The classic multi-camera Situational Comedy with its simple beginnings is no longer cutting it in an overflowing sea of complex content. In order to gain some further insight into the field, I sat down with a prominent director in the medium, Joel Zwick.

The 11-year period referred to as the Golden Age of Television (1948-1959) begins in the fall of 1948, when the four networks of the time, American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the National Broadcasting Co. (NBC), and the DuMont Television Network (1946-1955), began regular scheduled programming during prime time, which was established as occurring from 8-11 PM Eastern Standard Time.

The early content found on television were vaudeville-based variety shows and plays that made easy transitions to the small screen and lended the associated quality that created TV stars and garnered critical acclaim. However, the rapid period of progress and adjustment also made way for less highly regarded content. Producers sought inexpensive programs that could be made efficiently to satiate a rabid, fascinated audience. Thus, the sitcom formed and effectively replaced anthology and vaudeville shows to become TV’s most prolific genre.

The situation comedy or the sitcom is traditionally defined as a “30-minute format featuring a continuing cast of characters that appeared in the same setting week after week. Audience laughter (either live or by way of an added “laugh track”) usually featured prominently in these shows, most of which were built around families” (Allen, Thompson, 2017). However, as the television medium has expanded tremendously, so has the definition of a sitcom.

In 1951, Desi Arnaz knew his wife, Lucy, was a star. He thought he would see her shine the brightest if she was in front of an audience. Thus, began the live-audience, multi-camera sitcom. He added three, film cameras (much cheaper and easier than Kinescope) which meant less time per take and more audience enjoyment, it was pre-recorded instead of being broadcast live, it was episodic, and it began the production migration from New York to Hollywood. The show’s tremendous success ensured that Arnaz’s methods should continue.

Nine years earlier, in 1942, Joel Zwick was born. Growing up in Brooklyn during the height of escapism programming and rural sitcoms was the boy who would become the hugely influential sitcom director of Laverne & Shirley, Perfect Stranger, Full House, and Family Matters, to name a few. A self-proclaimed “nice, Jewish boy” set his sights on becoming a doctor, but quickly realized he was not cut out for the work. With remarkable honestly, Zwick discusses his elopement with his first wife “to keep him out of the war.” His witty sensibility makes him an enviable storyteller and I’m not the first person to recognize his gift.

Zwick was enrolled in an acting workshop when his instructors noticed his directing potential. From there, Zwick saw a steady employ in theater until a friend cast as a regular in a sitcom convinced him to make the move to Hollywood. By this time, sitcoms had switched to from film to tape, even cheaper and more efficient than the previous. He ended up getting his first TV directing gig by telling the “head lady” of ongoing production at Paramount, “Listen, I’ve never directed a situation comedy in my life, but I’ve been watching, and in my estimation, a retarted monkey can direct sitcoms…I can talk to actors and I can talk to writers; you oughta give me a shot!”

After garnering a few more notches in his belt, he ran into an impressed Gary Marshall who apparently said, “I oughta give you a shot with the girls next year,” referring—of course—to his sister Penny Marshall’s iconic number 1 show, Laverne & Shirley. Since his first episode of Laverne & Shirley in 1978, Zwick has churned out well over 650 episodes of television and four films, including the blockbuster hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Joel has a unique perspective on streaming services as his daughter leads the Kid’s and Family Content department at Netflix. He believes while still a prominent force, networks and cable impart much less authority than they used to, but still more than he expected. Joel experienced the tight grip of Warner Bros. and Netflix when he directed a few episodes of Netflix’s Full House reboot, Fuller House. On the topic of revivals and resurgences, Joel exclaimed, “it’s such a blessing!” He explains, “you normally assume in life that the past is the past. You hope not to have screwed it up too much and that your present continues and your future’s still bright, but now, all of the sudden the past isn’t the past! Just like that!” He elaborates that the stars of the 80s television show are experiencing a new wave of attention after 25 years of not playing their beloved characters. He says, “it’s very cool to become relevant again despite the fact that they {you} haven’t done anything new to be relevant.”

