Sunday, November 05, 2006

Borat and the state of television

I never go to big hit movies the weekend they’re released. It seems stupid to stand in long lines when the same film will be there in a week or Wednesday at 5:30. It’s not a once-only concert, it’s a movie. But I broke my rule this weekend for BORAT. I had to see it. And I was not disappointed. It was HILARIOUS. Yeah yeah, it was a scathing satire on our culture – I’ve read all the bullshit articles – but it was just fucking FUNNY!!! Small wonder it was a boxoffice smash. People want to laugh. Even if they know some of the jokes will be offensive, even if they know they will groan at some things, deliver solid laughs in any form and there will be a stampede to your door.

The same was true a couple of years ago on Broadway with THE PRODUCERS.

So what about television? Is comedy dead? No, not if SEINFELD premiered today. Not if THE SIMPSONS premiered today. But the sitcom form has been so formulized, so homogenized so bastardized that it’s sinking under its own weight. I’m not saying do BORAT as a series (although, watch – next year there will be fifteen Borat-type pilots... and they'll all be lame), I’m saying the networks are looking for the wrong thing.

Every year before development season they go on retreats. They spend four days between spa treatments deciding what their comedy agenda should be that year. Family comedies with emphasis on dad? Family comedies with emphasis on mom? Stress the kids? Downplay the kids? Buddy comedies? Ethnic buddy comedies? Young single urban female driven workplace comedy? Urban people in rural setting? Rural people in urban setting? A vehicle for Paula Marshall?

What they should be saying is this: who are the writers who are REALLY FUNNY? Who has proven that they can make an audience laugh? And go by the individual not the credit. Greg Garcia (MY NAME IS EARL) comes from YES, DEAR and is a much funnier writer than a lot of the FRIENDS alums who went on to big deals and multiple failures.

Hire the funniest people and tell them to create the funniest shows. Single camera? Multiple camera? Doesn’t matter. 25 year old writer? 55 year old writer? Who cares? And let them cast their shows with the funniest actors they can find and not recycled sitcom vets or pretty faces. Leave them alone and let them flourish. Never give the note “make her more likeable” or “we need to up the stakes” or “can we show he has a good side too?”

Will every show be a gem? Of course not. But one or two might, which is a whole lot better than what they’ve got now. Last week NBC’s comedy block of 30 ROCK and TWENTY GOOD YEARS not only finished behind C/W but also Univision. It’s time for a new model.

Networks shake their heads and say there’s no audience appetite for comedy anymore. Of course there is. Now more than ever. Just look at the lines for BORAT, a character, who by way, began in television.

40 comments:

odo coileus said...

What you're proposing is more risk.

More risk = greater success.

And, more risk = bigger failures.

Who wants to take a chance on the next Seinfeld, when it could end up as the next Cop Rock?

Anonymous said...

Ken, the unspoken truth out here that the real problem IS the studio and network execs. The level of incompetence, stupidity and arrogance of these chimps in suits is not to be believed. They have no experience in writing or entertainment on any level, and yet they have the power to give moronic notes that, unless you don't care if your script is shot, then you have to take.

Me? I've got a reputation now for being "difficult" because I don't take bad notes. And I've got the further temerity to actually be near 50 years old, so I'm obviously a real problem for them.

The sitcom is not dead, although the execs have done their best to kill it. Between making just about everything include a gay character, only pretty people, only people they have deals with, and dumbing it down to the worst common denominator, they are the sole reason for the state of TV right now.

They can't even distinguish between a funny writer or a hack. All the know is "the buzz" about some hot new 25 year old who, the reality is, can only write parodies of what he has seen on TV for his 25 years. He hasn't lived a long enough life to actually have any real stories or experiences. But they worship at the feet of the under 30's.

Also, have you noticed the new sitcom structure on at least 2 of the networks? 4 acts. As if people don't have enough reasons to hit the remote and see what else is on, these morons are actually preventing an audience from taking the time to get to know new characters.

Trust me, Ken, I'm not saying this because I can't still get work or do pilots... I'm doing both... staff work AND a pilot. So I'm beating the odds, at least for now, and I've also got a perfect view of the problem. It's not the writers. It's ALL network and studio execs. I have never, repeat NEVER met a smart one yet. And I've been doing this almost 20 years.

