Industry Trends

Evolution Of The Sitcom: How Friends Invented The Hangout Comedy

Twenty years ago today Friends debuted with a pilot that might as well have been called “The One Where that Show Became the Biggest Thing on the Planet.” It’s crazy to think that it’s been two decades since Rachel first moved in with Monica, and a lot has happened since. The TV landscape that Friends was born into was a very different place from the one we live in now.

Sitcoms were still almost exclusive to the broadcast networks—the Big Three and FOX, which was just graduating from experimental outlier to mainstream juggernaut. Sitcoms themselves were barely recognizable from the form they take today. For half-hour comedies (and really, all media), 1994 was the calm before the storm, a gray area where old met new and when everything was about to change. And it was Friends that sat right in that gray space, on a leather couch with an oversized cup of Central Perk coffee.

Sitting on that precipice of twenty-first century entertainment, Friends represented both the old and the new. It was old in that on its surface it seemed like every other sitcom that graced the airwaves for thirty years previous—multi-camera and backed by a small-screen Greek chorus: the studio audience. Though it wasn’t just another brick in the wall—it was the top of the heap, occupying the same throne once ruled by Cheers and I Love Lucy. It was one of the last Nielsen megahits, before Internet and smartphones and digital cable divided ratings into smaller and smaller pieces of the pie, a water cooler show when everybody at the water cooler still actually watched the same show.

But Friends was also something new, something different a generation that had grown up on sitcoms hadn’t seen before. Friends introduced the modern hangout comedy. Now, hangout comedy is a loose term, a subgenre of sitcoms. Since the dawn of television, almost any sitcom to date can be classified in one of three categories: family comedy, workplace comedy, or friends comedy. Go ahead, try to think of a show that doesn’t fall into at least one of those three genres. Can’t do it, right? Obviously Friends belongs in the latter category, but it also introduced something more specific, something generational.

Unlike Cheers (which was more friends than workplace) or The Golden Girls, Friends allowed viewers to watch a bunch of goodlooking twentysomethings literally hang out (and one got the feeling that the screenwriters were doing the same). Just chill. Shoot the shit while sitting in a café, bouncing snappy sarcastic one-liners off and occasionally having sex with one another. Even more revolutionary, while previous sitcoms had you sit and watch these characters, Friends made it feel like you were there in the coffee shop hanging out with them, something a show could only get away with once enough of the key demographic had actually grown up with TV. It was the next logical step for the entire medium, and it was Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey that took that step.

Obviously it worked, because the show became such a phenomenon. Like any hit show, every network tried to replicate its success by directly copying the idea with new pilots. Friends suddenly occupied the same TV listings as shows like The Single Guy and Caroline in the City, both of which might as well have been titled Other Friends. Most of these shows fizzled as these attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle tend to, but the hangout comedy did become its own tried and true subgenre, finding another hit a few years later in Will & Grace and existing today in the recently departed but critically adored Happy Endings and the very much alive New Girl, among others. But while shockwaves of Friends’ explosive debut still ripple throughout the TV-sphere, twenty years is a long time. Sitcoms today are different in many ways, catering to people who grew up watching TV and made for people who grew up watching TV. Today, half-hour comedies are edgier, more meta, sometimes not even a half-hour. And most of them, unlike Friends or its contemporaries, are single-camera.

Come back tomorrow to read the second part in this series charting the evolution of the sitcom.

Screenwriting School: Do You Need It?

The Golden Rule cannot be understated: if you want to get better at writing, then write.

If you take nothing away from today’s post than that, so be it. But right from the off, it’s important to note that it doesn’t particularly matter how you go about it—practice your craft, learn from your goofs, find your own voice and growth will inevitably come.

So if we take that as a given, this begs the question…

… is there any point in attending screenwriting school?

Ten Thousand Hours

Malcolm Gladwell, the inspirational and intriguing science journalist, once posited that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in order to attain mastery in any field. While the accuracy of the number has come under academic fire recently, the underlying concept is fairly steady.

And this is where formal tuition in screen writing comes in. You can go those 10,000 alone and become a master screenwriter—many have, many will, and there’s nothing wrong with that route. Alternatively, you could put yourself in an environment that accelerates that process.

And attending screenwriting school helps on pragmatic grounds, too. While it is entirely possible to get your 10,000 hours in during the wee small hours of the morning between your family going to bed and getting up for your day job, it’ll feel like a lot more of a hard slog than if you went at it full time for a few years. And if that sounds like too long a spell to take out of working life, there are plenty of part-time screenwriting programs too, including eight and twelve workshop-based courses.

Don’t go into such a program lightly, however; while screenwriting school may sound like a relaxed walk in the park, they’re usually very intensive and mimic the ‘trial by fire’ nature of the industry out in the real world. This in itself can be instrumental in your growth as a filmmaker, since no artist became great without enduring some constructive criticism and hard knocks.

Art In a Vacuum

As well as getting some space to single-mindedly focus on advancing your career, there’s another tangible benefit. A lot of professions within filmmaking are inherently collaborative, and rely heavily on more than one person working closely together in order to breathe life into a project. Screenwriting, however, is not one of them.

Developing a script (at least for film, TV can be a different ballpark) is a rather solitary pursuit, and until your screenplay is optioned, it can usually feel like working in a vacuum. In fact, you’ll often feel like the outcast of the team all the way up to the final cut.

Since it can be hard to learn and grow without outside interaction (creatively speaking, at least), attending screenwriting school can help pierce that bubble. Not only will you get to mingle with film students of other disciplines – which is infinitely helpful in giving you a more rounded overview of the industry – but you’ll also get to work closely with other writers.

Ever been stuck on a plot point or characterization issue only to have a fellow writer help you crack it in ways you’d never have dreams of? At screenwriting school, you’ll practically have that fresh perspective on tap.

It also provides a good opportunity to observe how other screenwriters apply the fundamentals of the craft to different genres, which can be incredibly useful in expanding the proverbial writing toolbox. A good writer is like a sponge, so it makes sense to be in an environment where there’s a lot to absorb.

In conclusion, it’d be foolish to say that screenwriting school is for everyone, but if you suspect that your career and skill level would be enhanced by formal tuition in the craft, don’t be afraid to take the plunge.