Improvisation and ‘New’ Sitcom

Across the last fifteen years the situation comedy has undergone a series of aesthetic and stylistic changes. The move away from the traditional multi-camera set-up – the “three headed monster” – and towards the use of a single-camera style, has allowed for a greater variety of comedic modalities across the sitcom genre. By abandoning the constraints of the multi-camera form (Savorelli 2010) these new comedies fail “to signal [their] comic intent in the traditional manner… [which undermines] the hegemonic criticisms of most sitcoms” (Mills 2005, 62). This comic ambiguity therefore highlights the need for further analysis of sitcom audiences, as fan’s constructions of taste, pleasure and identity become more complex.

Improvisation as a form of creative method in the production of ‘new’ comedy is a recurring feature. Stars such as Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell and Larry David are often praised for their ability to improvise, which in sitcom production means coming up with a new joke on the set of filming. These jokes either add to the existing script or attempt to ‘beat’ the scripted or suggested line. By removing the constraints of shooting in front of a live audience (temporal) and shooting on a theatre-like soundstage (spatial), new comedy encourages improvisation by allowing it’s performers to “bypass [the] limiting and disciplinary structures” (Seham 2001).

Sitcom fans often revere these improvised moments, despite not having full knowledge of the production process in the first viewing of a television episode. In fact, being told that a particular line or joke was improvised on-set often increases the pleasure associated with the actor or show. On learning that Chris Pratt improvised a line in a season three episodes of Parks and Recreation, many fans re-evaluated their sense of enjoyment.

Pratt came up with that fucking line? God bless him.

And it was an ad-lib?? Feeling so much love for Chris Pratt right now.

Never would have thought that one was improv. Brilliant.

Yeah, it blows my mind that Pratt improvised that line.

It’s so perfectly delivered, and that it’s ad-libbed makes that even more awesome.

[Comments on an AV Club Season 3 Walkthrough]

Such positive re-evaluation highlights the importance of improvisation and performance to comedy fans. It also shows how the revelation of an improvised moment immediately elevates the text to a ‘more awesome’ pleasure, and the appreciation of comedic talent lends itself to discourses of ‘quality’ television.

Improvisation can also be used in sitcom production in a more purposeful manner, being a planned part of the process and thus – through paratextual signposts – framing the comedy as a more ‘experimental’ show. The BBC series Outnumbered, about the lives of a middle-class family, did not supply the child actors with written dialogue.

these kids are absolutely brilliant – they are being allowed to express themselves with none of the stiffness a script would bring about.

but its the kids who really should be praised for the most realistic portrayal of children on T.V.

the jokes were funny and realistic.

[the children] deliver their lines with fantastic timing and a real sense of reality.

the observations and statements have clearly come from a child, as opposed to the traditional way of doing things of a 30-something adult trying to think like a 7 year old, and often failing miserably.

[Comments from the British Comedy Guide Forums]

For fans of Outnumbered, improvisation becomes a marker of an authentic cultural experience. They are wary of the “traditional way” of making television, with its emphasis on planning, drafting and commercial interference. Rather than emphasising notions of “funniness”, instead these fans see improvised performance as a better reflection of their own lives and experiences.

It is useful here to reflect on the notion of bliss, or jouissance, an extreme form of pleasure (Barthes 1975). While pleasure is a mundane amusement, which may be felt by consumers of all cultural content, Barthes argues that bliss is a distinctly physical reaction, often hard to describe in words (21). Fiske argues that the mediation of television is “not conducive to that intensity of experience which is necessary for jouissance” (1987, 230).

While Fiske goes on to argue that soap opera is a genre which may be considered to have blissful moments, I feel a more relevant example is reality television. Looking at the show Britain’s Got Talent, the reaction of both studio and home audience to the audition of singer Susan Boyle is more representative of jouissance. The ‘liveness’ of the moment, the risk of failure, and physicality of the reaction better emphasise the Barthesian qualities of bliss.

I argue that the use of improvisation in new comedy is another method to inspire a blissful reaction that is somewhat more authentic and extreme. By acknowledging the ‘liveness’ of the improvised on-set joke, or appreciating authenticity in an improvised creative method, these fans would seem to value ‘new comedy’ as a less intensely mediated experience.

Considering the use of improvisation as creative method thus brings up further questions regarding the relationship between comedy fans and the fan-text. How might improvisation – and the dangers of failure – present a risk to fans ‘ontological security’? How might we understand notions of ‘comfort viewing’ with regard to sitcom form and the intensities of mediation? With the situation comedy continuing to develop, analysis of its fans will play an important part in understanding one of television’s most popular genres.

