The Austin Chronicle

ATX Television Fest: Structure of a Sitcom... and the Rise of Anti-Sitcoms

By Kimberley Jones, June 8, 2013, 3:59pm, Picture in Picture

The ATX Television Festival is a one-size-fits-all fest. It’s roomy enough to accommodate fans of cutting-edge comedy, dramas that met the axe too soon, and the occasional insipid TGIF anchor. (Forgive the get-off-my-lawn grumbling, but good gawd, this Boy Meets World nostalgia bewilders me.)

The collective creative output of the panelists participating in Friday afternoon’s Structure of a Sitcom... and the Rise of Anti-Sitcoms session falls firmly in the first category – cutting-edge comedy. Just take a look at their rap sheets: Tim Doyle (Roseanne, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Aliens in America), Dave Finkel (New Girl, 30 Rock, United States of Tara), Dan Harmon (Community, Channel 101), Rob Schrab (The Sarah Silverman Program, Channel 101, and Paul Scheer (The League, NTSF: SD: SUV).

ATX Fest programmer Emily Moss Wilson did an admirable job corralling chaos – but chaos is what we came for, and chaos is what we got. Or, more specifically, 60 minutes of exceptionally funny men talking over one another, setting up punchlines, and generally laughing their asses off. (The overvolumed mics added to the frenetic feel.)

The panel pinwheeled, starting at a simple question and going deliriously far afield before returning home again. When asked about their early TV influences, Harmon pegged Cheers, then launched into a story about being at Toys ‘R Us as a kid – “I saw the Cheers board game: ‘You can be Cliff and get told off by Carla!’” – and how revelatory the moment was, realizing these characters, so richly detailed, lived on outside the sitcom. (He eventually self-checked with a grin: “Why am I talking about this when the answer to the question is, ‘Cheers.’”)

Doyle cited The Dick Van Dyke Show – not for the domestic comedy, but rather its portrayal of a television writing staff, which looked like “a great gig” to the young Doyle – while Scheer went in the opposite direction: “Diff’rent Strokes really defined it.” Referencing the show’s very special episodes, he said, “One minute you’re laughing, and the next minute a child is being raped.”

Surprise unifiers emerged: All the writers had dabbled in magic as kids. (Doyle deadpanned, “I figured out at 13 I wasn’t going to have sex anytime soon, so I wanted to make sure of it.”) They all also first honed their comedic chops as kids by parroting Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby acts, telling grownup jokes way over their heads. (Harmon recalled performing Carson bits to his parents’ friends in the 70s and killing it, likening his “act” to a monkey on a tricycle – “is the monkey talented or just weird looking?”)

Running throughout were interesting insights into the industry and the art of storytelling, with long stretches devoted to talk of single-camera versus multi-cam shows, the different script structures at various networks (NBC comedies follow a three-act structure; Adult Swim, two acts; and at Fox, four acts, apparently an inheritance from In Living Color), the balancing act of comedy versus tragedy (Harmon: “The distinction between laughing and crying is so cosmetic”), and the cyclical nature of comedy. They remarked on the legacy of Seinfeld, how it inspired a rash of jaded, cookie-cutter inferiors, and how the same thing happened in the wake of Modern Family’s success – studio execs only wanted more cuddily dysfunctional family comedies.

Given Harmon’s public clashing with the suits – in brief, he was famously fired from Community, only to be wooed back after a lackluster season four* without him at the helm (for more, see our January Q&A with him) – it was perhaps to be expected that he would have choice words about studio meddling. In fact, he delivered an epic, giddy-making monologue likening studio execs to golems made of kale and painted orange (seriously: it was glorious) that concluded thusly: “Don’t ever take notes. What are they gonna do? Fire you? Then they’ll have to rehire you.” Thunderous applause goes here.

But for a man of many, many words, perhaps Harmon’s most lasting takeaway for the audience – one that was clearly packed with as many writer hopefuls as fans – required only three syllables: “Please yourself.”

This post originally stated that Dan Harmon didn't work on season three of Community. In fact, it was season four; the post has been amended to reflect that.

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