Monday, May 19, 2014

The current state of network comedies

Now that the Upfronts are over and the networks have announced their fall schedules we can assess the state of comedy. In short: not too good. After a resurgence for a few years due to the success of BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY, the networks are cutting back this fall.

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.
CBS picked up THE ODD COUPLE, a long established premise starring Matthew Perry – talk about hedging your bet.   And they’re not even premiering it in the fall.

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."  


Bill Jones said...

Ken--potential Friday question that ties in with today's post. Have you read Tom Lennon's and Robert Ben Garant's book "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit"? It's basically all about how to write schlocky movies for studios that request schlocky movies--and to great, multi-million (or -billion) dollar success.

If you have read the book, I was wondering if you could comment on it and whether it's on track in terms of advice to aspiring writers for movies and television. If not, there's still a question. They say that the reason there are so many mediocre movies is because the goal of a studio executive is simple: to not get fired. So that means executives rarely deviate from the norm and instead choose the safe, tried-and-true option. (1) Do you think this applies in the TV sphere as well, (2) does it explain the moves that you describe in today's post, and (3) was it really ever different in previous decades?

Kate said...

I always want to like Matthew Perry shows. Or, at least I want to watch them. Or at least watch it once. But it always seems to be a night and time I'm watching something else, and I forget to dvr it. Thomas Lennon is great, especially in smaller, scene-stealing roles. They could make a funny show together, but I'm not sure that bringing back the Odd Couple, a franchise that was a bit stale before I was born, is the right premise.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Kate, not sure what year you were born, but THE ODD COUPLE idea and "franchise", as you put it, is one of the great ones in the annals of comedy. Matthau and Lemmon in the film version, Klugman and Randall in the TV version. Stale? Maybe, if you consider the Judd Apatow / Seth MacFarlane school of comedy good or trailblazing.

Bill Jones said...

Whoa. When I wrote my comment above, I had no idea that Tom Lennon was the guy cast opposite Matthew Perry in the Odd Couple. Totally coincidental. Think I'll go play the lottery now.

ScottyB said...

Along with NBC's "must see TV" slogan, remember when ABC had one back in the '70s? It was "still the one", set to the tune of the popular and catchy Orleans song by the same name. Man, I miss the '70s and '80s. I don't have cable TV, so I can way relate to Ken's previous blog entry about the oodles of money the networks would spend on huge promo campaigns toward the end of summer on their upcoming fall shows. It was an event, man. Now ... nothing. And judging by the shows being slotted for fall -- and Ken's post today -- that's probably a good thing. Maybe the networks really do deserve to die. Or maybe there's some deep dark network suicide conspiracy to force everyone to pay $100+/month for cable. Wouldn't surprise me.

Stoney said...

This is not the first reboot of "The Odd Couple". Anyone remember the one with Demond Wilson and Ron Glass? (Although "reboot" was not the term used in 1982.)

Seems to me there once was a comedy about astronauts in the sixties. In the pilot, one of them landed on an island and found a decorative bottle.

Where you gone Norman Lear? Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you! (Well...not really!)

ScottyB said...

An 'Odd Couple' re-do? I personally find Matthew Perry likeable, but jeez, is it even *possible* to remake a sitcom that was basically perfect the first time around? Yeah, you could *try* to remake Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' or Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird', but it'll never come anywhere close to the original no matter how "fresh" you want to make it.

ScottyB said...

@Stoney: 'I Dream of Jeannie' aside, there actually was a '60s sitcom involving astronauts. That show was 'It's About Time'. Imogene Coca was in it.

Something goes haywire and some astronauts find themselves having to live among prehistoric cavemen. Hilarity was supposed to ensue, but, it was a Sherwood Schwartz creation, and if you've seen one 'Gilligan's Island' production, you've pretty much seen them all.

AlaskaRay said...

I happen to like pastrami ice cream, especially if you mix in a few M&Ms.

Ben Kubelsky said...

Whenever someone trots out "market research" and "audience testing," I trot out MY handy list of the following shows... Seinfeld, Star Trek, The Simpsons, Hill Street Blues, Saturday Night Live and I Love Lucy. "Audience testing" determined, to varying degrees, that these shows were going to flop! And let's not forget the list of shows in which the network geniuses initially had little faith... many of these shows were cast-off pilots, or were even cancelled-and-revived: Barney Miller, Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, Police Squad, Happy Days, the Dick Van Dyke Show, Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Cheers, MASH and even 1970-75 The Odd Couple (which will be tough to improve on)

Anonymous said...

Fox had a winner in Enlisted -- funny cast, funny scripts, heart tugs mixed in with care -- yet treated the show like a leper. I guess by your measure it wasn't safe enough. Pity because is rather watch Enlisted for 10 years than the next "five or six friends in their mid-20s have wacky times in New York."

Jason said...

There's a (somewhat dated) expression from the business world.. "Nobody ever got fired for buying from IBM."

s said...

Just viewed the "Galavant" trailer and:

The lead actor kinda resembles Hugh Jackman in "Les Miserables" but sings better.

Times must be tough for composer Alan Menken to allow himself to be roped into this.

Oh yeah; spitting out food is funny and original! Pffft!

Ooohh, ahhh, big sets and colorful costumes. I'm impressed! Pffft!

I did not laugh and have no burning desire to see this show!

Bruce Miller said...

All I needed to see was the title "Selfies" and I was forced to gasp just a bit. Without knowing anything about this pilot, all I could picture is the companion shows "texting" and Photobomb". It seems that someone will always jump on the current pop culture craze and think it will prove successful as a sitcom. How did "frasier" ever make it to air? Sorry for the snark, but I could write a book...

ScottyB said...

@BruceMiller: 'Shit My Dad Says' is a stellar example of a stellar pop-culture failure, and it shows how far the networks have their heads up their ass, all the way up to their elbows. I didn't just gasp a bit when I read about 'Selfies' -- I gagged. I'm avoiding that show just on general principle.

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

Great post, but I take issue with the notion that “politically correct” is a "dirty word in comedy". M*A*S*H, CHEERS, FRASIER, TAXI, THE SIMPSONS, SEINFELD, WINGS, ALMOST PERFECT... they're all politically correct. (Except that one episode of SEINFELD where they burned the Puerto Rican flag, I guess.)

Even IT'S ALWAY SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA is staunchly (and very carefully) politically correct.


On the other hand, TRACY MORGAN'S bit about how he'd murder his own son if it turned out he was gay, or MICHAEL RICHARD'S infamous racist rant, are examples of comedy that's "politically incorrect".

Comedy writers should strive harder than playing to (and reinforcing) lazy, negative stereotypes for the sake of a joke -- and judging by your body of work, I feel positive that you agree.

You say that, like being "safe" good comedy doesn't come out of being "politically correct" -- when actually, given the examples above, it's clearly the opposite.

ScottyB said...

Ken's post has so many response possibilities today. Reading it, it makes me wonder: Is there really *any* major TV landscape today -- either cable or network -- that might be considered a decent breeding ground for *highly notable* sitcom?

There's always a singular example that punches thru on the Big 3 networks and Fox from time to time, but like 'Cheers', I'm willing to bet ABC was thinking twice about 'Modern Family' and even 'The Middle' the first season, too.

Cable? Outside of maybe 'Hot In Cleveland', it's strength seems to be primarily killer dramas, not adult sitcoms (which kinda doesn't include the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon).

The networks say "comedy is hard". It's really not all *that* hard, as Ken points out, and that there's a pretty simple way to fix it. It just becomes practically impossible when you go surrounding every single thing with a zillion layers of bullshit that pretty much makes your existence irrelevant.

Donal Lardner Ward said...

I would add one more to the list of things that make comedy "hard" for the networks: the increasing reliance on the overly-structured, canned pitch. The execs have all read the hot structure book of the year, Find The Cat, or whatever, attended a couple of structure seminars, and pick writers who have been weaned on the same story dogma. They're more likely to hire someone who can spit their own notes jargon back at them in pitch form. There's also an expectation that the pitch should encompass everything there is to know about 100 episodes of the show. I've got news for you, if you know everything there is to know about your show at the pitch stage, your show is going to suck. It all becomes very paint by numbers. A better strategy would be to bet on original voices and ideas and let good shows evolve through the creative process. But if there's one thing that terrifies studio and network executives, its the creative process.

ScottyB said...

@JohnnyWalker: I'm not sure about that. Micheal Richards' and Tracy Morgan's rants were certainly comedians being politically incorrect, but I'm not sure they qualified as "comedy". A good similar example was Roseanne Barr. I saw a performance of hers (we got free tickets, which was the only reason we went) during the early '90s when 'Roseanne' was big, and it was basically an hour of her personal bitch and rant. That wasn't comedy.

OTOH, we have Louis CK, whose show tackles very PC stuff in a very funny way. 'Seinfeld' did that as well, but not to the extent Louis pulls it off so veryvery often. 'Seinfeld' did it for the easy laughs; Louis seems to go for laughs that come with his spot-on social commentary.

The networks wouldn't touch 'Louis' with a 10-foot pole. Which is why they've been a morass of crap for so long.

ScottyB said...

For me, the networks are like TV-commercial ad agencies: A bunch of old white guys like 8 years behind the curve scrambling for their jobs to seem relevant and justify their existence.

This is why we get TV commercials for a breakfast cereal where a cartoon bee raps and gets Autotuned.

MikeN said...

>partly because there are no shows on NBC that are must see, and because their comedy cupboard is now pretty bare.

And partly because writers repeat the same thing over and over, instead of being efficient like David Mamet said.

MikeN said...

I think Matthew Perry will be a hit in this show, since it looks like it's just a spinoff of Friends.

CRL said...

Joey sez hi, MikeN.....

Johnny Walker said...

@ScottyB They may not be the best examples, true (I don't know the comedians to mention to an American audience -- I could list the British ones, though). That said, people paid to go watch a comedian, and that was what they got... The fact that it wasn't funny or entertaining, when I'm sure everyone (including Roseanne) intended it to be, sort of proves my point :) (Maybe.)

I'm sure there were some people in the audience who thought Morgan's comments were spot on, and would happily go watch a comedian spout that kind of rhetoric all the time (and probably do). Same goes for Richards's rant.

But I do know what you're saying: Those instances seem to be more hate than comedy. The thing is, when there's a target you might agree with (like in a George Carlin rant, for example), such angry comedy can be very funny.

Either way, I'm sure I could post examples of politically incorrect "jokes"... But why would I want to insult anyone? Or upset Ken by posting something offensive? Political incorrectness may sound cool, but I do believe that, when it comes down to it, it's damned ugly.

(Imagine an episode of CHEERS where Diane crashed her car... because she's woman driver, and we all know women can't drive. The following week she gets a lift with Carla -- who then does the same. Sam convinces both women decide to get the bus to work, and leave driving to men. They're just better at it, after all. Except come Monday both women are late again. They had another crash. Yes, they took the bus... but their driver was a woman! That's politically incorrect, and it's also horrible, and would only be funny to someone who actually believed in the aforementioned stereotype. I bet there are plenty of forgotten sitcoms from years past that actually had storylines like that.)

(Sidenote: Yes, it's true. The character from CHEERS I'm most like is Diane... can't you imagine her having this discussion with the guys in the bar?!)

benson said...


Yes. But. Grant Tinker was an old white guy.

Who's (What's) really disappointing here is TV Land. If it is indeed the bastion of adult targeted television, then why aren't they giving us the next Cheers, Seinfeld, Barney Miller, Night Court, or Wings. Hot in Cleveland is okay, it's no Cheers or Frasier. And the rest of the shows are the same. Fran Drescher? Kirstie Alley? No.

Blaine said...

I want to also say that I thought Enlisted was a good comedy--actually made me laugh right out loud--which hardly ever happens. I often get distracted during commercials (computer, talking to somebody) and forget a show is even on--happens all the time with Big Bang Theory. But with Enlisted, I was all in. And the show seemed to fly by. I think it could have found a big audience on another network if it was in a better time slot. I hope another network gives it a better shot.

Actually, Enlisted is the first comedy in several years I've actually looked forward to watching. I love sitcoms. I do--it's what I grew up on. And it's still what I watch most of the time, but only on DVD or on "Antenna TV." Enlisted was like my favorite show, WKRP, with lots of unique characters that you can root for.

I try to watch lots of comedies on regular and cable networks. Sometimes I can "see" what they're trying to do like Community or 30 Rock, but it's like seeing a puppeteer's strings--I'm always aware that it's a show with a point of view or certain style--they have a "See what I can do" or "Look how clever I am" quality. I just want to hang out with characters I like--which is why I was never really a big Seinfeld person--really didn't like the characters.

Louie is an interesting show to me sometimes. But I feel like it's called a comedy just because of Louis CK and it's a half-hour, but otherwise it's a drama or dramedy at best. It has never really made me laugh. I don't think it's funny--it often addresses things not generally talked about in polite society. It's also a show that I can "see" what it's doing and I'm aware of it, and so I don't really forget I'm watching something and get lost in it the way you do when you read a good book or watch a fun show.

And then there's stuff like 2 Broke Girls which is just terrible. Or Brooklyn 99 which I sort of like but found the main character to be really glaringly unfunny and just boring. I always started singing which of these kids is doing his own thing? Come on can you tell which one? And the ubiquitous Family Guy--not for me.

I also think shows have a shelf-life. Particularly comedies--get out after 6 or 7 seasons at most. Big Bang Theory--which I like a lot for a while-- is not that funny to me anymore and hasn't been for the last three years or so. In my family, we all get excited when someone says an episode was actually funny and worth a watch, because we don't really make the effort anymore.

Finally, I think NBC needs to get away from the SNL well.

And nope, nobody is clamoring for and Odd Couple re-make.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but I take issue with the notion that “politically correct” is a "dirty word in comedy". M*A*S*H, CHEERS, FRASIER, TAXI, THE SIMPSONS, SEINFELD, WINGS, ALMOST PERFECT... they're all politically correct. (Except that one episode of SEINFELD where they burned the Puerto Rican flag, I guess.)

The art of comedy is about exploring the human condition, not to present it wrapped in a nice little bow of political dogma. You can't say Seinfeld was politically correct. The show wasn't political to begin with. It was basically an exploration of the human condition based on the relationship of those characters. The Puerto Rican day snafu was based on the fact that every year, NYC had to go to lockdown to cope with widespread crime-robberies and sexual assaults-that would occur each and every year on Puerto Rican day. It was part of the human condition of living in NYC, and having the city hijacked one day a year. The fact that it inadvertently crossed the line of political correctness came after the fact.

MASH the movie wasn't considered politically correct when the movie came out. That came later, in the television series.

On another tack, the original "Daily Show," though it's creators were hardcore liberals, was not that politically correct, and I thought the show was brilliant. They generally dished it out to both sides, intent of creating good satire, which they did. John Stewart's version is hardcore politically correct, and I find it unwatchable.

What is meant by "politically correct" is kowtowing to a certain political party. That is anathema to comedy in general and art in particular. Anyone trying to defend the position that political correctness, which is what we would call the status quo, belongs in either is selling something.

Comedy doesn't function well in that context.

Anonymous said...

Yikes. I didn't put the first paragraph in quotes attributed to Johnny Walker in the prior post.

Rob said...

Short on comedies? Someone could pick up "Surviving Jack" and "Enlisted" - shows that people actually cared about. I don't know anyone who cares about "The Millers" or "2 Broke Girls" or "Last Man Standing".

Karl said...

Willing to give Galavant a chance for the inclusion of Timothy Omundson as the Evil King Richard and the possibility of a Mel Brooks-type musical brought to series television.

Also, I'm surprised CBS didn't give The Crazy Ones a second season. Produced by David Kelley, based on a best seller, starring an ensemble cast headed by Robin Williams. It wasn't always fantastic, but at its lowest it was still decent which is more than I can say for a lot of shows that were picked up.

Unknown said...

So many factors have brought us to this state of network comedies over the last 20-30 years. They all can be disected for their own impact and also how they collectively have made an impact. Just a few examples:
- FCC changes so networks can own shows. Networks made money on selling advertising. Still do, but now they can make money on shows/syndication fees. Shows created to the target market for ad sales, instead of quality programming. They don't need big rating numbers, just the right amount of the "right demographic" numbers
- Cable Networks - taking eyeballs away from the old big 3 networks. More need on cable for specialized programs that are cheaper to make than sitcoms - yet deliver the audience for ads.
- Target TV audience for ads is 18-40 (or some similar range). Networks want shows with young people, written by young people, and the TV execs are young people.

This has really been this way all along though hasn't it? Ken and David were in their 20's to start. The 1960's shows had writers in their early 30's. The classic episodes of our favorite sitcoms are usually based on a real event that happened to one of the writers. Very few of these types of story lines in today's comedies.

