Saturday, October 04, 2008

Favorite Sitcom Conceits

A character in large room with several other people in it wants to have a private conversation with one, so they walk four steps to the left and talk in a normal tone of voice.

Character's turn the lights off and the room is flooded with blue light so you can still see what is going on.

A character driving a car turns the wheel left and right and regular intervals even though this would only be necessary in some kind of "weave in and out of the orange cones" kind of situation. The actor does this because if he just kept still -- as if he was driving on a basically straight road -- you might think he was doing nothing at all.

An episode will suddenly declare that someone has been doing something for a long time, even though this is the first -- and last -- you will ever hear of it. I am thinking here of the Newsradio episode where Matthew comes in one day and complains that he never has a part in the office discussions about gambling everyone is always having: it is a set up for that episode and that episode alone.

A character has something important to say and announces it but not before being cut off by the person they want to talk to, and being subject to some hugely emotional rant that is the opposite of what they were going to say. When the person finally takes a breath to say "Now what did you want to say," the answer is always something like "Nothing," a claim always taken a face value. The character ranting never notices the emotional state of the person they are talking to. Similarly, a character says something brutally honest and when the reaction is "What?" they claim again "Nothing" and that is the end of that.

There is a long tradition of some kind of "mysterious sex move" that is never revealed but will drive a woman wild.

People having telephone conversations just hang up when the meat of the conversation has been communicated, without saying good-bye.

When characters agree to meet somewhere an address is never needed; phrases like "the coffee shop near your house" do fine.

There are lots more. Help me out.


Chad Nevett said...

Characters always seem to know the phone numbers of everyone they've ever met by memory, except when not knowing the number is crucial to the plot. (Doesn't happen as much with cell phones now, though.)

Characters always lie by speaking in a very drawn out and stilted manner, but no one ever notices.

Geoff Klock said...

Those are good ones!

scott91777 said...


The only "Sex Move" I can think of is the Seinfeld one (the one where George rights the instructions on his hand)... Other examples please?

scott91777 said...

Chuck Klosterman had a great example of this in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.

When Elizabeth Berkley and Tiffany Amber Thiesen left Saved By The Bell, they filmed another half season of episodes with a new character named Tori who stood in for their characters. During this period, there was no mention of what happened to Jessi or Kelly, it was as though they never existed.

This happens a lot in sit-coms, regular characters will disapear and there is suddenly no mention of them.

I personally think there is some sort of sit-com government consiracy involved.

Chad Nevett said...

Odd coincidence: I JUST finished rereading that particularly essay. Although, I think his argument that this is realistic is true since people do drift apart or disappear from the group--and you'll mention this once or twice, but, really, no one constantly reflects on how "Jim" isn't around anymore.

Geoff Klock said...

Scott: Ally McBeal (which is only partly a sitcom) and some random thing I saw recently that I cannot recall just now -- but it was this recent one what got me thinking about this.

neilshyminsky said...

The constantly moving wheel in a car thing really confused me as a kid - I always wondered why my parents didn't have to do that, and of course assumed that my parents must be driving incorrectly, since so many TV shows couldn't possibly have it wrong.

Beatitude Sputnik said...

I don't think you can really count the blue light or moving the steering wheel as conceits. That would be like counting the fact that sitcoms shot in an apartment never show one of the walls of that apartment or that everyone clusters around one side of the table as conceits. These are things that happen, yes, but I wouldn't call them conceits. The Bob Newhart type phone conversation where someone listens for 2 seconds and then responds in a way that repeats the 20 seconds worth of what he heard in that 2 seconds though is definitely one though.

Beatitude Sputnik said...

It's unfair of me to shoot down two and give you only one to replace it though, so here's another I was just reminded of by the last episode of Two And A Half Men, where a woman takes a cheque and stuffs it into her bra, which I see all the time on tv, and have never ever seen or heard of anyone seeing happen in real life.

Jeff said...

The "dramatic" episode of Family Ties was all about Alex P. Keaton dealing with the death of his best friend...who was mentioned in that episode for the first time.

Not much of an impact on the viewer because of that.

Jason said...

Phone stuff always gets to me, like the no good-byes. I also hate when you hear one side of a conversation and people say "punchlines" like, "No, I WASN'T raised by nuns." In real life if someone asked you if you were raised by nuns you'd either say "No" or "No, I wasn't" or "whatever." Nobody repeats the entire question word for word.

Kind of the converse of Geoff's "What?" "Nothing" thing, is those times when someone accidentally slips and says something that was supposed to be a secret, and the other person says "What?", and where in real life we'd just say, "Oh, sorry, I misspoke, I meant blah," and that would be that, the character on the sit-com gets all half-frozen and weird and feels the need to stiltingly explain their slip of the tongue with some elaborate lie. (Not a sitcom, but "Quantum Leap" was a big offender on this one, with Sam accidentally speaking as himself rather than as the person he'd leaped into, and then having a ridiculously hard time trying to explain his way out of it.)

jen said...

An actor can play a bit part, and then come back the next season as a (completely different) recurring character. Nobody comments.

When somebody says something funny, the conversation pauses for a few seconds. (Allowing the live audience to provide cued laughter, but within the scene the pause is unexplained.)

At regular hangouts (restaurants, bars, coffee shops), the characters always manage to get the same booth/table/sofa.

The event of 30 seconds before a commercial break is recapped in the 30 seconds after it. (Something that becomes maddeningly clear when watching US sitcoms on British television.)

There are so, so many more of these, and a growing number of examples where the conceits are consciously subverted.

(Oh, and I have seen women tuck things into their bra in a non-sitcom referencing way. One girl I know actually carries her mobile around in there all the time.)

Stephen said...

A character in large room with several other people in it wants to have a private conversation with one, so they walk four steps to the left and talk in a normal tone of voice.

I think this is a perfectly understandable dramatic convention -- like, say, the Shakespearean convention that when a character in a large room with several other people in it wants to think to themselves, they walk four steps towards the audience and talk in a normal tone of voice.

Kyle said...

There was some recent teen melodrama which played asides cleverly by using a slow-down effect on the character's surroundings. It was a shit show, though.

Jason said...

Lisa Kudrow pointed out in an interview that the six lead characters on "Friends" really only pal around among themselves, yet for some reason whenever there's a birthday party, the apartment is crammed with people. ... And the six Friends never even talk to those other people AT those parties.

Also, when someone is telling a story that the audience only hears the end of, the person telling the story helpfully gives a recap which -- if they were really telling the story -- they would never say. i.e., "So there I was, in the middle of the mall, soaking wet ... that was the last time I went on a shopping expedition with my father!" Wow, lucky all the pertinent information was contained in the last sentence of the story -- caught us viewers right up!

Marc Caputo said...

Jason - there's a great moment on 'Friends' when they're all in Monica's apartment and there's a knock on the door. Everyone looks at each other, as if to see if anyone's missing as well as to say, 'Who could that be?'. Great meta-fictional moment, there.

Also, Melrose Place wasn't a sitcom - not intentionally, that is - and these weren't conceits, but this thread is soemthing I've waited for for years. Two things happened that were SO stupid that I still can't believe it.

1. Grant Show worked the bar. Two guys come in for beers. He hands them the beers and they uncap the beers themselves. Is that just me or is bottlecapping part of the bartender's end of things?

2. This was even worse. Doug Savant was in jail and he goes to a payphone, puts the money in then picks up the receiver. Where does THAT work?

Marc Caputo said...

"At regular hangouts (restaurants, bars, coffee shops), the characters always manage to get the same booth/table/sofa."

Also, Seinfeld had a great riff on that conceit, showing why they would never sit at the counter. Just the four of them, and a simple comment got turned around hilariously.

Anonymous said...

The most famous sex move was arguably the Venus Butterfly on the TV show L.A. Law.

Todd C. Murry said...

One of my favorites from the 80's was this one: couple on the show is going to get married - dude gets a special deal on the engagement ring - he realizes the ring is probably fake right as/after he gives the ring to her - she says she is going to get the ring appraised for insurance purposes tomorrow - plot is hatched to switch rings - it doesn't go well. This bizarrely specific plot happened at least four times during a period of the mid/late 80's (on Cheers and Perfect Strangers, to name 2).

I can't remember if tvtropes has been mentioned at this site, but it's all here:

sara d. reiss said...

that ring thing happened on similarly on an ep of "Everyone Loves Raymond" too. and sort of similarly on an ep of MASH.

jen said...

Another aspect of the crowded party full of people nobody knows is that they're all talking to one another, but not making a sound. Everyone's unknown friends seem to be a bunch of lip-reading mutes.

Sitcom characters also tend to be remarkably late adopters of technology, as having a cellular phone would have destroyed so many wacky situations. (The one notable exception to this is Frasier, which has a recurring joke of Frasier and Niles trying to out-early-adopt one another.)