From 'Seinfeld' to 'Simpsons,' squabbling is great fun
Maybe it was the end of the Reagan era. The truce in the Cold War. The MTV generation’s coming of age. Or how about blaming it all on post-O.J. America?
Whatever the reason, in the 1990s, sitcoms stopped being polite and started getting real.
The perfect families of “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” gave way to more honest portrayals on “Roseanne” and, yes, “The Simpsons.”
The simple charms of “The Golden Girls” and “Night Court” morphed into the thick irony and racy humor of “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”
And sharp, critically acclaimed adult sitcoms like “Cheers” made way for … sharp, critically acclaimed adult sitcoms like “Frasier.”
All right, so the genre didn’t completely go through a revolution in the 1990s … but it came close. And NBC’s Thursday night staples “Friends” and “Seinfeld” led the charge, just as the Peacock’s Thursday king “The Cosby Show” did a decade earlier.
But while “Cosby” ushered in a whole new generation of family laffers, “Friends” and “Seinfeld” convinced programmers that it was hip — and a financial necessity — to gentrify the network neighborhood and start attracting young adult tenants.
As a result, by the mid-1990s family sitcoms had almost ceased to exist, while twentysomethings suddenly ruled primetime.
“For whatever reason, we got tired of family shows,” says “The Drew Carey Show” exec producer Bruce Helford. “After ‘Roseanne,’ ‘Home Improvement’ was really the last family show. The focus then went from family to singles. ‘Friends’ was the banner carrier on that. ‘Drew’ was certainly one of those.”
Net execs blame the rise of cable and three-set TV households for the virtual disappearance of the family sitcom.
With junior watching “Rugrats” in one room, dad watching ESPN in another and grandma falling asleep to “Diagnosis Murder” downstairs, thirtysomething mom wanted to watch something a little more in tune with her sensibility.
“The family sitcom may have gone the way of the variety show,” says NBC Studios prexy Ted Harbert, who spent most of the ’90s heading up ABC Entertainment. “True variety shows went away as people wanted their own entertainment. It’s the same thing: family shows offered something for kids and adults, but they’re just not watching together.”
There was logic to it all: “Friends” became the last real out-of-the-box sitcom smash on network TV.
With “Friends” and “Seinfeld” turning into cultural phenoms, it became passe for sitcoms to include anyone under the age of 18. More sophisticated laffers such as “NewsRadio,” “Mad About You” and “Spin City” also thrived in the 1990s.
The few family sitcoms that were left actually relegated the kids to background status (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) or focus on teens who were smarter than the adults around them (“That ’70s Show,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”).
Then, of course, came the “Friends” and “Seinfeld” clones. Hoards of them. “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” “The Single Guy,” “Caroline in the City,” “Suddenly Susan,” and more.
“You saw shows with ensembles of twentysomething people, as if that’s what makes our show work,” says “Friends” exec producer David Crane.
“Friends” still contained a lot of heart and was still about a group of pals who functioned more like a family — albeit, not a traditional one.
But while “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Simpsons” and other laffers broke rules and created new boundaries, by the end of the decade there seemed to be a mandate that all new sitcoms must push the envelope even further.
Critics believed that risk-taking philosophy compromised storytelling for the sake of a quick laugh.
“The standards got a little more lax, there was a lot more insult humor,” says former “Frasier” exec producer Chris Lloyd. “To me, one of the downfalls of the last 10 years has been the rise of the word ‘edgy.’ What does edgy mean? Just because you haven’t seen something before doesn’t make it good, it just makes it different.
“What people called ‘edgy’ to me seemed to be a little but lazy.”
Helford thinks the trend toward edgy and away from sunny moral lessons came partially as a reaction to American culture, which he believes grew a tad more shallow in the 1990s.
“We became a very self-centered group of people,” Helford says. “I don’t think we care about teaching anything anymore, and music and TV reflects that.”
Nonetheless, Lloyd believes that the mid-1990s brought about a new golden age of comedy. At that point, “Seinfeld” and “Friends” had just erupted, “Frasier” was flying high, and “Murphy Brown” and “Roseanne” still had some life in them. Even under-the-radar shows like “Wings” and “Living Single” had their fans.
“You look at the shows that were in the best show category in those years and they were great,” Lloyd says. “Those were shows that any of which could have easily won the Emmy and people would have said, ‘Of course it should have won.’ “