0 - The Michigan uany -- Wednesday, March 22, 2000
hardly a new game
f born at Starbucks
Wow, TV comedy is suddenly getting
creative, eh? Sitcoms are erupting with
"Malcolm in the Middle" burst out for
Fox in January with its cockeyed look at
growing up, as seen through the eyes of
a ,kid genius with loony parents, as told
with movie-like one-camera filming, fre-
quent exterior scenes -- and no laugh
Fox explodes with "Titus a brazen
take on neurotic adulthood, with comedi-
an Christopher Titus telling his twisted
"white trash" life story through black-
arid-white narration, split-second visual
tricks, daydreams and home-movie
Wow, television comedy has never
been so flexible before!
Or so goes conventional wisdom.
The truth is, TV comedy has never
been less flexible before. We tend to
define normalcy as whatever we're cur-
rently accustomed to. For two decades
now, prime-time comedy has meant sit-
coms: setup-joke-laugh, setup-joke-
laugh, shot continuously like a play by
several cameras before a studio audience
belly laughing on command.
So now everybody's looking for
"new" ways to liven up TV comedy. It
isn't necessary. We could do as well by
consulting the medium's past. Our short
cultural memory makes us think TV
comedy has always behaved like today's
formula sitcoms. In fact, tube humor has
a rich,varied heritage. Look back 30
years and you'd be surprised how amaz-
ingly diverse TV comedy was.
There isn't much to try that hasn't
been tried already. TV now has a 50-year
history of overlooked magnitude.
0 One-camera filming: "Malcolm's"
technique is nearly as old as TV itself.
Though the earliest sitcoms were done
live in the studio, shows such as "Abbott
and Costello" and "Amos n' Andy"
soon started being filmed like movies,
on Hollywood studio lots, with one cam-
era shooting all scenes and editing done
later. Laughs were often added artificial-
Multicamera comedy was invented
for "I Love Lucy" in 1951, when Desi
Amaz developed the format of play-like
presentation with several cameras shoot-
ing movie film before an audience seated
in bleachers inside a movie soundstage.
Many '50s gag-centered comedies
adopted this livelier style,. notably that
one season of "The Honeymooners"
shot on film.
But multicamera fell into disuse
through the '60s. The one-camera char-
acter comedy of "Father Knows Best"
led the way for new programs like
"Leave It to Beaver" to adopt a gentler,
more authentic family humor. Other
whimsical '60s half-hours employed
one-camera to be less realistic ("I Dream
Then in 1971 came "All in the Fami-
ly," its groundbreaking comedy aided by
vociferous crowd reaction. That inspired
a wholesale revival of multicamera, live-
audience comedy. The structure it estab-
lished was so quickly imitated that by
the mid-'70s the pendulum had swung
again, leaving "M.A.S.H." virtually the
networks' only single-camera comedy.
"All in the Family" also led the charge
away from film, with its nuanced texture
and exterior options, to cheaper video-
tape, with its brassier "live" look and
sedentary studio interiors. Even when
the "classier" look of film came back in
-ourt esy or t tre VIs
New on the Fox network, "Titus"'is being lauded for its creative comedy techniques.
the '90s with "Murphy Brown" and
"Frasier" the sitcom remained studio-
bound and immobile. Film's supposed
versatility didn't much broaden sitcom
scope till "Malcolm" reenergized the
First person storytelling: The lead
characters in "Titus" and "Malcolm" talk
directly to us, which helps deepen our
emotional understanding of them. But
the technique goes back to the early
'50s, when George Burns grinned into
the camera, keeping us abreast of sitcom
happenings on "The George Burns and
Gracie Allen Show." In the '80s it was
used with much fanfare on the cable
comedy "It's Garry Shandling's Show."
At the same time,"Moonlighting" broke
the "fourth wall" with Bruce Willis and
Cybill Shepherd telling us how the TV
format impacted that week's detective
Dramedy: "Moonlighting" was a
comedy-drama, paving the way for "Ally
McBeal." "Dramedies" such as "The
Wonder Years" and "Frank's Place"
meant half-hours without an audience or
a laugh track and lots of underlying
issues and heart. Programmers have
recently said they're looking at this form
for several fall projects.
But the style originated in earnest
early sitcoms ("Mama," 1949-1956) and
revived in such "relevant" '70s half-
hours as "Room 222" and "M.A.S.H.,"
where surgery scenes never had a laugh
track. This also was the unstated style of
the enduring favorite, "The Andy Grif-
fith Show." Yes, this '60s hit used a laugh
But it was also a deeply emotional
show that sometimes went minutes with-
out a chuckle. It's not the show's laughs
we remember but its heart.
Animation: "The Simpsons" was
nothing new 10 years ago, and prime
time's current cartoon comedy wave isn't
the first, either. "The Flintstones" was
such a '60s favorite that it inspired other
nighttime cartoons ("The Bullwinkle
Show, "The Bugs Bunny Show," "The
Jetsons" and "Jonny Quest"). But ani-
mation today goes beyond yesteryear's
goofy gags to delve deeper into human
® Sketch comedy: The early '90s
favorite "In Living Color" and late-
night's "Saturday Night Live" owe their
existence to such '50s stalwarts as "Your
Show of Shows," with its showbiz paro-
dies and vaudeville-based wackiness.
