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November 28, 2006


Will Teullive

I also thought "The Office" was a scripted show?


Yeah, well, if I want to see "amusing in spots", I'll just watch our cats doing stupid stuff in the living room. They have a far better chance of making me laugh than the so-called "improv sitcoms". It's all horseshit anyway... let's call a spade a spade here. 99% of TV sitcoms aren't funny anymore because they are noted to death by studio and network execs who just HAVE to say something in the room in front of their bosses... and the pressure on the writer is enormous to accomodate their moronic "notes".


The Office is all scripted. The fact that it feels improv-ed and is still so funny is a testament to its (mostly) great writing, in my opinion.


The Office may be scripted, but funny it's not.About the only funny sitcom I've seen in ten years was Coupling, and they killed it when they tried an American version. Hurray for Netflix!


One thing I still don't get about "The Office." The never-ending documentary they're supposed to be shooting. Even March of the Penguins had a beginning and end point. I'd say the birds' journey was more documentary-worthy than this group.


Hmm... why did I think this article was going to be about Michael Richards?


I never understood the office.-Art


Anon,"The Office may be scripted, but funny it's not."You're certainly entitled to that opinion, I think many comedy writers/actors would disagree. Ken,What's your take on Danson's work on "Curb..."? He seems like a guy that can bring the improv'ed funny when it's called for.Anon,"99% of TV sitcoms aren't funny anymore because they are noted to death by studio and network execs who just HAVE to say something in the room in front of their bosses... and the pressure on the writer is enormous to accomodate their moronic "notes"."Whenever co-workers/bosses bemoan the fucktarded notes the Network hands down, I -- the consummate contrarian -- sometimes catch myself saying something like, "Yeah, but I'm sure they're smart people who are good at whatever it is they do."Then I remember, that, no, a good majority of these execs are longtime assistants who failed upwards because they didn't have anywhere else to go.It's clearly not as black/white as that, but it's a little ridiculous when the VP of Scheduling is giving the "can we make the character more likable?" note.I have a feeling that some of the executive-level positions at the network level are going to be phased out in the next 10 years or so.But that may just be wishful thinking on my part.

Mike B.

Actually, the actors on The Office DVD commentaries mention they are allowed to improvise on takes if they think they can improve the joke.


Anon at 8:04 - the British version did have a definite beginning and end - it was 2 seasons of "filming" the documentary, and then a 2 hour special that supposedly went back to see where the Office personnel were 2 years after the documentary aired. How they will handle this in the US version remains to be seen, but I think it is the funniest sitcom on TV today.


I think that just as the new improv model isn't the savior of TV comedy, neither can it be completely dismissed out of hand. As Ken notes, it depends wholly on the personnel involved.Certainly, most actors aren't equipped to create a half-hour show out of thin air each week, but I think performers with a solid foundation in improv training (think Del Close, not Drew Carey) approach the creation of new material as writers first, and performers second...while accomplishing each with aplomb.Improv as a collaborative writing tool can work for television, provided the people using the tool have the training, experience, and "group mind" required. Curb is a great example, but they are late to the party started by (in my opinion) Comedy Central's late lamented Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist.

Ger Apeldoorn

Ken,Thanks for a great analysis of the troubles of sitcom. But you did leave out one more factor contributing to the feeling af staleness that permeates most traditional sitcoms the last couple of years. A failure that the improvised style does adress.In the last couple of years the comedy of comedy has come to rely too much on the words and not enough on character and behavior. It is one of the unfortunate side-effects of the fact that all the good comedies were completely in control of the writers. Following that model, writers who not as good were given the same privileges... and they couldn't handle it. For one thing, if you are a showrunner, you must have knowledge of all aspects of story-telling, including casting and editing. Having a good director helps as well. I have read many interviews with lesser writers who dismissed the value of the director and said they could not be bothered about the editing process. They just fought for their own contribution... the words. The same happened in the television animation industry, where lesser (and lesser paid) writers acting like prima donna's had to be taken a peg down and the power had to be shared again by the 'actors' (the animators) to get to the point where the stories were about more than just the words. A thing which is even more important in animation. This overthrow started with people like John Kricfalusi completely burning down all worth of the writers. A bit harsh, but apparently necessary. Since then, everything has been normalized and animation the last decade has been better than the decade before that.In sitcom we have seen two movements to see the power of the prima donna writers taken down. First, there was a move away from tapes studio sitcoms, which in effect means that the director and the editor get a far greater role. In some cases movie directors were used, in others former writers stepped up. The current interest in improvised comedy does the same for the actors. It gives them back some of the power to invent and create. Not the words themselves, but the living and breathing people who speak them. Because it is not about the words and if we attack the wish of the actors to not be put in a straight-jacket by pointing out how bad they are at making up the words, we belittle them. A good writer does more than provide the words. He creates a story for the actor to shine in. As you have always done, so you may not see the distinction at first and just call it bad writing.Ger Apeldoorn

