A Catastrophic Breath of Fresh Air

written by Sarah McLean

I’ve alluded to in previous posts how sitcoms change with the times and often reflect current societal patterns. There have been many in the last few years that have turned the traditional sitcom model on its head. One of the best examples, in my opinion, is Catastrophe, a BBC series currently streaming on Amazon about an American man who knocks up a British woman during a one-night stand. Created by non-household names Sharon Horgen and Rob Delaney, they do what most shows don’t: not play to viewers’ preconceived expectations.

Horgen and Delaney created, wrote and star in the show. I think it’s because they are virtual unknowns (Horgen an actor/writer from England, Delaney an American stand-up comic) to the mainstream that they were able to come up with a different perspective from what we normally see. Rarely does something truly refreshing happen on TV, and rarely with comedies.

I love that this show unflinchingly dares to be different. When you get down to sitcoms’ nuts and bolts, they are all the same – family or friends (acting as a family) in a home or work environment who are at odds with each other. They all go through the same tropes. Sitcoms differentiate themselves through their jokes and point of views.

In Catastrophe, when you think (assume) either character will go through these tropes, they don’t. Instead, they act like normal, real life people in a real life situation, warts and all. Neither character reacts or behaves the way we’ve been mindlessly trained to see actors in television shows react. In a way, they are jolting our brains from the haze of seen-it-before-know-how-it-will-play-out expectations we have when we watch something. As nice as those warm fuzzy moments we’ve come to know and love are, sometimes, it’s just nice to not know how a story will play out and to be pleasantly surprised by its outcome.

In one episode a mutual friend catches Rob kissing another woman. So far, a common sitcom story-arc. However, the woman he is kissing, whom he despises, was the one who initiated the kiss. The onlooker does not know this. Rob did everything he could to stop the kiss from happening. The onlooker conveniently does not see this. So far, nothing out of the ordinary for a sitcom. In the traditional TV model the girlfriend, fiancé, or wife finds out and gets mad. A conflict arises. It takes the whole episode (or more) to resolve the conflict. In Catastrophe, his fiancé finds out, pretends to be mad, but only to jerk him around, laughs in his face, relieving the tension, then states she knows he would never voluntarily kiss this woman he hates. This wasn’t even the crux of the episode, merely a few scenes in a much larger story. Ahhh. Refreshing. As viewers, we all too often wonder why characters don’t have common sense. These characters do.

Maybe it’s because the BBC has proven more willing to take risks that Catastrophe was better suited to air there than be shopped in America first. Let’s face it; we do steal all their good ideas after they’ve been proven hits, of course. This also goes to show how streaming services like Amazon (and especially Hulu and Netflix) are willing to take chances on new and exciting projects (usually from England) that don’t fit the mold of “network” TV. Hopefully more shows like this will become the new normal.

Season 2 of Catastrophe is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Check out both seasons and let me know what you think! Does it feel different than other comedies you’re watching?

Likeable Anti-Heroes

written by Sarah McLean

Selena Meyer is the worst. So is Frank Gallagher. And Michael Scott. Archie Bunker. Sue Sylvester. Charlie Harper. The main cast of Seinfeld and Arrested Development. In real life these people would arguably be the most despicable human beings ever. And we’d hate everything about who they are and even cross the street to avoid their paths. In sitcoms, however, we love them. We relish in their self-involved, take-no-prisoners, racist ways. We don’t even love to hate them. We just love them. We love them for being the worst possible human beings imaginable.

As any actor knows, even if you’re playing a true, dramatic villain, you have to find the likeability and humanity of that character. They’re not really evil (in their own mind), they’re simply misunderstood. Our sitcom “villains”, aka anti-heroes, do the same thing: they bring likeability and humanity to their characters but in an endearing and funny way so we consciously overlook their gigantic, gaping flaws.

On the surface it may seem like we should dislike a certain character because when you think about it, they’re racist, frauds, embezzlers, egotistical, but actually, because it’s specifically not real life we let it slide. We simply get annoyed with them. Frustrated. Fed up. We cringe at their behavior and lack of tact. We yell at our screens for how stupid they’re being. Why do we do this?

Because there’s no hate in sitcoms. It’s never written into a script. It’s never an emotion we see from any character. It’s never an emotion we feel when watching.

These characters, even though they are simply the worst, no matter how awful they are to one another, are not hateful. Archie Bunker was not hateful; he was ignorant. Selena Meyer doesn’t hate her staff, she’s too self-involved to truly care about their feelings unless it’s self-beneficial. They both have compassion, albeit very misguided. They’re misunderstood. But in a funny, entertaining way.

Sure, we may be absolutely disgusted by the actor for whatever arbitrary, or perhaps justifiable, reasons we choose. But if we’re really being honest with ourselves, we don’t actually hate the character they play, even if they closely resemble the actor in real life.

That’s simply because hate is not enjoyable to watch. We watch sitcoms to be entertained, to laugh, sometimes to think. If we actually hated any character we wouldn’t watch them week after week. Where’s the fun in that? We watch them because they say the things we only think but are too afraid to vocalize. They do the things we would never dare do. They surprise and shock us with how far they’ll go to be self-serving. We watch them because we want to see what they’ll do next.

That is way too much effort to put into someone we hate.

What disreputable characters do you love to watch? Why? Can you relate to them in any way? Leave a comment below!

Interview with Director Mary Lou Belli

written by Sarah McLean

I recently spoke with Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and author Mary Lou Belli. If you’ve watched TV in the past 30 years then you’ve probably seen a show she’s directed. Her scrolling list of IMDb credits include: Sister, Sister, The Hughley’s, Girlfriends, Monk, The Game, Hart of Dixie, and NCIS: New Orleans. We talked about the relevance and relatability of sitcoms throughout the years, what can make (or break) a show, the importance of writers, and her take on streaming services and the resulting changes in our viewing habits. I hope you enjoy Mary Lou’s candid and insightful responses.

You’ve directed many different shows for different networks. I’m curious about your experiences on set. While you’re working, can you tell if a show has ‘it’ and the potential to be a success (notwithstanding studio head decisions)?

I always know if material is truthful and if the material strikes me as funny when I read it, it usually is to an audience as well. And as to your question of whether it has potential to be a success, notwithstanding studio head decisions, you can’t separate the two. Producer and network decisions can make or break a show beginning with who is chosen to act, direct, production design, shoot, and all the other things that go into making a show. You can start with great material, and it may or may not end up being great… but it doesn’t work the other way around. No amount of help with elevate mediocre material.

How do actors, writers, directors, and the network help and hinder the process of making quality sitcoms that can endure the test of time?

That is many questions rolled into one. Actors can bring to life words on a page, and the director can, using all the tools of her trade, tell a great story, and a network can give the product a great shot by programming and advertising it so it becomes a hit. As for enduring the test of time, if it is good, it has the chance of lasting. I teach film acting to teens during the summer, they relate to good material, whether it’s Bewitched or The Big Bang Theory.

What do you think makes an audience click with a comedy?

IF they relate to the subject.

Why do some shows seem inherently better than others?

Because they are.

The popularity of sitcoms (single and multi-cam) has ebbed and flowed since the 1950s. Why do you think they’ve never gone away?

Good writing and people want to laugh. I think there have been trends by networks and studios to think different was better rather than better was better. I also think that the skill level of the writers hasn’t been consistent. But when good writing meets a great cast and director, and it is well programmed, there it flows, and the ebb is over.

A lot has changed in the world and in entertainment since the sitcom entered our lives. How do you see them affecting/being affected by changes in society? Are they accurately reflecting what we experience in real life?

Good sitcoms are a mirror: Let me answer with relevant show titles: All In the Family, MASH, Married with Children, I Dream of Jeanie, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Girlfriends.

What trends do you see happening in scripted comedies?

I don’t predict trends, I do notice when there are more single camera shows rather than multi – and not all of them need the more expensive single camera format to tell the story. Then I question why that decision has been made.

What are your thoughts on all these reboots” to classic sitcoms we’re now seeing?

If it’s good, great, if it’s not, then networks should be finding better material.

As someone who’s directed many multi-cam sitcoms, why do you think they often get looked down upon as lesser” comedies? Many people seem to prefer single camera over multi-camera because they feel they’re more authentic. What’s your take on this?

My take – the folks who program recognize that single looks better, and it does… but what they don’t realize is that it doesn’t matter to an audience. They just want to be engaged. Steve Levitan, and I’m paraphrasing, said he never had an audience that wanted to talk about a camera shot. He has an audience that wants to laugh. He’s right.

Netflix is cutting in to the traditional TV market. Do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing for sitcoms, seeing how Netflix used older sitcoms to create our binge-watching habits and are also creating their own original multi-cam shows? Do you think sitcoms can stay relevant with this new type of viewing?

There is always room for quality. And folks will not stop viewing. They may just view differently.

How do you think other streaming sites, like Amazon and Hulu, and online content (from web series to longer comedies) are affecting the traditional sitcom?

They want to make money, they will hopefully do that by assessing what is relevant to their audience.

What is your favorite thing about directing sitcoms?

Getting to tell a funny story, working with actors and writers, and hopefully elevating what is on the page to even more excellence.

