NBC Comedy, 2011 Style

Curator's Note

I watched Up All Night, a new NBC sitcom starring two supremely talented comic actors (Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph) and another exceptional one, Christina Applegate, and I have to ask…did Seinfeld happen? Because every time I started to enjoy Up All Night, the damn premise (that this was a show about new parents, adjusting to grownup life blah blah) would rear its cute little baby head and ruin things.

What I mean is, I wish the lesson taken away from Seinfeld had been that you could have a “show about nothing” if you had talented enough people writing and performing in it. You don’t have to have a premise, contrived character arcs, and so forth. You will remember that the pilot Jerry and George produced for NBC in the “show within a show” season of Seinfeld got stuck with a ridiculous plot about a car wreck and the guilty party being sentenced to serve as George’s butler.

Will Arnett must feel like he’s similarly been sentenced to sitcom character hell in Up All Night. It felt truly painful to watch him strapped into this role, knowing how hilarious he can be when allowed to forego pretensions of naturalist performance: see Gob on Arrested Development, Devon Banks on 30 Rock, Brent Wilts on The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. Maybe it’s the Ketel One product placement on Up All Night that requires Arnett’s character to be so uptight, the better to illustrate the need of parents to booze it up.

I was hoping Arnett would come in as the new boss on The Office, but I’d be a fool to complain after seeing James Spader interview as “Robert California” last season. I understand why Michael Scott needed to be much more empathetic than David Brent in order to push The Office into season after season for syndication. By the look of things, Spader’s Robert California might be a different story. I hope so, and I offer one example of someone who did learn from Seinfeld that a contrived premise and character arcs aren’t necessary: Larry David. On this year’s finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, he got kicked out of NYC by Mayor Bloomberg himself. His crime: being the same Larry David he’s been all along.


Yet another reason I've been feeling stuck in 70s sitcom hell throughout this week's fall premieres: the Return of the Laugh Track. Can anyone with an ear to the ground of network TV production practices share insight about why could-be hip shows like 2 Broke Girls and Whitney seem compelled to rely on cheesy laugh cues, sweetened or not? I felt like Alvy Singer visiting the control room of his pal Max's sitcom in Annie Hall.

Reading your post on the weekend when I'm also watching all the pilots and first episodes of the past week, I'm feeling cautious optimism about the possible return of the sitcom. Not that it's been completely absent in recent decades--though hardly as it was during the seventies and eighties. The two new ones on FOX, The New Girl and Raising Hope, show some potential if no one wrecks it. Both seem to be using stereotypes (gender in the former, social class in the latter) in ways that, at least mildly, seem to challenge their existence (my money at the moment is on Raising Hope--seems more innovative altogether). Will advertisers catch on? Or could it be that the return of the sitcom could be matching the ambitions of some of the "quality" dramas out there this season? Certain people still watch these, after all.

In my contribution to this week's theme, I speculated about the possible disappearance of cable-specific program genres. That wasn't to say that cable can't still be an outlet for the sorts of programs that are now available in other places. Sitcoms and drama definitely qualify--provided we can afford and still want to pay for cable subscriptions.

The Baby Boomers and even the early end of Gen X have a few good years left--especially what are presumed to be our higher-earning years. Catering to our longer attention spans and desire for well written shows might not be such a bad idea when you think about it.

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