If you go by the Nielsen ratings now, it’s fairly evident that most sitcoms are off on another planet somewhere with small followings that somehow keep them from getting the axe. The only exception is (in some people’s minds inexplicable) popularity of “Two and a Half Men” that perhaps banks more on the curiosity of Charlie Sheen rather than people guffawing themselves silly at the scripts. But “Two and a Half Men” and most other sitcoms struggling to stay on the air for an umpteenth season seem to survive on the concept of average to below-average people interacting within their own domains. What happens, though, when a sitcom decides to go intelligent and creates extremely smart characters as leads that interact with average to below-average characters outside the leading character’s domains?
A few of the most successful sitcoms ever done played up that concept–yet seems to have been lost ever since one particular sitcom left the air in the early 2000’s. The show I refer to is “Frasier” that may be the best example of how to describe a formula that never fails to work well and creates some of the biggest laughs you’ll ever have watching a sitcom. Some might automatically refer to this genre as the “fish out of water.” Well, that’s too broad of a term to describe extreme intellectual characters trying to fight their way through a world that’s decidedly beneath their expectations.
In the broader sense of a fish out of water, you can cite dozens of sitcoms or drama show examples–usually in the reverse of the above-mentioned genre: The low-brow character interacting with the high-brow world. In the 1950’s, “The Honeymooners” set the trend of working class under-educated people trying to survive while sometimes finding themselves face to face with the upper crust world and trying to fit in. Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden character was the classic prototype for this that ended up getting copied in everything from “The Flintstones”, “All in the Family” on up to “Cheers” and “The Simpsons.”
It was “Cheers”, actually, that we may have to be credited for starting the hilarious collision of intellects. They were also one of the first shows to use two opposites on the same show, first with mailman Cliff Claven thinking he’s a master of all when he wasn’t (and looking unknowingly below-average in the process) followed by psychiatrist Frasier Crane who was too refined and educated to logically be hanging out in a Boston bar frequented by average working class people.
Just the fact that Frasier was there, and his flung barbs trying to communicate with people who didn’t have a clue what he was expounding on, was enough proof to see why “Frasier” later turned into a long-running comedy classic. That series took the idea of an over-the-top intellect trying to live life in a world of full of people who hate intellects to a whole new level that’s yet to be matched.
Once “Frasier” ended its run in 2003, the genre seemed to be dead along with most sitcoms. Then along came a new series “The Big Bang Theory” in 2007 that a fellow writing friend here hooked me into watching recently…
If you read Timothy Sexton’s writing here on Associated Content regularly, then you know that he and I write frequently about the same subjects, along with being fellow writing associates since 2007. Recently, he wrote an article (here: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1362770/the_big_bang_theory_has_restored_my.html?cat=39) that gave an A+ grade for CBS’s Monday night sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” which is already in its second season as of this writing. When reading Tim’s enthusiasm and championing for this funny show, my curiosity in wanting to see it increased after having not seen a single sitcom regularly in close to five years.
Of course, there was also a dose of skepticism when most of the sitcoms on CBS currently are far below average in this writer’s opinion. Based on their limited popularity, most other viewers probably feel the same. It’s too bad because Monday nights on CBS used to be one of the best nights on television as recently as the 1990’s. “Murphy Brown” and “Northern Exposure” were two of the best comedy/drama shows on TV that night through at least half of the decade. When those and NBC’s “Frasier” ended, the age of really great sitcoms truly came to a screeching halt.
When checking out “The Big Bang Theory”, however, I managed to recognize what it was going for: A mathematical genius trying to understand the illogical structure of the world around him. All you have to do is see the episode where theoretical physics prodigy, Sheldon Cooper PhD. (played by the seeming geek par-excellence Jim Parsons), learns how to drive at the DMV to show you how big laughs are made on sitcoms. Sheldon’s interrogation with the lady at the DMV counter about the ridiculous rules of driving and procedures at the DMV was enough to make anybody with a brain guffaw themselves silly.
It turns out that Tim’s radar for sparsely good TV was right on the money and the beginnings of a potentially classic sitcom. Sure, the show is still rough around the edges for brief moments, particularly in a few outrageous stereotypes of geeks. Overall, however, the talented cast brings back a formula that all producers should be looking toward if they want to succeed in bringing real laughs back to sitcoms. While nobody can potentially match Kelsey Grammer’s masterful approach to making this formula work, the hilarious concept of an extreme intellectual trying to communicate with a below-average person who has no clue is comedic dynamite in any script. The reason is because there’s a lot more truth there than we care to admit.
I thoroughly believe that we have a lot of Frasier Cranes and Sheldon Coopers roaming around in our cities and towns who have to put up with stupid people running everything. You may be one of those people yourself who’ve had to put up with said situation. You and those others should be checking out “The Big Bang Theory” and help incite producers to make more sitcoms like it without necessarily being derivative…