I didn't notice until just now that the first season of "The Nanny" is out on DVD. Not being all that familiar with the show, I have no idea whether the first season is one of the better seasons of it, but I do think it's worth the fairly modest price of the set.
People looking to find out what's wrong with sitcoms today might do well to look at "The Nanny." Not that it's a great show or anything, but that's the point; only ten years ago there were quite a few sitcoms on the air that were not great, not huge hits, but were consistently entertaining. Shows like these succeeded by doing things that most of today's situation comedies do not; some of these things include:
- Hire performers who are distinctive and unique instead of performers with an "everyman" quality. Whatever you can say about Fran Drescher, she can't be confused with anyone else on television. And in comedy, someone who's annoying but distinctive is better than someone who's likable but bland.
- Give the performers some breathing space to do funny business, pauses, double takes, etc. It's incredible how regimented most of today's multicamera shows look, how afraid they are of pauses and unrehearsed business and all the stuff that makes comedy feel fresh. (Everybody Loves Raymond was one of the few sitcoms left that actually allowed for long pauses to play directly off the audience laughter.) If you're not giving the performers some space to really perform, what's the point of shooting with a live audience in the first place? Which brings us to a related point:
- Don't be afraid of a broad, theatrical style. On a live-audience show, it's okay to have performers who play to the studio audience, doing broad gestures and raising their voice and generally playing to the back of the theatre. A subdued, subtle, playing-to-the-camera style defeats the purpose of the live-audience setup and comes off as bland. The Nanny feels like a loud and raucous stage play, and that works better than trying to play comedy at a less-than-optimal volume level.
- Stereotypes are OK. Comedy is built on stereotypes, yet a lot of shows shoot themselves in the foot by trying too hard to make the characters un-stereotypical, and wind up just making them, again, very bland, with no particular ethnic, social, or cultural identity. Something like The Nanny, which is built almost entirely on broad stereotypes of Jews and WASPS (and the clashes that ensue when Jewish stereotypes meet WASP stereotypes), manages to give its characters a lot more energy than sitcoms where nobody is anything in particular, and therefore there's nothing in particular to joke about.
- Work out the relationships not only between the lead character and the supporting characters, but among the supporting characters. The best laughs on The Nanny always came from the mutual dislike of the characters played by Lauren Lane and Daniel Davis. On a lot of sitcoms, the supporting characters hardly ever talk to each other and have no particular relationship worked out, which means that everything becomes (my favorite word) bland when the lead character isn't around. (Regarding another sitcom with a more exalted reputation, the commentaries on NewsRadio often emphasize that the show worked because every character could be funny with every other character. But that's not something you often see nowadays.)
- Have a theme song that explains the premise. What ever happened to those, anyway?