Monday, May 19, 2014
The current state of network comedies
MUST SEE TV is no more an NBC tradition, partly because there are no shows on NBC that are must see, and because their comedy cupboard is now pretty bare. So they are scaling back.
And comedy stalwart CBS is cutting its longtime Monday night two-hour comedy block back to one.
According to a recent article in Deadline Hollywood, network executives have said that “comedy is hard.”
Here’s what’s hard: Choosing the right writers. Choosing the right ideas. Allowing them to make to make the best pilots.
Networks always claim that they are at the mercy of whatever ideas writers bring to them. That’s very true. But networks now hand-pick who they will hear ideas from. Sometimes it’s not even a writer. It’s a hot company the network wants to be in business with, or an actor or stand-up comedian.
So they assign numerous pilot scripts to writers who are not very good. What a shocker when they come back bad.
As for the ideas themselves, it’s rarely the best ideas that sell, it’s the safest. It’s also whatever theme the networks have decided are in vogue. This year it’s romantic comedies featuring gorgeous upscale urban couples. There are three or four across all networks.
At ABC it’s ethnic families. They now will have a Jewish family, a Latino family a Black family, and an Asian family… to go along with an upscale family, a sorta upscale family, and a middle class family.
NBC has two somewhat novel new sitcoms – one about astronauts in 1962 (although there’s the MAD MEN safety net of that era), and one about a girl rescued from a cult (from blue chipper Tina Fey), but both are being held till mid-season.
ABC’s one non family/romantic comedy is GALAVANT, which is either a cross between ONCE UPON A TIME and GLEE, or just a horrible knock off of SPAMALOT. Judging by the jaw-dropping trailer, this might be the COP ROCK of the 21st Century. You can’t even say it’s really different. It’s just mashing together two successful genres. Sometimes you get Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups but most times you get pastrami ice cream.
Once a network okays an idea then the story, the detailed story outline, the script, the casting, the director, the crew, the wardrobe, and the set dressing all has to be approved by multiple sources. By the time the pilot is done it’s a watered down compromised shell of what it might have been. And then the same people who gave the notes, bemoan the fact that the pilots came back disappointing. “Comedy is hard.”
Here’s the bottom line. Networks are operating out of fear. The best comedies are daring. The best comedies have singular voices and take strong stances. They’re born of inspiration not wildly second guessing what might be popular. They defy testing. Sometimes they defy logic. “Safe” is a dirty word in comedy. So is “nice.” And “mild.” And “politically correct.”
Watch the trailers for the new sitcoms. 90% of the casts are J..Crew models. Hunky guys, hot girls, and if an actress is ten pounds overweight it’s a big deal. Clearly, looks were the mandate, not hire the funniest people you could find. Again – safe.
I don’t fault the networks for not putting on more comedies. Why should they? The ones they had on bombed and the ones they have in the pipeline are not worthy. The truth is in the best of times comedy is hard. But they make it harder. At least accept responsibility. Don't just throw up your hands and say "Comedy is hard."