Part One: “We Gather Together” — The Cosby Show
Part Two: “The 20 Year Callback” — The Newhart Finale
Part Three: “Delightful Accidents and Fortuitous Blunders” – Friends, The Jack Benny Program, Seinfeld
Part Four: “The Hams” Lucy, Gervais, Silvers, AbFab, SCTV, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show Ensemble
Part Five: “We’re in This Thing Together” – Honeymooners, All in the Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Roseanne

Great Moments in Sitcom History: A Eulogy – Conclusion

On February 28th, 1983, 121.6 million Americans tuned in to watch the series finale of M*A*S*H, surpassing the single-episode ratings record that had been set by the Dallas “Who Shot J.R.” resolution. It remained the most-watched television broadcast in American history until Super Bowl XLIV overtook it (in total viewership) in 2010.

Could a sitcom ever again garner such popularity?

Ratings-wise, perhaps. If the first two weeks of the 2011-2012 TV season are any indication, more and more Americans are easing from their decade-long obsession with reality television in favor of an old standby, their “sure thing” – their 22 minutes of light, mellow fun. In its Sheen-less season premiere two weeks ago, 28 million viewers tuned in to watch Two and a Half Men, followed by 20 million last week. After arranging its five Emmy’s over the mantle, Modern Family had its best two weeks of ratings thus far, in spite of airing opposite Simon Cowell’s latest eyeroll, The X Factor.

As The New York Times reported last week, “Two main themes emerged: comedy looks resurgent; and reality shows, at least reality competition shows, may be reaching the saturation point.” Perhaps we have seen enough “reality” to know that we have seen enough.

“People know how to watch these [reality] shows now,” says Preston Beckman, the executive vice president for strategic planning at Fox. “In about three minutes.” The question remains, though, while sitcoms are inching their way back in the eyes of Nielsen, is anyone talking about specific scenes from these episodes? We haven’t heard a whole lot of discussion about Walden Schmidt (Ashton’s new character on Men) around the water cooler. And we don’t expect to.

For now, we’re still missing the moments.

To that end, we thought we’d conclude by asking several members of our panel of sitcom writers and experts to leave us with a favorite moment of a show they worked on. As you read, imagine a foot-tappin 70’s style theme song is playing and credits are crawling up the screen. And then, of course, “Sit, Ubu. Sit. Good Dog.”

Jim Vallely: I was assigned to write “Part Two” of a show about Rose (Betty White) getting a heart operation…. Before the operation, [the delightfully imbecilic] Rose made everybody promise to cut off their heads and freeze them. You know, so they could get together after they die. The women reluctantly agree. As Rose goes under the gas, she has a dream fantasy of a “cheesecake scene” [a scene of characters around the kitchen table, often eating cheesecake]. In Rose’s dream, though, the women are only heads! It’s weird and funny, and it was cheap to do. Just put the table on some blocks, cut some holes in it and stick a Golden Girl through the hole. Easy. Rent it!

Wayne Federman: My favorite moment in a sitcom I worked on was Curb Your Enthusiasm, in an episode called “The Wire.” (I was hoping it was about abortion.) It was only the 6th episode of the series…. After a few takes Larry David, who kept laughing at my hyper passive-aggressiveness, turned to me and said, “Keep doing that.”

Stephen Root: Lots of episodes of News Radio that were directed by Jimmy B, back when NBC would let you rehearse with the guest actor all week instead of bringing them in for the last couple days before shoot day…. If you let actors rehearse magic can happen. Or maybe the time on King of the Hill I was working in the booth with the late Ann Richards, former Gov. of Texas, and I got to say to her: “I think I just stepped on a koi” as I animatedly carried her across a fountain.

Eric Gilliland: When I first started on Roseanne, Bruce Helford was running the show and he always made us stop work when the show was on and we’d watch it as a group and with the rest of America. Even though this would make us stay a half hour later it was cool to watch it with millions of other people. We kept doing that as long as I was on the show.

