Comedy guru Evan Smith argues that today’s best sitcoms are as good as the classics.
Evan Smith has written for NBC, CBS, FOX, USA, and various producers, and has worked as a programming VP responsible for developing network TV movies, specials, and series. Evan is the author of the bestselling book WRITING TELEVISION SITCOMS, he teaches screenwriting at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and he serves as a private script consultant for screenwriters and entertainment companies.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Boy, they just don’t make ’em like they used to.” It usually comes from an older relative, your Aunt Mary or Uncle Phil—they can’t remember where they put their car keys, but they remember enough to know that today’s sitcoms couldn’t possibly compare to yesteryear’s. True, the best of the old shows were pretty great. I did Love Lucy. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were awesome, Sanford and Son was an unqualified hoot. But were those shows better? Were their jokes funnier? Their characters more relatable? Their stories more clever? And who is to judge that? Your Uncle Phil? (Those keys he lost are in his pocket.)
For my part, though I enjoy the old greats as much as anyone, I don’t believe that they are better than today’s best. And after decades of in-depth, pains-taking empirical research—meaning, me watching way too much TV—I have determined that there are exactly ten reasons why this is true:
- WHAT ABOUT RATINGS?
Uncle Phil might argue that in his day a top sitcom would regularly earn a 30-40% household rating, as roughly a third or more of all TV owners in the country tuned in to watch each week’s episode. (Phil is very well-versed in audience measurement data.) That’s impressive considering that even the best of today’s shows are lucky to score a paltry 4-5% same-day rating, so snap, debate over!
True, but those big numbers from the old days happened back when we had only three TV networks to watch, plus PBS and a few UHF stations living off network reruns and Merv Griffin. Today, we have a thousand channels, not six or eight, plus streaming videos and downloads coming to us on via computers, tablets, and iPhones. So, comparing traditional network ratings between old shows and new is like comparing—sorry, I have to say it—“apples to Apple.”
Also, today one measures a program’s viewership by considering several different factors, including the enhanced CPM (cost-per-thousand) value of targeting a niche audience, revenues earned from distribution in other media, revenues from foreign distribution, and the part a show plays in helping to put a network on the map. But Uncle Phil wouldn’t want to hear all that, at least mine wouldn’t, so moving on…
- INNOVATIVE vs. ENTERTAINING
One must give credit where it’s due—from Lucy to The Honeymooners, those early shows created the mold for how to produce and deliver a compelling, funny ½-hour of mass-appeal television. Of course, some of that magic was lifted from successful radio programs that had come before, but the TV series that followed refined the formula and spawned the various formats we enjoy today. Any time anybody launches a new and successful creative format, they deserve huge praise for doing so. However, “innovative” is not the same as “better” or “more entertaining.” Velcro was innovative, but nobody wants to sit and watch it for 22 minutes.
- CONTROVERSIAL TOPICS
On a related note, credit must be given to shows that first dared to tackle controversial topics: Maude faced an abortion; Ellen came out of the closet; All in the Family tackled everything from rape and racism, to menopause and equal rights. And they did that while still putting winning jokes in every scene, and despite being hit with viewer backlash, FCC fines, possible cancellation, and even death threats. While those early shows did much to expand audience awareness, and because they did that years ago, many of today’s shows freely tackle controversial topics every week. And they go all in, and they rarely get flack for doing so.
Modern Family features gay lead characters, Transparent a transgender woman embracing her true self. In Master of None, Aziz Ansari doesn’t just encounter occasional racist comments—he is a frequent victim of racism, and many of his show’s plots and jokes show how he suffers its effects first-hand. South Park boldly names names as it calls out the worst offenders behind everything from self-serving celebrities to organizations that protect pedophiles. Early sitcoms that were the first to bravely tackle controversial topics years ago certainly deserve credit for doing so. But being first doesn’t equate with being more entertaining, when comparing shows between then and now.
At this point, Uncle Phil might interject with…
- TOO MUCH SEX!
With the classics, it was Lucy sleeping in a separate bed from her husband’s, yet magically getting pregnant, or maybe the briefest of jokes about Mary Tyler Moore being sexually active. (As in the scene in which Mary’s mother calls out to Mary’s father, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” And both father and daughter reply, “I won’t!”) But some might argue that in today’s shows everyone is always naked or under the covers, or talking about doing it, or not doing it, or they did it but now they want it undone. Uncle Phil’s right, many of today’s shows feature good-looking people having sex. But that’s bad? Yeah, no…sorry, Phil. I’m taking that as another point for me. In fact, sex? Let’s take two points for that.
