Novelty is name of game on TV Sitcoms: When a series continues for several years, writers and producers have to work hard to maintain the fresh humor.

April 21, 1996|By David Kronke | David Kronke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- On a wall of the writers' room in the offices of the situation comedy "Home Improvement" -- a wall no doubt duplicated in sitcom writers' rooms all over town -- file cards list the plot lines of each episode shot during the season. As the season winds down, that wall is getting mighty full.

"But when you come back from vacation and take 'em all down, you have this big blank wall staring at you," says Elliot Shoenman, one of the series' executive producers the past three seasons. "Each script is 50 pages or so, and within eight months, we'll have to come up with 1,250 shootable pages. And when you think of it in those terms, it is really daunting."

And when, in the case of "Home Improvement," the series will be starting its sixth season, it's even more daunting: How do the producers and writers keep a show fresh?

"I asked the writers that question and they said, very angrily, 'Because we work longer hours than ever before,' " deadpans Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons."

"An awful lot of shows stay on too long," says Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC and president of MTM when it was turning out series such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-'77), "Rhoda" (1974-'78) and "The Bob Newhart Show" (1972-'78). "A lot of us have one drink too many at the party and become a little less scintillating."

One man who has extended his series' lives says, paradoxically, that it shouldn't be done.

"If we declared a maximum of five years for every series, it would be better for the public at large," proclaims Norman Lear, creator of "All in the Family" (1971-'83), "The Jeffersons" (1975-'85) and other groundbreaking sitcoms of the '70s and '80s.

Maintaining quality over a long haul "is basically an impossible task," says Gary David Goldberg, creator of "Family Ties" (1982-'89) and "Brooklyn Bridge" (1991-'93). "There's just too much work to do in a short time. You always have the episodes that don't turn out as wonderful as you would like, the ones [on which] you would like to run a title under the action reading, 'The entire writing staff had flu this week, and this is the best we could do.' "

And sometimes those involved with a series can be too close to it to recognize a slip in quality. Jerry Seinfeld insisted to the Los Angeles Times last year that the show bearing his name was as strong as it had been since beginning in 1990, but in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, the cast, including Mr. Seinfeld, conceded that some of last year's episodes were on the iffy side.

Carl Reiner, creator of the classic sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which recently was signed for another four years on Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite, boiled his success down to one thing: "The stories that were interesting were the ones that were possible. The ones with human beings acting as human beings, under stress. So I'd tell my writers, 'Take the situation and try 'em on for size.' If it was possible for me to do something, it was possible for Rob Petrie."

Running dry on creative juices is just a fact of life, Mr. Tinker says.

"Larry David is a good example," he says, referring to the executive producer of "Seinfeld," who will not return to the show next year. "Here's a guy who's clearly impatient. Because he contributes so much and is so much a part of the nature of the show, he probably just burned out. He's anticipating and not wanting to take a dive. 'Seinfeld's' had periods of being more silly than good, but other nights it's great."

Larry Gelbart, who adapted "M*A*S*H" for TV in 1972 and was one of its producers for the first four years of its 11-season run, had to get out, too. He says that while he was on hand in the early '70s, the series benefited from a "creative restlessness."

"We'd try to tie our hands and only tell a story in the Swamp or in a deserted bus," Mr. Gelbart says. "We tried to avoid running jokes as often as possible. We didn't make it easy for ourselves. It helps to be masochistic -- there's a lot of joy in that if you hit yourself the right way."

Mr. Gelbart also says that the show was helped by cast shake-ups, as when McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers left the series. Indeed, though cast defections or losses are generally greeted with "Can the show survive?" stories from the media, they are in fact a key to keeping programs ever-evolving, says James Burrows, who executive-produced "Cheers" with Glen and Les Charles during its 11-year run, which began in 1982, worked on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and devotes his energies these days to directing episodes of such series as "Friends" and "Frasier."

"An influx of new characters adds a new spice to the stew; it changes the flavor of the stew. When Nicky died, we brought in someone diametrically opposed," Mr. Burrows says, referring to the death of Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach, and the addition of Woody (Woody Harrelson).

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