Sunday, November 30, 2014

TV: Blackish proves ABC still doesn't know from funny

When it comes to sitcoms, there are a lot of lies.

For starters, that Blackish is a hit.

Wednesday nights, The Middle opens ABC's prime time schedule and does so repeatedly with higher ratings than Blackish.  Meanwhile, Blackish follows ABC's giant hit Modern Family and manages to not only score less viewers than The Middle but also to run off an average of three million viewers.

The only real ratings question is will Blackish's rating continue to fall making it the least watched ABC sitcom on Wednesday nights?

ABC's struggled with sitcoms throughout the fall.  There was Manhattan Love Story, for example, which became the first cancellation of the season.  There was also Selfie which got the axe weeks ago.

ABC has a problem, it's the same one NBC has and why both struggle to break open new sitcoms.

They don't know funny and they think they're better than the format.

The sitcom format is funny.

To make sure you're funny, you rehearse, rehearse and then tape before a studio audience.

This let's writers and performers sharpen the scripts as the week progresses and fix, during taping, trouble spots.

This is not revolutionary or a format that just emerged.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz perfected the formula when they basically invented the modern sitcom with I Love Lucy. But everyone thinks they know better than Lucy and Desi.

The ratings prove otherwise.

As does the fact that I Love Lucy has never stopped airing since it went into syndication.

NBC's 'hit' from last year, About A Boy, is struggling badly in the ratings which only makes Marry Me's so-so ratings on the same night look incredible.  Like ABC, NBC thinks it knows better than the likes of Lucy, Desi, Roseanne, Mary Tyler Moore and so many others.

The only network that even slightly has a clue is CBS -- the network that aired I Love Lucy.

The Big Bang Theory, Mom, 2 and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls, etc get the kind of ratings Selfie and About A Boy couldn't even dream of.

The other thing the CBS shows have in common -- besides being hits -- is not trying to screw with the formula.  They're recorded in front of a live audience.

This formula means that their bombs aren't huge bombs.  For example, The Millers just got the axe.  It's 'low' ratings?  6.31 million viewers.

Compare that to NBC's two highest profile failures -- The Michael J. Fox Show which posted 1.99 million viewers -- and on a new episode -- and The Paul Reiser Show which set a record low for Thursday nights when the second (and last aired) new episode clocked in with 2.37 million viewers.

Those are bad.  So is 3.23 million.  That's how many viewers Selfie got three days before ABC announced it was killing the show.  2.62 million was the number of viewers that Manhattan Love Story had for its final episode.  With those kind of ratings, maybe ABC should have stuck by Better With You -- a series that averaged 6.60 million viewers for its season, one that got strong reviews and one that was taped before a studio audience.

Ratings should be an issue.

So should satisfaction.

The only thing working on Blackish is Tracee Ellis Ross.  Eight seasons on the sitcom Girlfriends, filmed before a live studio audience. let Tracee hone her chops.  She's hilarious in the way only someone who's performed regularly before a live audience can be.

A recent episode found her character and Anthony Anderson's character concerned their kids had it too easy and Tracee required to point to each child and tell them they were getting a job.

If Anderson had been given the line it would have died.

With Tracee, she turned it into a sing-song, made it funny and brought to life.

She does that with little bits and pieces in episode after episode.

Anderson doesn't know from funny.  A bit player on one season of The Bernie Mac Show didn't allow Anderson to learn funny.

He's merely adequate.

If Blackish were filmed before a live studio audience, there's a chance Anderson would relax, come across less stiff and learn how to play comedy.

He has natural charisma.

What he's not being given is the format to explore and hone his talent.

And that's the other thing about these single-camera 'sitcoms.'

They're not funny, yes.  But it's also that they really don't try.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus was hilarious on Seinfeld and The New Adventures of Old Christine.

She was so-so on Watching Ellie and she's so-so on Veep.

Big difference?

When you're performing in front of a live audience, you can't phone it in unless you want egg on your face.  You have to try.

On the single-camera shows, they get the shot -- funny or not -- and quickly move on.

If Lucille Ball put the funny in sitcom, Fred MacMurray killed it.

As funny as I Love Lucy was, that's just how dead My Three Sons was.

Fred wanted a single-camera show because he wasn't interested in being funny or spending too much time on a sitcom.  He filmed all of his scenes in two blocks of ten weeks.  The rest of the cast was filming the other scenes while Fred relaxed.


That's why the shows just aren't funny.

The Office?  Better than The Courtship of Eddie's Father and whimsical but not laugh out loud funny.

For funny on a sitcom, you really have to go all out.

Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Penny Marshall, Freddie Prinze, Robin Williams, Suzanne Somers, Helen Hunt, Nell Carter, Mary Tyler Moore, Roseanne, Valerie Harper,  etc.  These are sitcom stars.

Marlo Thomas, Bill Bixby, etc?  They're popular TV performers.  They're not sitcom stars.  They made you smile, they failed to make you laugh.

A sitcom in the multi-camera format is one where the actors explore the humor in the script daily and then tape before an audience.  A 'sitcom' with a single-camera is where a shooting schedule is followed, not the laughter, not the effort to get the laughter.  Just get the scene shot and move on to the next one.

And it really shows.

It's what destroyed NBC's Thursday nights.

My Name Is Earl, The Office and other 'buzz shows' failed to deliver the laughs and failed to deliver the audience.

The Office never made it higher in rank any season than 52.

But NBC suits knew it was a 'hit' because it trended on social media and . . .

None of that crap means a thing if a show can't deliver viewers.

NBC and ABC repeatedly fail with one sitcom launch after another.

And they're never smart enough to notice the common glue for CBS' hit sitcoms.

Instead of giving people what they want, they cater to lazy show runners and lazy performers who seem to think acting is bankers hours and they should be able to work nine to five and if the comedy happens, great, but if it doesn't that someone else's problem.

Someone else?

That would be the viewers.

As it stands right now, if Blackish continues to bleed viewers it won't get a second season.  Smartest thing ABC could do right now is switch to multi-camera and a live audience.

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