Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fox announces "ShortComs"

Fox has announced an experimental series for the summer called “Shortcoms.” These will be hour shows split into four segments. Each segment will be a multi-camera sitcom starring and written by a stand-up comic. Fox claims they will give the comics great freedom.

First off, I applaud any attempt to do comedy, especially an innovative one.

But I have some concerns:

Last year Fox picked up no multi-camera shows. The distinct impression was that they thought single-camera comedy was the only way to go and that multi-cams were too old fashioned. Now they’re saying they’ve always loved multi-cam shows?

On the surface giving these comics free reign sounds great in theory but are they really going to allow them that much leeway? Networks today are incredibly hands-on. Story areas, outlines, and scripts all must be approved.

And if they are going to give these comics freedom why don’t they do that with real writers? Especially since real writers know what they’re doing and comics are just feeling their way around the form.

I can't think of another industry where experience is considered a detriment. 

Lastly, this sounds like a transparent attempt to find the next LOUIE. But Louis C.K. is special and has a distinct vision. Will these 6-9 comics have true unique voices?   I listen to the comedy channels on Sirius/XM and I'd be hard-pressed to find nine truly original performers.  Most of them trot out an endless parade of bad tech help, women are bitches, men are assholes, kids are nightmares, Facebook sucks jokes.   (Unfortunately for all of us, the most original creative stand up comedian of the last ten years, Mitch Hedberg, is no longer with us.) 

15 minute multi-cam segments are not sitcoms. They’re elongated sketches. And again, that’s fine. I’ll try it out. I hope they’re great. I hope I laugh my ass off. But successful sitcoms are the ones where the audience connects with the characters and have an emotional investment in them. It’s hard to create that in fifteen-minute chunks. It’s hard to do any story with depth in fifteen minutes. And to me what makes LOUIE so great is that it does have depth. Louis C.K. has time to let his stories breathe. And it’s never the number of cameras – it’s the content.

The argument can be made that with webisodes, shorter bite-sized (or byte-sized) sitcoms are being made every day.  True.  And some are quite good like HUSBANDS.  But if you ask the creators of these webisodes what their ultimate goal is many will admit it's to get their show picked up by a network where they can expand them to a half hour.  

So we’ll see. I’m approaching this experiment with some reservations but all good wishes.  I hope it works. I hope they find the next Mitch Hedberg (who, by the way, shortly before his death had a deal to develop a show... for FOX.   And how refreshing to hear a network want to use the summer to develop comedy rather than just more reality shows.

44 comments:

George said...

Kevin Smith put up a podcast (at Hollywood Babylon) describing his pitch meeting and the process.

Kevin suggests that the move to studio based sit-coms seemed to come from a realisation that they're less expensive in the long run (no hunting for locations, weather considerations etc.) and that they really do want the writers voice to come through.

They also cited old shows that came out of a similar format like The Honeymooners...

Murray said...

There was a show a few years ago here in Canada that featured stand-up comics. ("Comics"?) Each episode was the stand-up on a live stage doing their thing. The whole half-hour was devoted to them. Pretty much a "big break" exposure moment.

Part of the show allowed the comic to do a sketch-plot piece. Not required. Some of the performers did only mini-moments acting out their best gags. Some indulged in lengthy mini-stories. As I say, it was their half-hour to with as they pretty much pleased.

The point is, those mini-stories and sketches almost universally SUCKED. It was a weird education to discover a comic who could have me on the carpet gasping for air laughing could then be as funny as a tax audit in the rain. SO, this new venture does not inspire hope in me.

Thomas said...

Why are they getting stand ups to write sketches? Am I the only person who misses seeing quality stand up comedy somewhere other than Comedy Central? Take that hour and use it to show me 4 up and coming standups.

Oliver said...

A long time ago, Cartoon Network ran 'What A Cartoon', where they paid for original animated shorts. It was remarkably successful, leading to multiple original series including Dexter's Lab, Johnny Bravo, and The Powerpuff Girls.

Fox seems to be trying to do something similar with their Animation Domination HD block and this multicamera block.

I suspect the intention is to overcome the usual stifling network bureaucracy, take more risks and see what comes out. It doesn't matter if they air something bad if the network has so little invested in it and it's over in 15 minutes.

