comedies provide a convenient vehicle for the writers/producers
of the television program to access all the essential components
of series drama. The workplace frame adapts to changes in the production
context, gives the characters a continuing mandate for action, provides
the dramatic tension of continuing relationships among persons of
different backgrounds, and offers the opportunity to introduce additional
or visiting characters. The significant structural weakness of the
workplace comedy is that it is deprived of the interaction between
youth and maturity often central to situation and domestic comedy
in television. But even this arrangement can be addressed by creating
a work situation devoted to child nurturing, or by introducing the
workers' family members who can appear regularly or randomly at
the will of producers.
pragmatic industrial terms, the workplace series provides a flexible
format that can adapt to changes in the real world production context.
With the workplace series, the departure of a cast member allows
a new performer to assume the job responsibility and simultaneously
introduce a new interpersonal dynamic to the ensemble--as with the
departures of McLean Stevenson (Lt. Colonel Henry Blake) and Wayne
Rogers (Capt. John [Trapper John] McKenzie) on M*A*S*H. The
characters introduced by Harry Morgan (Col. Sherman Potter) and
Mike Farrell (Capt. B.J. Hunnicut) did not simply replace the job
functions of their predecessors, they created new personalities
that varied the mix of relationships within the ensemble. The death
of Nicholas Colasanto (Coach) was mourned on Cheers and his
character was replaced by the much younger Woody Harrelson (Woody
Boyd) who portrayed a naive Indiana farmboy who had been taking
a mail order bartending course from the Coach. Cheers writers and
producers dealt with the departure of Shelley Long (Diane Chambers)
with the introduction of Kirstie Alley's Rebecca Howe and an increased
emphasis on the Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Frasier Crane) and Bebe Neuwirth
(Dr. Lilith Stern) characters.
these industrial strategies indicate, the humor in the workplace
comedy may come from the personalities of the characters, the interaction
of the characters, or the situations encountered by the characters.
The successful series draw on all these elements, but the balance
differs from program to program. Some shows emphasize character
relationships, others are best at creating comedic situations, still
others offer characters who are individually funny in their own
right, often the case when a series is developed specifically to
showcase the talents of a stand-up comedian.
like Our Miss Brooks, Newhart, The Andy Griffith Show, The John
Larroquette Show, Frasier, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show
drew many of their laughs from the antics of a few eccentric
characters. Some of the comic characters were objects of ridicule,
some were simply out-of-step with their surroundings, and some so
superior to their surroundings that they were humorous. Richard
Crenna's dimwitted Walter Denton was often a source of amusement
on Our Miss Brooks; Don Knotts made the bumbling Barney Fife
a laugh-getter on The Andy Griffith Show; and Newhart's
Larry, Darryl, and Darryl needed only to appear on screen to draw
anticipatory giggles from many viewers. Even Rhoda's unseen
Carleton the Doorman acquired a unique comedic persona. On The
Mary Tyler Moore Show, the pompous Ted Baxter, acerbic Sue Ann
Nivens, and ditzy Georgette Franklin Baxter were all ridiculous
characters who inspired varying degrees of sympathy.
comedies can also draw on references to the popular forms they parody.
The incompetent spy of Get Smart and the bumbling policemen of Car
54, Where are You? developed the comedy line by contradicting
the premise of a strong, competent leading character. The Wild,
Wild West and The Rockford Files parodied the Western
and Detective forms so well that they are generally categorized
among those forms instead of being regarded as comedies.
Persons in a work situation are granted a franchise to action by
the nature of their work--the job requires them to deal with problems
or participate in events related to their work. Professions such
as law enforcement, medicine, and media provide ready made opportunities
to place the characters in varied situations and involve them with
a wide range of characters.
in Cincinnati, Barney Miller, E/R, Taxi, and Night Court
often found their strength in creating bizarre situations, then
letting the established characters play out the story. Episodes
such as the WKRP Thanksgiving story in which Herb Tarlek
and Mr. Carlson dropped live turkeys from a helicopter as a promotional
gimmick take logical premises and carry them to illogical extremes.
workplace setting facilitates interaction among characters of varied
origin. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the characters on a workplace
comedy are united by a common goal and are required to maintain
even difficult relationships. Diahann Carroll's Julia was
the first series to place a professional black woman in a starring
role, but many other series have drawn humor from contrasting characters
of different race, gender, ethnicity, regional, or class origin.
Barney Miller's Ron Glass, as Harris--a literate, urbane
black man--constantly reminded his coworkers of racial stereotyping
and his own departure from those stereotypes; Jack Soo as Yemana
similarly made ironic reference to his Asian background. On Designing
Women there were frequent references to the "hillbilly" background
of Jean Smart's Charlene, and Meschach Taylor's Anthony often made
mention of his race. In M*A*S*H, Cpl. Walter (Radar) O'Reilly's
rural background and Major Charles Emerson Winchester's upper class
Boston upbringing were frequent sources of humor.
some instances, workplace comedies require that individuals who
are not merely different, but actually hostile to one another, maintain
a relationship and the resultant tension provides humor. In The
Dick Van Dyke Show, Richard Deacon's character--the pompous
producer Mel Cooley--was the butt of endless jokes by the writing
staff. Robert Guillaume's Benson was constantly engaged in
combat with Inga Swenson who portrayed the cook Gretchen, and a
truce between Craig T. Nelson's Hayden Fox and the women's basketball
coach Judy, in Coach, would have removed a consistent source
of humor from that series.
ability to introduce guest or visiting characters is another advantage
of the workplace comedy. The criminals and complainants who visited
the police station in Barney Miller or the varied defendants
who appeared in Night Court all contributed to the general
atmosphere of those series. Similarly, the patients on The Bob
Newhart Show and E/R added interest and facilitated the
development of new plotlines. In some cases, guest performers appeared
only once; others became semi-regulars who would appear unexpectedly
to add further complications to their stories.
some workplace series, the families and friends of the working group
also participate in the storylines. In the case of The Mary Tyler
Moore Show, Mary's friend Rhoda and landlady Phyllis became
such important characters that each was given a spinoff series of
her own. Murphy Brown's resident housepainter Elvin became
a significant component of the series, and The Andy Griffith
Show drew heavily on Andy's relationships with Aunt Bea and
son Opie. Even Get Smart assumed a family aspect when Smart
and Agent 99 were married and became the parents of twins. The relationship
between Gabriel and Julie Kotter was frequently the focus of Welcome
Back, Kotter episodes, and The Dick Van Dyke Show
included numerous segments dealing with Rob and Laura Petrie's home
workplace comedy, like the society it portrayed, has both evolved
and gone through cyclical changes. The form of the series has definitely
evolved. Contrasting one of the earliest workplace comedies, Private
Secretary, with more recent series shows changes in casting,
relationships, and narrative structure. Private Secretary
centered around the activities of Susie McNamara, a private secretary
in a New York City talent agency, a vehicle that provided for the
introduction of numerous guest characters who appeared as clients.
All the cast members were middle- and upper-middle class whites.
Although the relationship between Susie and her boss was congenial,
there was no doubt that Susie was by no means as intellectually
or emotionally competent as the male authority figure for whom she
worked. While the men carried out business, the women worried about
relationships--especially that special relationship that would take
them out of the office and into a blissful married life. Susie was
central to every episode, and each episode came to closure, bringing
with it no memory of previous episodes and leaving no character
or situation changes to affect subsequent episodes.
contrast, more recent series portray a broad range of racial and
ethnic characters. Members of many races and nationalities pass
through the bus terminal on The John Larroquette Show, and
the majority are working class characters. Most series attempt to
offer a broader representation of the population and the awareness
of differences within the society has expanded definitions to include
persons with disabilities, older and younger individuals, gay and
lesbian characters, and people practicing faiths other than Protestant.
Job responsibilities and character traits are no longer always assigned
on the basis of gender or ethnic stereotypes, and when they are
this fact may give rise to more complication and humor.
with this broader range of characters comes a broader distribution
of storyline emphases. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and subsequent
MTM productions are often cited as a turning point in the evolution
of series structure, with their refinement of the ensemble cast.
Rather than focussing every episode on the actions of one clearly
defined lead character, the ensemble allows any of several central
characters to provide the story focus. In some series--for example,
Murphy Brown--a central character will provide the stimulus
for the actions of the featured character, but that character is
still the focus of the storyline.
narrative structure has made distinct changes with the move to more
open stories, allowing growth and change. The series is allowed
memory of previous events and stories are no longer required to
return the situation to its state at the opening of the play. Episodes
no longer require complete closure, and some problems requie multiple
episodes to reach resolution, or even continue indefinitely.
Car 54, Where are you?
WKRP in Cincinatti
addressed by the workplace comedy have experienced cyclical popularity,
influenced by the dominant concerns of the society and by the economic
influence of other popular forms. Comedy has often addressed social
concerns, and the workplace comedy has assumed that joint opportunity
and responsibility. From direct confrontation--as when Mary Richards
learned her male predecessor had been more highly paid--to implicit
endorsement of the abilities of under represented groups--as in
Benson's steady rise to gubernatorial candidacy--the workplace comedies
provide a forum for the expression of social issues and offer opportunities
to consider new ideas and challenges to the existing order. At the
same time, television comedies are a commercial form, directly influenced
by the need to remain commercially viable. Examining the popular
topics for the workplace comedy reinforces Steve Allen's charge
that "Imitation is the sincerest form of television." Series do
tend to borrow ideas from the headlines, from other media, and from
one another. These notions receive broad attention for a time, then
some are integrated into the form, others disappear. In this process,
the television workplace series operates in the same manner as many
other elements of modern culture, evolving slowly in the process
of contested change.
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also Amen; Andy
Griffith Show; Batman;
Show/Newhart; Cheers; Dad's
Garry Shandling's Show/The Larry Sanders Show; M*A*S*H;
Moore Show; Monkees;
Show; Room 222;