Claudia Lonow: My favorite moment on a show I worked on was my first show, “rude awakening” which I also created. It was an autobiographical dark comedy on Showtime about a former night time soap opera teen star who gets sober. We had a very low budget, a grueling shooting schedule, (13 episodes in 14 weeks), and a teeny staff. I was an exhausted newly single mom writing comedy based on my lowest moments. One late night, all the writers were all laughing hysterically about a scene where the lead character, Billie’s mom, Trudy, (played by the late, brilliant, wonderful Lynn Redgrave) has a “dynasty” like confrontation with Billie’s TV mom, played by Joanna Cassidy. Someone, (probably brilliant writer, Andrea Abbate) pitched Joanna’s line: “you’re just saying that because the only things to come out of my vagina have been dead! But I have something really shocking to tell you.” To which Lynn would reply: “More shocking than dead things coming out of your vagina?” I laughed so hard, I ran out of the room and back.

Nell Scovell: My favorite moment of a sitcom I’ve worked on would have to come from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch which I created and ran in the first season. There were so many things we dreamed up and then made real–like constructing a giant ten-foot flan, or casting Jay Kogen (see below) as a teacher trapped in a bottle, or creating Linty, the lint monster that escapes from the dryer, or making a music video with Raquel Welch (Aunt Vesta) in thigh-high leather boots surrounded by scary, dancing clowns.

Jay Kogen: I have too many moments from the shows I’ve worked on to recount just one. But a favorite moment that constantly makes me smile (because I didn’t write it and I’m too critical of my own stuff) is when Homer Simpson goes into the freezer to get ice cream, saying “Mmm, chocolate.” He pulls out a box of Neapolitan ice cream with all the chocolate eaten out of it and just the strawberry and vanilla left. “Doh!” Frustrated, he pulls out another box, says “Mmm, chocolate.” again opens it to find just the chocolate eaten. He does it a few more times with the same result until finally he shouts, “Marge, we need more Neapolitan ice cream!” Again, it’s character.

Laraine Newman: Although I can’t think of a favorite moment of working on 3rd Rock From the Sun, the overall experience was terrific because it worked like a play. The writers believed in their material so they weren’t rewriting it up to the last minute. So the actors had time to work with it and find moments as they rehearsed.

Kevin Biggins: My favorite moment was listening to Kanye West record a rap that my writing partner — Travis Bowe — and me wrote for an episode of The Cleveland Show. We also wrote the melody for the rap. Kanye was recording in Hawaii and we got to sit in on the session in our LA offices. Kanye did one take of the song called, “Boom Dee-Ay!” and said “See, now that shit is fresh.” I guess “fresh” means “pretty darn good” in the black community…? Not a bad guy to tell you he thinks your rap is pretty darn good.

There was also a moment in a joke room on The Cleveland Show where we were sent off with the assignment of writing a love song for Cleveland Jr. We came up with a melody and a hook based around the term “balls-deep” in love. Brian, you can relate to this. We tricked the censors into putting it on the air by using the analogy of a ball pit you would find at Chuck E. Cheese. We never thought it would work. It did. And, we wrote-in a few lines from one of my childhood heroes — Scottie Pippen. When I heard Scottie singing “I’m talking ’bout balls deep” on network television. I thought, “Well, this is fucking great. I hope my parents are proud of me because I’m proud of me.”

Merrill Markoe: Oh. It’s not a sitcom. But maybe Dog Poetry.

I had been writing/directing these pieces called Films by my dog Bob…which were shot from the point of view of a dog. I was especially fond of them because on a show full collaboration, written for the cast of one host, these were a rare attempt at something more personal to me. So after they ran their course, I followed them up with a little piece I wrote and we shot using my dog Stan called Dog Poetry. It was my idea of a poem a dog might have written. It contained moments of elegant prose interrupted by the unstoppable compulsion to shout at squirrels. Dave didnt feel the piece would get laughs. So it was never going to air. But I worked really hard on it so the way I got it in to the show was to create a segment called Pieces that will never be on the show. When it played and the audience laughed really really hard, that was shocking and very satisfying for me.

—C.B.S.

Click here for more information about the sitcom writers and actors featured in this series.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith