Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why have there not been any hit sitcoms over the last few years?

There was a big front page article in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago on the state of sitcoms. The article accurately points out that sitcoms remain TV’s cash cow. They cost less to produce than one-hours, they do well in reruns and syndication, and cable networks rely on them to hold up their schedules.

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.
6.   Another trend I see is networks hiring actors and inexperienced writers to write pilots. Pilot writing is a fucking art. Very few can do it well. Even writers who can churn out good episodes fall short when they have to step up to the demands of a pilot. So big surprise when an actor the network likes turns in an amateurish draft. Hire writers who can deliver for you. Of course the problem here is that networks avoid many of them became they’re no longer 25, and writers who are in demand would rather explore cable networks or other delivery systems where there is at least the potential of more freedom.

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?


Ben Kubelsky said...

Well said! I'm sure you'll get many flames for sounding like a cranky old man, but I think you're dead on-- and I'm in my early 30s

nerkul said...

You lost me at "Modern Family and Big Bang Theory are funny".

John said...

Every sitcom for the past several years seems as if some network executive looked at a Saturday Night Live sketch -- not the good ones, they ones they bury in the post 12:30 a.m. spots -- and decided it was somehow hip and quirky enough to appeal to the 18-34 crowd. So where you used to have meddling network executives trying to fark up sitcoms from staffs that had a track record of making successful shows, now you have them farking up shows that are, at best, one-note premises or shows based entirely on shock value, which have nothing to offer in terms of funny once the shock aspect becomes familiar and boring.

Andrew Parker said...

It seems like the best comedy shows -- e.g. Veep and Silicon Valley -- are aimed towards a more sophisticated niche audience. They're primarily satires.

Meanwhile network shows pander to the least sophisticated and broadest possible audience with shows that get insanely repetitive over 22 episodes.

Maybe we need shorter seasons like the UK?

J.K. Hyde said...

I've developed a system called the airplane test. I often end up flying coach on a long trip where the batteries of your electronics can't last and you have to succumb to whatever entertainment's available on the seatback screen (if there is one.) Those systems usually either broadcast TV or VOD, and in both cases there's often only reruns available. I've found that I would rather sit and stare in silence than compound in-flight misery with a bad sitcom. It's a great place to catch up on some I've missed, and there's only one new one that's passed this test in recent months: "Mom."

Anonymous said...


You should listen to Stephen Falk on Andy Greenwald's Grantland podcast. He explains the pain of being a showrunner on a sitcom today. It sounds brutal.

Or you could read his blog post about the Dane Cook sitcom that never aired even though they shot 4 episodes.

His new show, You're the Worst is very funny. It is strictly for cable.

J. Allison said...

Lots of good points, but especially (2). Creative people need space to be creative. Squashing that creativity with micromanagement is not a strategy for success.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Plus the big farting elephant in the room, commercials. I can dvr something to fast-forward over the ads, but even then, gunning the cable box's motor for such long stretches makes watching a sitcom more like picking the bacon out of a shit salad.
See? I made myself incoherent with rage. Back to bed...

Curt Alliaume said...

I think it's cyclical. There was a huge article in TV Guide in early 1982 proclaiming the genre was dying out - which was another way of saying no recent hits had been introduced. And we all know what happened over the next few years.

There's a pretty good AV Club article about sitcoms from that era, although some of the opinions are certainly open to debate:

Nancy said...

Your micromanaging point is dead on I think. Case in point -- remunerated seat-fillers in the 'live' audience? If you get this gig, you're officially hired as an "Audience Model." Granted, you're probably way up in the cheap rows -- jobbing LA performer-hopefuls (cue right age demo...) are ringers that are paid to ensure the capacity audience for the live pilot/episode shoot @ minimum wage.

We're a long way from those man-in-the-street test screenings in Huntington Park.

Marianne said...

Friday question: Hi Ken! What exactly makes a really solid and funny pilot? It's quite astounding that writers can (sometimes) achieve this, it sounds like it's an incredibly difficult task!

Chris Juricich said...

I live Big Bang but find modern family annoying, so go figure. Not sure what the difference between single-cam and multi-cam implies to the production of a sitcom. Cost?

VP81955 said...

Glad you also like "Mom," J.K. -- and it's appropriate to note here that its first season has just been issued on DVD, for anyone who wants to catch up on the backstory before season 2 starts next Monday night.

Of course, it helps that "Mom" is run by Chuck Lorre, whose clout and track record (particularly with CBS) enables him to shepherd a series to fruition with minimal interference. (For example, CBS thankfully didn't force him to copy the broad humor that marks Lorre stablemates "The Big Bang Theory" or "Mike And Molly.")

CBS won't get a "Big Bang"?"Cosby" megahit out of "Mom" (though it's nice to see the network give it a push), but it should be a reliable part of its lineup for several years. (Heck, even Andrew Parker might like it once he gets over his sitcom snobbery.) It then will go to syndication, just as my other favorite current sitcom, "Hot In Cleveland" (manned by a batch of sitcom pros, both on-screen and off), is doing this fall.

Canda said...

When Network and Studio Executives brag about the hit shows they've developed, it usually means they didn't give enough bad notes to kill it, or that the writers who created it managed to make the Executives think they were following their notes, while actually doing what they wanted.

Ben Levine said...

"Everything in television was better when they still hired me!"

-Every post from Ken Levine

Igor said...

Say it ain't so, Ken. Say it ain't so.

Oh, but it is. Ken Levine today says that "ironic" means nothing more than "off-beat".

I suppose it was inevitable. Both Ken and Alanis Morissette have full, dark hair.

This ain't the death of irony, but it is one more spike in the coffin of the word "irony".

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

" I do have a certain familiarity with the subject."

Love that line. So beautifully understated.

Production-by-committee seems to work great for car building or airplane manufacturing. Storytelling, not so much.

It seems that betting on the success of a pilot is a poor financial risk. However, more curious is why the networks place their bets on a creative process-by-committee, which almost guarantees failure, rather than on the vision of a leader with a proven track record of entertainment success.

When I'm king, things will be different...

Anonymous said...

What is the difference between a single camera and multi camera show. From a laymen's point of view I have no clue.

Johnny Walker said...

Well said.

From the outside it appears that networks are happy to base their decisions on next-to-no data. If something is a hit, they copy it at a face value. If something is a failure, they avoid its most obvious traits.

If GOLDEN GIRLS was a surprise hit today, it's hard not to imagine that there'd be a sudden slue of postmenopausal women on TV -- because clearly that's what the public would want. The thing that made GOLDEN GIRLS a hit is the fact that it contained women of retirement age. Not the fact that it was funny, entertaining, or different(!). It's the old ladies -- people love old ladies.

Instead it was FRIENDS that last hit BIG. So clearly everyone wants to see young, attractive 20-somethings.

Likewise, after a few years where no multi-camera sitcoms connected with audiences in a big way, Hollywood declared the genre dead. Not because the shows weren't funny, entertaining or different... it was because of the number of cameras they used.

In his famous impassioned acceptance speech, Kevin Spacey made the excellent point that people just want to watch GOOD CONTENT. These days they don't even care if it's on their computer, never mind how many cameras were used to film it. Funny is funny. Entertaining is entertaining. The rest is window dressing.

In fairness, I'd bet a lot of these decisions are actually based on as much market research that they can muster. It makes sense to try and make decisions based on data. But the problem with market research is that it's very easy to do badly. It's very easy to think you're hearing answers that aren't there.

According to market research THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and SEINFELD were both destined to be flops. According to market research even the iPhone was going to be a failure in the US. I'm sure there's countless other even better examples.

In CREATIVITY, INC., Pixar's Ed Catmull does a great job of explaining the sort of environment where quality content can be consistently produced. In Pixar's model, feedback doesn't just have its place, it's the core of how and why they've been so successful.

But it has to be done in the right way. The people giving notes on shows should be fellow creatives who understand the problems being faced. And the environment should be akin to doctors solving a complicated medical case: Those giving feedback are fellow doctors trying to help you solve your problem, but ultimately it's up to you how you use their advice.

The system in TV at the moment appears to be rife for usurping. As soon as the new content providers figure out that it's not just edgy content that people are looking for, I imagine that's exactly what's going to happen.

The next big sitcom could well come from Amazon, Netflix or Yahoo!

Jae said...

Friday question:
Hi Ken,
Any opinion on the new ABC sitcom, "Black-ish". Only the pilot has aired, but based off that one episode, it feels like every other bland, single camera comedy that just happens to be taking on topical themes. It seems as though critics latch onto that sole fact and are therefore calling this a "great" comedy along the lines of "The Cosby Show".

I just thought it wasn't terribly funny. Thoughts?


Jim S said...

I look at Marvel Studio Movies (Not SHIELD, that show is 15 years out of date). They've been knocking it out of the park. They made Captain America, a character from WW2, a bold challenger of 21st century drone warfare. They've got Thor, who has family issues. They've got Iron Man, who is about growing up and maybe even getting sober. They've got Guardians of the Galaxy, which features talking trees and racoons. They have the two biggest movies of the year.

And they have like 30 people on staff producing hugely popular, well made, intelligent movies that my parents can see without rolling their eyes and saying "comic book stuff at our age? No way."

You're right Ken, it's not science it's an art. And an MBA can't quantify art on computer.

On the other hand, NCIS gets 20 million people a week to watch it, and the best I can say is that it's a pleasant show that doesn't challenge or offend me in any way.

Anonymous said...

Two points:

1. The "Anonymous" poster who mentioned "You're The Worst" as being very funny is spot-on. But, its very biting humor and filled with adult language/themes so it wouldn't translate well to networks. Still, the leads are attractive-but-not-in-a-model-way and they can delivery funny & heartfelt with their faces or their voices.

2. "Enlisted" should be a case study for how a network can & will screw up a good thing. It is obvious despite buying the show FOX never gave it a chance. Airing episodes out of order (one week he has a steady girlfriend, the next week he meets her for the first time!), little promotion, and Dead Zone Friday night timeslot following dreck like "Rake."

I'm certainly biased (retired military) but I found the show very funny and yet also touching. The cast was on the same page from the pilot episode and there was no lack of potential storylines. Given the bafflingly huge numbers for stuff like the NCIS franchise it could & should have been a long-running, though likely modest, hit.

Anonymous said...

I agree with seems as though so much praise is being heaped upon Black-ish because a network sitcom focused entirely on a black family has been basically missing for a long time. I watched the pilot wanting to like it (mostly because it's fresh and different from all the other crap-ola on networks today, but also because I like many of the cast), but I didn't find myself laughing much and was kind of bored with it. Too bad, I wanted to like it.

Anonymous said...

I need someone (Ken?) to explain to me why The Big Bang Theory is funny; I personally think it's ridiculous and not very believable.

linky said...

Is the real life network development process portrayed accurately in Episodes?

Les said...

Friday Question: you have mentioned in the past you cast Aaron Paul in a pilot (and Kat Dennings I believe for the same pilot). I do not recall if the network requested his part be re-cast or whether the show just did not get picked up but in any event, now I am sure every network exec would die for just a meeting with Mr. Paul. If/when you are casting for a new show and an executive gives you push back on one of your choices, do you ever just say -- 'hey I discovered "insert-name-here" years before and know what I am doing" or does it even matter?

Oliver said...

I think the major reason is one you've ignored: sitcoms traditionally skew young, but young viewers are abandoning network television in droves, making it incredibly tough for networks to launch hit new comedies.

It's certainly not the only problem, but it's one of the biggest.

That said, the networks don't do themselves any favours with some of the shows they put on the air. NBC in particular hasn't premiered a half-decent comedy since Community. Clearly something is amiss in their development.

Ralph C. said...

No explanation needed as to why THE BIG BANG THEORY is funny, or even why it's not funny that isn't already answered in your own thoughts after watching it.

Anonymous said...

Elvia Allman says:

The reason Marvel (and Pixar) can do what they do is:

1. They have had a long string of hits (read about the ordeal of making TOY STORY and how it was remade when they left the creatives alone).

2. Both Marvel and Pixar must have had a "no creative micromanaging" clause in their merger contracts -- and had the clout to get it.

There ARE fine execs who are secure enough to move back and trust, only stepping in when needed. Many others either haven't matured to that point or never will.

MikeK.Pa. said...

The second point in your blog - network interference - is the primary cause for the mediocre state of sitcoms. The comedic version of camel by committee. The network heads aren't much different from movie studio heads: neither knows what's going to be a hit.

I just finished a book from the UCLA Extension Writers' Program called "Inside the Room." The last chapter, The TV Year, illustrates how ham-handed the networks can be. In the same book a chapter by Ken's former writing partner David Issacs, Creating Comedy Through Character, should be a must-read for any suit in Hollywood. It's characters, not plot, that make the show.

I think about past favorite sitcoms like "Wings" and "Malcolm in the Middle" and how uniquely drawn the characters were and how seamlessly the shows were able to introduce new characters (with the exception of the new mechanic, Budd, who disappeared after one season on "Wings").

Speaking of Wings, does anyone know why David Schramm, who played Roy Biggins, only has one TV credit on IMDb after Wings? I see he's done some Broadway in the last decade, but no TV.

Anonymous said...

5. Cast funny people not good-looking people.

Maybe that's one reason Brooklyn Nine-Nine is pretty successful...Andy Samburg is kind of fugly, but he can be funny when he wants to be.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Meant Isaacs.

Anonymous said...

Cast funny, not pretty.

OK but then don't come back to us and claim the funny people are prett

Anonymous said...

Why? Because nobody likes hipsters and millenials.

Rob said...

