Thursday, September 29, 2016

The current state of TV comedy

This is all you need to know.

I’m teaching another graduate television comedy writing seminar at UCLA. I have eight super-bright students. They’re all funny and extremely passionate about the business. They know every show on every platform. And they watch inordinate amounts of television (although rarely on their TV’s). The fact that a series is on some relatively obscure streaming service makes it just as accessible to them as if it were on NBC.

I began a discussion about which current sitcoms did they like? The results were eye-opening. There was little or no consensus on anything. Two people would love a certain show; three others would hate it. This was true for almost every show that was mentioned.

And remember, these are Millennials – the prime target the industry is trying anything to reach.

Comedy has become so niche that’s it hard to build a large following even among the desired audience.

On the one hand I applaud that creators are not trying to program to the lowest common denominator. They’re willing to take creative chances even if it means alienating a certain portion of the population.

But on the other, shouldn’t there be some middle ground? Shouldn’t there be some comedies that appeal to a broad base of Millennials? You might say, well, that’s what the broadcast networks are providing. But rarely in the conversation with my students was a network comedy even mentioned. BIG BANG THEORY was acknowledged as was THE GOOD PLACE (which many had sampled and had split opinions). But not MODERN FAMILY, BLACKISH, THE GOLDBERGS, LIFE IN PIECES, 2 BROKE GIRLS, CARMICHAEL, SUPER STORE, MOM, etc.

The viewers that networks are chasing are the viewers that have abandoned them. Clearly this year networks are trying to go more quirky, but it feels desperate, like they’re shooting wildly at a moving target.

So can it be done? Can you mount a series that is contemporary and attracts a large following? Do you have to settle for small but loyal audiences? Are Millennials even capable of agreeing on anything?

The answer of course is YES. What’s the most popular sitcom currently in syndication – not just in the US but around the world? It’s not even close. FRIENDS. Could there be a more retro multi-camera 20 year-old show than that? And yet, the reruns remain insanely popular. The group did have consensus on FRIENDS. And ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. And (of all things) GOLDEN GIRLS.

I guess what I’m saying is that making your new show too niche could be a trap. People still want to laugh. Yes, even Millennials. Maybe the way to reach them is not some bizarre edgy show that breaks all the rules but appeals to .000001 of the population. Maybe the key is to go back to the essence of what made those iconic shows work. Genuinely caring about the characters and their predicaments. Placing a high priority on making the show actually funny. Dealing with universal relatable issues and themes.

Hey, it couldn’t hurt. The industry is trying everything else.

Until eight whip-smart funny graduate students can agree on a show I think there’s work still to be done.


Curt Alliaume said...

I dunno. A few years ago, NBC tried The Michael J. Fox Show, which seemed to have multigenerational appeal, and it flopped pretty badly. This may have been because America didn't want to see one of their favorite actors of years past showing the signs of Parkinson's disease, but it seemed such an obviously appealing option. (Really, how much difference is there between that and Kevin Can Wait?)

Carol said...

My son who is 19, and therefore I assume a 'Millennial' type person, recently found Friends on Netflix and has been watching it quite frequently. He even taught himself to play the theme song on his guitar. So, yeah, you're pretty on-point here, I think.

I've been watching the Dick Van Dyke show on Netflix myself. Not sure what that says about me. :)

Andrew said...

I don't believe that tv/film students living in LA are representative of millennials who are not tv/film students living in LA.

Mitchell Hundred said...

I don't know, I'd argue that if comedy has become niche-ier today, it's more due to the audience having a multitude of ways through which to obtain their media. The shows you cited all came from times when there were far fewer outlets producing content, which means that their reputation has become much more solidified in the students' minds. I mean, Arrested Development wasn't some TV juggernaut: it was a critically acclaimed show with low ratings and an incredibly dedicated fanbase.

B.A. said...

I judge the state of TV by commercials (how many, quality). Outside of prime time it's mostly lonnnng PSAs featuring shivering dogs or cleft palates, and the general barrenness reminds me of the current Yellow Pages, half of it ads urging you to buy space. Or a mall with half the stores boarded up. I can't see young people wanting to commit to this "platform" when they can find BOJACK HORSEMAN on their phones or play computer games.

404 said...

My 14-year daughter has discovered FRIENDS, and absolutely loves it. I guess certain things, like high-quality writing, just don't go out of style? I think it goes back really to character development. Those three shows you mentioned are as well known for the strength of the characters in the show as they are for the strength of the jokes, if not more so. Once an audience falls in love with a character, I think they're willing to forgive a certain amount of otherwise sub-par stuff.

Rick Wiedmayer said...

How many of your students have gone on to write for Television?

kent said...

Keep on mind that your students are not really representative of Millennials in general. Your students are highly intelligent graduate students who are specializing in comedy writing, they are future industry Insiders.

The general public still watches Mom.

ChipO said...

You could sell "spectator seats" to the class. We promise to be quiet, sit "behind the bar", though probably not able to muffle chuckles.

Ed Dempsey said...

Good morning Ken,

I'm curious to get your impression of the new drama "This is Us". While not a comedy, I found watching the one character melt down while taping a sitcom an interesting scene. Your thoughts.


Unknown said...

Curious, how many of your previous students have careers in the industry? Any achieved major success?
I ask because I wonder if successful writers just have it. Not something you can learn. You can learn to refine your technique, but if all you can do is fart jokes, you will be limited, and poor, and work on CBS....

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I'm not even going to get into it anymore, because I've gotten into so many times on this blog, and most people here disagree with my opinion anyway on the grounds that I'm an uneducated, uncultured, closed-minded jerkass.

