One of the features of my recent Sitcom Room was a panel discussion featuring noted comedy writers. One of them, Sam Simon (SIMPSONS, TAXI, CHEERS, DREW CAREY SHOW) caused a momentary stir when he declared the sitcom was dead. Alan Sepinwall picked up on it in his article about the seminar for the Newark Star-Ledger. So I thought I’d take today to reassure you all that the sitcom is still very much alive and will continue to be.
Is it a coincidence that I’m posting this the same day I’m announcing REGISTRATION IS OPEN for my second seminar? Absolutely!! It’s just one of those eerie freaks of nature. (Details of the Sitcom Room follow this article.) But my belief that the sitcom is very much alive is sincere and supported by facts. Consider these:
Networks have not cut back their comedy development departments. Even the people who do nothing but sit in meetings and take notes still have their jobs.
Sitcoms are still getting numbers. TWO AND HALF MEN still beats HEROES and 24. THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK manage to hold their own even though they’re in the death slot against GREY’S ANATOMY and CSI.
A successful sitcom can launch an entire night. Think NBC misses FRIENDS? For Christsakes they spun off JOEY...and were so desperate they renewed it!
Sitcoms perform well in reruns. Better than any other form.
There is no other genre of television programming that is a bigger cash cow in success. Warner Brothers will make more off of FRIENDS than their big summer blockbusters combined. How much moolah do you think 20th Century Fox has raked in from MASH? It has been paying off jackpots for over thirty years with no signs of stopping or even slowing down. Compare that to AMERICAN IDOL….
Reality shows have no shelf life. You can’t even rerun AMERICAN IDOL much less put it into syndication. Once upon a time networks couldn’t own their shows. So it made no difference whether a series had syndication legs as long as they got their big ratings for one or two airings. Not anymore. Back end profits are really where it’s at and you spell that S-I-T-C-O-M.
Many hit dramas are in the same reality boat. ABC is not even rerunning LOST. Once you know what happens you don’t watch again. This is of big concern to say, WGN.
Sitcoms generally fare better in syndication than dramas. Early fringe and late night blocks usually favor comedies. Even blockbusters like ER and WEST WING don’t get the syndication numbers SEINFELD, RAYMOND, or even MASH does.
Sitcoms are FAR cheaper to produce than dramas. With the same risk of failure.
Ratings aren’t the only way networks can make money off sitcoms. How much do you think NBC will take in on the DVDs of THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK? This is a new revenue stream. So is downloading shows for your iPod. And amazingly, this hasn’t hurt syndication numbers. People who buy or download SEINFELD still watch it when it’s on TV.
Networks want to lure young viewers. What are pre-teens watching? HANNAH MONTANA and other sitcoms on The Disney Channel. And not just sitcoms – old school, retro, multi-camera, cheaply produced sitcoms. Tomorrow’s network audience sure doesn’t think the form is dead.
Sitcoms are flourishing on other outlets besides the major networks. TBS recognized that a huge sitcom loving audience was not being served and has enjoyed great success showing syndicated and original comedy series. HBO has done okay with SEX IN THE CITY, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, ENTOURAGE, and now FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Showtime is sure tickled it has WEEDS.
And these cable channels offer creators the chance to do more edgy off-beat shows, a freedom they might not have with the networks.
Finally, you know that television goes in cycles. There may never be the glut of sitcoms that we had in the past, but they will survive and rebound in popularity. I would amend Sam’s statement and say that yeah, the bad, stale, family sitcom with tired rhythms, forced laughs, and bogus characters is dead. I would also add – thank goodness. But the genre perseveres.
And you also know that eventually a comedy is going to break through, be the next big hit, and then sitcoms will be the hot new thing. And networks will stop programming them against GREY’S ANATOMY.
So take heart. Keep writing funny. Who knows? You could be the one to launch the next great golden age of comedy. Or at least get picked up for a second season.
I think our assistant, Lana Lewis put it best. When David and I were trying to work in some deep thought-provoking concept into a script she would say, “Aw come on you guys. America just wants to laugh!!”
And with all that in mind, I’m holding my second Sitcom Room seminar. This one will be November 3rd and 4th in Los Angeles and like the last one, limited to twenty attendees. You can get info here and, if you want, register online. I invite you to check out the website and read what previous students had to say (under much duress). Beyond this event, I have no plans for future seminars but if I do do more they will all be in LA. It’s too hard to get four actors through airport security.
Hope to see you in November. Seriously, it’s a great and unique experience. You’ll learn a lot, have a great time, and I promise not to breakdown CASABLANCA.