Hi Ken,
I think you are missing the bigger point. It is not just about the quality of new sitcoms. It is now much harder to discover new shows. This is a consequence of too many commercials. It use to be that you would flip through channels to see if anything was on, and in the process get interested in new shows. Now, if you try the same thing you primarily see commercials, so are much less likely to find anything you like.

A corollary to this is I only watch TV recorded on my PVR so I can skip commercials. I do not see commercials for new shows. I also don't think many people have the time to randomly record new shows just on the off chance they turn out to be interesting.

To find a new show, I rely on information from social media sites, blogs, etc. Then I download it off the internet and binge watch. Unfortunately for sitcoms, it is dramas that get the majority of buzz on reddit, etc.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I've enjoyed watching the NFL relaunched as a sitcom. I didn't think it would work, but The Commissioner character is especially funny, as is the guy who thinks the racist team nickname is a super idea. It's really hilarious, in a sick-joke not-for-everybody early-70s-Lampoon kind of way.


VP81955 said...

An update on "Mom": It was announced today that the season 2 premiere has been pushed back to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 30, which either is

a) a sign of creative trouble with the series, or

b) a decision by CBS to have it follow "The Big Bang Theory" for the long haul, not merely several weeks, and open once Thursday night football runs its course. (For the past few decades, Thursday has trailed only Sunday as the big night on TV, thanks largely to movie advertising.)

Stephen Robinson said...

I don't enjoy THE BIG BANG THEORY but I wouldn't dismiss it as "unfunny." That seems more than a little arrogant given its success. Either I am in the minority (it happens with personal tastes) or the majority choose to voluntarily watch an unfunny sitcom, which doesn't make sense to me.

The AV Club article fell into the same trap of trashing ABC's TGIF lineup. I would never claim that FULL HOUSE, PERFECT STRANGERS, or FAMILY MATTERS are on par on any level with CHEERS but these shows were big successes.

It's good to know *why* people like shows you might not enjoy. Especially if you're in the business of making successful TV shows. You can find what's good, adapt that to your work, and lose what doesn't.

I also thought the AV CLUB was unfair to Tony Danza. I don't see how you can claim that WHO'S THE BOSS? was successful *despite* its leading man. It's just too critical a role. If he wasn't any good, the show would collapse. And although I think it probably takes less talent to play an essentially likeable character (than it is to play an unlikeable character the audience still roots for), Danza still had to connect on some level with the audience forthe show to succeed.

Darth Weasel said...

I will get killed for this, but so be it. I can live with that.

To me, the new sitcoms come across as being more about social agendas than being funny all too often. Certain story elements and/or characters are repeatedly thrown up as the paragon of awesomeness. I find them not to be.

For some of us who have a different moral code than the popular one in todays culture, constantly being ridiculed/mocked by something I am going to for entertainment kills the buzz. As a result, I don't watch.

Note that these things can be done without driving away a certain segment of the audience; I have enjoyed the Simpsons from the beginning, still enjoy it...I recognize there are more clunkers most seasons now than early and have seen some recycled stuff. They also still throw in an occasional jab at people like me.

I can live with it because it is not constant, not the over-riding theme of the show and so I keep watching.

The shows with a different outlook on life than me are fine to go on without me. I don't run around picketing them, decrying their influence or outlook...I simply don't watch them.

I then end up being part of the target demographic not watching the show. I show up as someone who does not think the show is funny when in truth that is not what my watching or not watching is a referendum on.

TL:DR a certain segment of the former sitcom watching crowd has turned them off due to their "take" on life, not their humor content

ScottyB said...

I'm gonna take a stab here, speaking as a network-TV consumer still to some degree even today.

"Yeah, that's good ... but can you make it just like 'Friends' or 'Big Bang' or 'Modern Family' or 'New Girl' or (insert popular-flavor show here)?"

That's pretty much why country music sucks these days, too. Every-fuckin'-one sounds just like Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, or Taylor Swift. It's all just a smoking crater of disaster and uninspired-ness, just like network TV.

No wonder why Me-TV has a decent niche. And it started showing reruns of 'Cheers' this fall season. Yay!

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

This is an accurate summary of pretty much every Simpsons episode where Krusty the Clown has to deal with the likes of Lindsey Naegle and other clueless, overbearing network executives, who have no idea whatsoever as to what they're really doing.

ScottyB said...

@Darth Weasel: You said "TL:DR a certain segment of the former sitcom watching crowd has turned them off due to their "take" on life, not their humor content."

I'm not so sure about that, personally speaking. Really funny writing endures the years, sometimes even generations, because the *writing* was just that damn good. Why are episodes of 'I Love Lucy', 'Cheers', 'The Office' and even the early years of 'Two And A Half Men' still funny and enjoyable every single time you watch them even tho you've seen a zillion times already? Because of the writing itself, not a take on life. The shit that was funny then is still funny now.