And yes, I am choosing to remain anonymous on this posting because these short-sighted, mean-spririted, incompetetent people will actually judge my work more on my criticisms of them, than of the the words on the page.

Richard said...

Borat Sagdiyev: Please see my movie. If it is not success, I will be execute.

Network Executive: Please see my sitcom. If it is not success, I will be getting massage.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Very well spoken Mr. Anonymous ... I agree completely and I must say, having worked in the movie area for years, there are an equal amount of assholes making poor judgements on scripts in that field. I have read some god-awful film scripts tha have made god-awful movies. How come the studio people couldn't see that? And the studio marketing people are an equal joke -- they couldn't market a fart after a baked bean dinner!

VP19 said...

Risk always requires more thinking, which is something executives don't like to do.

Ironic, that, because so many of them went to Ivy League schools, where thinking is allegedly emphasized. But it's apparent the real emphasis at those colleges is just making the proper connections for the "right," high-status job.

David Schwartz said...

Seems to me that regardless of the risk, they couldn't be doing worse than they're doing now percentage-wise.

I also agree that funny people should be allowed to BE FUNNY! What a concept!

I also saw Borat today. I haven't laughed that hard, or that often in a movie since I saw the Richard Pryor concert film in the late 1970's. Funny speaks for itself!

The Master said...

Well no exec wants anything new or original. They want what worked last year. And when NOTHING worked last year, they want what worked last decade.
Let's say Sasha Baron Cohen brought them BORAT: THE SERIES. They'd say, That's great, now, could you make it about a married American couple, and make the guy a loveable fat guy, Fred Flintstone in 3-D,and make the wife hot, Wilma Flintstone, and give them three young kids who talk like Clifton Webb, and a teenage daughter, who is also hot. Also wacky neighbors, a married couple: he's a nerd, she's hot. Lose the satire. He's now a TV morning show host. Turn the obese producer into his female co-host, make her hot. No improvising. Every line should be debated by 40 people and finally be what I give you in my notes. Lose the bigotry. Make him hate another city's baseball team instead of Jews. I like the chicken. Keep the chicken, I like the chicken, but make the bear a loveable mutt,and give her funny-voice-over thoughts, in a hot female voice.
THERE! It's FIXED!

I'm also just home from seeing BORAT. Laughed and laughed and laughed. I'm hoarse from laughing. The scene with Borat chasing his producer about the hotel - you know the scene - funniest thing I've seen in years. Cohen is clearly part of a tradition that includes Andy Kaufman and Barry Humphries.
There's no place for him in American TV. Too funny.

ooda said...

I like shows that are not just a showcase of a comedian, but one that requires him/her to put some effort in, and put their own spin on the script.

Something like Curb Your Enthusiasm is good, but the appetite for pseudo-reality comedy seems to have passed. An example of a show that relies on the strength of the cast is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which while crass, I do consider on of if not the best comedy on television.

That said, it would be nice to see a return to classic comedy, and one where it's not either pandering to the lowest common denominator (Happy Hour (this reference would have been a bit more relevant a week ago), and not comedies that desperately pretend they're intelligent (Scrubs; 30 Rock). Frasier wasn't an aggravating show, but it was well written, and fun, and that's what is lacking these days. The main thing is not to substitute gimmicks for good writing or good acting. Having Pamela Anderson as a bookstore owner may be funny for ten minutes, but once that wears off, we're left with a generic comedy. I can't remember the last comedy in the past few years that has really pulled off the classic formula. Hmm, maybe 'How I Met Your Mother'.

Sigh, and some god damn patience wouldn't hurt.

Lizbeth said...

I was at the MGM Grand in July and sat in on a screening of "The Class." It was so godawful unfunny and downright boring/cliche/stupid that I blasted it in my comments. The only actor I liked and praised was replaced before the pilot aired. Ironic, huh?

I really thought, "This thing will NEVER air, they have got to realize they have a stinker on their hands. Someone should just pull the plug and save tons of time and money."

Then I went online and realized the brilliant minds behind Friends came up with this load of shit and there was no way this show was going to go away.

Then I got depressed. Is this all that the best minds in Hollywood can come up with? Is somebody actually getting paid to write recycled junk like this? Are these people so damn disconnected from the world that they think incorporating gay jokes into a sitcom make it "cutting edge"?

