Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Open Letter to Current Showrunners

This is a serious request. I would love a current showrunner to challenge me. I would love to hear an opposing view. If you care to write I will post your response without touching a word. I make this offer not to be argumentative or stir up controversy. It’s that I really would like to understand your take.

Here’s my point: After a fairly long dry spell situation comedy has had a recent resurgence. Thanks in part to THE BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY, networks have once again embraced the genre. Unfortunately, the new comedies are all doing horribly. Some are already cancelled. Others have had their production orders reduced drastically. Every week we read that this sitcom or that sitcom has hit all-time lows. A few have even dipped below a one share. A one share!  That is almost unimaginable.   Clearly, the audience is rejecting sitcoms in the form they’re currently in. Fox continues to cling to NEW GIRL and THE MINDY PROJECT despite dreadful ratings. CBS has the most success programming comedies but even their moderate hit shows plummet when removed from cushy time slots.

A hit comedy is a) a cash cow, and b) a rating juggernaut. You can seemingly rerun them forever because audiences will cheerfully watch episodes they’ve seen before, even multiple times. But if year after year everything fails, at some point the networks are going to say, “How long can we keep making Edsels?” 

My point of view: Not only are most of these shows not funny. They don’t even try to be funny. I’ve heard showrunners say they don’t want jokes or they don’t want the audience to suspect a joke is coming. I’ve ranted on this before. Showrunners somehow feel that doing jokes is selling out in some way. And I maintain that GOOD jokes result in laughs. And comedies need to be funny – certainly funnier.

I’ve maintained that irony and self-awareness and endless pop cultures and quirkiness do not substitute for laughs. And it’s not that I’m just lobbying for more one-liners and zingers. If you can get laughs by putting your characters in hilarious situations that’s great. But what I’ve seen repeatedly these days are tepid, soft, mild shows that go for smiles at best.

So again, I ask – what am I missing? Seriously. I’d say it was an age thing if these new comedies were getting big numbers with Millennials, but they’re not. And trust me, I’m not one of those disgruntled comedy writers sitting in a back booth at a deli saying, “That’s why experienced people like me should be running shows.” I don’t want to run a show. I really don’t. I want to watch and enjoy and laugh at your show.

So I would sincerely like to know your thinking. I invite any current showrunner to email me. bossjock@dslextreme.com. Why don’t comedy writers want to write comedy anymore? I’d really like to know. Thanks much.


Jim S said...

If you'r Monty Python, you can get away from "jokes" but there's only one Monty Python. Even after saying that, one of my favorite Monty Python bits was a joke. Graham Chapman is the captain and they need a volunteer to stay behind to hold off the Germans so the platoon can get away.

Chapman decides the only fair way is to do rock, paper, scissors. He throws out scissors and everyone else throws out rock. He's told scissors can't cut rock. Chapman, in character, says "but these are very good scissors." Huge laugh from a straight joke. Of course the rest of the sketch goes off in a Python direction, but I remember that joke. So yeah, today's comedies could use more of that.

Having said that, 30 Rock was very funny, but never got very strong ratings and has already disappeared from the syndication airways. So even being good doesn't guarantee you anything.

Matthew said...

@Jim S: Monty Python had a lot more straight jokes than just that one, not that that invalidates your point in the slightest.

John Levenstein said...

Kroll Show tries to get by on character, situation, story and style. We have more laughs than jokes. It's not a network show--we have a lot of freedom. I agree that comedies should be funny; that should not be a controversial statement. My problem with jokes, especially in this day and age, is that it almost always plays as if the character is telling the joke. So it can't just be funny, it has to be a kind of joke that character would tell, which usually ends up sounding more like a parody of a joke.

Chauncey Gardiner said...

The problem is that the audience is mostly ignoring comedies that do go for actual jokes. Mulaney and Bad Judge are shows that shoot for real laughs (sometimes they get them and sometimes not), but their efforts were rewarded with critical savagings and early cancellations. Mom came close to cancellation last year, but was saved by the good timeslots and the paralyzing fear of offending Chuck Lorre. Apart from the couple of exceptions you named, comedy of all kinds is having a tough time on network television right now. Audiences don't like the quirky, jokeless comedies, but they mostly avoid the "real" comedies also.

I wonder if the segmentation of the audience has just eroded all the potential fans of the sitcom format. Great sitcoms used to be syndicated for decades on channels that everyone watched. If you turned on your TV at all, you were almost guaranteed to have a sitcom education from Burns and Allen through Frasier. Now, they are mostly ghettoized to "old people" channels except for reruns of shows that are still on the network. A lot of viewers in the prizes demographic just never had the chance to fall in love with the structure of watching characters say funny things in funny situations, and now it just seems bizarre and artificial to them.

As you point out, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family prove that sitcoms can still draw a large audience, but our larger viewing habits will have to change before those can go from being lonely exceptions to part of a trend again.

(By the way, I hope you get some responses from sitcom producers. You might have a better chance with Ms. Meriwether if you stop adding "The" to New Girl, though...)

HikenFan said...

You're not missing anything, Ken. And your indignation is entirely justified.

We're in the tenth year of comedy doldrums that began when NBC declared the low-rated THE OFFICE a "hit," followed suit with 30 ROCK, and ushered in an era of ironic line readings + pop-culture references instead of laugh-out-loud jokes.

Which has given us THE MINDY PROJECT, a show as hysterical as a child's embalming.

MODERN FAMILY still has writers from NBC's Must-See-TV Golden Era, whose skill is in a direct line from the golden days of MTM. Lloyd, Levitan and their writers can write hard jokes, and non-cloying "moments," and that's why the show is an Emmy-winning hit.

Hard-joke writing -- especially multicam -- is a skill in decline. That doesn't mean it's gone. It's dormant.

And it will be back.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I'll saddle up my trusty pet peeve and say it again: commercial glut is killing sitcoms. Who has time to deliver a comic narrative when the flow will be interrupted after 2 minutes by a four minute ad block? Might as well tear off a bunch of pop culture references and before the car insurance ads come on.

Terrence Moss said...

30 Rock was also insider, irreverent, format-bending and at times, absurdist.

I watched it all seven seasons, but there's a reason why it remained a niche show.

Diane D. said...

Wouldn't that segmentation also include the people (like me) who would rather watch the wonderful old sitcoms repeatedly on Netflix, without commercials, than try new shows? I think I probably have more than the average aversion to commercials, but I really do wonder how many viewers of new sitcoms are drawn away by Netflix.

I do love irony and too many jokes can get tiresome. Even the best sitcom ever (Cheers) occasionally had a lame joke (Norm: My Dad heard a rumor that Vera had loose morals; it turned out it was loose molars), but I got more LOL belly laughs as well as tears of anguish from that show than anything else I have ever seen on TV.

I love HikenFan's comment because he says very confidently that hard-joke writing is a skill in decline, but it's not gone; it will be back. Soon, I hope; I'm getting old.

XantaKlaus said...

I'm a big fan of comedy obviously (why would I be here in this blog otherwise?) and I have to say the TV show I laugh the most at is The Good Wife. They find the right ingridients of absurd situations or character quirks (mostly with the judges) that amuse me so much.

Second place goes to Brooklyn Nine Nine. The third place depends on the material of Modern Family, The Goldbergs, The Middle or Black-ish.

But nothing right now comes close to "the good old days" like Frasier or Becker - both of which I like because of the format. Why is noone interested/able to produce a well crafted multi camera sitcom at the moment?

I totally agree that new shows don't go for laughs, but look at the results. In Manhattan Love Story you have two leads I would not bother spend a single minute of my life with. Selfie seemed to be the same formula over and over again and A to Z has two phenomenal likeable actors that maybe portray two less likable roles, but it's not really funny and the supporting cast roles are awfully and lazy written. Only Ben Falcone gives a good performance.

V. Anton Spraul said...

For all the talk about jokes, my wife and young daughter are bonding over Fraiser reruns these days, and it seems to me that most of the laughs come from character and situation, not jokes. Fraiser often says "funny" things, but they are the things we would expect Fraiser Crane to say.

For that matter, I know I personally enjoyed mid-to-late MASH more than early MASH because it seemed like early years depended too much on the jokers in the Swamp making wisecracks. It always felt lazy to me.

Maybe, in the end, it's just that comedy is hard. To work, there have to be punchlines, but punchlines that don't sound like punchlines, that are set up by natural dialogue and not the underhanded pitch that could only come from a writer's pen.

Tom Quigley said...

My main problem with most sitcoms that I don't find funny these days basically rests on character development. The characters in these shows are not believable, and seeing them doing absurd things to me are not funny -- they're just absurd. As a result, I think many writers currently try to salvage a show or scene with jokes, which only makes things even worse.

One of the great geniuses of comedy writing, from whom I had the good fortune to take a course was Neil Simon's older brother, the late Danny Simon. Danny's premise was that all comedy is based on character, and the more you know about your characters and the better developed and more believable they are, the more and better comedy you can draw from them in relation to any situation they find themselves in. The great sitcoms that have lasted over the years and are still showing today (I LOVE LUCY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, CHEERS AND FRASIER are the best examples) have proven Danny to be right over and over again. Try watching any of those shows and see how many laughs come out of what would probably be perceived as jokes (or as Danny would refer to them, "joke" jokes). Most likely very few. They nearly always emanate from the characters and the situation.

Stephen Robinson said...

I wonder, Ken, if current showrunners don't have what I call "Woody Allen Syndrome." Allen, based on his comments, seems to view comedy as the "kid's table" and ever since "Interiors" has seen drama as the superior art form. I of course disagree (Is "Romeo & Juliet" better by default than "Much Ado About Nothing"? I don't think so.)

Most of my generation grew up in a post-ANNIE HALL world where Allen's leading lady was Mia Farrow (great actress, but hardly a Diane Keaton/Louise Lasser comic actress) and he deliberately avoided flat-out comedies and produced what I'd call "light" dramas (HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) or drama/comedy hybrids (CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS).

So, we have a lot of people around my age (40) with a contempt for the classic comedy. And arguably Allen's references in later comedies to Tolstoy are more "intelligent" than a reference to Kim Kardashian but are still a "reference" and not a joke.

I don't know if these showrunners even study the structure of comedy, ranging back to Shakespeare himself. I recall being blown away when a playwriting professor in college pointed out how CHEERS adhered to the same structure as a classic comedy. And how that structure almost always produced laughs.

The sitcoms I enjoyed most were mostly irony free. They had "heart." If CHEERS was produced today, with the same mentality as NEW GIRL or MINDY PROJECT, it would probably be nothing more than a show about a group of losers with ironic, pop-culture references, rather than a classic romantic comedy (Shelley Long years) and later a show about a wacky family (Kirstie Alley years). I was *moved* when Sam got his bar back. It meant something.

Humor without heart -- for me -- falls flat. I mean, even the "absurdist" comedies such as BEWITCHED, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, and BEVERLY HILLBILLIES had real, human emotion beneath it all. People cared about each other.

blinky said...

My Axiom of Comedy success:

No Big Stars = Big Laughs.
Big Stars = No Big Laughs.

As in: Modern Family & Big Bang vs New Girl & Mindy.

iain said...

I’ve maintained that irony and self-awareness and endless pop cultures and quirkiness do not substitute for laughs.

Toss in vomiting & you've got the Seth MacFarlane recipe for success.

Oliver said...

I've only really noticed this trend on NBC, which has been notorious for joke-free sitcoms over the past few years. Consider that since Greenblatt took over, the longest-running comedy is Whitney with 38 episodes.

That being said, Marry Me is the first NBC sitcom in years to have recognisable jokes, so the trend isn't getting worse.

Perhaps it's subjective, though. Another commenter suggested that 30 Rock didn't have jokes, when I always found it to be a rapid-fire joke machine.

Doug Thompson said...

It's interesting that CBS originally launched "Big Bang Theory" this season on Monday, then just switched it back to Thursday night in its original spot. Comedy is totally subjective, I know that, but I find many shows totally unfunny. "Two Broke Girls" is no longer watchable, it's the same old jokes...the same with "New Girl". It's hackneyed. I can spot the plot twists and even spout specific lines before they happen. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" for me is horrific. Besides the always excellent Andre Braugher, the acting is sooo bad. But again, that's only my opinion.
I have a possible Friday question Ken. Can a highly successful showrunner like Chuck Lorre demand that one of his hit shows, say "Big Bang Theory", be moved back to its original broadcast day and time once its been moved, or does the network have absolute and total control, even to heavyweight producers like Law & Order's Dick York or Chuck Lorre?

Canda said...

The internet is creating an insular world, where people are focused inward at all times, often creating their own moments through texting and photos, that require only recognition, not creativity and artistry.

The new TV shows seem to follow that pattern, and use a heavy dose of social media in the story telling. Recognition (pop culture references), "cleverness" (wordplay that sounds written), and a desperate need to look hip (which often ends in upscale locations, or places foodies would love), does not give much time for "heart". Often people state their problems, not play them. Voiceover becomes the way to reveal character, not having the characters do it through action, or vulnerable emotion.

When you don't display human behavior, humans aren't interested in watching it.

ArtCaesura said...

Certainly the category of "humor" allows comedy much more than just "jokes" but US sitcoms apparently do not. Perhaps sitcoms should all have to start off proving themselves with a bare bones situation, two-three actors, at most two interiors, short format. As more their ratings improve, the more characters they can introduce or add a new change of setting. If the ratings drop down, they have to take out a character and setting. So if an audience watching sees more than a few characters it means they show got better ratings, must be funny.

Ken Levine said...


Great summation.

I love how you people say more insightful things than me.

John Constantine said...

Well, I can say here from Spain that Your'e the worst is becoming a critic success and beginning to be valued as the best comedy of past season

Bojack Horseman said...

Network TV is always looking for the Garfield factor... Something that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sheldon might as well eat lasagna and hate Mondays. Post 9/11, there's a lot less room for non-conformity, which is kind-of a prerequisite for edgy comedy.

Baylink said...

You're a facilitator, Ken. :-)

And, while I think Canda makes excellent points, I'm quite fond of A to Z this season, and partly *because* it flouts the points s/he makes: It has VO, but not too much, and the VOis partly recap/recasting of what's going on, but not entirely; it has laughs, but not all from jokes (most of the 'jokes' I've seen so far are in runners from the secondary cast), and -- most important for me -- the writers have made a conscious decision that *those characters live in the same world I do*, which is conspicuously not true of nearly every other TV show.

And I wanna marry Cristin Milioti and have her babies.

bill persky said...

Vagina is not a punchline, nor are all the juvenile sexual situations that all the comedies seem to go for as the only reason their characters are on the planet.It isn't so much a matter of jokes, since the attempt them, it's about the loss of real people trying to survive in a world tat is increasingly not on their side. Also, most of the Show Runner-I hate that term, producer was good enough until everyone became one with no idea of what was involved: it became a title in lieu of a raise- Most of the show runner grew about watching the comedies that we wrote and the people who learned from us wrote; comedies based on their lives and experiences; they are writing from what they watched.not what they lived. It is the 7th generation of cousins marrying cousins-every one is an idiot. Bill Persky

Canda said...

I want Baylink to know that "A to Z" was my favorite pilot of the new season, and I agree that Cristin Milioti is sensational. I have no idea why we need a voiceover to tell us how long they're going to date - that eliminates all the mystery and drama right away -but I suspect they were going to lead up to a wedding, not a break-up.

I stated before, "Why have them get together in the first show?" Let us enjoy the chase for a few episodes. We ended up going right to problems people have when they're dating steadily. The funeral episode was extreme (mantra chanting buhddist uncles), for extreme's sake, and not very believable, and hurt our feeing about the world the character grew up in, and thus the character herself. I haven't watched since, but intend to catch up.

It's an honor to have Bill perky participate in this discussion.

Ken Levine said...

Wow! For those who don't know, Bill Persky is a COMEDY GOD. I am honored that he would comment on my blog. He and his partner wrote some of the best DICK VAN DYKE SHOWS along with many other great shows. I show their work as part of my USC class on comedy.

When someone can write comedy that is still funny and still resonates fifty years after it was written, this is a person to listen to.

Thanks, Bill.

Andrew Parker said...

Feature film also seems to be in a huge comedy rut. But isn't a lot of it just the mindset or zeitgeist of the people during the era when the show aired?

Growing up, I used to love reruns of "Three's Company". But if they aired now, I'm not sure I'd watch it and it would surely be cancelled from broadcast tv. Those jokes -- particularly the physical humor -- feel anachronistic now.

Plus I have to blame technology. On Twitter, you can watch all your friends "playing characters" via their tweets and see the reactions to those tweets (like you would laughing with others while watching a sitcom). Thanks to social media, unfortunately, everyone thinks they are a star in their own sitcom and playing a heightened version of themselves.

Would people in the demo rather discuss what they saw on Brooklyn Nine-Nine last night or what they're crazy friend Griffin said on twitter?Just a sad downside to technology.

Bob Leszczak said...

I'm not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I have a very bawdy sense of humor myself, but sitcoms were so much funnier when double entendre was used. Now that the floodgates have been opened, it seems that writers are so excited about being able to now say penis, vagina, tits, etc. on the air, they opt for blue material instead of actually seeking the funny.

gottacook said...

The craft part of the equation has changed too, not just the scripting. This has occurred most noticeably in single-camera series. For example, I could watch and enjoy Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006) because camera placement and/or motion always complemented what was taking place on screen, whether or not it was on the cartoonish side. There was a general stylishness to the direction, no matter who the individual episode director was; they were trying for and achieving a particular tone.

By contrast, the majority of single-camera shows today are the kind that make me say out loud, "My god, don't you have access to a damn tripod?" A few years ago I happened to have Modern Family on the kitchen TV with my back turned (while washing dishes), and actually enjoyed the show.

Ken, perhaps you could address sitcom direction in more detail, in terms of what the networks seem to want. With the shows I'm complaining about, is there a fear that without near-constant motion on screen, viewers will switch to something else?

Kathleen said...

Both Canda and Bill Persky (whose work I've appreciated for many years) have made excellent points (Ken, you also made the same point Bill has) and that is many of today's comedy writers are writing based on perceptions of what other people are experiencing, via either social media or other recent sitcoms. I don't watch any current network comedies anymore, and I'm a big fan of sitcoms such as Dick Van Dyke, Frasier, Bob Newhart and WKRP. I do however enjoy cable TV comedies, such as Web Therapy, Episodes and Veep.

chalmers said...

It's intimidating commenting after a legend like Bill Persky, but perhaps "The Dick Van Dyke Show" provides an example of what can improve sitcoms (and business).

No less a comic mind than Carl Reiner had to rework his original "Head of the Family" concept before finding the formula that clicked (and how!) With rare exceptions, building a comedy ensemble takes time. If Carl Reiner needs time to futz with things, what can you expect from a 28-year-old brandishing an A-minus from Harvard's "Sitcom Theory" class?

Baseball has the minors, theater has off-Broadway, and television series used to have 22, or at least 13, episodes to get a good idea where strengths and weaknesses lay.

All of the networks are run by conglomerates, so why couldn't sitcom kinks be worked out on one of their lower-budget cable channels?

Like Kathleen, I enjoy several pay-cable comedies like "Veep." Even though the seasons are about half of what you'd see on a network, they at least know they're getting 10 or 12 episodes. In addition to smoothing problems and building chemistry, there isn't the pressure to generate "buzz" by throwing in shocking words or outrageous antics in episode one, lest there never be an episode two.

Like Bob, I'm not a prude. "Veep" contains some of the filthiest language imaginable. But it's authentic and complements the humor, it's a substitute for humor.

chalmers said...

Sorry, last sentence should be "It's NOT a substitute for humor.'

Steve B. said...

Doug Thompson: CBS only played "The Big Bang Theory" on Mondays this fall because the network shelled out big $$$$ for half a season of Thursday Night Football. Now that the football commitment has ended, BBT has moved back as scheduled. This was all predetermined before the season started.

Steve B. said...

Chauncey Gardiner: There's a huge hole in your theory that young people just haven't grown up with the typical sitcom programming - they have and still do.

Look at the shows on Disney Channel and Nick. Most are multi-cams, and have the same rhythm, pace and structure of a traditional TV comedy. Current shows like Disney's "Jessie" or Nick's recent "Sam and Cat" (or older ones like "Hannah Montana") are deep-down as old-school sitcomy as you get.

These shows are major hits, and kids watch them repeatedly like crazy. Young people are VERY familiar with the format. I think the execution on the broadcast nets is a problem.

Wallis Lane said...

Veep and Silicon Valley on HBO are two of the most gut-bustingly funny comedies I've ever seen, so comedy may not be dead, at least on cable.

One network comedy show that slipped under the radar, but will be back for another season, was "Welcome to Sweden" by Greg Poehler (Amy's brother). As everyone has noted, character counts, and Poehler based his show on his own strange and funny experiences as an expatriate, rather than mining Twitter feeds for material. The result is a wistful but often very funny half-hour. Not a "joke machine" but lots of humor based on real character quirks.

Anonymous said...

With a few exceptions, the whole business of comedy is a disaster. It has been reduced to characters standing around and just saying things, cue the laugh track. What I don't understand is how the "professionals" producing this garbage can feel good about themselves. I try to imagine a writers meeting for "Two Broke Girls" when they are discussing the awful lines that they know will be delivered by two automatons. Doesn't anybody speak up? Is anyone really laughing and enjoying working on this? Do they actually debate the merits of material that simply terrible. Do they really even care? I don't get how it even gets on air. I couldn't out of self-respect be a part of something like that.

As a contrast, I went to a filming of "Cheers" once as an audience member and from the beginning, we were laughing through the whole thing. The characters were funny, the jokes and setups were funny, the actors were the best. It ran like clockwork and nobody wasted anybody's time.

But I think the one disturbing trend is how mean much of it has become. Shows like "Bad Judge" and "Two Broke Girls" are one note sambas of meanness and bad behavior. For proof, look no further than the celebrity roasts. Dean Martin celebrity roasts had some of the funniest performances you'll ever see, but it was all in good fun. Nothing but roll-on-the-floor hysterical bits. The new ones are about saying nastiest, meanest thing about the person, they are done live and no one in the audience is laughing.

As my mentor told me once, the best shows like "Barney Miller" and "All in the Family" were so good because the people involved passionately fought to make them good. Let's hope more people with passion and courage will step up and change things.

HikenFan said...

May I recommend a wonderful FOUR-HOUR interview with Bill Persky at the Archive of American Television here:


And another four-hour interview with Sam Denoff here: http://emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/sam-denoff

Young comedy writers should watch them. ALL comedy writers should watch them.

Stephen Robinson said...

What does everyone think of "The Middle"? I sometimes prefer it to "Modern Family," and I think a lot of the humor does come from character. Sue Heck as played by Eden Sherr deserves a spin-off.

Also, I think "Three's Company" gets a bad reputation -- Cosby infamously ridiculed it in the mid-80s -- but what people refer to as its reliance on the "idiot plot" is a key ingredient in "farce," which I think "Frasier" did spectacularly. Sometimes it's a matter of execution.

B Long said...

Is it canceled like the headline states for cancelled which is in the article? Airports seem to have the same problem.

Sarah Foulds said...

@ Ken Levine

Hi Ken!

I sincerely admire your courage in highlighting the current climate of unfunny comedy shows. I have seen nearly every episode of 'New Girl' and 'The Mindy Project.' I watch these shows because I like the cast. However, most episodes rarely generate two laughs.

How do the others feel about the other hyped show 'Brooklyn Nine Nine'? Once again, I love Mike Schur and Dan Goor. And the cast is amazing. Yet, I simply do not find it funny. It tries too hard. What do you all think?

Just like you Ken, I just want to watch new comedy shows that are genuinely funny. And 'Big Bang Theory' is the only one that consistently succeeds in this are.

Charles Emerson Losechester said...

Friday question:

Why does "canceled" only have one 'l'??

Sarah Foulds said...

@ Doug Thompson

" "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" for me is horrific. Besides the always excellent Andre Braugher, the acting is sooo bad. But again, that's only my opinion." "

Thank goodness! I'm not the only one who feels like this about 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Agree about the best laughs of the week being in THE GOOD WIFE.

Surprised no one has mentioned EPISODES. Short series, but so clever.

THE BIG BANG THEORY has become very variable. My rule with it these days is not to expect much. The really good episodes are all going to be season premieres, season finales, special top-class guest stars, or sweeps.


Mike said...

The weakening of network censors has made shows substantially worse. Before writers had to at least be creative to work around the censors.

Pseudonym said...

If you ask John Kricfalusi, he'll tell you that the same thing is happening to TV animation, both childrens' cartoons and prime-time. (Bonus fact: As of about a month ago, there is no such thing as a Saturday Morning cartoon in the US. Isn't that crazy?)

Or consider state of TV news and current affairs.

Are we seeing a pattern yet?

Anonymous said...

To be honest Ken, I was hoping for your pilot to be picked up this year for two reasons: (i) you write really funny shows and (ii) I was dying to see how you would do in the ratings in "modern" times.
I suspect we would then get a new perspective on why ratings for comedies are low. Or, you could have surprised me....even better.

VP81955 said...

The new TV shows seem to ... use a heavy dose of social media in the story telling. Recognition (pop culture references), "cleverness" (wordplay that sounds written), and a desperate need to look hip (which often ends in upscale locations, or places foodies would love), does not give much time for "heart."

One of the many reasons I love "Mom": its sensibility is blue-collar and proud of it. There's very little that's "hip" about the series, which can make it tough sledding at times for some, but helps complement its comic elements and gives it "heart."

Anonymous said...

SNL isn't funny. Simpsons used to be funny, but now it is just horrible. There I attribute it to their loss of a few minutes to ads, denying them a second plotline.

Also, I think comedy took a downturn when the Iraq war just made the left go crazy. SNL couldn't even come up with a bit on Baghdad Bob?

Michael said...

Friday question: Carol Ann Susi, the off-screen voice of Howard's mother on BIG BANG THEORY, has sadly passed away. If you were the showrunner, how would you handle this: Re-cast the part, write the character off without mentioning her again, or do a story arc involving Howard dealing with his mother's death?

Michael said...

Veteran's Day-related Friday question: Do you know from your MASH research what the rules were in terms of drafting doctors into the Army during the Korean War - was there an older age limit than regular soldiers? I always wondered whether someone like Major Winchester would realy have been forced to serve. Also I assume the nurses were all volunteers - did you ever consider doing a story on what motivated one of them to volunteer in a MASH unit.

