So far, this season has seen the cancellation of Manhattan Love Story, A to Z (unofficially), and Selfie. There is something that these sitcoms, along with last year’s Mixology, all have in common that the best sitcoms of the last 30 years do not.
They are predicated on gimmicks.
Guess what never works? High concepts in sitcoms. It worked once, people, and the gimmick was what everyone hated about How I Met Your Mother. We don’t want gimmicks. We want to laugh, and to laugh, there needs to be relatable situations that can be exploited for laughter. You can do different kinds of comedy, and you can set the situations in different locations, and you can mix and match the characters, but you cannot rely on a gimmick.
There are three basic sitcom templates. Workplace sitcoms, friend sitcoms, and family sitcoms. Every successful sitcom can be boiled down to a variation of The Office, Friends, and The Cosby Show. That’s it.
Don’t believe me? Here’s some of the best of the last 30 years:
The Wonder Years — The Cosby Show, set in the 60s.
30 Rock — The Office, set behind the scenes of a sketch show.
Community — Friends, set in a community college.
Will & Grace — Friends with two straight and two gay characters.
Roseanne — The Cosby Show, set in the blue collar world.
Growing Pains — The Cosby Show, only white.
Modern Family — The Cosby Show, only bigger and more diverse.
The Simpsons — The Cosby Show, only animated, funnier, and more crude.
Scrubs — The Office and Friends, set in a hospital.
Night Court — The Office, set in a courtroom.
Family Ties — The Cosby Show, only whiter.
Seinfeld — Friends, only older.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — Friends, only meaner and more insane.
The Golden Girls — Friends, only geriatric.
Married with … Children — The Cosby Show, with a family that hated each other.
Cheers — The Office (and Friends) set in a bar.
New Girl — Friends set in Chicago.
Happy Endings — Friends, also set in Chicago.
You know how Selfie might have succeeded? If they’d nixed the title. Thrown away the My Fair Lady premise, and built the story around everyone in their workplace, not just primarily John Cho and Karen Gillan’s character. We still would’ve fallen in love with Cho and Gillan’s characters, but with a little more work and slightly better casting, their co-workers would’ve stolen a helluva lot of scenes.
It’s not about the premise. It’s never about the premise when it comes to sitcoms. It comes down to good writing, great characters, and family, friends, or the workplace, or some combination of the three. There’s no need to hook a sitcom around a gimmick. Don’t even bother with a pilot. We don’t need cute titles. We don’t even need shaggy, bearded best friends. Just keep it simple. In fact, the sooner Marry Me scuttles its engagement premise, the better chances it will survive to a second season.