Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Best Sitcom In The World?

Of all the genres, comedy is perhaps the hardest thing to write.  What I mean is, as much skill as it takes to write dramas, tragedies, thrillers, romances and so forth (and it takes a lot), the one advantage the writer has in choosing those genres over comedy is that those genres more easily express their quality with the intrinsic nature of the story.  For example, if you're writing a tragedy about the death of a child in a family, one thing in your favour is that the occurrence of death naturally devastates those engaged in the plot, so at least some of your work is done for you, because child death is a tragic thing, and most of us can elicit evocation of empathy as we share in each other's suffering.  Similarly, strong love between two beloveds is a wonderful thing, and a woman being stalked by a serial killer is a chilling thing, so, again, some of your work is done for you if you're writing a romance or thriller. 

Needless to say, it is easy to write a really bad tragedy, romance or thriller - and given the incommensurable number of unsuccessful efforts, and the number of industrial-scale production line paperbacks, compared with the number of critical successes, it's probable that the majority of efforts veer more towards being 'bad' than they do 'good'.

No doubt the same is true of comedy - except when it comes to the writing of comedy, we have a slightly different situation to the aforementioned tragedies, romances or thrillers - because when setting out to write a comedy almost every scene or plot won't naturally be funny or witty - the writer must construct the right setting, plot and (in particular) the right dialogue to make things funny, as well as choose the right actors to deliver those lines.  Even a brilliant script and a cracking plot can suffer if the performers are not suited to the material.  We all know how discomforting it is to be in a room or a theatre or a comedy club in the presence of someone trying desperately hard but failing to be funny.

So in my view, of all the genres, the hardest thing to write is comedy, and I think the best comedy has been produced by the team that gave us Seinfeld (Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld) - and who, to an arguably slightly lesser extent, also mirrored that brilliance with Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David solo).  Seinfeld takes us on a journey over 9 seasons, which centrally focuses on the adventures of four friends; Jerry Seinfeld playing himself, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and the irrepressible Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). 

What puts Seinfeld above all other sitcoms, for me, is that it raised the bar of situation comedy to a new level, with its acute observations of human idiosyncrasies, its aphoristic considerations of social intercourse, and the variety of the subject matters explored - all delivered at a consistently brilliant level by a selection of some of the finest writers in the business. The main brilliance of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm is that each episode is littered with punchy phrases about people and social situations that you've felt all along are accurate, but have always been too courteous or reticent to say out loud.  In short, these guys say what most of us are thinking, and what most of us would say if ordinary social protocols were suspended for a time.

With sitcoms like Seinfeld, and the nearly equally brilliant Frasier, we have comedies that don't compare easily to the brilliant sitcoms Britain has produced, because with the great British sitcoms like Yes Minister, Porridge, The Office, and so forth, there are usually only one or two writers throughout, producing six or so episodes per series.  In contrast, the teams behind Seinfeld and Frasier had numerous scripts from which to choose, from a multitude of talented writers, meaning that each season usually consists of over 20 episodes, with just about every episode as sharp, fresh, witty and fast-paced as the rest.  For that reason, and because I think in George, Kramer and Elaine, Seinfeld gave us three of the best characters in sitcom history, Seinfeld stands as the best of all. 

Furthermore, with the subsequent brilliance of Curb Your Enthusiasm after Seinfeld went off the air, I'd put Larry David up there as being one of the most talented observers of comedic situations we have ever seen.  In fact, I'd say Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld and to situation comedy as William Shakespeare is to playwriting, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen are to comedy filmmaking, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse are to literary comedy, Adam Smith is to economics, Newton, Darwin and Einstein are to science, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach are to classical music, The Beatles are to pop music, and Jimi Hendrix is to guitar playing.   

* Photos courtesy of