Johnny Walker said...

I guess everyone is trying to reinvent the genre, and move away from the things we've seen a million times before... but they haven't figured out something good to replace it with.

The move away from "jokes" sounds like an attempt at bringing humour out of the characters and situations, which sounds perfect, but I'm guessing they're just failing at it.

Bill Persky's take that these shows are being made by people copying something they grew up watching, instead of from their own life experiences, is interesting, too. Undoubtedly that has to be true.

Johnny Walker said...

Watching that Bill Persky interview. Thanks, HikenFan!

Hamid said...

I maintain that GOOD jokes result in laughs. And comedies need to be funny – certainly funnier.

Absolutely. I watched a Cheers rerun the other week and was laughing all the way through. Carla's one liners in particular are always a pleasure. This one cracked me up the most:

Cliff: Sometimes I'm ashamed god made me a man.

Carla: I don't think god's doing a whole lot of bragging about it either.

Patrick said...

I think that many of the new shows don't really develop characters very well. I don't know if that's a creative issue, or something that the current business climate at the networks is pushing writers and producers into doing.

A friend of mine wrote for a network show and his notes were constantly along the lines of, "you're being too specific here, generalize the character, make him/her an Everyman/woman, etc." The writers and producers want funny, messy, relatable and real. The network wants marketable. Crash, boom, bang.

Comedy writing is about jokes, sure. But I also think of the Eunice/Mama sketches on The Carol Burnett Show (yes, I am showing my age). I remember laughing until I was sore at many of those episodes, and it was only years later that I understood there were no jokes/punch lines. It all emerged from character.

I feel the same way when I watch M*A*S*H, or Cheers, or Frasier, because the characters are so well defined.
There were great punch lines, but it resonated more because of the character(s), not in spite of them.

jeremyhughes77 said...

There needs to be consideration for the changes in how and what people are consuming from where. Comedy is the second biggest genre behind how to videos on YouTube. That's a massive audience. TV is in a sort of golden age with quality character-driven but very well made shows moving to TV. Look at the rise of these two trends compared to the fall of the sitcoms. I think audiences have moved and aren't interested in investing a full 30 minutes these days in sort of funny shows. They'll catch them on the backend on Hulu and Netflix and decide if it's worth moving into their full slate of programming. There are just stronger characters and faster punchlines today.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Part of the issue is that "studies" and "data" are still being followed because it's easy to hide behind (so you don't get blamed) and it's easy to manipulate.

Since demographics became so important to advertising and entertainment, a belief persists that the audience must be the same or similar to the characters on the show. It's the same in books. Kids want to see kids; young adults want to see adults, etc.

After the research department began to overshadow the creatives on "Sesame Street," it was decided that children want to see younger people on TV, not old ones. Most of the original cast of “Sesame Street” is still around and very active in other areas. They'd love to be on "the street" more than occasionally.

This is crazy. What about grandparents? I look forward to seeing the ENTIRE cast of Sesame Street (both new and classic) on the Macy's parade every year.

I was not an adult like Rob and Laura Petrie, Ralph and Norton, Lucy and Ricky. Even Gilligan's Island did not cast kids though they would now. Yes, on some sitcoms the adults act like kids, but so do adults in real life.

The point is that, while it's nice to be able to identify with the people on a series, it does not follow that they must all resemble me exactly for me to enjoy it. It just has to be funny and relatable on a human level.

The "old people cable ghettos" that show classic TV is surely attracting kids and teens who either have good taste or have adults that want them to see great entertainment. Maybe they'll come up with the next quality sitcoms.

CarolMR said...

So sorry to hear about Carol Ann Susi. I believe she played Rhea Perlman's sister on "Cheers."

ScottyB said...

Maybe part of the problem is that We The People have forgotten how to laugh over the past decade or three because we've been required to grow up thinking there's so much we *shouldn't* be laughing at, even if it's the funniest sitcom ever created. And if you do, the blowback is rather severe.

'All In The Family' is the best example. *Still* funny as fuck 40 years later (at least the episodes before Mike & Gloria moved out), but you couldn't make that show today.

Point is, there's so much that has come to be verboten that the well doesn't seem to be all that deep when it comes to writing for network TV comedy.

Wayne said...

Vulgarity is not taboo anymore and even intelligent comics like Jon Stewart use it often.

This week Amy Schumer made news when she got Comedy Central to stop bleeping out "pussy" when they don't bleep "dick."

