5 Sneaky Ways Out-of-Gas Sitcoms Try To Stay On The Air
Situation comedies, like the rest of us, have a natural life span. We cruise along for a few years, hopefully have some laughs along the way, and then we die. But that doesn’t mean show producers won’t pull out all the stops to extend a sitcom’s shelf life long past its sell-by date. Here are five slippery methods sitcoms use to boost ratings and stay on the air.
(Spoiler alert: None of them work. Ever.)
Add a Cute Kid AKA Cousin Oliver Syndrome
When the 1970s sitcom Brady Bunch was wheezing its way to the finish line, producers noticed cute kids Cindy and Bobby were developing into snot-nosed teenagers. With ratings on the decline, the show tried to reintroduce the cute factor with Carol’s nephew, Oliver.
He didn’t help. The mini-John Denver annoyed viewers and even the Brady characters themselves, who quickly determined Oliver was a royal pain in the ass. He did six episodes and the series was kicked to the curb for good.
Despite this incontrovertible proof that adding a cute kid leads to cancellation, struggling sitcoms can’t help themselves. The Cosby Show introduced little Olivia once Rudy started dating. Diff’rent Strokes added cloying stepbrother Sam. You knew iCarly was dead when Gibby’s younger brother Guppy came aboard. Note to Gibby and all other cute sitcom kids -- don’t go through puberty!
And don’t get us started on Scrappy Doo.
Add a Cool Teen
A close corollary to the Cousin Oliver trick is the Cool Teen gambit. Is your teen idol starting to push 30? Cool Teen to the rescue!
After Fonzie got a good decade past his high-school dropout days, Happy Days added future a-hole Scott Baio as cousin Chachi. Growing Pains went one better, subbing out future a-hole Kirk Cameron for sexy teen Leo DiCaprio (!).
Cool Teen never works, not even for Itchy and Scratchy.
Even though Poochie is one outrageous dude and totally in your face, Springfield viewers saw through his BS and voted thumbs down, giving producers no choice.
Five words: Will Ferrell on The Office.
Seriously, we all knew it was over, right? Stunt casting, by definition, is a short-term fix, which is why many sitcoms keep it in their wallet until sweeps, an outdated ratings period in which TV shows pull out all the stops to get eyeballs for a Very Special Episode. That’s how we got:
* Brad Pitt (at the time, Jennifer Aniston’s actual husband) appearing on Friends
* Pam Dawber, Mindy to Robin Williams’ Mork, showing up on Williams's ill-fated final series, The Crazy Ones
* Britney Spears charming her way through two episodes of How I Met Your Mother
The one time when Sitcom Stunt Casting actually worked? The struggling It’s Always Sunny brought in producer Danny DeVito during its second season at the behest of the network, who said the show needed a big name. The move proved so popular that a) the show actually started growing a respectable audience and b) Frank Reynolds became a household name.
While traveling to an Exotic Locale can be a way to jump-start ratings, it’s also a sign that the creative fuel tank is running on empty. “We’ve done every possible storyline! What’s left? I know -- let’s go to Ireland!”
The Exotic Locale is often the result of a Vacation Episode, another example of sitcom producers trying to inject a little life into a show before sending it to live its final days on a nice farm out in the country.
Hawaii is an especially popular destination, visited by the gangs from (deep inhale) Saved By the Bell, The Brady Bunch, Full House, Green Acres, My Wife and Kids, Step by Step, and Sabrina the Teen-Aged Witch. This is presumably because a) producers promised their spouses a nice vacation and b) it’s an excuse to have young cast members run around in skimpy swimming suits.
If your favorite sitcom goes to Hawaii, it’s fair to despair -- it doesn’t have long to live.
Guest Stars Appearing As Themselves
A close cousin to Stunt Casting, Guest Stars Appearing as Themselves is basically a way to bring in celebrities who can’t act.
It’s Prince on New Girl! Bob Dylan on Dharma and Greg! Lou Ferrigno on King of Queens! Stevie Wonder on The Cosby Show! Tom Jones meeting Carlton on Fresh Prince! Boxer George Foreman on Home Improvement! The Beach Boys on Full House! Cher on Will and Grace! Steven Hawking on Big Bang Theory!
In recent years, Guest Stars Appearing as Themselves has become a meta-joke--Carl Weathers giving acting lessons to Tobias on Arrested Development or James Van Der Beek acting all Van Der Beeky on Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23. These work slightly better, but once again, are short-term fixes that don’t increase the longevity of a show.
There’s a bizarro curiosity factor when real-life people interact with your sitcom favorites -- like, in which alternate timeline is this taking place? But it’s a desperate act of a dying TV comedy -- any ratings bump (and getting one is unlikely) will be short-lived.
Better to let Bob Dylan stay home and allow your sitcom to die with dignity.
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