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, The Pleasures of the Text, (Hill and Wang: USA, 1975)

Fiske, John, Television Culture, (Routledge: USA, 1987)

Mills, Brett, Television Sitcom, (BFI: UK, 2005)

Savorelli, Antonio, Beyond Sitcom: New Directions in American Television Comedy, (McFarland & Co.: USA, 2010)

Seham, Amy E., Whose Improv is it Anyway? Beyond Second City, (University of Mississippi Press: USA 2001)

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I Actually Went to University

This week I went to university.

A rather mundane statement, I agree, but quite significant for me as it was my first visit to my academic institution in the eighteen months since I’ve been a BCU student. I’m a distance learner, you see, as well as being part-time. So my time spent on-campus is limited, to say the least.

But I was excited to head up to Brum, not only because it was a city I’d never been to before, but because it reminded me of how it feels to be a student, especially a new student – carrying round a heavy bag, looking desperately lost for some hidden tutorial room was something I hadn’t done for about five years. Usually I just wake up, open up my laptop and watch a lecture over breakfast, in my PJ’s. Or do some reading on my phone at work. Being sat around a table with other people was a little nostalgic for me.

What was great about meeting my tutors and other members of the faculty – and of course some other MA and undergraduate students – was that it gave me a better idea of academic life. With my grand overarching plan to find a PHD opportunity this autumn, I was interested in just getting a feel for being on a campus again. Going out for a few drinks and getting in on some work gossip was fun because it actually made me less intimidated about attempting to join the scholarly ranks – at times we could have been talking about any old job.

I will say thought it did highlight a few disadvantages to being a DL. Firstly, it was great to see that a fellow MA Screen Studies student, Jamie Morris, was involved with some lecturing on an undergrad popular culture course, and that he was presenting the material in a Research Seminar in March. It’s really great to see someone being given these opportunities, and having spoken to Jamie I know it will be a really interesting talk. There was a little frustration that being at a distance I hadn’t had these same opportunities, but I am sure if the idea of presenting my research had occurred to me the staff at BCU would have assisted me. Yet it’s maybe an element of the DL experience I never thought of until having visited campus.

Mixing with other students and academics on a daily basis is probably the biggest difficulty one faces on a DL course, especially when (like me), you don’t live in a place that has its own academic institution(s). Even though I was only there for a handful of hours over Thursday and Friday,  just being able to bump into someone or meet them for coffee is a great way to exchange ideas and plan projects. I think that’s probably something that keeps the energy and interest levels up, and when you’re situated away from that environment it can sometimes feel incredibly difficult to overcome that feeling of isolation. Twitter is no substitute for face to face conversation, I don’t think.

Yet do not let those frustrations belie the fact that I’m hugely enjoying this MA, and pursuing the idea of a career in academia is at once both exciting and scary. Yet having met (now in person!) several of the BCU Media and Cultural studies gang, I’m even more determined to turn it up a notch, not only in my reading and writing but in terms of engaging with the wider academic sphere. So thanks to those that have speculatively added me on Twitter these past few weeks, I hope I can properly introduce myself at FSN2015 and not just be that guy who tweets about sitcoms all the time.

Speaking of sitcom, there’s been some positive work toward my final dissertation thanks to the wonderful Inger-Lise Bore, who keeps prodding me in the right directions. Hopefully the next couple of weeks will see me sharpen my ideas into a research proposal that’s much more theoretically solid. Meeting properly with her and speaking again with Paul Long means I’m also putting energy into thinking ahead to a phd proposal and what that larger research may look like – I’ve got some ideas percolating. I’m being challenged to submit abstracts to conferences, and I agree it’s necessary to get some of my thoughts out there through that form – so something else to work on late into the night!

Farewell to P&R.

Knowing that when I wake up in several hours that Parks and Recreation will have aired its last episode is a pretty brutal truth. So much has been made of the show’s ending for two reasons – NBC’s decision to give it a shortened season (and then burning them off in pairs) – and the fact that unlike so many other modern day, long-running half hour comedies, P&R is very much still an adept and confident piece of television sitcom.

The Office had a near-fatal accident when Steve Carrell left, was kept on life support despite various treatments including James Spader and Greg Daniels being injected towards the end. Modern Family is as unessential now as it was essential in its early seasons. How I Met Your Mother gave the 3-camera format a shot in the arm before delivering a viciously unpleasant parting blow. The Big Bang Theory continues with blockbuster ratings, although it can hardly be said that news of it’s renewal was exactly a fevered announcement. Community has become the show it always should have been, in the place it should probably have started.

Parks and Rec put on a stretch of episodes, through seasons two, three and four, that no sitcom of my era can match. Although the wheels have been spinning for a couple of years as the onus on character’s career progressions became weary, the show still remained pretty hilarious. For most it’s the tone, if anything – the relentless positivity of its stories – and the fact that it was a very funny show without ever feeling cynical, or mean. Modern Family continues to show a group of individuals who love fighting. The League is the I-can-best-your-insult homosocial enclave. But P&R never had that in its DNA.

P&R‘s demise means it’s really time for one of the new comedies to step up to the plate. I haven’t been able to check much of the new US sitcoms out – save for Brooklyn Nine Nine, which is a very NBC-comedy on FOX – and it will be interesting to see if shows such as The Mindy Project and New Girl will begin to grow a bigger bubble. I like both but will I miss them as much as I do Parks and Rec?

Some quick personal highlights from the series:

> The season 4 arc featuring Paul Rudd. I honestly think this was one of the most consistently satisfying runs of any sitcom both emotionally and comedically. I can’t think of any several-episode arcs, let alone full seasons, that match it, from the television I’ve seen before. Perhaps Season 3 of the Office ending on Jim asking out Pam, following a riveting 24-odd half-hours.

> Ben Wyatt being unable to comprehend the fascination of Lil’ Sebastian. Gets me every time how he shakes his head at the camera after feigning enthusiasm.

> The Flu episode is on of the finest sitcom episodes of all time. “Stop. Pooping.”

> There’s an outtake where Leslie goes to Dave’s house, drunk, and Poehler pipes up with the line “I’m fart and I’m smunny”, and Louis just corpses.

> Leslie and Anne’s drunk fight is a spot on piece of observational comedy.

> “Leslie and Ron”. Even in it’s last throes the show spits out one of it’s best ever twenty two minutes.

> Ron Swanson throwing a ball with Andy Dwyer, following their meat tornado.

> Amy Poehler’s improvised jump-cut sequence from the hunting episode, which I wrote about extensively in one of my essays in my MA.

> Chris Pratt morphing from Andy Dwyer to Star-Lord.

> Ben’s accountancy puns.

> Ben and Leslie’s Game of Thrones role playing.

> The trip to food n’ stuff.

> Ron Swanson dancing.

Thanks for the good times, Parks!

Where Next for the Mockumentary Aesthetic?

NBC’s ‘The Office’ finished up last year after a (mostly) successful 9-season run. It’s sister show, ‘Parks and Recreation’, heads into the 2014/15 schedule with a limited home stretch. ‘Modern Family’ juggernauts into a sixth season on ABC with critics already sharpening their knives.

These three series show how this particular form of American comedy has evolved. ‘The Office’ was transported from the British version and stuck most closely to the documentary conceit. Albeit the forms became more subtle in the middle of its run, it then took pride of place in the complex, meta-textual turns of its final year.

‘Parks and Recreation’, which shares a particular Greg Daniels strand of DNA with ‘The Office’, made several changes to the aesthetic. It introduced the jump-cut into its talking head segments, allowing for greater room for improvisation from its performers. It made greater use of other media forms, such as the television talk show, news programme, and local radio station, mainly for quaint parody with a distinct ‘Simpsons’ influence. ‘Parks and Recreation’ also became a more expansive series which focused less on the characters relation to the camera and more on the relations between the characters themselves.

‘Modern Family’, meanwhile, plays down the fact that it uses the documentary form at all. The talking-head sequences are far more organically tied to the narratives, and the camera is a far less intrusive tool than compared to the other shows. While in season one it is easy to see how Phil Dunphy might be trying to play up to the camera his “cool dad” persona, there is very little in ‘Modern Family’ that points to these characters being aware of the camera’s presence. Therefore it sits much more closely to the crop of single-camera comedies such as ‘The Mindy Project’ and ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ rather than ‘The Office’.

The newly-crowned Emmy award winner ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ is either an example of the aesthetic going full-circle or another tweak to the formula. While it doesn’t utilise some of the conventions of the above series – talking heads, through-the-blinds shots, self-aware characters – it does feel like it still belongs to this small crop of successful shows. Replacing the talking head sequences with flashbacks a la ‘New Girl’ is a small tweak that takes us out of the documentary form.

But is the ‘Nine-Nine’ mainstream network’s way of telling us the mock-doc is over? Have audiences got bored of looking sitcom characters in the eyes? Or have producers just been inundated with such scripts that they have decided to go another way?

A sideline to one of my most recent essays for my course set out the argument that the mockumentary aesthetic was important to freeing up comedic actors to perform at their full potential – a brief internet search will show how many of the stars of the above shows are indebted to a hard schooling in the American improv circuits. Would a turn away from this style take us back to the more classic sitcom acting style, where performers have less of a contribution?

It’s be interesting to see if another mockumentary-like show manages the mainstream success of the ones mentioned in this blog post. The sitcom landscape is incredibly complex – the high ratings of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ still confounds in this context – and critically engaging with the next wave of popular shows is going to be an important part of understanding this area of culture.