A good example, at least least to me is an oft-overlooked sitcom from the '50s that gets rerun at like 4am today: 'The Danny Thomas Show', which ran from 1953-57. The lines still kill today because life will always be life no matter what generation, and truly well-written funny will always stay that way, too.

ScottyB said...

@John: Funny you should mention 'Saturday Night Live'. I grew up watching that show from Year One. I bought the first-season box set, watched it, and sat there thinking, "Hm. This really isn't as funny as I thought it was. It kinda sucks."

I get the same thing when I see an old episode of 'The Green Hornet' or 'Love American Style', which I totally loved when I was a kid. Now I just go, "Jeez ... this is just stupid."

Everything's all perspective, I imagine.

Mike said...

Not a sitcom, but this is a recurring plot of Mad Men. When Duck brings in PPL to buy the company, the new guys apparently have no interest in servicing the clients, and it's all about making money. Again when McCann is going to buy. Then they bring in the computer.

Mike said...

Darth, yea that is part of it. I also blame the lack of censors, which the author likes to complain about so much. It is those censors that reined in people to make shows appeal to a wider audience. I also think it kept Becker from being a bigger hit.

ScottyB said...

Here's a pretty decent example of a great idea on paper, but whether the execution should be/is/shouldn't be "a hit":'Black Jesus', which airs weekly on "Adult Swim".

Altho it's certainly not a new concept as far as concepts go, you gotta admit the premise is pretty fuckin' funny. Just like bringing the founding fathers back to serve in Congress now would be pretty fuckin' funny. But still, I watch the show and go, "This is the best they got?"

Granted, I'm damn sure from reading Ken's blog that show-writing is a total bitch, and you gotta have something up your sleeve every week. But jeez, if any network is going to put a show on the air, I shouldn't be sitting there looking at a great premise and think, "This is it? Really?"

If so, why bother? Surely the well of talent on this planet isn't *that* dry.

Dixon Steele said...

Count me in as someone who cant understand the huge success of BIG BANG THEORY.

For me, it's, at times, amusing at best. But I've never laughed one time out loud.

Yes, the cast is fine, esp. Parsons.

But for me...Not Funny.

ScottyB said...

@Stephen Robinson: Some good points made, and if nothing else, those ABC shows illustrated how chemistry/talent between the actors overcame(?) shitty(?) writing to make those shows ratings winners with the people at home. And nothing proved this more than 'Three's Company', a show I'll despise to my grave but still appreciate for the reasons why it was a ratings monster.

To me, 'Full House' was stupid because I was an adult by then, but it's totally a giggle these days knowing that Bob Saget is who he he is. Can't beat that.

ScottyB said...

@Dixon Steele: I chalk it up to the ability of the writers to make uber-geeks relate-able to most of us. They *almost* accomplished that with 'Revenge Of The Nerds', but it's questionable whether anyone could carry 'Nerds' thru the demands of several seasons on TV to the consistent level that 'BBT' has. No matter what anyone may think about 'BBT', you gotta totally respect the output week to week.

Maybe that's the thing has made it such a hit sitcom.

Mike said...

You get the television & radio you deserve.
To an outsider, America sacrifices its culture on the altar of Mammon. (The goal of American TV is not to be funny, it's to be watchable. Hence the success of Friends.)
Without the micromanagement and specifically targeting the original, are cable comedies far better? Or are they niche or "edgy"?
America likes its culture bland.

James said...

I have a Friday question.

I refused to watch MASH because of the portrayal of Frank Burns. He was sniveling, lecherous AND incompetent. I know this was changed when Major Winchester, a skilled surgeon, replaced him. But the fact he had, as a character, no redeeming qualities, made the whole show unwatchable.

My question is then: How did this affect Larry Linville the person? Not only was he portraying an extremely loathsome character, that character was so ensconced that he was at high risk of being type cast: as IMDB indicates he largely was. It's the type of character that, although you get paid well while the show is on the air, might very well end your career.


H Johnson said...

I imagine if you're targeting a specific audience and yet also trying not to offend anyone else, it's gonna be pretty hard to stay interesting.

I'm also in the group that doesn't appreciate Big Bang Theory. I think it's stupid. Sue me.

I agree with most everything you said but would have to mention Everyone Loves Raymond as a not-so-distant-in-the-past success. The Middle is funny. And Precinct 99 is pretty good.

Most of what I find really funny now days is non-network. The League slays me. And several British comedies I love (but I never know how old or new they are, so I guess they don't count here)

Anonymous said...