- CLUTTERED MARKET
The way we consume media has changed drastically over the years, and one can’t make comparisons across decades without considering viewing context. Phil might argue that classic shows really were “must-see TV” while today’s shows seem less special, less of an event. He’d be right. We have so many viewing choices nowadays that even the best new shows seem less unique. Plus, we can see what we want whenever we want, so there’s little can’t-wait-to-watch-it suspense and less concern that we’ll never catch a favorite show. Plus, television stars are so overexposed now—through talk-shows, entertainment news shows, websites, and social media—that they and the characters they play have lost much of their mystique. So perhaps today’s shows are “less special,” but that’s largely due to changes in media consumption and pop culture, not because yesteryear’s shows were magically more appealing to an audience.
In a related vein…
- VIEWERS ARE MORE SOPHISTICATED
Modern viewers have consumed so many hours of television and film that we are very familiar with things like plot structure, character growth, and humor patterns. Though we can’t always tell where a story or joke is heading, we are very quick to fill in gaps in exposition and dramatic development. Remember “passing” scenes? The brief segues designed to carry us from one story sequence to the next? As in, an alarm goes off, a hand slaps at it; toast burns, a quick kiss as Dad runs out the door; dashing through the building lobby, squeezing into a packed elevator—viewers don’t need those scenes anymore. Now, it’s a missed alarm and arriving late for the big meeting…or no alarm…or picking up the scene mid-meeting, just as unsuspecting Dad is hit with unexpected news. Modern viewers are so good at filling in blanks that we now expect and want to see less exposition, faster pacing, more jokes, and even shorter cutaways to characters reacting to jokes. As a result, some classic sitcoms seem a bit slow-paced compared to today’s best. My Three Sons and Ozzie & Harriet were major hits in their day, but when was the last time you opted to view them rather than an episode of Seinfeld or Modern Family?
- MONEY AND PRODUCTION VALUES
Classic sitcoms had modest budgets and were shot with primitive equipment; most were limited to three or four main sets and maybe a couple of swing sets, and special effects were a thing of the future. Today, the sky’s the limit, or it’s been CGI’d so it looks like the limit. Big money is spent on production values to achieve maximum realism, and camera equipment is so portable that even in-studio multi-camera shows do a fair share of location shoots, or use CGI backgrounds to simulate additional locations. The Beverly Hillbillies might have sprung for a few “Hootersville” sets at special times such as Christmas or a ratings sweeps period, but contemporary series like Big Bang Theory and Modern Family regularly shoot at locations all around their fictional towns, and freely travel to (or replicate) locations that range from Disneyland and Hawaii, to the North Pole and the international space station. While fancy production values don’t guarantee that a series will be more entertaining than others, life is very mobile and programs that reflect that seem more realistic. Bigger budgets and advances in technology have enabled modern shows to open stories up in ways that the classics never could.
Speaking of stories…
- NEW STRUCTURE MODELS
Almost all classic sitcoms told stories in a simple episodic fashion, delivering a complete, brief, standalone tale in each half-hour. Some modern sitcoms, like Big Bang Theory and South Park, still use that model or a version of it, presenting a three-act main story but also including threads or subplots that arc across multiple episodes. Other of today’s shows, like Veep and Silicon Valley, feature serialized stories that play like sequential chapters in a larger, overarching story that might last for months, years, or the entire life of the series.
Both newer models provide much more time for writers to develop stories and characters in depth, enabling viewers to connect more strongly with the program. Does that automatically make these shows better? No. But imagine how Veep would suffer if it were shot as an episodic series. Or how M.A.S.H. might have offered more if it were shot as a serial.
Which leads us to our final point, Number 10—because all good lists have ten points, it’s the rule—and this point might be the only real reason that it seems “they don’t make them like they used to” …
- MOM, DAD, TWO SISTERS, AND ONE PAIN-IN-THE-ASS BROTHER
While thinking hard about classic sitcoms like Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family, and what made them so special, I suddenly realized that it wasn’t just that those shows were extremely well made and timely for their day. I know that “simpler times” don’t mean happier times for everybody, but here’s what I remember most fondly when flashing back to those shows: I remember gathering in the den of our old house with Mom and Dad, sisters Val and Mary, my obnoxious older brother, Jimmy…everyone was younger, happier, had more hair…and there was only one video screen in the room. A 21-inch RCA in a huge wooden cabinet. And we were all watching it and laughing, having a great time, sitting together in one space. And nobody felt the need to be somewhere else, doing something else.
To me, that’s the real charm of those classic shows. They were great but not better—my opinion. That said, if I could travel back right now and watch a few of them again, back sitting with the whole family, even Jimmy, I would do that in a heartbeat.
Get more invaluable advice on comedy writing in Evan Smith’s book
Writing Television Sitcoms