Friday, January 13, 2012

Writers and Sitcoms by Daniel Kennard

“I have never seen an average American household. Except on TV”
            – David Foster Wallace in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”

            On some level, fiction writers are scavengers. Voyeuristic in a productive kind of way. We can’t help but watch and absorb and reflect on the things around us (other books, our relationships, our own internal spirituality, the freak sleeping in the woods that you see on your drive to work everyday) because that’s often what fuels our writing in the first place. Many people don’t reflect. Many people don’t read either. Many of you reading this now teach writing or literature classes and are therefore exposed to this grim reality on a regular basis. When a student comes up to you after class one day and explains that he’s having trouble with the assigned readings because “he just can’t follow it,” because to him it’s just “words on a page,” one can’t help but shrug and reflect on the state of reading in a newly-minted 2012 world that’s beginning to overflow with iPads, iPhones, laptops, mile-a-minute social media experiences, and most significantly, from a cultural standpoint, the ubiquity of television. People like TV. A lot.
            As a fiction writer, conversations like that scare the hell out of me. I felt compelled to act. I envisioned myself as a frustrated coach at halftime, struggling to make adjustments before it finally hit me one day: TV has become the enemy of intellect. Massive exposure to it is as damaging in its own way as massive exposure to radiation or cigarette smoke is. I thought to myself that something must be done about this. In my gut I felt a responsibility to fight back. I decided I was going to do what TV was doing, but I was going to do it in writing. I was going to steal something back from TV, although I didn’t immediately know what. After all, I like TV too.
            If a sitcom was an object you could pick up and hold, what I have learned over the last three years is that there is, believe it or not, a certain amount of depth to them, and a few worthwhile angles in which to examine them, especially if you’re a fiction writer looking for things to appropriate into your own writing. They are, in their own base kind of way, a unique form of art. As a whole though, they all follow certain general rules that can be creatively transmuted into writing. The result is something I call a “Litcom” and of course, just like every sitcom has episodes, Litcoms would naturally be made up of “txtisodes”. The initial idea excited me because, like The Simpsons, or some other animated sitcom, the characters don’t have to age and it could potentially go on forever, something short stories or novels simply can’t do.
            First, every sitcom ever has always orbited around a small group of the same characters, each of whom has their own particular traits that form the foundation of that particular character. Those of you familiar with Seinfeld know that George is cheap and vengeful, that Kramer is inventive, experimental, and clumsy, that Elaine is aggressive in confrontation, and that Jerry is the calm center of all their lives. From the first episode to the last they maintain these basic traits, which is part of the fun in a lot of ways. We get to see how George’s cheapness or vengefulness plays out over countless scenarios, and we get to watch Kramer implement plan-after-plan and we laugh at the often ridiculous or anti-climactic consequences of it.
            This can be appealing to any fiction writer just because you don’t need to continually create new characters for every short story you want to write, but it also has the added advantage of allowing you to explore and play with each character one “txtisode” at a time in a way that a one-shot short story doesn’t. One of the main reasons sitcoms are so culturally popular is because of the familiarity that develops between the characters and the viewer over a long period of time. People know what they like, and they like what they know, and by focusing on a small group of the same characters we, as writers, might be able to do what David Foster Wallace has accused television of doing so well (which he also posits as the reason for its addictive nature): it conditions our viewership. Being able to achieve that effect through writing is a serious and worthwhile challenge.
            The second important aspect to consider is that a sitcom typically is only thirty minutes long; twenty-two if you exclude commercials. It’s also not a stretch to say that this is one reason why sitcoms are such a popular form of television in our current world. They are efficient little stories, and being efficient is the skill of the future. People like efficiency. For a Litcom—depending on how tightly you want to stick to the precedent of an actual television sitcom—it means that each txtisode should be able to be read in twenty to thirty minutes, which is about 2500-3000 words.
            In an effort to keep this to an appropriate blog-length, I’ll conclude by saying that it’s those two things; a small group of characters “doing their thing” in a short, thirty-minute time slot that is at the center of all sitcoms, and it’s also those two things that are most responsible for the popularity of sitcoms in the first place. So, for me, what started out as an experimental project aimed at getting people to read again (lofty goals, I know) by making what they read more like what they already know and like on television has lead to some unique outcomes through the years, and the deeper I get into it the more the potential of the form excites me.

*If you want to read my latest efforts, a special two-txtisode season premiere launched January 6th at Future txtisodes will be “aired” monthly for (fingers crossed) the remainder of the year.

Dan Kennard is an American Literature and Composition Instructor at Keiser University in Fort Pierce, FL. He is currently working on a series of txtisodes for his blog, Channel 642, which can be found at  He has his MFA in fiction from Florida Atlantic University.

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