Aside from the fact that the revival trend is “cool,” Zwick does acknowledge that it narrows the field. He discusses that the reboots are not as hot as they were at their start. Reporting that the only one doing well is the reworking of the Rosanne reboot, The Connors. In that sense, maybe it is better to leave the past alone. These revivals reintroduce us to old favorites who were beloved as children, yet they no longer have the youthful buoyancy in their mid-50s that made the shows what they were at their peaks.

Since Joel’s career started, there has been an explosion of niche content. For him, it all began with four-quadrant, mass-appeal shows, but in the mid 80s, he began to notice the dwindling of all-engrossing audiences. Ratings have become less relevant because the amount of content guarantees less people tuning into the same show at the same time. Bosom Buddies (1980), starring Tom Hanks, with many episodes directed by Zwick, was cancelled with a near 17.6 rating when a show with a 5, today, could be renewed for years. To Joel, niche content means there’s much more work, but there’s also many more people trying to find it, so the ratio of jobs to the job-hungry has remained relatively consistent. He also sees that it provides opportunity for marginalized groups to have their voices heard.

Back when Joel worked on Laverne & Shirley, he notes that there was only one female writer on the staff of a show about the female experience. He admits “It was a male dominated thing, with male bullshit. The writer’s rooms looked like locker rooms” and even if a woman finagled her way into the room, she wasn’t necessarily heard with the same authority as the men around her. He proclaims that lack of representation is to the detriment of authenticity and that, “you’ve had strong women all along the way who’ve made their voices heard, but it’s not the same thing as what’s going on now; you have a bunch of women writing stories about and for women (that they understand) and they’re looking primarily to gain a women’s audience (which is decidedly larger than a male audience in TV).” He extends the same response to the increase in representation for other marginalized groups.

However, he unproudly admits that his adolescence in the streets of Brooklyn gave him a closer proximity to an “urban” existence, so he was considered the “go-to African American director.” He did the pilot for Family Matters, The Wayans Brothers, episodes for The Jamie Foxx Show, and was “all over the board of African American comedies” because there was a “dearth in African American directors.” He attributes this lacking to a systematic level of oppression. There weren’t opportunities for marginalized groups in the older Hollywood white patriarchy and the job requires training. He asks, “why would they train” for a job that they wouldn’t get? This heavily contrasts with “what’s happening now,” he says. The influx of diverse peoples training for these same roles and applying for these jobs are now being considered on a basis of talent.

Zwick goes on to determine that the sitcom used to be a “simpler affair.” Now, he supposes, “if it’s close to thirty minutes long and it poses to be funny, it’s a sitcom.” However, if we are sticking by the classic definition of the sitcom, 30 minutes of live-audience, multi-camera comedy, then that has been in a “bad decline” since the early 2000s. Single-camera shows without a live audience are perceived as much higher quality than its traditional counterpart. While no single camera, laugh-track-free shows have ever come close to the broad success of Friends or Seinfeld, it may be “pointless to try and aim for that kind of popularity in today's fragmented TV market, and people who try usually fail” (Weinman, 2017).

With the exception of the few, live-audience, multi-camera sitcom reboots, based on numbers, it looks like the popular sitcom is out with the old and in with the single camera. The revival and reboot trend is just that—a trend and there will soon come a time where it’s no longer in fashion. Despite all of the change, Joel doesn’t seem to think any permanent endangerment will come to his beloved sitcom for the very reason it has endured for this long, “human suffering and the ever-elusive pursuit of happiness render laughter a necessary palliative, and people therefore have a particular fondness for those who amuse them” (Allen, 2017). While many critics say that easy viewing is exactly what we need in an increasingly tumultuous and divided climate, there are better ways of dealing than with fake laughter.

I look to Veep and The Good Place as exemplary evolved sitcoms. They make light of dark and fraught situations. Veep, a satirical look at the human error within an obscured political party and The Good Place, a digestable comedy that explores the philosophy of the best ways to live and what happens when you die. They are both single camera and shot without an audience. With a growing population of a diminishing attention span, I can’t watch shows that take place entirely in two rooms--like Friends--anymore and the decline in viewership of returning reboots0--like Will & Grace--show me that I’m not alone. Comedy will never disappear, but I’m not so sure about the traditional sitcom. In most cases, it seems like endangered programming, but, this past spring, Fox expressed its devotion to the traditional sitcom, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the future brings.

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