Here's another reason: why do networks keep going to the same people to create shows who have failed numerous times in the recent past? There is no other business anywhere that operates like this. Maybe if they went after writers who have something to say instead of writers they know socially, things could change.

Doktor Frank Doe said...

You've said it before, Creative heads in charge of the networks that allow show runners the freedoms needed to realize their collective visions are the key to any creative success. These idiot suits are all on nothing more than over-paid ego trips. I'll bet ANY AMOUNT OF MONEY that Chuck Lorre runs his own destiny and the networks are cutting one another's throats to get one of his projects. No?

ctp said...

I've been reading your blog for a long time but this is my first comment. You should watch "Red vs. Blue."

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I have an idea for a sitcom. It would be set in a gay bathhouse. Kind of like Corner Gas. Now I just have to write a treatment.

Angry Gamer said...

I'm going to backup Darth Weasel on this one.

Today's "funny" shows all to often take cheap shots at Red State/Conservative points of view.

An example of left coast stupidity is when Cobert was pitched to replace Letterman. Ok... conservatives are going to tune this show out now.

Ratings get bad and network "geniuses" all wonder where the viewers have gone for these shows. No one ever thinks to read through the scrips and check for Red State idiot jokes. Everyone checks for ethnic slurs ... but any quip that might anger anyone with serious western religious beliefs... gee that's fair game right?

The Rubes in the Red States are not stupid. We do know when snappy lines are meant to be a left coast "in joke" about a topic we care about.

And let's face it folks... the divide between Red and Blue has gotten so wide that Blues don't even bother to wonder if they are offending anymore. (yeah Ken love the reflexive Republicans are no culture cavepeople love it! tell me another one. har har)
Hey it's funny to an LA studio audience Right? Right? it's funny to them so it must be funny to people in fly over right?

Now combine this with the comment above about having PAID studio audience members. PAID people who are certainly from LA AND most likely in entertainment... AND voila you have the makings of a very skewed idea of whats funny the majority of America.

James Van Hise said...

I always thought that Larry Linville was the funniest one on M*A*S*H. His characterization of Frank Burns stole every scene he was in. When a rerun of the show is on I'll only watch it if it is from the early seasons with Larry Linville. I realize that he felt that his character was limiting, but he wasn't just funny, he was extremely funny. After he left the show he never found his footing again as an actor and wound up doing dinner theater in Canada. I thought that AFTERMASH would have succeeded if they'd brought back Larry Linville, since the Frank Burns character wasn't killed off, but just sent stateside, with a promotion. And M*A*S*H is a show which works fine without a laughtrack as the dvds were released with an option to turn off the laughtrack and the show plays better without it.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Big Bang Theory strikes me as a grown-up version of the tween comedies on cable. Same volume, energy level, audience laughs per minute.

Maybe part of the success is due to the fact that the tweens raised on Hannah Montana and such are older and have gravitated to a similar kind of show with content that is skewed to young adults.

My Big Bang Theory theory.

nerkul said...

Who even cares about network sitcoms any more? This is a golden age of television but networks are dead, and niche, quality writing is everything. Deal with it.

Ulsterian said...

Well said, Ken.

It is long past time to disregard the opinions of anyone who says "I happen to love THE MINDY PROJECT..."

If you do, you have poor taste in television, and no taste in comedy.

Either improve your critical faculties, or go away.

ScottyB said...

@Nerkul: Thing is, network TV doesn't *have* to be dead, just like newspapers or terrestrial radio don't *have* to be dead, either. There needs to be a sea-change at the top regarding how you're going to compete and be relevant in a landscape and world that has clearly changed from the way they used to do things. After all, the whole world's not a fan of Netflix, and not everyone is a TV-cable subscriber -- and those people aren't just old senior citizens and Luddites.

Dedicate yourself -- I mean *really* dedicate yourself -- to airing damn-good product, and people will come back. This isn't an old concept, just one that's been continually ignored by the networks.

ScottyB said...

Oops, "This isn't an old concept" was supposed to be "This isn't a new concept".

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Greg Ehrbar: Well, I turned 60 in January and I loved TBBT from the beginning just because for once here was a TV show about very, very smart people who were very, very passionate about solving the mysteries of the universe *and* who as a result of both those things had been poorly socialized and lacked emotional maturity. I know these people from real life. How often can you say that?

I like the show much less now that it's becoming much more like FRIENDS (even some of the plots are recycled...) and there's a lot less science-related stuff (like the guys watching a mix of cornstarch and water dance on an upturned speaker a few seasons back).


ScottyB said...

