presto, the thing is done.  All that remains now is the ingenuity required to make the jokes extracted from the proposition witty enough to sustain our interest.  (And it is a measure of how very good are the writers and actors of Two Men that they have managed to sustain the thing this well this long.) 

And how that we are, in a sense, co-producers of the comedy in question we particularly resent the tournament model.  Give us any piece of the proposition and we can pretty much guess the rest.  Idiosyncratic comedy is harder and more interesting.   The combinatorial possibilities begin to multiply.  Predicting becomes much harder.  There is much more to second guess.  In effect, tournament comedy cuts us out of the action.  We like the big idea, or we don’t.  But there’s not much we can do about it.  Combinatorial comedy gives us somethng to work with.  And with all the extra processing time on our hands, we need something to work with.   

Of course, this is a way of going back to the Jenkensian point that says the cultural consumers are more sophisticated.  And I am quite sure that this take on Crumbs owes a good deal to my colleague at MIT, Sam Ford and his recent paper on Fan communities.  But I believe (rather too defensively?) that this approach to the new structural properties of popular culture takes us beyond the ground mapped out by Johnson. 

We shall see how Crumbs does.  But, in general, I think there is a "take-way" for those of us who craft the cultural artifacts of contemporary culture.  If we want engagement with a single consumer or a community of consumers, we  want to stuff the signal with the unpredictable and the idiosyncratic as surely as we once stripped this out.  Once committed to the unmistakable and the indubitable, popular culture has had a change of heart.

References

Berman, Marc.  2006.  The Programming Insider.  Friday.  January 13, 2006.  (I think this comes to me by special subscription.) 

Crook, John. 2006 ‘Crumbs’ Turns Family Pain into Dark Comedy.  www.tv.com.   here.

Ford, Sam.  2006.  Fan Communities.  White paper, Comparative Media Studies Department, MIT, in press.

Jenkins, Henry.  2006.  Convergence Culture.  New York: New York University Press.  Forthcoming.

3 thoughts on “Crumbs: how to write a sit com

  1. Matt

    “The thing about formulaic TV is that it represents a kind of tournament approach to creativity. One idea takes all. We decide the show is about an odd couple. Hey, presto, the thing is done.”

    And of course, once the audience draws the same conclusion, it saves them the hassle of actually _watching_ the show.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    I think Johnson’s ideas about the complexity of modern television is a piece of the phenomenon you’re describing, Grant. Another may be the idea at the center of his book: the “gaming” of modern consciousness. With so many in the audience familiar with the unfamiliarity/unpredictability of game worlds, making the game up as they go along, formulaic TV becomes Pong-like: fun “back in the day” but sort of goofy today. Auteurs from World of Warcraft and Second Life have little patience with the ready-made! Give them something they can sink their teeth into. “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” are two great examples providing not caricatures, but vivid archetypes in motion.

  3. Sam Ford

    Grant, I really enjoyed the essay. I’ve been watching a lot of “conventional” television shows lately, some of the classic sitcoms that I’ve been collecting on DVD (preparing for a semester of studying the history of television). The thing about shows like “Bewitched” and “I Love Lucy” is very much that almost every episode springs from the same premise–a witch is married to a human, who doesn’t want her to use or witchcraft; or, Lucy wants to get in the show but Ricky doesn’t want her to, so she finds a way to sneak in anyway and it backfires. As some sitcoms have become more complex, they’ve become harder to predict–but, even more than that, you are right about the viewer gaining increasing influence on television programming.

    My thesis research at MIT is in the realm of the soap opera industry, and prior research I have done is on professional wrestling. In both sectors, it’s quite amazing how much of an influence the Internet audience becomes on the product, in particular. It seems that, more often than not, producers gain a lot of new insight and a lot of good ideas by paying attention to audience reactions and suggestions and going with them…

    Speaking of such, it was interesting to see the shows that are taking home Golden Globes…House and Lost, among others, two shows that have been credited with belonging to the same type of television you’re discussing, not just complex but much more viewer-driven than some situational comedies from the past.

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