Since the '70s, it's all about the couches

Sure, we’re sitting on a couch and staring at the TV, but do the folks on TV have to be sitting on a couch staring back at us?

The look of the family sitcom was established in the late ’60s and early ’70s with “The Brady Bunch” and “All in the Family.”

Little has changed since: There’s a couch in the middle, a staircase to nowhere and a swinging door that provides fodder for comic entrances and exits.

The viewer is the fourth wall.

Come Emmy time, traditional family comedies most frequently fall into the multicam approach, which lends itself more to repeated use of sets while the single-camera format allows auds greater ease to travel with the characters.

For the past two years, NBC’s “Will & Grace” (center couch, right exit, no staircase — but a nook instead, with a couch at an angle!) has won the Emmy for art direction for a multicamera series, thanks to Glenda Rovello and Melinda Ritz.

The duo is nommed again this year, alongside art directors for NBC’s “Friends,” the WB’s “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” and Fox’s “That ’70s Show.” Notably, all the skeins are nominated for episodes that take place away from the traditional couch-stairs-exit set.

The episode nommed for “Will & Grace” takes place on a ship as the gang goes to spread the ashes of Stan Walker, Karen’s (Megan Mullally) husband.

The yacht was constructed in just under three weeks, and post-production tweaked the scene so it appeared to be moving without requiring the set itself to move.

Multiple-Emmy winner John Shaffner, nominated this year for “Friends,” is also working on CBS’ fall series “Two and a Half Men.”

“The sitcom set is a vernacular that everybody recognizes,” he says. “Doing sets for multicam is like that line from Ginger Rogers … you have to do everything on three walls that movies get to do with four walls. Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”

No matter what the social class of the characters, these elements remain unchanged. From the blue-collar-at-best Bundys on Fox’s “Married … With Children” (staircase back and to the left of the dead-center couch, entrance to the right) to the society wealth shown on “The Nanny” (staircase back and to the right of the centered couch, entrance also on the right), the set design triumvirate remains intact.

“I hate it,” says Roy Christopher, the art director on shows ranging from “Frasier” to “Murphy Brown” to this fall’s “A Minute With Stan Hooper” on Fox, on the couch-staircase-exit trifecta. “It’s kind of gotten into our subconscious. The dead-center couch thing is my biggest pet peeve.”

Nommed this year for best art direction for a variety or music program for the “75th Annual Academy Awards,” Christopher says such a set design is the fallback that makes it easiest for thesps to time their lines.

“You want it so they can go down the stairs, say their line, and head out the front door,” he says. “On ‘Frasier’ we have Niles’ beautiful Montana apartment, and to walk through the front door and go to the kitchen it’s about 40 feet. The writers are always telling me, ‘Roy, it’s really hard to fill all that.’ “

The design does have its defenders such as “Will & Grace’s” Rovello. “Well, who doesn’t have a couch?” she asks, while pointing out that there is no staircase on her show and the exits lead somewhere.

Other current shows have evolved the tradition, but not to the point of doing anything too radical: Fox’s Emmy-nommed “That ’70s Show” actually manages to have two centered couch-door-staircase sets — one upstairs for the adults, one downstairs in the basement for the kids to hang out. ABC’s “8 Simple Rules … ” has two staircases: one to the right and another to the left of the couch.

“Today things are changing so quickly and there’s so much fresh kinds of entertainment like reality shows that maybe the sitcom sets should change a little bit,” Christopher says. “We as designers have to break it up. You try to do all this interesting stuff but eventually people just wind up sitting on these stupid couches.”

Shaffner’s “Two and a Half Men,” starring Charlie Sheen as a rich playboy who has his relatives move into his palatial Malibu home, updates the formula. Like 1982’s “Silver Spoons,” which had the couch-door-staircase theme cluttered with a lot of rich-guy stuff, “Two” dresses up the standard set by putting the couch at an angle and surrounding it with a baby grand piano and a computer desk with a view of the ocean. The staircase is even covered in Mexican tile.

For “A Minute With Stan Hooper,” Christopher has laid out the living room of the character’s Midwestern Victorian manse with an exit to the left through a foyer and the staircase behind the centered couch.

“At least I make them cross the room to get up the stairs,” Christopher says.

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