So, I'm just going to sum it up in one brief paragraph: stop making TV comedies all about the sex. Stop making situations who sleeps with who. Stop making dialogue about people's body parts. And stop making characters one-dimensional, unlikeable jerkasses. Comedies used to feature situations that, while at times far-fetched and absurb, you could buy into, and had characters that were appealing, likeable, and that you could actually invest in - even if they were quirky. There was something for everybody in those types of comedies, so let's just go back to that already.

Covarr said...

It's interesting that FRIENDS and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would show up as universally popular shows, since they're both just as quirky (if not way more so in AD's case) as anything on television today. the difference, I think, is that the quirkiness was used in those shows as a tonal backdrop, rather than the joke itself.

I can understand how this thinking comes about. Allow me to totally guess what was going through the creators/execs' minds.

Person 1: None of our shows are bringing in the ratings we want. What do we do?
Person 2: How about a new show modeled after something well-remembered and with a history of mostly great ratings?
Person 1: You mean CHEERS? That's brilliant. We could do our own CHEERS! But instead of a bar, let's make it a diner.
Person 2: Yeah, and... I know. Let's also borrow from FRIENDS and BIG BANG THEORY. Those are popular, right?
Person 1: Okay. What do they have that CHEERS doesn't?
Person 2: The characters are all roommates.
Person 1: Sweet, another setting. I think we're eighty percent of the way there. Now we just need a draw—something to set it apart from other shows.
Person 2: They say "vagina" a lot.
Person 1: Brilliant! Get this on the air as soon as possible!

It's easy, if you don't really understand television, to look even at something popular and successful, grab the wrong data, and totally misinterpret it. A public setting with lots of customers, for example, certainly has potential, but it's meaningless unless you have great characters both individually and with a strong group dynamic to back it up.

Even a less satirical, more serious examination of the show's characters doesn't hold up all that well. There's sort of an upside-down quality to everything. Characters have certain jokes woven into their identities, which boxes them all into merely restating those identities instead of telling new jokes. When you attempt to give a character a funny backstory or quirk, you create something that's funny to DESCRIBE rather than to USE. It's like a more meta-level failure to apply show-don't-tell.

To bring up the CHEERS comparison I made before, it didn't work because it was set in a bar. It worked because each of the characters was believable as a person, had a strong personality that set a good foundation for jokes, and had a unique and defined relationship with each other character. It's not because the characters are funny to describe. Frankly, there's no laughs be found in "Cliff is a know-it-all postman who takes his job too seriously and isn't good at shutting up." It's all in the application.

But when you examine the great shows of the past upside-down, you end up seeing everything all wrong, focusing on the setting and the quirks over the characters, and then shoehorning jokes into their descriptions rather than giving them room for jokes to naturally evolve in the scripts. And when a mama writer and a papa writer do that, a little baby 2 BROKE GIRLS is born. Out of its mother's vagina.

Unknown said...

Tomorrow (the 30th) is my 66th birthday.

This makes me a "baby boomer" - a term that makes me gag even as I type it.

I've been following the TV business most of my life; what I didn't experience directly as a viewer - the past - I read up on as I "matured". Tis is harder than you might expect, given that most "histories" of TV programming tend to be agenda-driven and wildly contradictory.

It's rare that i can find as many as two accounts of the same event that agree on the salient facts of any situation (come to think of it, that applies to almost anything that happens in the world ...).

Anyway, TV is the one sport I still follow, although expansion has made it harder over the years.

The one conclusion I've been able to arrive at:

Television - and show business generally - went to hell in a basket when everybody got all scientific about it.

The idea that you can tag a group of people - any group of people - as Milennials, Boomers, or anything else, and then come up with programming that will satisfy all of that group, is in flat-out defiance of human nature, not to mention common sense.

Ken's class is merely one example of this. All of you can find examples of your own - in your families, in your workplaces, among your circle of friends.

If you should ever find as many as two people in this world whose beliefs, likes, dislikes, and prejudices coincide in toto, call Ripley's Believe It Or Not!

Cat said...

Not completely unrelated: did an interview with Mike Schur, who created The Good Place, and it turns out that he is a Cheers superfan, who credits his inspiration for writing and comedy to the show, and has only glowing praise for Mr. Danson, who is his comedy-timing idol. It's a good read.

michael said...

You are forgetting the wisdom of William Goldman - nobody knows anything. The world declared the end of the sitcom, then The Cosby Show appeared. Who could have thought Seinfeld would reach a mass audience? Someone will do a show that makes them laugh and it will connect like the Big Bang Theory has.

Will someone explain to me if advertisers favorite audience is the millennials born in the 1980s why does everyone claim the 18-49 demo is all that matters? Why are non-millennials in their forties still included? That is not even asking why we focus on age demos when there are products aimed at men or women only. ABC wants to know. Maybe then describe why Blue Bloods survives with its ratings in near the bottom of the 18-49 but in the top 20s of the total viewers.

Is it possible to have a successful show more than one simple way.

Tim said...

As a 20 Year Old who has watched a lot of TV comedy, I want to go ahead and put in a good word for the only show of the past decade to crack my Top 5: Parks and Recreation. The show does an excellent job of staying modern and fresh without giving up any of the "old fashioned" trappings of the classic sitcoms we all love. Also from the mind of Mike Schur, who is easily one of my comedy writing heroes.

michael said...

Mike Doran, hi! I had just posted when I returned to read yours. You and I have had this discussion before (and enjoyed it). I like demos. