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Before They Were Anybody : Stars before they hit
by Cary O'Dell

I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to pinpoint its exact starting moment, but it seems to me that we are currently in the age of the post-modern sitcom.

The “post-moderns” are the shows--half-hour in length, comedic in intention—that are (for better or worse) currently redefining the sitcom. They have some things in common: they eschew a laugh track like the plague; they features characters that are not particularly relatable or perhaps even likable; and they find the majority of their humor not in snappy punchlines or repartee but in awkward silences and as many uncomfortable situations as they can squeeze in in 30 minutes. These characteristics-cum-definition encompass a wide swatch of such current and recent television series as “Louie,” “30 Rock” and “Parks and Rec” and it certainly includes everything from “Girls” to “Portlandia,” from “The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman” to “The Sarah Silverman Program,” and “The Office.”

The Office TV showIn fact, it might be “The Office” (originally imported from Britain) from which we can chart the start of this particular sitcom epoch. Certainly it is the success of the US version of “The Office,” with its faux-documentary style/real-life style and cast of quietly eccentric characters (and no laugh track), that seems to have allowed for the continued development of other shows in this vein.

If that is the case, then one also has to wonder how much the success of “The Office” and its kind is owed to the collective works of Christopher Guest who, over the years, has elevated the genre of the “mockumentary” to dizzying heights with films like “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show.” (Guest last year launched his first television series, “Family Tree,” starring Chris O’Dowd; it aired—you guessed it—on HBO. You guessed it again, if you assumed that the show is played as “straight” as a comedy can be, shot in documentary style and lacks a laugh track.)

Like the new-fangled UN-sitcoms of today, Guest’s earlier “mocks” found much of their humor in a hyper-serious tone that was exaggerated until it came fully around to being completely silly and ridiculous again. The pregnant pauses, elongated scenes and sometimes dark human foibles, all based in reality, that are exploited in Guest’s pseudo-reality is what “The Office” and others are trafficking in now on the small screen.

Many words can be used (or are frequently used) to describe the post-modern sitcom: quirky, slow, serialized, smart.

There’s also something more than a little elitist about them.

Those who watch them (hipsters or not) sometimes like to pat themselves on the back for it, rewarding themselves for their quality taste as if to say “I don’t watch sitcoms, but I watch “The Office.”” (Or “Parks and Rec” or “Community.”)

Another word that can also be applied these shows is challenging. Sometimes it’s like you have to hunt for the punchlines in these shows. Not only is there no laughtrack there to direct you but every thing is played so “straight,” that when you do laugh you aren’t sure if what was just said was a joke or are you simply taking it that way? And, if you are taking it that way, is it rude that you are?

In fact, sometimes humor in these shows (especially its cable incarnations) is so subdued it’s questionable to even call them “sitcoms” at all. Is “Girls” a comedy? What about cable’s old “Hung”? Certainly humorous moments exist in each but so does a lot of soul-searching and other less-than-comedic emotions and events.

The Goldbergs starring Gertrude BergIronically, in some ways these series hearken back to TV’s earliest “sitcoms,” like “Mama” and “The Goldbergs,” which both began on TV in the late 1940s. They were each largely free of schtick and mixed in as much pathos as comedy in their weekly installments. Some shows of the 1960s (though less dark-natured than say a “Girls” or a “Louie”) were similarly as much about emotion as yuks. Some of them: “Julia” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” These gentle dramedies gradually became known as a subgenre to the sitcom—the “heart-com.”

Actually, I think such differentiations and sorting into sub-genres is good and becoming more and more necessary. For too long we have lumped all sitcoms (and TV dramas, for that matter) together under the same umbrella; a rose is a rose, a sitcom is a sitcom. But there’s a vast chasm between the styles—and the intent—of a show like “Girls” or “Louie” and the more purposefully over-the-top shenanigans of a “Mike & Molly” or a “Two and a Half Men.” In fact, there always has been. Even in the 1950’s there was a strata that divided “I Love Lucy” from “Leave It to Beaver,” that separated “The Honeymooners” from “Father Knows Best.” Later, it would separate “Seinfeld” from “The Nanny” and so on.

The acknowledging of different sitcom styles should not be viewed as a ranking--one type of show is not necessarily better than the other. Our appreciation of humor can and should be expansive, able to appreciate everything from the Marx Brothers to Woody Allen, from Noel Coward to Mel Brooks, from Neil Simon to Judd Apatow. It is the same method of thinking that allows for both “All in the Family” and “The Addams Family” to, rightfully, be considered “classics.”

One also has to wonder, though, if the post-modern sitcom is a subgenre that’s here to stay. Or is it simply temporary and transitional? Will it be to the 2010s what the heart-coms were to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s? Recently, for me, binge-watching a few of these series, I found myself after a time fatigued and vaguely annoyed by some of these show’s pretentions, their oh-so earnest intent and (often) the gaggle of unsympathetic, difficult characters that tended to populate them. After a time, I couldn’t help but long instead for shows about crazy red-heads angling to get into show business or a horse that talked but only to its owner. For god’s sake, get me “2 Broke Girls,” bring back the “Big Bang”!

Though by virtue of being without a laugh track, a studio audience, or standard joke set-ups a sitcom might be considered “post-modern,” that doesn’t mean it is automatically funny or more enjoyable to watch, even it if is often held in higher esteem.

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