@Wendy: You make a great observation. It seems there always comes a point a few seasons later where every really-popular sitcom just becomes a parody of itself or veers so far off the original mark that made it great in the first place, where you go, "OK, now this is just dumb".

It's almost like they do it on purpose.

McAlvie said...

Uh huh. A few years ago the complaint was that people don't watch sitcoms anymore. No. We just didn't watch their sitcoms because they were lousy. People will watch good tv if it's there and the network suits aren't idiots who yank the show before the audience can find it.

"3. Recent sitcoms are not funny."

Yes!!! That's it, on the nose.

I also think, and this kind of goes along with what you said about all the actors being good looking, that the best shows include characters. You mentioned MF and TBB, and those clearly are character driven. Instead today what you get are a lot of pretty people using potty language and being painfully trendy in the way people never are in real life. And I don't get targeting a specific age group for your audience. Don't you want the biggest audience possible? Why limit it to twenty-somethings who are also the least likely to be home watching sitcoms at night? Golden Girls ended up with a huge audience beyond the obvious because it was simply brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I still can't believe that show Happy Endings lasted more than 5 episodes. Maybe because the majority of the cast was good looking. It was terrible, the jokes were terrible, it was just plain bad. Most of the actors, in my opinion had bad comedic timing. It was so bad I couldn't even hate watch it. - Ronnie

Anonymous said...

Third vote for "You're the Worst" -- caught on just in time to catch up before the finale, and now I'm rewatching the whole season and praying for a pickup. It's like a mashup of Blackadder, Archer and Fraiser -- scathing British humor, filthy one-liners and character-driven borderline farce in one delicious 22 minute package.

Mike said...

Shows that are popular with Republicans tend to get Democrats as well, but the reverse is not true. AMC really needs to figure out what's going on.

Top shows watched by Republicans

Glenn Beck 238 (35)
The Amazing Race 132 (100)
Modern Family 124 (108)
American Idol 122 (103)
V 122 (90)
The Big Bang Theory 119 (99)
The Mentalist 119 (116)
Survivor 118 (100)
Dancing With The Stars 117 (112)
Desperate Housewives 116 (116)
NCIS 115 (109)
The Bachelor 114 (104)
Lie To Me 114 (100)
How I Met Your Mother 113 (112)
Two And A Half Men 112 (105)


Countdown With Keith Olbermann 184 (31)
Mad Men 155 (55)
Dexter 147 (61)
Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami 146 (66)
90210 140 (54)
Private Practice 127 (94)
Brothers & Sisters 127 (103)
30 Rock 126 (68)
The Good Wife 124 (119)
Community 122 (75)
Law & Order: SVU 122 (86)
Friday Night Lights 119 (111)
Damages 118 (75)
Parks and Recreation 118 (89)
Breaking Bad 117 (50)

John said...

Another point not to overlook (esp. for us non-DVR people). Moving the damn show around too much so you can't find it, or it is no longer convenient. Or opposite something else you watch. This is true of hour long dramas often. "NCIS is doing well in that time slot, lets put a procedural against it" WTF!?!? how about programming something different. Give me Castle, Bones, Mentalist, POI, NCIS, CSI, L&O, all at times when I can watch all of them. Put comedies up against them, or reality shows. Any DIFFERENT choice. One night of the week now there is NOTHING the fuck on because every station is programing reality against each other. Somebody give me 2BrokeGirls to watch, that would at least be a different bad choice.
The other part for 1/2 hour comedies is what it is paired with. If you aren't DVRing, then the whole hour needs looked at as a whole. This has caused me to stop watching many shows live anymore, and just wait for the DVD at the end of the season. I don't want to watch the turd of the month just to get from the end of BBT to the top of the hour. And yes, I find BBT funny, regardless of how uncool that is in the comment section of this blog. One of the reasons that NBC Thursday was such a juggernaut in the mid 80s is that there were always at least 3 out of 4 good shows to watch. No clunkers. When they start to piece them out to anchor other nights, everything gets weaker. Thursday night, NBC = Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court (&HSB). They moved NC around after that, and as I recall, there was rarely anything good on with it, and I stopped watching. Maybe Wings one year, which I always enjoyed, and then they decided it needed its own night so both shows could have crap with them.

Network programming reminds me of half the managers in baseball - if someone is pitching well, pull them and look for the guy who can't. "I only brought him in to get one guy out, so what if he struck him out in 3 pitches and it wasn't even close, I need to bring in the next guy so he can give up the 3 run homer".
"Boy these two shows really click together and give each other bigger numbers, let's split them up and see if they can both get smaller numbers on different nights" Network programming might be the only job that you can have a worse success rate than hitting a baseball and still have a job. The mendoza line probably gets you a huge bonus.