True, I'm bitter. I'm an outsider trying to sell my own pilot. It's a comedy about the "darkside of motherhood" (but it's not a typical family sitcom - there is no gross slob dad or hot, frigid mom).

You don't know how many times I've heard that "nobody wants to watch a show about motherhood." And yet, everyday ONLINE there are millions of so-called MOMMY BLOGS making people laugh. Many of them are written way better than the average family sitcom. Most of them are funnier too.

So I agree, that people want to laugh and they aren't necessarily turning to TV. To me, blogging is the new sitcom.

Beth Ciotta said...

Depressing and aggravating. Sadly, this same mentality crosses over into other areas of entertainment as well. I'm not in TV, but trust me, I've experienced the same exec over artist frustrations. It's enough to make you want to get out. But our passion keeps us in the game. And if we're lucky (read: motivated and persistent), we find new ways to share our art.

Now from a viewers POV, one of those who craves 'funny', I beg you life-experienced, intelligent, witty sitcom writers--don't give up!

Tom Quigley said...

Considering the news about Neil Patrick Harris that was released over the weekend, I'm wondering if now they'll be changing the name of his show to HOW I MET MY PARTNER AND WE HIRED A SURROGATE TO GIVE YOU BIRTH...

Paul Duca said...

When I saw that about Harris, I immediately thought of you, Ken--maybe it IS the state of the sitcom today that EVERYTHING is being copied...including the situation from FRASIER, where the most hetero character (Bulldog) was played by an openly gay actor (Dan Butler).

R.A. Porter said...

First off, I can't believe you bagged on Paula Marshall!!! Sure, she's a show-killer, but it's not always her fault.

While your sentiments are spot-on, I'd argue that with 30 Rock they pretty much took your tack and ended up with...well, at least it's better than Studio 60 and has Alec Baldwin.

- Hire one of the funnier writers in Hollywood
- Hire funny actors (excluding Tina Fey's horrible, horrible leading turn)
- Avoid sitcom vets and pretty faces (note that Jane Krakowski hasn't appeared in the last two, funnier episodes...which might just be Fey's way of exacting revenge against the network for pushing out Rachel Dratch)

Granted, the show's far from perfect. Fey needs to understand that her strengths lie behind the camera and step aside. Also, the "wacky writers' room" crew needs to be more Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie and less creepy stereotypes, but Baldwin is (as always) comedy gold and Tracey Morgan is more than filling the crazy star quota.

Of course, I now realize that my comment is almost a glowing review of 30 Rock, and that's a sad commentary on the state of the sitcom...in fact, in retrospect, I think it proves the point.

Ken Levine said...

Just because you hire the funniest writers doesn't mean you'll put every one of their shows on the air. Tina Fey is funny but doesn't know the craft. Give her a couple of years and that show will be much better. (Of course she won't have a couple of years however.)

I could name ten writers or teams right off the top of my head who I'd give pilot orders to.

Like every baseball team has its stars, so do writing rooms. But the networks have to do their homework.

Oa Rove said...

Haven't seen Borat yet but certainly will some time this week.
I think you make some salient points about trusting the writer, etc. But, if I may ask, what are some of the things that make Borat so funny? From having seen Sasha Cohen in different things and in long clips from Borat, I would have to say that he has the joy of performing or the kind of conviction in the quality of his material that really sold Seinfeld or the Simpsons.
Plus, don't you think that too much TV comedy relies on creating odd characters that are potentially funny (but mostly just a little odd) but without putting them in original, funny situations? That's something that Arrested Development did superbly.
That's why so much of TV comedy, see SNL, is just a little odd, not outright funny. Just my two cents.

Mr. Hollywood said...

I haven't seen BORAT the film yet, but I have seen Cohen everywhere promoting it and, I hate to be oppositional, but he has yet to make me laugh. To me, it's a one-joke premise that is not funny. I will see the film and maybe my thoughts will change, but so far, I don't get it. And I have written comedy and write it now. But then Tim Allen never made me laugh and Ray Romano is one of the unfunniest people I have ever met (and I interviewed the guy and he KNEW he was dreadful!)
I'll take The Garry Shandling Show ... Larry David ... Newhart ... The MTM Show ...

