Friday, June 25, 2021

Thoughts on the Sitcom, Part 1: Joke-Light Comedy

A year or two ago, I came across a 1979 script from the Taxi TV series.  The script was for an episode called "The Great Race."  I had remembered this being a funny episode.  So, it surprised me when I read the script and found nothing about it funny.  It was a well-structured script.  It had an engaging premise - good guy Alex (Judd Hirsch) and bad guy Louie (Danny DeVito) go against one another in a heated contest.  But it didn't make me laugh.  I watched the episode on a streaming service and found it to be as funny as I remembered.  How could a funny episode be made from an unfunny script?  

To start, the script does not put an emphasis on jokes.  The writer, Glenn Gordon Caron, sought humor from characters, not jokes.  The dialogue is specifically crafted to service the characters.  And much of what is conveyed about the characters is conveyed through performance.  The comedy comes from the way an actor expresses himself.  An actor's reactions, timing and delivery of lines can never be captured in a script.  

Comedian Eric Sykes explained, "I never write jokes."

Louie tries to goad Alex into accepting his challenge by calling him "a chicken."  He clucks at Alex.  If you are reading the script and see the direction "Louie clucks," you might smile.  You might laugh a little.  But it's not all that funny.  It is in the way that DeVito clucks that brings the moment to great heights of funniness.  But that's just one obvious example.  Throughout the scene, the actors make the scene funny in big and small ways.

DeVito looked for ways to make Louie a compelling character.  Marilu Henner described working with him in a scene:  

I couldn’t get through it all week without laughing because Danny was the devil.  When I’d finally get used to what he was doing, he'd add something else.  Eventually he was leaning forward on the word "stallion," flaring his nostrils and stomping his foot.  I wore painful boots in that scene to give myself a stomach ache so that I wouldn’t laugh.

The actor looked forward to scenes that gave him an opportunity to expand the character.  He spoke about a scene from the episode "One Punch Banta":

Louie's alone in the garage.  He reaches up into the cage, takes out the microphone and sings.  At the end, I say, "I always wanted to do that," and hang the microphone up.  That was a big, sweet moment in the first season.  It made him an interesting character.
David Jason has always been exceptional in the way that he delivers a line.  Notice his timing and emotional expression in this scene.

It is appropriate for DeVito to be clucking.  DeVito plays Louie like a bantam rooster, a small bird with a big attitude.  His dispatch cage doesn't look much different than a chicken coop and he tends to hop down onto the garage floor, talons bared, whenever he needs to assert his authority.

Dnevnik Glumova (1923)

Caron went on to create a very character-driven TV series, Moonlighting.

The sitcom writer has to create a good story, structure the story well, and set up situations in which the comedian has an opportunity to be funny.

But I personally like a sitcom that also places importance on jokes.  That's the reason that my favorite sitcom is The Odd Couple, which managed to emphasize jokes and characters.

My favorite sitcoms are mostly character-driven.  Here are a few of the others:

Leave It to Beaver 
The Andy Griffith Show
The Phil Silvers Show
F Troop
The Abbott and Costello Show
Father Ted
Fawlty Towers
Gomer Pyle
Everybody Loves Raymond

Reference source

Marc Freeman, "'Taxi' Turns 40: A Wild Ride Down Memory Lane With the Cast and Creators," The Hollywood Reporter (September 1, 2018).

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