Yanking your chain

The year was 1994, the month was September and the network was NBC. About to premiere was a show about a group of six twenty-somethings who hung out at a coffee shop, talking about their lives. Pretentious, much?

But the show, Friends, starring a relatively unknown cast, became a pinnacle of American comedy. We loved the characters, we copied their hairstyles, their interior design and their jokes. Week after week, season after season, the ratings grew and the money was being raked in.

Clever marketing strategies on NBC matched the show with other sitcoms like Mad About You (which starred Phoebe’s twin sister, Ursula) and another ratings winner, Frasier (which begun a year before Friends).

Fast-forward 15 years and it seems that the sitcom has truly returned. After an interlude of drama, sci-fi, crime or just plain boring television, American networks have realised that comedy is back.

Many argue that the rise of the 20-minute sitcom has something to do with audience concentration. Can we really stay focused for a whole 45 minutes anymore? Is the return to comedy part of television’s dumbing down, catering for those who can’t quite comprehend the mythology of Lost or follow the clues in CSI?

While scrolling through audience numbers, it seems that the viewing public may be changing their methods and interests. Instead of watching weekly serials, where each episode must be watched to understand the story, it seems that we might be turning to something a little easier. Is that the case?

Or is comedy just getting better again?

ABC has a much anticipated double bill this new Fall season with Cougar Town and Modern Family. These highly anticipated comedies come from well-established writers, Cougar Town from Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) and Modern Family from Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan (Frasier, Back To You and Just Shoot Me!).

Cougar Town revolves around a recently divorced 40 something woman, Jules Cobb (played by the stunning Courtney Cox). Jules decides that, after years of being off the dating scene, she wants to reenter that sometimes messy world. But “all single guys our age are either broken, gay or chasing younger girls,” exclaims the rather bewildered Jules during the pilot episode.

Enter the younger men, in a world where you can party all night and let looking after your 17-year-old son hit the back burner.

Cox plays Jules with no pretention; this is an older woman looking to sleep with a younger man, no strings attached. But at the same time, she manages to capture the charm that we remember her for from her role as Monica on Friends. After her unfortunate role as a media bitch on Dirt, she has returned to playing the neurotic, loving and often funny.

Many would ask if there was a difference between Monica and Jules, I would say, ultimately no and for those who try to avoid Friends like the plague, this show may not be for you. But this is a newer, fresher rehash of what we already knew, Monica ten years later shall we say? It just seems that a little of Cox is what makes her characters so likeable and played so well. If nothing else, this show will put a smile on your face.

Modern Family springs from the world of the single-camera mockumentary (The Office, Parks & Recreation). The series follows the families of Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill), his daughter Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) and his son Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). What the camera shows us, and the families try to portray, is a balance and fortitude in their day-to-day lives.

The homemaker Claire has a traditional family, while her father is married to a much younger Colombian divorcee and raising her pre-teen son. Finally, Claire’s brother Mitchell and his boyfriend Cameron have adopted a Vietnamese baby.

What Modern Family does very well is show the realities of what happens in these characters’ lives. Detailing their highs and lows, it represents the voyeur in all of us. But where it slightly misses, much like many comedies, is in its use of cliché and stereotype. The audience knows what is going to happen before it happens, but it could be argued that this, in fact, just puts the audience back in control of what they are watching. Is this a reason why comedy has come back with its middle finger up to drama?

At the end of the day, comedy is variety, more so than any other genre. Whether it is social commentary or daft slapstick, there is always something that viewers will appreciate. At different times, our society needs certain things more than others, and at the moment it seems that we simply need comedy for the contrast it provides to our own daily lives.


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