What is it that drew you to sitcoms as opposed to hour long shows?

Someone offered me a job, I kept learning and growing, and it payed well. And it was a great schedule to allow for raising a family.

Are you looking to direct more hour long comedies and dramas or single camera comedies?

I am looking to do good work, and I have made an effort in the past 5 years to move to dramas and single camera. The challenges are greater. I love the stories, and with my kids nearly out of college, I am free to travel and choose to devote more time to my career. That being said, all my training as a sitcom director, i.e. timing, pacing, working closely with actors, has informed the work I do as a single camera director. I have found that doing 1 hour shows is ten times harder and ten times wore rewarding. It is still directing, it is still storytelling, it’s just a bigger challenge so the sense of accomplishment is greater when you do it well.

Anything else you want to add?

Yes. Over my career I have seen something that works brilliantly but is not employed often enough, and that is experienced writers mentoring younger ones. With the right combination of the two it is MAGIC… the lesser experienced learn from the more seasoned. It has to be the right combo, but everything needs to be in a collaborative business. I have seen this partnership launch talented young careers and utilize older wisdom and experience to full advantage.

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I love her last point. We shouldn’t rely on under-experienced writers (and that goes for producers, directors, et al.) to figure things out “as they go” on such a large scale. Yes, learning from your mistakes is beneficial, but we can cut down that learning time drastically by being more receptive to “on the job training” and the willingness to actively help out those a few tiers below. At some point a new crop will need to replace the old guard and the more prepared they are the better.

My thanks to Mary Lou for taking the time to answer my questions. She had a lot of great insight that most people aren’t privy to on a regular basis. I think one of the key take aways is this: different isn’t (necessarily) better. Better is better.

To find out more about Mary Lou Belli, you can visit her website.

Archetypes in Written Comedy

written by Sarah McLean

Have you watched The Carmichael Show? You may have missed it. Their 6 episode run quietly debuted over 3 weeks at the end of last summer on NBC, just before the new Fall season. If it somehow escaped your live viewing schedule or DVR recording, I suggest you go watch it.

To be quite honest, I had no idea who Jerrod Carmichael was until I saw him on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore the night before his show debuted (smart marketing!). I had seen, and probably fast-forwarded past, commercials for The Carmichael Show so I recognized his name. As panelists go, he was fine. I couldn’t tell you anything he said or what the night’s topic was, but I do remember thinking that he was intelligent, funny, and normal. Seeing him on The Nightly Show actually made me more interested in watching his show, a show where I knew next to nothing about the lead actor, except for the 5 minutes I had just watched. I still had no clue as to the premise of his sitcom (having watched a lot of TV I could take an educated guess – his crazy life with his crazy family!) but now I could at least put a face to the name, and a point of view with both.

Turns out I enjoyed The Carmichael Show pretty early on and because I spent a childhood doing nothing but watch TV, I very quickly knew why: after watching only the pilot, it felt liked I’d already seen 10 episodes. I knew who these characters were. I knew their archetypes. Their points of view. Their shared histories. I knew what made them tick and how each character would react in certain situations.

To the untrained ear this may sound like an insult but it’s not. In fact, it’s a huge compliment. In one episode, the writers were able to clearly and concisely share this world with their audience. I understood these characters because they were very clearly drawn and very precisely written. There was no hemming or hawing. We learned their family dynamic, the tone of the show, their style of humor, the type of topics they’d cover – everything. All in roughly 20 minutes. That’s hard.

For most shows it takes a while to find their footing. By no means was the pilot of The Carmichael Show perfect, but it wasn’t clunky either. It knew what it wanted to be before the first episode. There was no “figuring it out” as they progressed from episode one to six. This was going to be a sitcom that dealt with controversial, topical issues in a clever
and funny way.

Shows that come with backstories, shared histories, and clear characters hit the ground running a lot sooner than sitcoms that are based on just a funny idea or interesting concept but with no real substance to stand on. You need to have your show’s foundation set and your shit together before you get started or it will be a lot harder and take more
time to get there.

This is especially huge right now since we’re in a world where most networks don’t even give shows a chance to succeed. Looking back, 2015 was a kind year but in recent history some shows were cancelled after only one episode (or even before the pilot aired). Yes. Every show needs a learning curve, and some (most) don’t really hit their stride until season two (30 Rock). For those shows that do all the work beforehand, they’re more likely to succeed a lot sooner and be given the time to get even better.

After you catch up on season 1 make sure to check out season 2 of The Carmichael Show starting March 13th. What shows have you liked right off the bat? Which ones took a while to find their footing? Are there any shows you stopped watching and then gave a second chance? Let us know by posting in the comment box below!