FQ: How much say does a studio / producer have (if any) with what you are paired with? It seems like Lorre can get his shows paired with each other, but is that him requesting / requiring, or CBS just doing it? I remember A different world slotting after Cosby after he kicked Lisa Bonet off, but was the the studio or NBC just looking at the same audience? But it seems like the Tortellis was not after Cheers. It might have been one of the clunkers after Night Court.


Bob B. said...

Mike, where did you get your list and what do the numbers mean? The #1 show for Democrats is Countdown with Keith Olbermann? That went off the air over five years ago.

Cristina said...

There were many hit sitcoms during the 90s Ken can you explain why? I particularly love Wings they have good looking stars and they were funny and know how to deliver their lines. You can be good looking and funny. The writers and actors should worked well together to achieve their goal. Actually critics of today are writing good reviews of Wings than before why is that, did they just discovered that this show is funny? Good writers,actors good looking or not,timing and delivery you will produce a hit sitcom.

Cristina said...

During the 90s there were so many hit sitcoms can you explain Ken why? I particularly loved Wings. The stars were good looking yet funny and they had good delivery and timing with their lines. One of the best ensemle cast.Critics of today give Wings a better review than before why a delayed reaction I don't understand. Good writers, good looking or not ensemle cast as long as they can deliver funny line you will get a hit sitcom.

Anonymous said...

"Trophy Wife" was at times very funny. Great show. Great cast. No chance with the network. If they had put it on Wednesday it would have soared.

Pat Reeder said...

I've enjoyed reading all the comments (okay, most of them), but have `one thing to add that hasn't been mentioned yet:

Could someone please explain to today's sitcom writers that having your characters rattle off lots of words reallyreallyreallyreally fast and bounce the lines back and forth with no pauses for breath is not a substitute for wit? This seems to be a hallmark of sitcoms that try to appeal to millennials, like "Happy Endings."

Nothing kills the humor like having to hit rewind five times to decipher what they're saying, then finally giving up and turning on the closed captions.

VP81955 said...

Pat, I would say they're trying to appeal to millennials by emulating the fast-talking "His Girl Friday"...but then again, that was in black and white, and we know how millennials feel about that.

Oliver said...

@Wendy M. Grossman

When you say "poorly socialized and lacked emotional maturity", what I read is "I like laughing at, rather than with, them".

I think that's ultimately what appeals to people about TBBT, and why some people can't stand it.

It's certainly why I can't stand it, nor any other Chuck Lorre's shows. I find them mean-spirited and deeply unpleasant.

Greg Ehrbar said...

@Wendy -- I think my theory more accurately describes the show as it became, not what it was.

Anonymous said...

I think this article is good, but it covers only some of the problems. A few people have mentioned YOU'RE THE WORST, and I agree that it's an excellent comedy. It follows some of the guidelines, but is directed at a niche audience.

In my estimation, there are two prevalent issues with mediocre sitcoms:

1) They are copies of copies. SEINFELD was funny in it's time. FRIENDS was funny. HIMYM squeaked by. But FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES (for example)? Amiable cast, but we've seen it all before. As an audience, we want to feel comfortable, but we don't want something 10 or 15 years out of date.

2) Too crass. Since the taboo is always a major source of humor, and so little is taboo these days, comedy tends toward the extreme. Unfortunately, it seems that many folks don't realize that just because something's extreme, it's not necessarily funny. So many times I've seen comedies today use escalation and grotesquery as a basis, but it's hollow.

Getting back to YOU'RE THE WORST as a positive example: they've taken the basic premise of the rom com (two people who are so wrong for each other that they must end up together) and turned it on its head. These are two people who ARE right for each other, but are are wrong for relationships. The extreme situations - and some are VERY extreme - come off as funny rather than crass because they stem from the characters themselves, not from needless escalation.

gagbush said...

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Unknown said...

Superb article. Captures all the relevant points nicely.

Personally I despise Two and a half Men and have no interest in Modern Family.
Regarding Big Bang Theory, I think the operative word is 'was.'
It was funny, it hasn't been for the last three seasons, instead its been increasingly dull, deliberately offensive and all in all just going through the motions.
The only real laugh its given me recently was with Nathan Fillion's guest star setup, and even that got awkward after a couple of minutes.
Personally I think the micromanaging may be to blame, they have stopped being funny and are focusing purely on the "quirkiness."

I really wish there were a few new good sitcoms to watch, I am desperate for new content.
Here in Australia I have had the impression for years that the commercial networks are deliberately sabotaging there own ratings in order to sell pay TV as the only content these days is cop shows and reality TV; nothing for a family audiance at all.
And the result, a lot of people have stopped watching TV altogether.