Laughter, tears merge in dramedy

Genre mimics life better than sitcoms, dramas, sez 'Ed' scribe

Back in the old days of “Playhouse 90” and “The Jack Benny Show,” the line that divided comedies and dramas was as thick as Groucho Marx’s eyebrows.

In the early ’70s, however, visionaries such as Norman Lear and Larry Gelbart began blurring the line. Their experimentation with the blending of genres — “All in the Family” and “MASH,” respectively — led to a 1980s explosion of dramedies, including “The Days and Nights of Molly Brown,” “The Wonder Years,” “Moonlighting,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “Hooperman.”

“That period was quite an innovative time on network television,” says David Bushman, curator at the Museum of Television and Broadcasting in New York. “Lear and all the MTM shows had been mixing the genres up for a while, but it was all a function of a generation of television creators who were pushing the envelopes.”

Bushman says half-hour shows were traditionally billed as comedies and one-hours were seen as dramas, but what was interesting about NBC’s “Molly Dodd” (1987-91) was that it was a half-hour, with no laugh tracks, using a three-camera set-up, shot on film.

Created by Jay Tarses, the series explored the life of a divorced thirtysomething woman in New York, balancing comic elements and dramatic moments in a manner similar to HBO’s current “Sex and the City” — sans all the sexual chatter and nudity, of course.

“Dramedies certainly didn’t spring out of nowhere,” says Andrew Schneider, whose credits with writing partner Diane Frolov include “Northern Exposure,” “Alien Nation” and the current Showtime drama/comedy “The Chris Isaak Show.” “There were always dramas such as ‘Magnum’ that incorporated a lot of comedy. We were inspired by films such as ‘Rules of the Game,’ ‘Harold & Maude’ and ‘MASH.’ We write the scenes and just hope that because of the eccentricities and quirky nature of the characters, it will be funny.”

Frolov and Schneider both worked on one of the most successful genre-bending hourlong shows of the ’90s, CBS’ “Northern Exposure.” Created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, series starred Rob Morrow, Janine Turner and John Corbett, and followed the whimsical lives of the residents of a small Alaska town. It received an Emmy win and three noms for best drama during its six seasons on the air.

Frolov also mentions the influence of Glenn Gordon Caron’s Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd starrer “Moonlighting” (1985-1989). “I remember reading the scripts and really enjoying these long strings of fast, funny dialogue that didn’t advance the plot,” she says. “It had all the elements of a brilliant romantic comedy, and it offered a good mystery as well. It inspired a lot of people.”

In addition to “Chris Isaak,” NBC’s “Ed” is another current series showing that “Northern Exposure” touch. Created by former “Late Show With David Letterman” scribes Rob Burnett and John Beckerman, the series is set in the small town of Stuckeyville, Ohio, and centers around bowling alley lawyer played by Golden Globe nominee Tom Cavanagh.

“Dramedies mimic life more closely than a sitcom or drama, because in life there are funny things and sad things, and you can do both in a given episode,” says Burnett.

Beckerman also points out that the rigid laws of comedy and drama aren’t followed as closely at the movies. “Look at all the James L. Brooks movies, things like ‘Broadcast News’ and ‘Terms of Endearment,’ or a lot of Woody Allen films. ‘Annie Hall,’ for example, definitely falls in the dramedy category. The trick is to find stakes that make the show worth watching for an hour. You have to make it dramatic or funny enough. You can’t have lukewarm soup.”

Brooks’ movies have also played a big role in shaping Amy Sherman-Palladino’s world. The writer-creator, who has worked on sitcoms such as “Roseanne” and “Veronica’s Closet,” created WB’s critical darling “The Gilmore Girls,” which begins its third season in September.

“It was a natural transition for me,” she recalls. “We did a lot of major dramatic things on ‘Roseanne.’ Now on ‘Gilmore Girls,’ we are a family show, which means we write about real family life, and that encompasses deep emotional pain, awfulness and Prozac and hopefully therapy, and a lot of happy and funny stuff as well.”

This difficulty to categorize shows such as “Ed” and “Gilmore Girls” in neat little packages crystallizes every year with the Emmy nominations. Often times, producers have a hard time deciding whether the show should be entered as a comedy or a drama. David E. Kelley’s’ “Ally McBeal” received its Emmy as a comedy, while “Northern Exposure” took home the award as a drama. Neither “Ed,” “Gilmore Girls” or “Chris Isaak” ended up with Emmy noms in the genre categories this year.

“There are these preconceived notions that what an hourlong show should or shouldn’t do,” adds Sherman-Palladino. “All I know is that this is the perfect kind of thing for me to wrote. I’ll let other people try to categorize it.

“Sure, an Emmy is a pretty statue, I could probably turn it into a nice little lamp. Any Emmy win would bring more recognition for the cast and crew, but seriously, we have no control over whether Academy voters watch the WB or not.”