But networks are bemoaning that they have been unable to launch any blockbuster sitcom hits for years now. BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY are the last legitimate hit sitcoms. Networks are introducing 18 new sitcoms this fall hoping that even one grabs the brass ring.
Needless to say, I’m rooting for them. That’s my genre. Most of the people I know working in television are in sitcoms. I want to see them all working – from writers to cameramen to warm up men.
And although no one can predict what will be a smash hit, early indications are that none of the debuting comedies are the panacea Hollywood is looking for. The word is just “more of the same.”
Why has it been so difficult to hatch a monster hit sitcom lately? Everyone has opinions. Mine is just one… although I have written and produced many shows that were giant hits so I do have a certain familiarity with the subject.
Here are my thoughts:
1. Networks have no plan. They are just shooting at moving targets. For years multi-camera shows were out. Now, suddenly, they’re back in vogue. Why? Because they discovered that the few high rated sitcoms were from Chuck Lorre and they were all multi-camera. Uh, his shows have been hits for years. Networks are just discovering NOW that multi-cam is a viable format?
For the last few years they stubbornly developed primarily single-camera shows. And with the exception of MODERN FAMILY (which was produced by the best writers of multi-cam comedies over the last twenty years) none have really clicked. So why keep making them exclusively?
2. What’s worse than the networks not having a clue is that they are now micromanaging every aspect of development. They dictate the casting, the script, even the wardrobe and set dressing. It’s absurd. The fact that anything good can come from this system is a miracle.
3. Recent sitcoms are not funny. This is a long time pet peeve of mine. MODERN FAMILY is funny. THE BIG BANG THEORY is funny. Who gives a shit how many cameras there are?
But it almost seems as if producers are purposely avoiding big laughs, as if they’re embarrassed by jokes. You want to be the next SEINFELD or CHEERS or FRIENDS? Stop looking down your nose at laughs. Stop being ironic and quirky. Be FUNNY.
4. Sitcoms today are created for niche audiences – in other words, 18-34. So a large segment of the audience feels excluded. Yes, that’s the demographic Madison Avenue covets but it’s possible to cater to them without alienating the rest of your audience. Big ratings result in syndication deals, more exposure, and quite possibly a hit.
Kevin Reilly, recently fired as head of Fox, maintained that niche shows like THE MINDY PROJECT that were getting appalling ratings were successful because they could sell them. That’s nonsense. If your goal is to develop shows that get a 1 share that’s all you’ll get. And in no universe anywhere is a 1 share a hit sitcom in America.
5. Cast funny people not good-looking people. I’ve seen the trailer to most new sitcoms and especially in the romantic comedies, there are a number of real pretty people who are not funny for a second. God forbid an actress has a large nose or an actor is prematurely balding. Even if they are gifted comedians, at best they are relegated to “friends” of the blow-dried mannequins the network fight over to star in these shows. Again, you want the next SEINFELD? That cast picture will never be mistaken for a J-Crew ad.
So what we’re left with is safe fare and fifteen versions of whatever subject matter all the networks think will be in. This year we have a bunch of upscale urban romantic comedies and families. Might one of them shine above all the rest? Sure. Again, I hope so. One of the romantic comedies could give us the next Sam & Diane. One of the family shows could be the next COSBY. But with networks pulling ALL the strings, what do you think the chances are of that happening?
In success, situation comedies remain the bedrock of television. Since we’ve gone several years without a hit, how about changing the game plan? How about doing something radical? How about hiring writers who know what they’re doing and have proven they can make audiences laugh and then just get out of the way? You might snare that elusive monster hit that makes everybody rich. Or is protecting your job more important?