Jonathan Ernst said...

There's a very appropriate Mitch Hedberg quote for this post-

"When you're in Hollywood and you're a comedian, everybody wants you to do things besides comedy. They say, 'OK, you're a stand-up comedian -- can you act? Can you write? Write us a script?'... It's as though if I were a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, they said, 'All right, you're a cook -- can you farm?'"

John said...

It's kind of a "Throw it at the wall and see what sticks" idea of programming, but really, compared to what's been put on when network executives go with their "gut feelings" over the past decade or so, it's really can't be any worse.

In a similar way, ABC got "Happy Days" out of "Love, American Style" 40 years ago, so if Fox gets one breakout hit out of this, they'll be ahead of the game.

Steely Dan said...

"Unfortunately for all of us, the most original creative stand up comedian of the last ten years, Mitch Hedberg, is no longer with us."

If by "original" you mean "blatant Steven Wright rip-off," then, yeah, I guess Mitch Hedberg qualified as original.

*tarazza said...

Glad to see you're a Mitch Hedberg fan, Ken. He's my favorite comedian and will be missed.

Tudor Queen said...

With one or two exceptions, I'm not a fan of Fox's programming, but I do take mild issue with your statement that it would be hard to find nine great comic voices.

I, too, listen to comedy rado and have been introduced to many comedians who have me on the verge of pulling the car over because I'm laughing so hard. Others make me think in ways that didn't occur to me before.

Some of them are already 'taken' by other comedy shows - Eugene Mirman, Aziz Azari - but there's plenty of talent out there.

Now, what Fox ends up doing with them... that's another question.432

Brian Berry said...

I think there are quite a few original comics out there, but not basic TV friendly. I think Doug Stanhope is great (and put in a terrific guest star turn on LOUIE) but there's no way in hell he'll wind up on FOX. (The BBC, OTOH, doesn't seem to mind his subject matter or language at all.)

Also look at people like Eugene Mirman, David Cross, or Patton Oswalt, you see them act or in voice roles all the time - but their stand-up specials go to cable or you get a watered-down edit on Comedy Central.

To honest, I think they're trying to find the next Whitney Cummings rather than Louie C.K., unless they really loosen the reigns like their FX counterpart does, or are prepared to engage a talent that might occasionally bite the hand that feeds them.

Brian Berry said...

Also, I have to agree with previous comments on Mitch Hedberg - while I enjoyed his comedy a lot, he was just channeling Steven Wright's surrealism with an added stoner vibe.

Anonymous said...

So they're looking for the TV version of the 10-minute play, which led to the 5-minute play and then the 1-minute play. Short Attention Span Theater. I actually love 10-minute plays and they've certainly been around long enough to be an established form. The twist here is that they've hired stand-up guys to write them instead of adapting the myriad 10-minute plays out there. Because that's the TV way, I guess, to bypass writers and go for on-air talent.

Dave Denholm said...

Man, I miss Mitch Hedberg.

Will check this out. Like you, Ken, I hope it works!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think this is an interesting experiment.

The BBC ran a show a few years ago called THE SMOKING ROOM (I guess THE SITCOM ROOM was taken...), which the writer originally conceived of as 10-minute episodes - the length of time of a cigarette break. The basis was that in most companies you have (or had, since most places you're no longer allowed to smoke inside the company building) this one room where people could go to smoke, and the people who met there probably would never have ordinarily met except that they all smoke.

The BBC doesn't have 10-minute slots.

Eventually, the writer realized or had it pointed out to him that you could have people come and go from the room during the episode and he rejigged it for half-hours. I still would like to have seen the original concept - and maybe a Friday question is WHY is it that TV comedy comes in half hours and no other length (Boston Legal aside).

As for the show itself, THE SMOKING ROOM had its moments, but I think the archetypes were a little more English than I can wholly appreciate. The episode that sticks in my mind is the one where no one - NO ONE - had a light and there was much desperate scrabbling throughout the room trying to find one.

wg

mike bell said...

Nobody knows nothin' anymore.

Wayne said...

I too miss the man who said:
A severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer.

404 said...

I don't buy the "Mitch Hedburg just ripped off Steven Wright" argument. So they both do absurd non-sequiter humor. That in itself is not a rip-off. It's like saying that all observational humor is a rip-pff of Jerry Seinfeld. Or every FBI-based show about strange phenomena is ripping of THE X-FILES (which was the argument people had a against FRINGE, which is a VERY different show). These things might come from a similar place, but they are different enough from each other that to say the one rips off the other is just a lazy and disingenuous brush-off at best. And, for what it's worth, Mitch Hedburg was WAY funnier than Steven Wright. Gone too soon, and missed by many.

404 said...

Wow. Believe it or not, I double-checked my spelling in that post. Clearly, I missed a few!

jbryant said...

Agree with 404: there are only so many variations on the whole "standing in front of a bunch of people telling jokes" thing. All that matters is am I laughing?

As for this one hour/four pilots experiment--I assume there will be commercials, so each pilot will probably be closer to 10 or 12 minutes, right?

CSmith said...

I've never seen Mitch Hedburg, so I looked up some clips on YouTube. The guy was *really* funny. I wouldn't dismiss him as just a Steven Wright ripoff.

David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews said...

I disagree about Mitch Hedburg. He was interesting and funny, had a point of view, but it was very derivative of Stephen Wright, and frankly, Wright's material was, as is, far deeper and more thoughtful than Hedburg's ever was. I'll concede that, there's a strong lack of originality in stand-up, nowadays, but still I can of more inventive names. Christopher Titus comes to mind for instance.

But, I have question about "Up All Night", going from three-camera to single-camera, among it's many problems of course, but I was trying to figure out if any show, had actually gone from single-camera, to 3-camera, and been, successful, or at least better than it was, and the only one I could come up with was "Happy Days". You're more knowledgeable in TV than I am, but am I missing any series that did that successfully?

Thomas said...

I find it bizarre that as a writer wannabe, I may have better luck getting a break doing stand up comedy.

KB said...

Single cam to 3-cam has at least two successful stories: happy days and THE ODD COUPLE! Aside from
Those, I actually can't think of any

Cap'n Bob said...

What were we talking about? I was distracted by the invaluable Forex Market Tips that I lost track of the conversation. I'm so thankful that spammers are willing to inject their rubbish into other people's blogs so mindless suckers like me can waste my time and money on their garbage. Come to think of it, that's a funny idea right there.

luciuspaisley said...

Mitch Hedberg, RE: Steven Wright -
“I love Steven Wright but as far as him being an influence, I can’t measure that. Let me say this… if I made potato chips, and I decided to pack them in a skinny can, people would say I was like Pringles. But what if I packed them in a bag?”

Anonymous said...

It may be time to put Captain Kangaroo back on the air but in the evening.

john brown said...

I guess this turned into a Hedberg-Wright discussion. I think both are , at their best, as funny as hell.
Standup people going into sit-coms has been happening for decades.
Seinfeld, Raymond, Roseanne. They worked out.
Brett Butler, Whitney. Not so much.

Mitch Wright said...

How funny is hell? If Fox is giving 4 folks gthe whole hour, that means about 13 min. per. Lots of luck with 'development' in that time slot. I admire all that participate, it sure beats just sitting around 'talking' about it.

Greg Ehrbar said...

The Captain Kangaroo thing may have been facetious, but I've long thought that Sesame Street, at least in some form, would make a good prime time show -- some of the recent parodies they've done rival SNL.

For what it's worth, "Love American Style" also provided the pilot for Hanna-Barbera's one-season syndicated series, "Wait Till Your Father Gets Home."

HB actually made two animated pilots for LAS, the other being a comedy about a detective who was a master of disguise, voiced by Richard Dawson, which may have morphed into "Inch High Private Eye."

Laurie Gelman said...

I was being facetious about Captain Kangaroo, but upon further consideration, I would rather watch Bunny Rabbit any day before this shit.

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

There's no question that Mitch Hedberg's stream of absurd observations ("I was walking by a dry cleaner at 3am and the sign said, 'Sorry, we're closed'. You don't have to be sorry, it's 3am and you're a dry cleaners") isn't a million miles away from Steven Wright's stream of surreal mini-stories ("I put a new engine in my car, but I didn't take the old one out. Now I can drive 500 MPH."), but Wright is far more surreal that Hedberg ever was.

Steve McLean said...

Wow, this thread went off the rails.

Earl B said...

"I can't think of another industry where experience is considered a detriment."

... Politics?

Jim Pettinger said...

Greg: Check out The Muppet Show. I think you'll like it...

And, am I the only one who reads this title as "Shortcomings?"

Jeffro said...

Awww, Mitch Hedberg, we miss you! That photo was of him sitting in the green room for The Howard Stern Show (back during his last terrestrial radio gig).

And this segues into my suggestion for the proposed show. They should make it like Stern's New York Channel 9 (WWOR) show—which at the time was included in to cable lineups nationwide, like TBS. It was more like a variety show than just a sketch show. It was more of a shorter video version of his radio show, where he and his crew interviewed guests and performed skits. What made it even better was that the show had practically no production value to it, so there was a camp factor to the show. Also, the live studio audience was always loaded with his "Wack Pack" fans, and there would often be participation from them.

Shit, if Howard retires from Sirius and doesn't go on to broadcasting his show on the Internet, he should reincarnate the Channel 9 show and hire some talent beyond his radio crew. But this time it should be on cable, maybe even hosted via Internet streaming (like Netflix Instant or Amazon Prime), so he doesn't have to worry about the FCC broadcasting standards.

Chris said...

Friday question: This week saw two of the most acclaimed shows on television break their format a little: first when Lena Dunham did a bottle episode of Girls where her character and a random "way too hot for her" doctor have a two day affair, which stirred a lot of controversy and then Danny Zuker wrote the Valentine's Day episode of Modern Family assigning each of the three acts to a couple in the show with no cuts back and forth like they would usually do.

Do you think they worked and how do you feel about breaking the format of a show you're working on?

Anonymous said...

So in other words, it is a double-trend influence at work, the web-based and the cartoon formula. The latter has already influenced sitcoms characters to the point there are more interesting dialog-driven cartoons than sitcoms on tv today. And as 30 Rock would show, it's possible to take from the spirit of fast-paced crazy logic of cartoons and still make a human comedy too.
The length of time is no issue. A good script gets enough done in 11 -13 min.
The cartoon/Internet models want shorter (attention, bandwidth) but then more new episodes to repeat in the week. Do I really miss the one longer episode in most of today's sitcoms, is it a perogative to identify with characters? Not at all. But there has to be repetition and more smaller episodes.
I am sure the way commercials work would benefit with shorter uninterrupted completed 11 min modules too.
@oliver rightfully pointed out CN and CC. The legacy networks looking to try out comedians for sitcoms is not really logical enough, compared to CN today, that scouts the internet web based producers, where the idea is some young author/animator builds a following on their own first.
Really, the point is, in the end o the day, Two Broke Girls and the like etc... aren't even good cartoons and too long. So I'm more interested in what this potentially could be, but I am sure the networks will screw it up because they aren't innovative, for example, just looking to comedians is already missing the point.


Barry said...

What if something like Carol Burnett's "The Family" were created and allowed to flourish in a show like this? That's an example of a series of 10-minute plays that were a scream, and inspire a lot of sketch comedy that came after, as far as I know.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I love The Muppet Show -- a series that the networks didn't want, so it went into syndication to become, at the time, the most successful TV series worldwide.

Go figure.

As for Sesame Street, take a look at these:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLZ5Rebfz4I

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Barry: THE HONEYMOONERS started as a series of skits on Jackie Gleason's comedy-variety show. Worked in both formats.

John Brown: I think Brett Butler would have done fine if she hadn't had the substance problems when GRACE UNDER FIRE was on the air.

wg

Zach said...

Louie frequently is two 15 minute mini-episodes. Also, Louis CK doesn't make the show internally consistent. It isn't even necessarily consistent in how it views it's characters.

I'm pulling for this project to be successful.

Brian Phillips said...

I could write my response here, but I decided to blog about it here:

http://ultrasonicremote.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-real-lesson-foxs-shortcoms-may.html

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