It's just a shame that family centered comedies fell into the dumb, slob husband, shrill wife, one dumb kid,one smart kid, vile grandfather and nagging, bossy grandmother. Kooky neighbors, out of touch boss, etc.

Those characters exist in real life, but not every single family.

Character and situation driven comedy works best when you have a likeable, realistic cast and relatable situations that have clever twists and yes, can include occasional unrealistic dialogue if it is what many people wish they could say or do in similar situations.

Now the question is will companies buy ads for that type of show? Network execs currently don't think so. Thus we get what is broadcast today.

The $40 billion dollar mergers will not help the situation.

I see more hope in the crowdfunding area where people like Ken and David raise funds from fans (some of whom have wealth). Ken & David put together a cast they like, writers they trust, and create web based shows. Those shows get recognized by word of mouth/social media and then get picked up by broadcast networks.

The Levine's of the world in effect create their own channels online that attract advertisers.

YouTube approaches videos that are getting a high number of views and place ads on them and split revenue with the owner. Some web based episodes from established writing teams can break through this way.

A Levine & Isaacs show, a Phoef Sutton project, or Jennifer Crittenden driven show could be launched this way. Network execs would have to try to capture a web series that is already generating ad revenue. There may be money, and subsequently, a future business model in some form here.

Oops, there I go with too much of a point of view...

Mike said...

Could it be that the stratification of America is preventing screenwriters from being in touch with the audience? Higher prices in the cities, pushing families out to the suburbs, while the screenwriters live in hip neighborhoods.

James said...

Just turn the laugh track up and people will think it's funny.

VP81955 said...

No one has mentioned "Mom," which is quietly terrific and has plenty of heart. Give it a try.

Bruce Kimmel said...

Oh, Mr. Hollywood, you seem to think that The Odd Couple idea and "franchise" was somehow born in the film version with Matthau and Lemmon? Did we somehow forget the play that began it all, you know, the one with Matthau and Art Carney, directed by the brilliant Mike Nichols? Just saying.

PolyWogg said...

I've often wondered if there is higher risk associated with half-hours shows. The normal logic is lower cost, lower investment, lower risk. But the reality is you also have to have ANOTHER half-hour show to back-end it that is decent. Kind of like a "triple or home run" followed by at least a "double" -- a bunt or single won't do.

Meanwhile, you can program hour long dramas and if they don't work, well, you might stay for awhile, but you can always throw other dramas in there.

I'd love to see stats on success rates for comedy over a percentage, it often seems to me like comedies stay on longer to flesh out the hour, but don't make it to renewal; dramas get killed fast or stand a good chance of renewal?

Anonymous said...

@ PollyWogg - In the past (or present for those of us with just an antenna), what you are saying is certainly the case. I often don't watch 1/2 hour shows because the companion show isn't worth it. I'm pretty sure that Mike & Molly was the reason I quit watching HIMYM years ago. OTOH, it can also launch a show. BBT certainly got its share of eyeballs because it followed 2.5 Men at the beginning. If I had a DVR I wouldn't worry about such things, and would also never watch a show because I happened across it.

Ken FQ - and let me say beforehand that this is not meant it any derogatory way. I have started to ask this before, but it always (including this time) comes out sounding less than kind, which isn't my intention. I've decided to just preface it instead of deleting the question.
Are you actively writing or attempting to write for TV / movies anymore? Your last non-interview IMDB credit is 10 years ago. Are you just working uncredited, or pitching and failing, or are you retired or semi-retired from scriptwriting / directing / producing to concentrate on books and blogs? Are you turning down opportunities, or have they dried up? I can see at some point in everyones life not wanting to work the hours required to be on staff or running the staff, so turning those down makes sense. I would think that an occasional directing job would be there if you wanted it, but maybe the age bias, or just out of sight out of mind kills that?


Christopher Antonucci said...

Ken, would you say the problem with network comedies today is that networks don't let them grow? It seems to me networks don't let comedies find their voice. They want a FRIENDS, a hit right away. Instead, they'll cancel a show after its first season or not even having a show last a season.

I know it was a different time than today but look at CHEERS and SEINFELD. CHEERS was ranked last in its first season and SEINFELD had a poor test pilot and now look at them: arguably the two best comedy shows of all time. To me, I think it's all about growth and letting these shows find their voice and momentum.

chuckcd said...

Hmmm. Ithought Matthew Perry would play Felix...