Since then, we've seen all kinds of
sketch permutations, many including
music and being called variety shows:
Jackie Gleason and Garry Moore in the
'50s; the Smothers Brothers and Dean
Martin in the '60s; Carol Burnett and
Flip Wilson in the '70s; Barbara Man-
drell in the '80s. We've had romantic
comedy vignettes in "Love, American
Style" and the quick-cut scattershot lam-
poons of "Laugh-In." Now Ellen
DeGeneres is developing a sketch come-
dy pilot for CBS, and it's heralded as a
breakthrough. But DeGeneres has the
good grace to cite Burnett as her inspira-
Mixed-media techniques: OK,
here's something fresh. "Titus" plays
with the physical texture of television. It
mixes color and black-and-white, film
and video, regular camera shots with
subjective views, and straightforward
plotting with fantasies, flashbacks and
first-person narration. Of course, Ernie
Kovacs was crazily stretching video in
the '50s and "Laugh-In" stitched a
crazy-quilt of techniques in the '60s.
But "Titus" really does take this a
bracing step forward. Fox's ambitious
comedy integrates all these visual
tricks and time shifts into deeply per-
sonal storytelling of surprising psy-
chological depth. Its tricks aren't
gratuitously entertaining. They're
revealing. They tell us more about the
characters than a standard presenta-
The Washinton Post
Coffee, tea or Korn?
Decisions don't get more agoniz-
ing, but thanks to Starbucks there's
no need to choose just one. Right
next to the beans, mint tins and java
gizmos, local branches of the ubiq-
uitous espresso retailer are now
selling "Just Passin' Thru No. 3," a
compilation of songs from the
vaults of a Washington-area FM
The record is part of a fascinating
and little-noticed phenomenon.
Starbucks started offering music
compilations in 1995 and the Seat-
tle-based chain has quietly become
a force of its own in the record
industry. More than that, it has
inspired a litter of copycats, in the
process generating interest in other-
wise obscure or overlooked artists
and spawning a whole new retail
category: the brand-building com-
The albums are hard to miss. Pot-
tery Barn offers more than half a
dozen CDs at its stores. Banana
Republic, Polo Ralph Lauren stores,
Brooks Brothers and Williams-
Sonoma outlets sell them too, as
does Victoria's Secret, which Star-
bucks executives say might deserve
credit for dreaming up this concept.
In a typical mall nowadays, shop-
pers can snap up a score of CDs
without ever setting foot in a music
The collections are usually a
grab-bag assortment built around a
theme, mood or season. Sales fig-
ures are hard to pin down, since
Soundscan, the industry's official
counter, focuses on traditional
music retailers and most companies
are mum on the issue.
But Starbucks asserts that some
of its compilations, if tracked,
would have popped up on blues or
jazz charts, an entirely plausible
claim. After all, the company owns
2,500 outlets worldwide - more
than 10 times the number of Tower
Records stores - visited by rough-
ly 10 million well-heeled consumers
The albums are so popular that
major labels now pitch songs to the
company, hoping to break a new or
forgotten artist. Tellingly, folk rock-
er Shawn Colvin, who appeared on
the "Sogs of the Siren" compila-
tion in 996, thanked Starbuc"G
when shecollected a Grammy for a
solo albux two years later.
"OftenCDs are just marketing
tools," sail David Brewster, a Star-
bucks exeutive. "We tend to think
of ours as nore powerful than that.
They are rue music discovery
opportunitis, handcrafted just like
our coffee: and our drinks, with
dedication ad passion."
Some skeficism about all this is
inevitable. Sirbucks has merciless-
ly homogenizd scads of urban and
suburban spee in recent years,
infuriating thse who prefer a little
variety in thir streetscapes. And
the company omehow made $2.25
seem like a resonable sum for.a
cup of coffee.
But its tastein music is excep-.
tional. Starbuks created its own
"Music Departnent" - the only
one in all of retldom, the company.
claims - with 2 employees whose,
full-time job isiandpicking tunes.
for upcoming (Ds and selecting
background muse for stores. Afi-
cionados and fomer music retail
ers, these guystake their jobs
seriously, and ove the years they've
dusted off some acient jewels and
mined new diamnds. Ignore the
bad coffee puns ad there's a feast
of good music n albums like,
"Blending the Blue" and jazz com-
pilations like "Hotlava Jazz." The
company's back cailogue is avail-
able at www.starbucs.com.
The albums wrk, in part,
because they surprie. On "Blend-w
ing," for instance, w get Koko Tay-
lor's version of 'Wang Dang
Doodle" rather thar-the far better
known version by lowlin' Wolf.
The Wolf shows up Iter with "The
Red Rooster," which-anks with his
finest, fieriest singing but has inex-
plicably faded a bit ovr time.
Which hints at wha's wrong with
"Just Passin' Thru Jo. 3." The
album collects songs rom WHFS's
Sunday night shov a sort of
unplugged venue fo alternative
acts, but the versionsoffered here
aren't much differen from those
that the station alread plays _ and
plays. For example, (eed's bom-
bastic "My Own Prisoe" even ren-
dered here stripped otamplifiers,
offers little surprise.
, £ I
Courtesy of Fox Television
"Malcolm in the Middle" made its acclaimed debut this season on the Fox network.