Douglas McEwan

Well, there's probably a certain amount of improv at work in all sitcoms, within the context of the scripts and multiple takes. I attended a taping of a MURPHY BROWN ten years ago when a friend was in an episode. The great Tom Poston was guest-starring. Nine or ten times over the course of shooting the episode, Posten ad-libbed some outrageously funny line, vastly funnier than the already pretty funny line in the script. Everyone else on the set fell over laughing. They reslated and shot the bit again, but this time with Posten's new line, sometimes honed a or polished a bit more. It sometimes took three or four takes to get the new line shot without Candice Bergan falling over, but ALL of Posten's improvised lines ended up in the final show.At the WILL & GRACE tapings I attended this same practice ocurred with three of the four leads over & over, but never with Debra Messing, whose talents don't lie in that area.I suspect that this sort of improv graces all good sit-coms when you have really funny, creative actors at work. Some actors can improvise, some can't. Lucille Ball could not improvise her way out of a paper bag, nor was she at all funny in person, but her tremendous comedy talent at performing rehearsed, written material was unsurpassed.I worked in improv for many years, teaching it and practicins it, with many of the best in the world at it. It can make for lively, great, exciting, hilarious theater, and it can make for Comedy Hell, but no comedy professional in their right mind intends it to replace writers. 80% of the best improvisers I know are comedy writers also. Like you. Over my years of teaching improv, more of my students went on to careers writing sit-coms than acting in them.Improv is a tool, a good tool, a fun tool, and a great way to work out and develop material, but no one intends it as the be-all and end-all of the comedy process.But I'd take it over notes from an executive who never got a laugh on a stage in his life any day.

Ger Apeldoorn

Douglas, I would love to talk some more with you about improv and teaching it. Could you contact me privately at geapelde@eurnonet.com?


In one of Bonnie Hunt's many many short-lived sitcoms, she played a TV reporter, and there would be the scripted workplace scenes, then they'd send Bonnie out on remotes, like an actual Kielbasa festival somewhere in Chicago. And it was just her, a camera crew, some good-natured Chicagoans, and her extremely funny improvisational skills.The show of course didn't last long, but was a great hybrid of script and improv.

Herb Popsfarter

I think that's probably the truth of it. Like American politics, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. What Stephen called - a "hybrid of script and improv"There's no question in my mind that quality writers seem to be strangely elusive (or passed on like Fritzell & Greenbaum). Witness the endless string of comedy remakes over the last decade. And as Ken wrote recently, (sorry to paraphrase, Ken, but)- a lot of the comedy we are seeing lately has no actual "Jokes". Just silly situations and farts. (Not that farts don't have their childish charm)...said the guy with the nom de plum Popsfarter. I really agree with Ken, I find the heavy reliance on improv for comedy a little tenuous. Anyway, would it be wrong for me to admit that I find "SCRUBS" quite hilarious? Oh well, there goes MY credibility!

Paul Duca

This is off the subject, but I just wanted to let Ken know...my cable system just added the Hallmark Channel, so I again have M*A*S*H at a civilized hour (not just the 2:30 AM showing on broadcast in Boston).


Amen to all that indeed.


This is a very interesting post and the comments are very thought-provoking. Having grown up with a comedy writer for a father (my dad, Stan Burns, was Steve Allen's original writer. He did a lot of variety shows in the 70's and 80's, and wrote a lot of "Get Smarts", etc.), so I think I have a little perspective on what is going on sit-coms nowadays. There's a lot to be said for improv. But, as uaual, it boils down to the talent. The Office (one of my favorites) gives the impression of improv...but it's the talent of the cast that makes it work. The viewer feels like they're actually watching the goings on in an office. There's no big guffaws (although I have laughed out loud), but the humor is much more subtle.Sit-coms from the past relied more on the big laughs. That's where the term comes from...a situation comedy! The shows that we all loved had the best talent we've ever seen...from the writers, cast, directors, etc. Except for a few exceptions lately, talent seems to be lacking in the current crop of 1/2 hours sit-coms. The quick use of toilet humor demeans the genre. My father and his fellow generation of writers never relied on that kind of stuff. He and all his buddies up there in Writer's Heaven must be glad they're out of it now. I think NBC has come up with a good line-up on Thursday nights: "Earl", "The Office", "Scrubs", and "30 Rock" (although the Tracy Morgan character is a little over the top for me). However, I still miss the good ole days of "MASH", "Cheers", "Frazier", "Seinfeld", "Raymond" (I could go on and on listing others), etc. Those were clean, classy comedies.


"...count the guffaws not the cameras."Ken. May I steal that quote for educational purposes??I myself have done improv too. And I think Larry David is brilliant. However I never latched on to Curb. And felt bad about it because I felt I was the only one. Main reason? To me it seemed there was more talking than listening unlike how the Christopher Guest crew and my improv education has taught/shown.Anyway, I always appreciate improv specialists who leave room for space.No?By the by, I'm so glad I took your advice and bought Rosenthals book. Laugh out loud, brilliant and educational.Thanks for your blog,Mark Bennett

A. Jonathan Cox

Reno 911? Anybody? Reno 911 is improvised and hilarious - even though several of the main players have "Herbie Fully Loaded" on their resumes.


I think Adult Swim's Venture Brothers has some of the sharpest writing on TV right now. Pity it's on cable.

Herb Popsfarter

Oh yes! I really like the Venture Brothers, too. But I thought perhaps it only appealed to my quirky sense of humor.


I totally agree that it's the writing and network notes that are dragging sitcoms down. There's a lot of funny things on the show I work on that get lost in editing because they don't pass the S&P notes. And the Office is definitely one of the funniest shows on TV.


It's weird, but while I find The Office chuckle worthy at times, I'd never go as far as to call it a great show. If anything, I find it decent, but still sub-par when compared to the original (I know, I know, enough with the comparisons).For me, the creme de la creme of improv comedy at the moment is It's Always Funny in Philadelphia. That said, there are a lot of other shows that try, but it just ends up being kitschy, and I can never stop thinking it's just the networks trying to get an undeserving piece of the comedy pie.

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    Ken Levine is an Emmy winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer. In a career that has spanned over 30 years Ken has worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG, and has co-created his own series including ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis. He and his partner wrote the feature VOLUNTEERS. Ken has also been the radio/TV play-by-play voice of the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres.
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