I listened to some old roasts from the 1960s. If they are dirty roasts, even Art Linkletter is funny. If they are clean roasts, only Milton Berle is funny.

So vulgarity should add to hilarity.

But I think what's missing in comedies today is all the characters are so warped, there is no one to root for.

You don't get to funny if you don't care.

Comedy characters are always somewhat unworthy of success.
But now they're totally unworthy.

The type of comedy that works best with unworthy characters is farce.

But farce is hardest to construct and also something not for every week.

Baylink said...

Thanks, Canda; it's nice to know I'm not just liking that show with my hormones. :-)

Michael: I hope they write it in:

A) because she deserves a credit, finally, and on the show where they deal with it, and

B) because it will be interested to see what they do with Stuart's reaction, and Howard's reaction to Stuart's reaction, and Bernie's reaction to Howard's reaction to Stewart's reaction.

Baylink said...

Oh, and Canda, in case you hadn't noticed it yet: every week, the countdown is shorter: it's timed to the airtime of what would have been Ep 22 (after "LMNOP is for Childhood", which cuts the target down from 26 :-)

Julie said...

Ask any stand-up comic: tell a joke clean and tell it laced with profanity. Audiences will almost always react more strongly to the vulgarity-laced version.

Baylink said...

FTR Julie: Richard Jeni only worked blue once, in a coporate gig in Hawaii, booted off the board. I like most of his stuff better clean.

Largo161 said...

Who saw tonight's Modern Family--"Queer Eyes, Full Hearts"? It was a master class of jokes, jokes based in character and heart. I was moved when Jay rehired the Spanish tutor for himself.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I watched an episode of TAXI last night,Fantasy Borough: Part 1, and all I could think was: Andy Kaufman -dead; Jeff Conaway -dead; Tony Danza -living; it was so depressing.

Daniel said...

This may sound like hair-splitting, Ken, but I'm really curious how you're defining a joke. For example, in the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally, is the joke Sally's fake orgasm? Is the joke Harry's look of embarrassment and confusion? Is it the moment when the old lady says, "I'll have what she's having"?

Or when Ralph Kramden fails to win on The 99,000 Answer, is the joke the moment when "Swanee River" starts playing? Is it Ralph's sudden panic? Is it the moment when he says, "That's 'Swanee River'?" Do they all count as jokes? Because all of those moments are very funny.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

These comments are why this post is a must read each and everyday. From Ken's posts and down to the development of thoughts and responses of the interactive "audience"...is why this Blog is better than any other.

cadavra said...

The problem is, even when an old-fashioned, joke-oriented sitcom does make it on-air, nobody watches (see SEAN SAVES THE WORLD or BAD JUDGE, to take two recent examples).

No one has yet brought up the spectre of political correctness either. We've become a nation of professional victims, looking to be offended. When you can't make jokes about anything else, all you have left is "penis," "vagina" and assorted bodily excretions. We brought that on ourselves.

I'm currently editing the latest batch of "Biffle & Shoosters," which are traditional, 1930s-comedy-team shorts. We'll see if slapstick and hoary one-liners can still find a receptive audience in 2015.

Brian Phillips said...

I have no comment other than...

THANK YOU, BILL PERSKY!! Your writing has entertained me for many years.

Stephen Robinson said...

I think no one has brought up the "spectre of political correctness" because it doesn't apply to what's happened.

Humor changes over time. Stephen Colbert's show would have been cancelled in a few weeks ( if it ever aired ) 40 or 50 years ago.

And in these "free-wheeling" non-PC days, you might have had more jokes at the expense of women, gays, or minorities, but those groups had little to no voice and fewer entertainment options. But you also wouldn't have seen jokes at the expense of religion or patriotism, for instance. There were always standards -- it's just that the audience is more inclusive,

Look at MODERN FAMILY -- there's a lot of ethnic, gay, and gender humor, but I think the difference -- to quote a schoolyard saying -- is that we're laughing *with* these groups rather than at them.

Michael said...

Has no one who reads this blog ever seen "Corner Gas"? Sure, it's Canadian, but it's hilarious and, if you grew up in a rural area like me, very true-to-life. It comes at comedy from every angle: character, jokes, references, you name it. I watch it on DVD at least twice a week. I'm always disappointed that no one else seems to have watched it.

XJill said...

Brooklyn 99 and Blackish make me laugh consistently. Also Bob's Burgers but I'm guessing that doesn't count for this discussion.

Ken - have you asked your kids what comedies they watch and enjoy? I can't imagine they'd say "none!"