Anonymous said...

A week ago I was at a dinner and I ran into a former studio executive who got out of the business to save her sanity. She was the executive on a show I was a writer on and as such, I was forced, several years prior, to listen to her notes every week. They were vague, lame, and they contained all the buzzwords they learned along the way to becoming an executive.

She told me she left the position because she knew just how much of what she was offering in the way of "helpful" notes was utter crap.

"I've never been around a group of people who were paid so much to do such a meaningless, unnecessary job," she said about her cohorts at the studio. "When we would meet to discuss a script, we knew we were simply trying to justify our jobs. And so we would just try and come up with anything to tell the writers, whether it helped or not."

Among the writers I've worked with, this has always been the complaint, but I'd never heard it actually corroborated. Hearing it from her was like scratching an itch, but an itch you know will NEVER go away.

Worse, of course, is the fact that it's not just the studio, but also the network that feels the need to take its turn with the clay sculpture the writer created. By the end, what was once a unique, nuanced figure with interesting fingerprints and pockmarks and fascinating gnarled curves and edges is a bowling ball. Without the holes.

And lest I forget, there are the non-writing executive producers. Can we please get some legislation to regulate the number of these parasites? I was on a show where there were two NWEPs. They showed up twice a week at the writers' offices, ate a box of Fudge Stripe cookies, told us to up the stakes, then went out, got in their Carerras and drove to the bank to deposit money that could have been used to hire a couple more writers; there are so many talented, hard-working writers who are just trying to keep the wolves away from the door. I sincerely hope that someone can expose and eliminate this fraud.

Anonymous said...

Having once worked at a network, I couldn't agree more with everyone's complaints.

I never bought into justifying my presence by coming up with something - anything - to say about material. Often, I would be the only dissenting voice in the room saying - "This doesn't need any notes," or "That's unnecessary," only to be ignored by a bunch of suits with disapproving looks on their faces.

The culture of "failing up" in television's executive ranks (see: Zucker, Jeff) is deadly, be it due to nepotism, comfort, or plain old bad judgement in hiring. I've watched it literally dozens of times, at all levels of development. It's awful, disheartening, frustrating, and distructive, but it is the system and the system is slow to change (see: Season, Fall Premiere).

I will say that there are a few "good ones" out there, for whom the material comes before ego. Find them and find a way to keep working with them. Who knows, down the road they may be a worthy N/W producer, who fights against the network for the integrity of your next project.

Miles said...

Regarding Tina Fey, you're right. she is funny, but she doesn't know how to write a sitcom. Bring in a seasoned funny writer and let him/her lead the way. She will learn.

As for the concept of hiring funny people and allowing them to be funny. Here Here! I wouldn't count on it, though.

Funny thing is I am the stepson of longtime comedy writer (now passed away) and when I went away to school, I argued in all my TV and Film classes that it was always about the craft. Well, it's not. It's about the business. Studios/networks will almost always go with the lowest risk venture.

In the case of comedy development, that means sticking with people who you have worked with before and/or who have been assocated with success. They just don't look for funny first.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but I learned it and never have forgotten it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry. There IS no good studio or network exec nor is there any such thing as a good n/w exec producer. They are all unnecessary obstacles to the job at hand, producing a funny sitcom. It's that simple and it may not be polite to say so, but it's a fact. A complete fact with NO exceptions. Sorry. If you want to be in the writing business, be a WRITER. Put in the time to learn the craft, deal with the rejections, and write, write write! But don't kid yourself or anyone else into thinking you are in any way an important part of the process. You are not. You are a hinderance. You sound like a nice person and I feel awful saying that to you, but it is true.

Miles said...

Interesting personal attack. For the record, I am neither a studio or network executive nor am I an executive producer or a comedy writer.

In a perfect world, it would be great to allow the funniest comedy writers to create the funniest sitcoms.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world.

Now, Bitter, Party of One, your table is ready.

Anonymous said...

To Miles. It should have been obvious that I was responding to the post above yours. I didn't reference one thing you said in your post, and ONLY referenced what the previous poster said. So... "The World Revolves Around YOU", party of one, YOUR table is ready.

Miles said...

HaHa. Well, it seemed as though you did reference something I said. My bad. Regardless, you do seem, I don't know, unhappy...

Anonymous said...

I think "sad" would be a better description about how I feel about the state of TV comedy, Miles. And I am sorry if you thought my earlier post was directed at you, it truly was not. I even felt conflicted writing it to the anonymous person I was responding to, as I think that person was truly trying to admit the problem is as bad as several of us have alleged.

I have had a lot of fun, had some amazing experiences, worked with some incredibly talented writers and actors and directors and made a lot of money over the years just writing funny stuff, but it is so different now. The execs take all of the joy out of what should be the best job in the world, making people laugh. And shame on them for having done that.

Miles said...

I totally agree. Perhaps, with Borat, there is a glimmer of hope.

Seymour said...

To those of you who haven't seen BORAT but who, from seeing him in TV interviews and "Long clips" don't think it looks very funny, I was just like you until I saw it. Most comedy films promote themselves by showing the funniest moments in trailers, clips and ads. Not BORAT. It CAN'T. The funniest stuff is UNAIRABLE on American TV. But trust me, it is HILARIOUS! When Borat chases Amazat into the elevator, your jaw will hit the floor, but you will laugh. and if you don't; check your pulse, because you've died.

Anonymous said...

Do the network and studio execs know or recognize this level of criticism? Or are they simply blind to it? It reminds me of the time I was joking with my agent about how much showrunners hated getting calls from agents, thinking he was completely aware of it. He got this hurt look on his face and said, "Wh-what do you mean?" He allowed he thought agents were considered very helpful expediters in the staffing process.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think network and studio execs are completely oblivious to how writers feel about them. And that is partly because we, the writers, can't ever say it to them out loud, or we can kiss our development deals, pilot scripts and staff work goodbye... but mainly, because they are so arrogant and cock-sure of themselves and their place in show business. I wish they did know how we ridicule them behind their backs, and truly look at them as being about as necessary to the production of a sitcom as that pack of Nabisco Fig Newtons in the snack room. Wait, I take that back... the Fig Newtons actually DO have a function, they give the writers energy. The execs merely sap it.

Wally said...

Um, if 'Sienfeld' premiered today it wouldn't last three weeks. And while I agree the state of TV comedy needs fixing, do we need to be knocking Paula Marshall? I think not.

david o'hara said...

Years ago, I wrote and optioned my first screenplay. It was "The Last Four Minutes" about a woman becoming the first woman to run a mile in less than four minutes.

One producer wanted me to "up the stakes" , give her cancer. " She has to make history before she dies."

Where do they find these Horse's Asses?

We had a director and financiers lined up -- then out came Robert Town's Personal Best. I got in line with a bunch of dykes for the first showing in Westwood.

When I came out I knew my movie was dead. 9And the world will never get to see a magnificent Greyhound named Nero ( a major character in the screenplay. )

Personal Best sucked. The money people pulled out. If timing isn't everything - it's godamn close to it.

Of course, no woman has ever run four minutes - even on drugs. The Chinese can't run as fast as they did years ago because the drug testing got better.

(Americans are the best at dodging drug tests. Just look at our best female sprinters in the past twenty years.)

I coached three Olympic athletes in the early '70s. (As David Pearson). After I quit, the best compliment I ever got from a rival coach was, "They did that without steriods!"

Proably most of you writer's have seen some of your 'coverage'. Someone slipped me the Disney coverage of a piece called "Sam and Danny".

The someone commented, "The three things the reader knocked on the screenplay: Funny, warm family stuff, and hardcore action - which of the three does the writer want write about?" kinda describes "Lethal Weapon" ( a movie he worked on) "and we all know what a financial failure that was."

I don't think Execs are any more moronic than many so-called Readers (make that skimmers.) Overheard one boasting she could read a 120 pager in 15 minutes...hey, and not miss a nuance.

The fucking gate keepers are under twenty!

bstampy said...

Wow, as a young (well, in this town, youngish) writer with just a few minor paying jobs under my belt, I find this entire stream insightful yet extremely depressing. At least it doesn't shake my desire to push ahead in the business.

