Thursday, September 29, 2016
I’m teaching another graduate television comedy writing seminar at UCLA. I have eight super-bright students. They’re all funny and extremely passionate about the business. They know every show on every platform. And they watch inordinate amounts of television (although rarely on their TV’s). The fact that a series is on some relatively obscure streaming service makes it just as accessible to them as if it were on NBC.
I began a discussion about which current sitcoms did they like? The results were eye-opening. There was little or no consensus on anything. Two people would love a certain show; three others would hate it. This was true for almost every show that was mentioned.
Comedy has become so niche that’s it hard to build a large following even among the desired audience.
On the one hand I applaud that creators are not trying to program to the lowest common denominator. They’re willing to take creative chances even if it means alienating a certain portion of the population.
But on the other, shouldn’t there be some middle ground? Shouldn’t there be some comedies that appeal to a broad base of Millennials? You might say, well, that’s what the broadcast networks are providing. But rarely in the conversation with my students was a network comedy even mentioned. BIG BANG THEORY was acknowledged as was THE GOOD PLACE (which many had sampled and had split opinions). But not MODERN FAMILY, BLACKISH, THE GOLDBERGS, LIFE IN PIECES, 2 BROKE GIRLS, CARMICHAEL, SUPER STORE, MOM, etc.
The viewers that networks are chasing are the viewers that have abandoned them. Clearly this year networks are trying to go more quirky, but it feels desperate, like they’re shooting wildly at a moving target.
So can it be done? Can you mount a series that is contemporary and attracts a large following? Do you have to settle for small but loyal audiences? Are Millennials even capable of agreeing on anything?
The answer of course is YES. What’s the most popular sitcom currently in syndication – not just in the US but around the world? It’s not even close. FRIENDS. Could there be a more retro multi-camera 20 year-old show than that? And yet, the reruns remain insanely popular. The group did have consensus on FRIENDS. And ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. And (of all things) GOLDEN GIRLS.
I guess what I’m saying is that making your new show too niche could be a trap. People still want to laugh. Yes, even Millennials. Maybe the way to reach them is not some bizarre edgy show that breaks all the rules but appeals to .000001 of the population. Maybe the key is to go back to the essence of what made those iconic shows work. Genuinely caring about the characters and their predicaments. Placing a high priority on making the show actually funny. Dealing with universal relatable issues and themes.
Hey, it couldn’t hurt. The industry is trying everything else.
Until eight whip-smart funny graduate students can agree on a show I think there’s work still to be done.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM