Ten years ago, these were the TV comedies nominated for an Emmy: “Modern Family” (which won), “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Glee.”
All sitcoms, with the exception of “Glee.”
A decade later, that ratio has flipped.
Of the Emmy nominees this year (announced last week) only one — “black-ish” — is a sitcom in the traditional sense. It’s an outlier in a category filled with shows better described as dramedies, including “Cobra Kai,” “Hacks” and “The Flight Attendant.”
Sitcoms, as a genre, are at their nadir at the moment. Be they single-camera or old-school multi-cam shows filmed in front of a studio audience, there is a dearth of the kind of big breakout hits that were once the norm.
The absence isn’t about younger viewers rejecting the form; if anything, Gen Z was the driving factor behind the streaming resurgence of “Friends” and “The Office.”
And yet Netflix just canceled five sitcoms — including “The Crew” starring sitcom staple Kevin James and “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!” starring another sitcom veteran, Jamie Foxx — which begs the question: Are original sitcoms not gaining traction on Netflix? Or has Netflix yet to find the right mix of ingredients that would draw large numbers of viewers to these shows? “The Upshaws,” a family sitcom starring Wanda Sykes, Kim Fields and Mike Epps, premiered on Netflix in May and it was renewed for a second season. The bigger question is whether the streaming service will keep it (or any other sitcom it greenlights) around for several seasons to come, because that’s part of the format’s appeal as well: The seemingly endless supply of episodes.
New sitcoms don’t seem to be making a dent, but ironically the turgid and remarkably unfunny “Friends” reunion special that premiered on HBO Max in May? That nabbed four Emmy nominations. (For what, I ask. For what?)
ARE SITCOMS HISTORY?
The ironies persist. CNN just launched a series called “History of the Sitcom,” a title that situates the genre firmly in the past, even as each installment strains to make a connection to the present. More tellingly, viewers who might benefit from this type of primer are too young to be CNN’s target audience.
But sitcoms are clearly on the mind of Hollywood creatives. In just the past few months we’ve seen two shows — “WandaVision” on Disney+ and “Kevin Can F*** Himself” on AMC — that are rooted in (obsessed with, actually) subverting sitcom tropes, though neither show is a sitcom itself.
Sitcoms once dominated the TV lineup, not only in prime-time but in endless reruns during the day. They were threaded into our lives, with their catchphrases and theme songs. Broadcast networks would brand their schedules around sitcom blocks, from NBC’s Must See TV to ABC’s TGIF.
“We watched these shows together as a family, in the same room, but we don’t have that anymore. The way we watch TV is different. Someone’s watching a show on their computer in bed while someone else is watching something from the couch in the living room,” said Terrence Moss, who has worked in TV advertising for 20 years and blogs about television. “The last show my family watched together was ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.’ It was a Black sitcom, so that appealed to us. My father could relate to Uncle Phil, and I had Will Smith and Carlton, so there was something that appealed to everybody. And right now, it’s not about mass appeal anymore. It’s about the niche.”
OUT OF FAVOR
The sitcom lull was inevitable. It’s become increasingly harder for any one show to stand out amid the 500-odd scripted series that premiere each year. Entertainment genres have a way of falling in and out of favor; it tends to be cyclical and I wouldn’t be surprised if sitcoms stage a comeback. We’ll want a break from serialized storytelling in favor of shows that offer screwball jokes and physical comedy.
“But in order for that to happen, sitcoms have to change,” said Marsha Warfield, who starred on the NBC comedy “Night Court” from 1986 to 1992 as the no-nonsense bailiff Roz.
A Chicago native, she moved to Los Angeles in her 20s and worked primarily as a stand-up before landing a role on the sitcom. “When I joined (in the third season), it was the No. 4 show in the nation and John Larroquette and Harry Anderson were being nominated for Emmys every year and John was winning every year,” she said.
Warfield, who also starred on “Empty Nest,” knows her way around the classic half-hour format. “But I think it’s ripe for a little tweaking,” she said. “You either have family sitcoms or you have workplace sitcoms. But where do people work now? And what is a family? Those basic things are in flux. But television is a medium of tradition. The thing is, nobody is looking to buy a ’72 Ford. If you paint it in 2021 colors, it’s still a ’72 Ford and they keep making ’72 Fords over and over again and calling them sitcoms. We have to adjust to the world that is now. I think we also miss a lot when we don’t acknowledge that people are making their own television now; I’m struck when I go on TikTok and Instagram and I see people producing minute-long or three minute-long shows.”
Warfield, who is now based out of Las Vegas, still has faith in the sitcom format and she’s developing one for herself. “When things are so bad that nobody’s making money anymore and they have nothing to lose, that’s when you’ll see more innovation,” she said.
What kind of feedback does she get when she talks to people in the TV industry about her idea for a show? “They’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting — we’ve never done that before!’ And then they try to make it into something they recognize. These are people who have a track record. They produced television shows that are legendary and they want to put their imprint on whatever it is that comes out. But if you do that, we’re going to end up doing the same show that got you famous in the first place.”
There have been recent sitcoms, here and there, that feel like departures. “The Good Place” was one. And new comedies like “Rutherford Falls” and “Girls5Eva,” both on Peacock, that have generated a good amount of interest, even if they have yet to become cultural phenomena.
And then there’s “Ted Lasso.” The delightful and legitimately funny Apple TV+ series about an American football coach (Jason Sudeikis) who relocates to England to coach a professional soccer team returns for a second season this week. It too was nominated for an Emmy this year. But is it a sitcom?
My gut says no. Even by single-camera standards, it looks too cinematic to be a sitcom. That was intentional, according to the show’s director of photography David Rom, who told IndieWire that Sudeikis wanted the show to “be more film-like” and have “more of a drama/comedy feel.” So Rom suggested ideas “that would counter the look of those tropes in sitcoms.”
But if you listen to the show’s rhythms, there’s sitcom DNA all over it.
And in Season 2, there’s a conspicuous nod to the beloved sitcom “Cheers,” which starred Sudeikis’s uncle, George Wendt.
Wendt’s character was always greeted with a hearty “Norm!” when he walked in the bar. And that moment is replicated, briefly, in the new season of “Ted Lasso” when Sudeikis enters a room: “Ted!” everyone shouts in unison.
The show may or may not be a sitcom. But it’s a good time.