And to the poster above -- I spent several years reading for a film company and every single time I sat down I took to writer's effort into consideration and read every page... even when the script was god-awful (and most were pretty bad). I've always hated that people consider readers bitter failed writers who want to trash everything, when in fact many of us know we have to spend at least an hour reading a script (and a couple more writing up the coverage ) and hope that time is well spent. Maybe myself and the other primary reader at the company were exceptions, but we were always excited to find a good script by a new writer.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be under the false impression that network executives prime directive is to entertain people. Their mission is much simpler, to make money. The sad reality of that is they must cater to the lowest common denominator... you know, the Jerry Springer watching imbeciles who think Jackass 2 is high art. Oh, and they can't try anything too provocative because god forbid they offend some vocal minority by being politically incorrect or religiously intolerant.

And by the way, there's some great programming on 'free' television, it's called PBS and they get crap ratings and would be extinct in a year if not for donations, federal funding and corporate sponsorships.

To Fox's credit they have tried some of the more innovative, quirky comedies in recent years (Greg the Bunny, Arrested Development) and got critical praise and low ratings for their effort. I think The War At Home is their attempt to punish the viewing public for not patronizing their quality shows (how else to explain it's presence on the schedule?)

I think the sad truth is that the mediocrity of network television, a good portion of which is imposed on networks by FCC regulations and public pressure, has institutionalized the shit-com.

All the good talent has fled to cable where they can work in relative freedom and the networks have more modest ratings expectations and are more open to trying something different.

Presumably some network will get desperate enough to try something edgy in the future and the next Seinfeld will be born. But market forces, market fragmentation and competition from cable make it increasingly difficult.

bstampy said...

I just want to add to my above post that I/we weren't only looking for "new writers." Any good script was a reason to be excited, but bringing someone new to the attention of the execs was a rare treat. This company, which shall remain nameless, actually had a couple of smart/aware execs who often gave very good notes. But, absolutely every single person in the office was fired a few weeks ago due to the corporate overlord's desire for "restructuring." Perhaps it was the Evil Hollywood Gods way of eliminating a few decent people.

I've also been on the other end during my one experience writing for a studio. The notes were broad an vague. My partner and I were told at one meeting to make the script more like "Men In Black," which we sorta understood, but at the next note session the new model was "Daddy Day Care." I still can't figure what our script had in common with "Daddy Day Care."

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous:

You said, "You seem to be under the false impression that network executives prime directive is to entertain people. Their mission is much simpler, to make money."

Wrong. Their mission, and their SOLE mission, is keep the jobs they are unqualified for so that they can get promoted to the next job they will be even MORE unqualified for. If they were truly making decisisions based on "making money" they wouldn't be putting their own personal fingerprints on every pilot script. Trust me, they are morons. Arrogant, stupid, unqualifed morons.
But they are VERY good at moving up the ranks and getting promoted by their morons bosses, who also take great pains to weed out anyone who has anything at all on the ball, because then THAT person would be a threat to their own jobs. So basically, at the network and studios, you're dealing with Moron # 1, the head of the department, and then a gaggle of Morons # 2's, the minions that are waiting to become Moron # 1's. Save your defense for someone truly deserving of it, like a heartless killer or disgusting pedophile. Don't waste it on studio or network execs.

typetive said...

If you want to know what it would look like if Borat was on network TV, you'll probably want to check out The Papdits. It was a pilot from the same producers. Looks like CBS is going to stream it on Innertube.

Kenny said...

Re: Tina Fey - As long as someone is talented and funny, there's nothing wrong with them not knowing the form. Larry David didn't know the form when he started Seinfeld. Ricky Gervais had never written a show before The Office. It may lead to them bringing in something new and interesting.

Dhppy said...

Sing it, Kenny.

Lesley said...

I'm enjoying Everybody Hates Chris, but think the first season was much better than the second.

Lesley said...

Meant to add, outside of the Daily Show and Real Time - but these aren't sitcoms - the best comedy continues to be delivered by the Brits. R. Gervais' show Extras is hilarious. Little Britain is chock full of likeable funny characters, most notably Lou and Andy. Steve Coogan, creator of Alan Partridge and the delicious Coogan's Run, recently invented another delight called Saxondale about an ex-roadie turned pest controller.

I can't bring myself to watch the American version of The Office because the original spoiled me rotten.

Bodies is another gem that I hope returns to BBC soon.

Anonymous said...

As a currently working studio executive, it is important for you to realize that I know who all of you are - anonymous or otherwise - and you will all pay!