Monday, January 26, 2015

Does anyone know how to fix network comedies?

Warning:  Here comes a rant.  Hide the children.

Just caught a NY Post article from the end of November (okay, I don’t usually read the NY Post, especially if there’s no A-Rod scandal). It’s by Robert Rorke and it’s entitled DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW TO FIX NETWORK COMEDIES?

In the article he claims the new crop of sitcoms did not catch on because they’re not funny. I don’t disagree with him. But the problem comes when trying to answer the question he poses – does anyone know how to fix them?

He basically claims that the answer is no and sitcoms, long rumored to be dead, might indeed be endangered species.

I respectfully disagree.

A writer friend of mine offered this suggestion on his Facebook page. Here’s who he feels is to blame: THE. PEOPLE. IN. CHARGE.

And to that I say ABSOLUTELY. The network executives were the ones who chose the projects, chose the writers, noted them to death, and then made more cast changes based on research.

What I don’t know is this: Were these show unfunny because the writers were not that good, or were they bowing to dogmatic network directives that flattened and destroyed their product?  Probably a mixture of the two.

But what I do know is there are a lot of talented writers who are no longer on the development slates. Writers who have proven track records. What track records do the “deciders” have?

(DISCLAIMER:  I'm talking about other writers, not myself.  I'm quite happy writing plays, blogs, and sharing factoids about Neil Simon.)  

At a time when networks are operating exclusively out of fear, when suddenly they all are scrambling to hastily develop the next EMPIRE because it did well in the ratings for three weeks, it’s understandable to see why sitcoms are suffering. Networks by and large, are hiring writers who they trust (read: will take their notes without objection), basing their decisions on faulty research, and at all costs are avoiding unique visions, projects not geared directly to specific demographics, or writers who might question their brilliant suggestions.

And let’s be real – this is not going to change.   I can bitch all I want.  I'm trying to hold back the Pacific Ocean with a broom.   And when sitcoms don’t catch on these same executives will claim the reason is that the public has lost its appetite for comedy. That’s what they ALWAYS say.

And it’s bullshit.

Here’s what I think will ultimately happen. People always love to laugh. They will flock to shows that do make them laugh – legitimately make them laugh (not occasionally smile over quirky characters or pithy pop culture references), and they don’t care whether they’re on NBC, TBS, their computer, their phone, or (soon) their watch.

Networks will die before sitcoms.

And that's what we call "the last laugh."


VincentS said...

The sitcom is dead? Isn't that what they said just before THE - if you'll excuse the expression - COSBY SHOW went on the air and started a new golden age in the genre? Hopefully, Amazon and Netflix have no such creative restrictions on their shows. If that's the case, maybe the networks will pick up their lead.

Sue D'Onim said...

What you say may be true, but I am really sick of networks cancelling comedies I like ("Trophy Wife", "Benched") when they don't explode into the stratosphere immediately. "Cheers" never would have had a full season in this toxic atmosphere.

Scooter Schechtman said...

What? No SAG Awards review?

MikeK.Pa. said...

From Warren Littlefield's excellent book TOP OF THE ROCK: THE RISE AND FALL OF MUST SEE TV, a couple quotes from Karey Burke, who was an executive for prime time under Littefield:

"Warren never created an air of 'no this won't work' or 'I know better.' There was an openness to everything. An openness to every kind of idea. Conventional wisdom was out the door. It was energizing and attractive to creators.

"The culture of the place attracted people. People knew we'd back their shot. It may not work, but we'd back it. That wasn't alchemy. It was leadership."

I don't think that environment exists anymore in broadcast. Mostly the creative energy has drifted to basic and premium cable, and now online streaming.

I've said this before, but many iconic shows like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and SEINFELD were discovered during summer re-runs. Not many series get that chance anymore.

On another note, I'm so glad William Macy was recognized with a SAG last night for his role of degenerate dad on SHAMELESS. He's a scream to watch.

S Jones said...

Whoever is airing sitcoms these days doesn't know how to promote them, either. I have never seen Benched, and, given the horrible promos that the Comedy Network here in Canada airs endlessly, I never will. And their promos for something called Ground Floor only raises the question as to how this mess got a second season.

Hamid said...


A Friday Question - you once posted the glowing coverage note you got on the Volunteers script. Have you ever been tempted as an experiment to submit Volunteers, not a single word changed but under a different title, to a studio on spec and see what coverage it would get now from a development executive? Especially in this age of remakes and reboots, it's surely only a matter of time before an executive looking for suitable remake material will come across Volunteers and decide to remake it. I can see it now, it'll have Zac Efron in the Tom Hanks role and Seth Rogen in John Candy's role.

Johnny Walker said...

So very true. Networks are soon going to be dead... or at least a shadow of their former selves, but I don't know if Netflix, Amazon, HBO, etc. have enough funds to produced the same level out of output as networks.

It's going to be interesting to see what happens.

Also: Sad to hear that BENCHED has been cancelled. I know someone on that show. Rats.

I guess it's pointed out frequently, but the early SEINFELD feel like a different show. George is a completely different character in the beginning. It took them a few years to get him "right", and it really made the show work.

Bad ratings seem like the best reason to cancel a show, but that's obviously not true. Bad ratings coupled with a poor mark of quality seems to be the best reason -- something with a little chance of finding its way.

But which executive actually has the ability to spot such things, without becoming a dictator?

willieb said...

Does seem that the more inventive comedies are on cable now: Veep, Louie, Always Sunny; of course, none of them are LAUGH OUT LOUD funny. That's what we need more of, a three-camera laugh out loud comedy on cable. (Like Instant Mom -- right, Ken?)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: I've read interviews with Jason Alexander where he said that in the beginning he assumed that George was meant to be a kind of Woody Allen character, but after a bit he began to realized that the character was really based on Larry David himself, and began to make choices in that direction instead. That may explain what you noticed.


Chris G said...

Don't forget HBO's SILICON VALLEY, which is hilarious, or Amazon's ALPHA HOUSE and MOZART IN THE JUNGLE.

Hamid said...

I just read that Joe Franklin passed away at the weekend. I wasn't that familiar with him but I gather from what I've read that he was a pioneer of the chat show format and a long-time radio and TV broadcaster. RIP.

mmryan314 said...

I only watch three current network shows all of which I can stream on Hu lu. I find Brooklyn 99 to be laugh out loud funny. Each character is unique and most enjoyable.The other two shows are Modern Family and About A Boy ( because it`s sweet ).I don`t think they`re as laugh out loud funny though.

Michael said...

In some quotes I read from recent TCA event, the president of ABC, Paul Lee, kept talking about a show's "brand", which appears more important than it's quality or how funny it is.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

My usual rant - that I'm well aware that most everybody else who follows this blog disagrees with me, and tell me that my opinion makes me an oppressed jerkass for it - is that sitcoms aren't about the comedy anymore, they're all about the sex.

Yes, I'm well aware that sitcoms back in the day had sexually active characters: Hawkeye Pierce, Sam Malone, practically the entire cast of SEINFELD, but back then, sex wasn't the selling point and nor was it the main focus of sitcoms like it is today... you practically cannot turn on a sitcom on any channel today without seeing two people (implied to be naked) in the same bed (and to think, sixty years ago, you couldn't even show a married couple in the same bed).

As for humor in sitcoms today, they seem to fall into two categories: low-brow, or sophisticated, with very little middle ground.

It also doesn't help that almost all single camera sitcoms today have completely disposed of laugh tracks: I know everybody says laugh tracks insult viewers' intelligence by prompting people when to laugh, but that's not true at all; laugh tracks help create the ambience of watching a comedy with a group of people when a live audience isn't practical - sitcoms without laugh tracks are a handicap, very ghastly. Also, the mockumentary style that many single camera sitcoms have adopted just doesn't work for television... film, yes; television, no.

Finally, there seems to be an unwritten rule among sitcoms today that all characters have to be completely unlikeable jerkasses, because they are apparently more relatable that characters with quirks and oddities... I guess neither M*A*S*H or CHEERS would last today.

How do we fix sitcoms? I don't believe there is a definite answer for that one, but one thing I would recommend is going back and studying the slue of sitcoms from the 60s up through the 90s, back when there was a better variety of shows that had unique premises, and look at how they were able to survive without the need of jerks kicking their buddies in the groin and sleeping with any female who crossed their paths, while talking to nonexistent interviewers about their dull lives.

John said...

Character counts. The lines by themselves are rarely so compelling that they don't need a well-developed character to back them up. It's the reason the first episode or two of a new comedy often isn't that great. The characters needed more time to become the person that can deliver the line effectively. That only happens when there's collaboration between the writers and the actors. Ideally that would happen before the show first hits the air.

Dustin said...

THR had a survey where they talked to a bunch of newtork heads:

Regarding comedy---

The industry's comedy problem could be solved by:

HOLLAND Patience and trust that the audience will build over time.

DANIELS Unleashing the traditional guidelines for developing and producing comedies. We over-note comedy people, and their ideas get watered down in the stew that's created by networks, agents and production companies.

LOMBARDO Stop looking at focus groups. It's not working, so throw it out.

COLLIER Submitting the next seasons of American Horror Story and True Detective as outstanding comedy series.

GREENBLATT A new generation of great writers.

LANDGRAF A miracle. Comedy is the most subjective thing and it's just very hard to create a comedy that pulls a very fragmented audience back together because if you're a man, woman, person of any sexual orientation, any ethnicity, any age, any geographic region, there's a show that's made just for you. So how do you make a show that's as good as that for everyone? I don't envy the broadcasters trying to make broad comedy right now.

NEWMAN One big comedy hit!

ALTERMAN I'm not sure whether to be alarmed to learn there's a "comedy problem" or insulted that cable isn't considered part of the industry.

Diane D. said...

Wow, this is so sad. I'm not a writer or artist of any kind, but I have always felt such gratitude for those who are because of the incredible richness they bring to the lives of the rest of us.

Artists have always, to some extent, been at the mercy of the people with money and power, but 21st Century Network television seems to have taken it to a whole new level.

I hope you are right, Ken Levine, that Networks will die before sitcoms, and that you will get the last laugh. Meanwhile, I am glad I have Cheers on DVD and can watch much of your other work on Netflix and Amazon.

Johnny Walker said...

Wendy, it's more than just that, although I'm sure that's part of it. In the early episodes George isn't as pathetic as he is later. In the beginning he often mocks Seinfeld and his choices, and two are shown to be somewhat "equal". As the show progressed, George became more neurotic and incapable of dealing with things, and just generally became much more pathetic... but also funnier.

It was quite a shock to watch the early episodes recently.

Howard Hoffman said...

I watched last week's MOM to see how they handled the death of Kevin Pollak's character. To prepare, I watched the MTM episode of "Chuckles Bites The Dust" beforehand.

Needless to say, MOM was a sappy, sad, joyless exercise in trying too hard to make the audience weep - not an ounce of humor or farce. Just a lot of sadness and anger.

It could have been great, but greatness no longer lives in network comedy. The execs are clueless and the talent is taught that this is the method to gainful employment. It's a recipe for disappointment for the audience.

blinky said...

SO again I ask: Why doesn't Ken Levine do a pilot script about the stupid network process of developing a sitcom for one of the other outlets like Amazon or PayPal or something like that? Your insight and humor would make it a GREAT show.

Rich said...

Ken -- The solution is stone-stick-simple (as you note)
1) Fire all the development execs. The dirty little secret of development -- of feature films as well as sitcoms -- is that everyone is guessing all the time.
2) Hire funny, smart, talented people.
3) Get them networked with other funny, smart, talented people and let them collaborate.
4) Give them a stake in their mutual success.

You want an example of how this works? Read "Creativity Inc" about the Pixar creative process.

The reason no network will ever do this is because you're empowering creatives. (This despite Pixar's multi-billion dollar success.)

Oh well...

Oliver said...

The more I think about it, the "network comedy problem" seems to extend about as far as NBC's dire comedy development. ABC, CBS and Fox all have successful comedies.

Howard Hoffman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard Hoffman said...

Or a made for Netflix film about the upfronts process. Ken? Do you know of anyone who has that script?

VP81955 said...

Howard, comparing last week's "Mom" to "Chuckles Bites The Dust" -- arguably the greatest single sitcom episode ever made -- is like comparing Bryce Harper to Babe Ruth. Unlike the peripheral Chuckles of "MTM," Kevin Pollak's Alvin character had been an integral part of the series since midway through season one. His potential, now unfulfilled relationships with Bonnie (Allison Janney), his daughter Christy (Anna Faris) and her children brings a new twist to the series, yet another hurdle for Bonnie and Christy to overcome (and since both are recovering alcoholics, this is an integral theme of the show). If you're going to compare "Mom" to '70s comedies, the better analogy is to Norman Lear's stable of sitcoms (minus the politics and polemics). No wonder Chuck Lorre is so proud of it. (And this week's ep was the one I attended in November; it will tie up some of last week's loose ends.) Read more about it at

Ken, I saw Garry Marshall at a memorabilia show Saturday and mentioned I had seen "A Or B?" from my blog buddy Ken Levine at his Falcon Theater. A truly likable guy.

Anonymous said...

Well, "EPISODES" went the "Vigina" route, big time in this weeks show, will again in next weeks too.

Scott Cason said...

when suddenly they all are scrambling to hastily develop the next EMPIRE because it did well in the ratings for three weeks

The only reason Empire is on the air is because of ABC's Nashville. I can't wait to see what the next-show-about-the-music-industry will be about.

Cat said...

Sorry, VP, but "The Showdown, Part 2" is the single best sitcom episode ever made.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

You are correct.
MOM is a black comedy. The main characters are gonna suffer. They get ahead and then fall back. It's never easy.
There are plenty of LOL moments but it's got some real pathos too.

Andrew Parker said...

Ken -- Do you still read the pilots that get picked up each season by the networks? I really haven't found too many that I thought should have gone to series, but didn't.

My personal feeling is that drama just plays better on the screen thanks to the internet. Twitter, Blogs, etc are just a better medium for the brand of joke/irony that is appreciated by modern Americans.

Drama on the internet doesn't resonate the same way, which is why we can currently be in an alleged Golden Age of Drama on tv without comedy feeling the same way.

Diane D. said...

Cat is right. Hands down, "The Showdown, Part 2" is the best sitcom episode ever made.

VP81955 said...

A very good episode, to be sure -- but until I checked, I didn't realize the reference was from "Cheers."

TV (and some radio) series often have some idiosyncracies to their episode titles. "Seinfeld" used "The xxxxx" (and I initially thought that was the reference, but I don't recall any "Seinfeld" ep using "part 2").

The first series that used a regular base for its titles was "Dragnet," which about halfway through its first year (on radio) used "The Big xxxxxx," apparently strictly for script-filing purposes.

"Friends" used "The One xxxxxx," and "Mom" uses "Xxxxxx and Xxxxxx" (for example, last week's ep was "Three Smiles and An Unpainted Ceiling," while this week's is "Kitty Litter and a Class A Felony").

Terrence Moss said...

That was actually a great episode of "Mom". And the Chuckles episode isn't a fair comparison because the relationship between Chuckles and the WJM--TV team is more ancillary than that of Bonnie and Kevin Pollak.

mdv1959 said...

I wonder how much the climate of political correctness has hamstrung the development of network comedies?
Comedy, or at least good comedy, is by definition going to offend somebody and networks are so terrified of offending anyone that I wonder if it leads to them playing it safe by only airing bland comedies.

Could Blazing Saddles be the basis for a network comedy series today? I doubt it, or it would be so watered down it would be crap. I'm not even sure MASH could be made today.

Canda said...

Let's at least admit there is one network executive with a track record - Les Moonves, CBS. He has shepherded some comedy talent that other networks would have buried. Phil Rosenthal is an example.

I watched A TO Z this season. Great pilot, but it's first big mistake was that it brought the two leads romantically together at the end of the first episode, and in subsequent episodes it was clear the chase was more fun than their relationship. Second, the producers (or the network) fell in love with the supporting characters, who became far more extreme than the leads.

In one of the worst ideas ever, they did an episode where the male lead couldn't figure out if he had a personality of his own, or was just aping the personality of others. Talk about Cardinal Sin Number One - one of my lead characters has no world view.

Then, of course, it was voice-overed to death, with the "surprise" of many of the jokes being a visual that was the opposite of what the voice over just said. There was very little emotional build to scenes - the voice-over did most of the work, and in the final episode (it has been canceled), one of the most poignant discussions between the two lovers, that hit a nerve, and possibly unearthed a problem, was held on phones, in two different buildings.

Christine Miloti was fun to watch, but given little to do throughout but react to the insanity of the supporting characters. Also, my pet peeve in many modern sitcoms - verbal whiplash too clever by half, riffing on pop culture subjects, with very little emotional resonance for the character who said them.

Casey C said...

I kinda want in on this rant too. There was a time when network television had people who really knew their stuff, accomplished some great sitcoms. It’s as if those people are lost, retired or just moved up. Its true modern movies, cable, and streaming sites have set the bar high – intricate plots, fancy editing, all star casts and crew. Execs think the only quality shows worth producing are hr+ sexy dark fantastical dramas, anything that will make viewers fanfiction crazy. The possibilities of a 22-26mins well constructed, character driven, thematic comedy [with intelligent dialogue, subtle effects, and distinctive soundtrack] are endless.

BIG BANG THEORY, MODERN FAMILY, BLACK-ISH, CRISTELA and FRESH OFF THE BOAT are all genuinely entertaining contemporary comedies. Something they have in common: they aren’t being manufactured to cater to the common Caucasian heterosexual male adolescent. The people working on these shows (Njeri Brown, Kenya Barris, Cristela Alonzo, Kevin Hench, Sanjay Shah, Nahnatchka Khan,Eddie Huang, etc.) have worked hard to get to where they are, and they are taking full advantage of the opportunity their networks have allowed them.

The characters they have created aren’t just refreshing for their cultural diversity, but because of their authenticity; they represent the people working on the show, as well as the people watching the show. Perfect they are not, but the premises are strong and the protagonists are one’s you can relate to and root for.

Some of the failed shows, simply put, were lame. The execs play safe, banking on familiarity, sexual sensationalism, dulling out cheap jokes, obvious story lines, hiring whitewashed JCrew models, strictly appealing to the viewer in the most superficial ways. The writers, actors, animators, musicians who don’t want to compromise will go to cable, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube taking the audiences with them. Execs need to embrace change, diversify, or they are gonna “die”. Just sucks that they have so much power. With a network backing a show, the hype they provide does take something "well made" to a level of prominence; networks set the tone on marketing.

I do realize commercial television is just that, commercial, funded by advertisements, motivated by profit – I’m not expecting first class “art” from these networks or anything (that’s what literature, festivals, theater, concerts, galleries are for) but executives should have limit their influence. Dammit! I just wanna laugh[in the time span of 22-26mins]! and I don’t want to rid myself of expectations/standards to obtain that. The “people in charge” need to shut up, be satisfied with the mounds of money they already have, and let the actual artists do their jobs, create, perform.

Scott said...


I'm sure it's not lost on you that your description of how network TV sitcom development is over-managed by execs and non-creative types is an exact parallel of what happened the past three decades to radio. Over-consulted, ridiculous testing paradigms and bean counters making creative decisions.

Just as there is virtually no proving ground left to develop talented, on-air personalities, I fear that the dwindling opportunities that nurture the development of young talent --let alone provide employment for proven veterans of their craft-- doesn't bode well for the future of smart and funny television.

Diane D. said...

Fantastic rant, Casey C. You speak for many. Thank you.

VP, very interesting information about Episode titles.

Professor Herb said...

Every time I read about the intrusive show destroying network people, I am confused. I study business practices for a living. Yet the product development for the broadcast networks has become counter productive: people of no talent lording over those of proven success, product features included from evaluations of nonsense, paranoia guiding decisions. How do these people even get their jobs? How do they retain them? Grant Tinker translated his producer success to that as a net exec, and he gave everyone a book where he described how he got there in both, yet the business operations seem based on everything he said not to do. There isn't anything supporting these destructive practices, yet they not only continue, they spread. You paint the tv business as a Dilbert cartoon on acid. Yet simple business guides, rules of business management, say that the business continued existence would force it all to end. I am confused.

VP81955 said...

My latest Carole & Co. entry discusses the two sitcom episode filmings I attended late last year, which are airing on successive days ("Hot In Cleveland" tonight, "Mom" tomorrow):

Anonymous said...

Sorry this is anonymous, but I know from where I speak (or words to that affect).

It's not just television. It's the corporate model that took root in the '80s with "superstar" executives who deemed themselves "creative. Then it grew from there into what it is now -- out-of-touch leaders with nit-picking, control freaky Larry Tates whispering in their ears. (See David Spade in "Coneheads" for an example).

They keep hiring -- and rewarding people -- who parrot their words back to them. The smart ones add some knowledge and common sense then make it all sound like it came from the leader. The talented have to learn covert methods to slip in their ideas and to make the oddball notes work to keep their jobs and not get "fingered."

Those who disagree are "negative" and unofficially "watched." You're like parents carefully correcting a teenager's actions and being told you "yelled at them".

I have to wonder if that's what happened on Wall Street a few years back. The economy was sure to burst at the seams, but anyone who questioned what was going on was laughed off or shut down, because the boss calls him/herself a "positive-thinking cheerleader" and disagreement, no matter how constructive, can equal negativism.

Remember the "30 Rock" episode with Carrie Fisher, when Liz Lemon won the "Followship Award?" The memo on the check said something like "For blind obedience." This is more truth than satire.

You can buy a "smart TV" but there's nothing smart to watch on the networks. That's one reason that YouTube "stars" with flimsy budgets are getting bazillions of young viewers.

Stephen Robinson said...

I agree in part with Joseph Scarborough but I think the issue is larger than "humor that's just about sex" and more than the characters in these sitcoms aren't people audiences like or want to "hang out with" every week.

I know SEINFELD was very successful with four unlikable leads but I think there was something identifiable within them, so we somewhat enjoyed watching George or Elaine do things that we ourselves might do in our darkest moments.

But SELFIE, BAD JUDGE, and some other duds all had unlikable leads with no identifiable traits. Yes, it's a writing challenge to maintain that balance but when you do, you get characters that really connect with audiences. It's the difference between Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin. Despite Homer's many flaws, which we all find amusing, he loves his family. Peter Griffin is just an ass (though that show is successful so what do I know?)

Part of this is writing and a lot of it is acting talent. Ted Danson humanized Sam Malone, Shelley Long made Diane Chambers work. Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, and so on. I think sometimes a series with an unlikable lead bombs and the creators don't understand why. But if I'd recorded "Yesterday," it would have sold five copies. The problem wouldn't be the lyrics.

The POST article mentions BLACK-ISH and MODERN FAMILY as successful sitcoms and I don't think fully points out that family sitcoms work because that is a clear identifiable hook for audiences. And a family with otherwise unlikable characters can work because they're a family. TWO AND A HALF MEN is about a family. So is BIG BANG THEORY in a way.

SEX AND THE CITY quickly became about a family (or at least a group of "sisters"), which I think is why it was more successful than the myriad clones set in New York with upscale people that never find audiences. Who was the audience for MIXOLOGY, after all?

These articles bemoaning the death of the sitcom never seem to mention the success of THE MIDDLE, which is a family sitcom about flawed people but audiences can relate to them and they are decent human beings.

cadavra said...

We should also acknowledge the massive damage done to comedy by the P.C. movement. We can no longer joke about people's gender, ethnicity, orientation, nationality, or anything else. (Note: "Racial" and "Racist" are two different things. It's all about intent and context.) Plus we can't kid religion or politics, lest we offend some oppressed majority. What's left? That's right: sex and toilet humor. So the next time you're complaining because you just heard "vagina" for the 23rd time that evening, remember WHY you're hearing it for the 23rd time that evening.

P.S.: Saw Rickles last week. He still jabbed everybody just like he did in the 60s. Nobody was offended; everyone roared, even the kids. A lesson to be learned.

Stephen Robinson said...

When was this non-PC golden age? Jokes about gender, I recall in classic sitcoms, but there are still gender jokes in sitcoms. DICK VAN DYKE or ANDY GRIFFITH avoided race, orientation, and nationality jokes, as well.

I think there was more no-holds barred comedy in the 1970s (SANFORD AND SON and THE JEFFERSONS) but those shows worked because there was heart af the core. Even Archie Bunker was allowed to offend because Edith loved him.

I just find it ironic. I think the humor of SEINFELD, FRIENDS, and FRASIER touched on all those areas you claimed the PC movement made taboo, and they were far leas tame than Mary Tyler Moore.

Denny said...

P.S.: Saw Rickles last weekend.

I honest to god thought he was dead.