Friday, May 27, 2011

"Mockumentary" style sitcoms -- innovative or lazy writing?

Okay, I think I’ve got the calendar right this time. THIS is the Memorial Day weekend coming up. Here are some Friday questions to kick off the summer.

bmfc1 wonders about the current sitcom trend of doing them in a “mockumentary” style.

Ken, do you think that this is a lazy form of writing? Instead of having the characters talk to each other to advance the plot, they talk to a fictional documentary crew.

And I can't get past why a documentary would be made about any of these people.

Especially in the case of MODERN FAMILY, I don’t think it’s lazy writing at all. Those MF episodes are so well crafted and have so much going on that I suspect they’re harder to write than most single or multi-camera comedies. As for the “interview” segments, yes, those can be a trap to get out lazy exposition but MF, THE OFFICE, and PARKS & REC manage to cleverly avoid that and use those segments more as comic punctuation.

As for the second part of your question, there’s no question there’s a suspension of belief required. Especially in the case of THE OFFICE. How much footage do these people need to do a documentary? They're not making TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.  A reader of the blog, Mac, contributed a comment recently that nicely explains the derivation of this genre.

The pseudo-doc form in TV comedy came out of a trend in late 90's British TV called 'docu-soaps.' These were ordinary or unremarkable people in everyday situations. They were cheap to make, access to workplaces and people was easy, and they got good ratings. There was loads of them - in an airport, a driving school, a pest control firm.

It was a format that UK viewers were very familiar with at the time. As the participants cottoned on that being in one could get you a bit of fame, they started playing up more for the camera.

Thanks, Mac. So Ricky Gervais’ OFFICE was a spoof of these. I’m sure that here in America they just copied the form for our version simply because that’s what the Brits did. So what if there's no context?  It's different!   And since the show was a success, others copied it.  I'm 1000% certain that if a sitcom premieres and is a huge hit and is in black and white that the next season there will be six more black and white pilots. 

Personally, I’m ambivalent about the mockumentary. It’s clearly just a gimmick, and for me it’s the story, humor, and characters that I’m drawn to. If they make me laugh, I don’t care if it’s a mockumentary, cartoon, or puppet show.

Rarely, does the device get in the way for me… although it did once on MODERN FAMILY. Ironically, it was in one of my favorite episodes. It’s the one where the kids accidentally enter their parents’ bedroom while they’re making love. There was a shot from the kids’ POV, which I buy. I believe a cameraman might have followed them up the stairs. But there was also a camera in the bedroom. So we’re supposed to assume that a cameraman is always present when they have sex? If so, forget about what else happens in the family. Just show THAT.

Phillip B asks:

So a serious question - is there really enough talent out there ready to fuel a sitcom renaissance?

Absolutely. Without question. You just need the RIGHT people. Trust me, there are scores of incredibly talented Emmy winning writers who can’t get arrested. And that number pales in comparison to the number of gifted actors who are telling you the nightly specials at the Cheesecake Factory. This isn’t like WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. Hollywood doesn’t have to turn over rocks to find six people who can perform without inducing projectile vomiting from the audience.

Sebastian queries: 

What do you think is the most powerful female character in the us-sitcom-history. Whose attitude was groundbraking, who is the most powerful? And did it all start with Mary Richards? What about Ellen Morgan? 

One word: Lucy.

And finally, from Terry Benish:

I have invested enough time in reading your blog to become hooked. I began to think of process in terms of your work and writing for new and ongoing projects that you are involved in, your life as it were. I enjoy humor and good wine and as an analogy a vintner over time loses the joy that say a novice like me receives when he tastes a good Syrah for the first time. Does that also capture what it is like for you? Do you taste the terroir of the joke and get lost in the technicality of the joke or bit? Are you able to laugh freely and be surprised very often, if at all? Best wishes.

Nothing pleases me more than just laughing heartily at something I’m watching. When I start noticing the technicalities that’s because I’m not fully engaged. I was on a Mariners’ team flight recently watching an episode of BIG BANG THEORY and laughing my ass off. I was getting funny looks but I didn’t give a shit. A good joke will make me laugh. And for the record, I like my jokes slightly woodsy, dry, and playfully articulate.

What’s your question? Drive carefully this weekend. And if you're traveling, buy my book.

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