Though a time traveler from the 1950s might be blown away by what’s served up as entertainment these days, that same traveler would find comfort in at least one genre that’s survived: television’s scripted comedy, which endures despite the rise of reality shows, vote-by-phone talent contests, shock-u-dramas, and 24-hour news. To reflect on what that means, UCSB’s Carsey-Wolf Center hosts a free conference this Friday, April 27, called It’s All in the … Modern Family, where prominent TV veterans — both those in front of and behind the cameras — will discuss the funny and philosophical sides of sitcoms.
“They’ve had so many premature obituaries over the years,” said Richard Hutton, the center’s executive director, of what he called an “all-pervasive genre” that actually started on radio. “It’s fascinating to see how they’ve not only persisted but flourished.”
The full-day conference starts with an introduction at 10:30 a.m. followed by the 11 a.m. “Why We Need Scripted Comedies” panel, which will be moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning former L.A. Times critic Howard Rosenberg and feature a collection of professors as well as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal and documentarian Tom Yellin. At 1:30 p.m., “The Writer’s Room: A Workshop” will unfold more like a reality show, with writers and producers from Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, The Simpsons, and other shows turning today’s headlines into jokes, characters, and plotlines. At 3:30 p.m., a series of short presentations will include actress/producer Lisa Kudrow discussing how her Internet show Web Therapy made the trek to cable TV and Northwestern professor Jacob Smith covering everything you need to know about the laugh track. The event finishes up at 7 p.m. with a screening of the Modern Family pilot followed by a Q&A with series creator Steven Levitan.
Laughs are guaranteed, but expect some deeper discussion, too. “Writers will say that they aren’t trying to comment on social issues, that they are just trying to make people laugh,” said Hutton. “But at the same time, scripted comedies do reflect social anxieties and fears.” Finding the right balance is key, though, because humor remains the currency. Pointing to the popular Web site FunnyorDie.com, Hutton explained, “That’s the mantra. If you’re not funny, you’re gonna die.”