Wednesday, 16 April 2014

TV Cliches

There’s a reason TV sitcoms of the ‘60s featured a wife who was a witch, a Martian crash-landing in suburbia, an astronaut with a genie and a car that had been someone’s mother. Everyone was tired of what had come before on TV and radio, over and over and over again.

I’m afraid I’m not a fan of most situation comedies from radio’s Golden Age. Plots are contrived. Characters don’t react the way anyone really would. There were exceptions, of course. The best shows manage to avoid or overcome those faults, generally through great acting and dialogue.

Critic John Crosby was no fan of radio’s (and, later, television’s) triteness and he apparently found a kindred soul in one of the industry’s writing fraternity. He summarised some all-too-familiar basic sitcom plots in his column of July 3, 1955.

Comedy Writers Deserve Spanking
By John Crosby

NEW YORK—I read in “Variety” that Lou Derman, a comedy writer, has told off his fellow comedy writers, and high time, “The lush days of comedy writing that began with radio and carried over into television are approaching their zenith—and why?” asks Derman plaintively.
And then goes on to answer his own question. “We deserve a spanking, the whole pack of us. We've allowed our shows to become unbearably dull, repetitious, predictable, wild and sloppy. We've ignored the public mood. A public that's tired of watching story in and story out about—
“Bringing the boss home to dinner and forgetting about the wife's birthday and getting into this disguise so husband won't recognize me and is my wife killing me for her insurance policy? And did he forget my anniversary? And the old boy friend and the girl friend and let's make him think he's going crazy and bringing the boss home to dinner.”
Well, of course, that's by no means all the situations. There's the other one—and how could Derman have forgotten it—about bringing the boss and the boss's biggest enemy home to dinner the same night and having to serve them in separate rooms, husband and wife dashing back and forth, eating like crazy.
Or how about the guy who takes a potential customer to lunch, the potential customer being a very pretty girl, and pretty soon the news is all over Oakdale that Jim Hughes was seen with . . . Could we conceivably do without the matchmakers—the husband and wife who are trying to pair off old Uncle Jim and the widow next door who makes such good humpelfingers?
Or how about the wife who cracks up the car and is trying desperate stratagems to keep her husband from finding out. Or the husband who wants to go on a fishing trip with the boys and the wife decides she's going to go along this year. Or the guy next door who has bought his wife a mink coat and good old Jim hides it in his closet and then Jim's wife finds it and thinks Jim bought it for her and . . . . Or the wife who wants to learn how to play poker and wins all the money.
Or the father playing baseball with his son and he breaks the neighbor's window and runs like a thief. Or the teenage girl who wears mother's diamond clip to the school prom and loses it and . . . . Or 13 year old Johnny whose superior intelligence bails his father out of that mess at the country club. Or the idiotic secretary who by sheer imbecility traps the most dangerous bank robber in the whole world.
Or ... well, that's enough. Anyway they are going to be tough to get away from those old situations. The decline in comedy writing or, at least, its sameness, has driven NBC to attempt a nationwide search for new comedy writers. More than 1,000 aspiring young comedy writers leaped to the call and submitted comedy material. At least 30 writers were considered to be promising enough to have been asked for additional material.
If they unearth one Robert Benchley, NBC will have done very well. Maybe even that is asking too much. If they could unearth just one situation comedy format in which the husband and wife don't even know the people next door and have no intention of meeting them, it will have been worth while.

By the ‘60s, producers got the idea that if you start with an outrageously ridiculous premise, like seven castaways with endless amounts of clothes on a desert island, the audience will accept any kind of plot and characterisation, if the writing is clever. That attitude brought some of the best-loved TV of a couple of generations ago.


  1. Even in the most fanciful premises of the 1950s (the TV adaption of "Topper") there was a very linear narrative in the story lines, and a very limited use of the filmed medium. George Burns' McCadden Productions seems to have been the first to recognize the more visual potential for comedy shows, so it was not a big shock to see the bulk of the behind-the-scenes talent there after "Burns and Allen" ended doing shows by the turn of the decade that felt less Earth-bound, like Dobie Gillis at Fox (Bob Denver's first big role, and Dwayne Hickman following George Burns' lead in breaking the fourth wall), or all of Paul Henning's Filmways efforts of the 1960s

    1. Burns and Filmways teamed up for MISTER ED...

  2. Great story. This is why I love old tv