It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been on in my home quite a lot lately, but not by my choice. I dislike this show, and I’ve been contemplating why. It occurred to me recently that it’s a working class Seinfeld, and that answered my question. Yes, I disliked Seinfeld as well. I find both of those to be only occasionally funny and constantly obnoxious. The problem here is that those two shows are good material for a stand-up act, but don’t work as a situation comedy.
Remember when you English teacher told you to show, not tell? That piece of instruction is of mixed value. A sitcom shows, but stand up tells, and confusing the two will ruin each.
In stand up, a comedian–Jerry Seinfeld, for example–tells jokes. He recounts events that he has witnessed (and made up, of course). Occasionally, he will imitate one of the characters, but mostly, his job is to tell. We laugh at the humorous characteristics and actions, and we may see something of ourselves in the joke, but we aren’t living with the characters. Each joke lasts only a few seconds to minutes.
By contrast, a sitcom is a developed story. We are living with the characters. We get caught up in the totality of the story, which goes beyond just building toward a punch line. Think about The Andy Griffith Show. Barney Fife was funny, and we laugh at him, but he isn’t detestable. He has redeeming qualities and seems fully human.
My objection to Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is that the characters in those shows are flat and rightly so. They are merely amplifications of boorish qualities without any depth. In other words, they are the proper subject of telling, of a joke. I don’t want to be shown them, since showing involved filling out the story and the person.
Stories need to be shown in all their depth; jokes need to be told for the narrow characteristic that is humorous. Confusion between these two creates the aesthetic failures that I’ve discussed.