WHATEVER YOU THINK OF this column, I deserve the lion’s share of credit if you enjoy it and all the blame if it stinks. Granted, others edited it and wrote the headline, but it’s surely not the product of group-think.
This confession is inspired by excerpts from a legal brief filed in connection with a sexual harassment lawsuit against writers of “Friends.” Among other things, the document offered an impassioned defense of gang writing — of maintaining the sanctity of the writers’ room and the value in scribes assembling and banging ideas and jokes off each other.
Forgive my possible naivete here, since I’ve never worked in a writers’ room. Yet with the sitcom at its lowest point since before the birth of the Olsen twins, it’s worth considering whether gang writing contributed to this decline. In short, to borrow a “Sex and the City”-type hypothetical, could finding new “Friends” require shedding the old gang?
Dramatic series, after all, have experienced a creative and commercial renaissance in recent years as such programs have been characterized by true singularity of vision, filtered through a handful of influential showrunners. David E. Kelley took this TV auteur theory to mind-boggling extremes by churning out scripts for “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal” — over 30, if memory serves, in one season — but signature shows like “The West Wing” and “Deadwood” have exhibited the same kind of distinctive voice.
A similar strategy has yielded impressive results in British comedy, from “Absolutely Fabulous” to “The Office,” where the credit crawl never takes long. And while the Brits are blessed by less-demanding production schedules, being able to boast about six good episodes a year — Tuesdays on NBC! — would be a welcome accomplishment.
In short, if comedy is truly at a crisis-driven crossroads — which seems fair to say, given its near-disappearance from NBC’s lineup and muted presence elsewhere — then it’s time to fiddle with more than just single camera vs. multicamera or improv vs. scripted. Maybe it’s time to gamble on concepts and talent, allocating a writer or small team the time to generate enough material before production begins to establish authorship, not just stewardship.
By contrast, today’s staff writers are occasionally assigned different segments within the same episode, later stitching the parts together, however mad scientistlike that sounds.
Diluting the sense of creative ownership further, as “Get Smart” producer Leonard Stern observed during a panel discussion a few years ago, the emphasis on focus group testing and research has become “a substitute for making decisions, replacing the visceral instinct that we used to deal with. … Within 24 hours we always got a yes or no on whether we should go ahead, and we were free of any involvement until we delivered the script.”
Although there’s no evidence streamlining the process will yield better comedies, applying the alternative approach to movies certainly hasn’t. Indeed, features have hardly improved since they began promiscuously passing through multiple word processors — a trend that famously peaked when Universal’s live-action “The Flintstones” legendarily had 32 writers take a whack at breaking Bedrock.
Compare that with the American Film Institute’s top 100 comedy list, where, from “Annie Hall” to “Young Frankenstein,” most exhibit the guiding hand of a particular comic mind. For that matter, reach back a few years to “Seinfeld,” “Murphy Brown” and “Home Improvement,” which employed writing staffs but started by wedding strong production auspices to distinctive talent.
Obviously, tossing out the mold would be an overreaction to TV comedy’s woes, since there are still consistently funny shows on the air. And while some of those programs push boundaries, a throwback like the outbound “Everybody Loves Raymond” or heir apparent “Two and a Half Men” can be as structurally conventional (couch, cute kid, sex jokes) as a sitcom gets.
Still, I’d argue that the best comedy isn’t born from compromise, or even one-upmanship. Perhaps the funniest hour I’ve spent watching TV in the last decade involved one guy, Chris Rock, prowling the stage in a 1996 HBO special that only he could have written and performed. And if that sounds like a cheat, the same held true a dozen years earlier when “The Cosby Show” sprang from squeaky-clean, widely identifiable material drummed into my brain by Bill Cosby’s standup act.
Unlocking that secret is never easy, and the current TV landscape has made the combination more challenging and elusive than at any time since the early 1980s.
To paraphrase an old adage about obscenity, though, most people know the magic when they see it, and very few need help from a gang to tell them that it’s funny.