Monday, May 10, 2010

A look at this year's comedy pilots

It’s pilot season, which is like duck hunting season except not as humane. The networks are putting together their fall schedules and all the pilots they developed and shot are being tested, considered, and re-tooled. It’s far from a perfect system but no one’s come up with a better one. A few years ago Jeff Zucker, the “visionary” who turned NBC into the number four network from the number one network, decided to just do away with pilot season. The result: NBC had no new hit shows that year and the practice was reinstated. How this man keeps his job I have no fucking idea.

The word is this may be the year that comedy makes its big comeback. The networks are reportedly very high on a lot of their comedy contenders.

NBC just picked up a pilot called OUTSOURCED about an American company that outsources a lot of jobs to India. I can't imagine they will ever top the joke in Albert Brook's FINDING COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD when they go to a call center in India and one of the operators says, "Good morning, the White House". But at least it's different.

Chuck Lorre has a pilot for CBS about a fat couple. All the Norm jokes we couldn't use on CHEERS because they were insensitive and offensive will probably find their way into this show by episode three. But at least it's not PC.

Otherwise it seems like most everything else is a version of MODERN FAMILY (large dysfunctional inter-connected family units) or HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER (various combinations of young people going out in the world trying to hook up with other young people going out in the world). Here are just a few examples of the HIMYM theme:

CBS – True Love: Minka Kelly and Ashley Austin Morris star in this comedy about four friends from New York. Multi-Camera.

FOX – Traffic Light: Israeli theme dealing with three men in love. Single Camera.

NBC – Friends with Benefits: Five friends look for their perfect partner in this rom-comedy though until they find that special someone they decide to settle for friendship with benefits.

NBC – Perfect Couples: Rom-com following three couples in various relationship stages. Single camera.

You get the idea.

I have not read any of this year’s pilots. I used to. I would ask my agent and two hours later a big Xerox box would arrive with fifty scripts. Now agencies just email files or distribute thumb drives that contain them all. I stopped requesting them because it was too depressing.

But a show that might appear really pedestrian could be fresh and original and inspired if the right people are behind it. There may be some hidden treasures here; I haven't read 'em or seen 'em so I don't know.

A word about pilot premises: networks always claim they’re at the mercy of the ideas that writers bring to them. That’s not true. They decide which writers to see and they determine at the outset what themes they’re looking for. Networks meet with major literary agencies before pilot season and relate their needs. That info gets passed along to clients and result is two hundred writers essentially bringing in the same pitch.

A few years ago LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was a surprise hit at the boxoffice. That pilot season there were fifteen bastardized versions of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – large dysfunctional family with wacky grandfather/grandmother/uncle/second cousin.

We once had a pilot for Fox that was very upscale urban. They ultimately passed, saying it was “too NBC”. One of the development people moved over to NBC and brought us in to develop it there. At the time her marching orders were slick sophisticated multi-camera shows that harkened back to NBC’s “Must See TV” glory years. We did a rewrite of the script, they loved loved loved it, and then MY NAME IS EARL premiered and was a hit. Suddenly the word came from on high – no urban multi-camera comedies. Only rural single-camera comedies. Our project was dead.

So needs can change right in the middle of the game.

Which shows will get picked up? Who knows? It changes from hour to hour. A pilot that has heat one day is dead the next. A show no one liked tested through the roof and is on the schedule. However, if I had to guess based purely on the buzz I'm hearing I’d say these two pilots get ordered: BEACH LANE and MR. SUNSHINE. One stars Matthew Broderick, the other stars Matthew Perry.

Oh, that’s the other theme this year: stars named Matthew.


Sally creeping down the alley said...

Gotta ask. In Traffic Light are the three men in love with each other? And are they all Israeli? The show would be far more interesting if each man was: an Israeli, a Muslim, a Christian...

Endless possibilities in comedy with that set up.

Nathan said...

No Sally. It's another Rom-Com...sorta "24" meets "The Mod Squad" meets "Moonlighting" meets "Get Smart". Sacha Baron Cohen plays the Barbara Feldon part.

Question Mark said...

I've never quite understood the 'this is an NBC kind of show' thinking. Shouldn't the ideal network have a variety of shows that appeal to a wide range of viewers? I can understand the logic of CBS more or less rebranding themselves as the 'old person network' of procedurals since it pays off big in the ratings for them, but wouldn't it make more sense to be like HBO? They air all kinds of different shows but their only overarching network theme is "this show will probably be awesome."

Pat Reeder said...

Sally said...

"The show would be far more interesting if each man was: an Israeli, a Muslim, a Christian...Endless possibilities in comedy with that set up."

Especially if every week, they walked into a bar...called Cheers.

Todd said...

The notion that the networks are at the mercy of the ideas writers bring them is so laughable I have to add that, in my experience (including most of the writer friends I know in the business) the VAST majority of pilot ideas that are developed ORIGINATE at the network, and are then farmed out to more-then-willing scribes.

And the monkey-see monkey-do attitude is so pervasive, I'm surprised CBS hasn't given Chuck Lorre 13 on the air for "THE BIG MATT THEORY".


Brian said...

Please, please, networks (if any network people read this blog), no more comedies about disfunctional families with half gay male children. What you need is a premise like in "My Name is Earl", or something wacky like bringing the Stephanie Plum novels to TV or a golf pro who moonlights as a private eye (OK, I read that in a book). Think fresh.

Anonymous said...

Why not just re-make old sitcoms?

Hollywood is "re-booting" old movies at a feverish pace. Broadway is blooming with yesterday's hits. And TV regularly retools classic Sci-Fi shows (Battlestar Galactica, V, The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner...) So why not sit-coms? How has nobody thought of this yet?! I should be running a studio!

Dear network executives, you're welcome!


Anthony Strand said...

Liam -

I think they should remake all the classics of the past - The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld - and keep the titles the same.

BigTed said...

It's awfully hard to imagine Minka Kelly having any romantic problems, other than too many choices.

Dana Gabbard said...

I'm reminded of a phrase I first heard year ago in re TV: everyone wants to be first to be second. Even though some of the biggest sucesses broke rules (think House or CSI or Desperate Housewives or Lost) the system rewards not taking risks. Even though the casualty rate on imitations is high (think of all the Friends retreads that bombed).

gottacook said...

"Why not just re-make old sitcoms?" The one previous instance of this that I recall - ABC's THE NEW ODD COUPLE in the early 1980s, with Ron Glass and Demond Wilson - had the smell of desperation about it, or so it seemed to me when I sampled it at the time.

Also: FRASIER proved that when good creative decisions are made, sequel series can be successful in their own right. (At this point, many people probably have seen and appreciated FRASIER without being familiar with CHEERS.) An AFTERMASH featuring Stiers' Winchester character similarly might have worked.

Mike McCann said...

I wonder if the Minka Kelly pilot carries any promise that her soon-to-be husband, a the guy who sells Gillette razors, will make guest appearances during the November and February sweeps.

Or there'll be a dream sequence with a World Series-theme....

gih said...

Haha, the duck hunter.. oh, such a poor ducks.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the Israeli theme part either -- unless someone is ponying up the money as there is big Brand Israel funding for movies, maybe it goes to television too. It didn't do wonders for comedy so far - mossad agent hairdresser anyone?

But really, Sacha Baron Cohen needs to do a sitcom??

joe said...

My theory: Jeff Zucker has -- ahem -- "pictures of people."

Rich D said...

Didn't Patton Oswald walk off of BEACH LANE after the table read

TomH said...

Yeah, it's nuts. I once saw a show where a network exec complained that writers bring them nothing but the same old ideas. And I could only think, Yeah, because that's what you ASK for. What do you expect?

Everything that's ever been very successful - be it TV, movie, or music - has stood out from the crowd as something very different. Then the execs try to copy it 100 times over, which is the exact *opposite* point they should learn from it.

If I were a network exec, I'd find a subgenre that wasn't being exploited right now and do that instead. How about a wacky alien sitcom? Nobody's done one of those for years.

It would stand out nicely from all the attractive, narcisstic young people endlessly obsessed with their dating lives.