The Tyranny of Sitcom Happy Endings

Does it seem to you that half-hour comedies try too hard these days to have happy endings, or at the very least redemptive endings?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I wanted to talk about it a little more this week, because the Thanksgiving episodes (non-Canadian Thanksgiving, I mean) have mostly ended the way most Thanksgiving comedy episodes do: the gang gathered around the table, being relatively happy and thankful. Cougar Town had the most literal version of it last night; The Middle, a better show, managed to do it a bit better. But generally you can bet that a happy whole-cast Thanksgiving celebration will be part of most shows.

Now if we compare the Thanksgiving episodes of comedies past, that sort of happy gathering certainly happened sometimes. But many of the classic episodes end in something resembling disaster. The famous Cheers “Thanksgiving Orphans” plays the whole-cast-gathering bit sort of straight, except that it turns into a gigantic food fight. The Bob Newhart Show‘s “Over the River and Through the Woods” is about pathetic single men getting together on Thanksgiving to watch football, get drunk, and order Chinese food; there’s no redemption or sentimental moment except that Bob’s wife comes home to rescue him from the misery of single life.


There were a lot of shows that had sentimental endings or sentimental speeches, of course. (WKRP‘s Turkey Drop episode has that lesson-y speech people always fast-forward over between the big scene and the final punchline.) But the need for a moment of emotional connection or redemption was not always as great, particularly as the Very Special ’80s moved into the more cynical ’90s. The Cheers spinoff, Frasier, got everyone together for the episode “A Lilith Thanksgiving” but never actually allowed them to get together for dinner: instead, Frasier and Lilith ruined the Thanksgiving dinner and neglected their son while trying to get him admitted to an exclusive school. Also, they got a young Jane Lych really P.O.’d. And even this ending was happier than usual for a Frasier episode — Frasier and Lilith got what they wanted, even though they exposed themselves as obnoxious people and bad parents while getting it. Frequently the end of an episode would be Frasier or Niles screwing up and losing everything they tried to get.


But now if you look at half-hour comedies, one thing most of them have in common is that they do feel a need to provide a redemptive moment or a nice ending. Either the characters get what they want, or if they don’t get it, there’s a reminder that they have each other. If you look at a typical Community or Modern Family or How I Met Your Mother story, there’s usually an ending that is happy or at the very least pleasant — the Seinfeld type of ending, where characters fail miserably, or Jerry loses the girl or George breaks up a marriage, is quite rare now on mainstream network television, and it’s even getting harder to find on cable.

The unsentimental ending is often associated with Seinfeld, but in fact it was big before Larry David coined the “no hugging, no learning” phrase. Cheers had been moving towards it for a long time. The idea, though I don’t think the producers ever spelled it out, was that if you establish that the characters really do like each other or are basically okay people, you can make them act as badly as possible and don’t have to include a sweet moment at the very end. In “Thanksgiving Orphans,” the nicest moment is Sam’s toast to Coach, which everyone joins in: that’s how you’re reminded that you like everybody at that table. Then they can just go back to being destructive. But there doesn’t have to be a scene where they overcome obstacles and succeed and fix everything. The actual arc of the episode is just about building up to the moment where they ruin everything. Frasier‘s “Ham Radio” episode is a non-Thanksgiving example: the first part is the build-up to the scene of putting on the radio play, the second part is the play where everything goes wrong — and after everything has gone wrong and the play is in a shambles, the episode ends.

The “failure comedy” is an important part of the sitcom, of course. One of the templates for the U.S. and UK sitcom alike, The Honeymooners, had that in every episode. The hero has a goal. He tries to achieve the goal. He fails completely. Then there’s a little bit at the end where we’re reminded that in spite of being a failure, he’s still lucky to have a hot wife. Fade out. (Arrested Development uses a variant of this in many episodes: complete failure followed by thirty heartfelt seconds.) I Love Lucy, the other “template” sitcom, has a similar structure. Some shows, like Fawlty Towers, added to the template by making the failures more elaborate and by eliminating the sentimental comfort of a happy marriage (or at least reducing it; even though Sybil isn’t likable, the fact that she hasn’t left Basil is one of the subliminal ways we know Basil isn’t a complete psycho). And then you have Seinfeld, where it was a shock to see anyone succeed at anything. Since failure is funnier than success, and since comedy is to some extent about failure — it’s funnier when Charlie Brown doesn’t kick the football than when he does — it’s not surprising that a lot of sitcom episodes would follow that structure.

Now, however, it’s surprisingly rare. Even shows that could do pure failure comedy, like the Office family, tend to mitigate the failures, or mix a success story with a failure story, or create the sense that someone has actually gotten something positive (if only a moment of connection with another person) out of all this. The ABC shows all want to have “heart,” so it’s not surprising that they’re not going to end an episode with someone driving a car through a wall. Virtually all the new comedies introduced this season, on all networks, are essentially happy-ending comedies — Shat My Dad Says is that most depressing type of bad comedy, a negative show that tries to force positive endings on us. Other shows do need, by their nature, to have happy endings much of the time; The Office or Corner Gas are shows where a pure failure ending would often seem too bleak, whereas on Seinfeld, the cartoonish nature of the show and the characters’ basically consequence-free lives means that the writers can do more or less anything to them. Failure comedy isn’t right for every show; it’s just odd that the backbone of comedy — the zany scheme that fails completely — is in such short supply.

The failure comedy still turns up in some venues. FX has a bunch of them — there’s a reason why it gets much of its audience with reruns of the most amoral network comedy, Two and a Half Men. Its flagship original comedy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has elements of both Seinfeld and Men in its stories of sociopathic heroes, and its best comedy, Louie, doesn’t always care how happily a segment ends because it’s not a plot-driven show. And of course there’s always Curb Your Enthusiasm. But just as a general rule, it seems like sitcom heroes have it easier than they used to: they achieve their goals, or make things right, more often than we would once have expected.

I think a return to the comedy of failure would be a pleasant change back (this is yet another possible explanation for the continued success of Two and a Half Men, which almost has a network monopoly on bleak endings), since failure tends to be funnier than success and failure is the most reliable source of great comic set-pieces. But that would almost require recalibrating the way writers are trained to create scripts: instead of building up to the nice moment as the climax of the episode, you build up to the most disastrous moment possible as the climax. And either you end it there, or you treat the Ralph-Alice scene as an afterthought. Until that happens, though, a sitcom character can usually sit down for Thanksgiving dinner knowing that there might be a slap or a fight, but it will mostly be the kind of Thanksgiving dinner the audience wishes it could have.

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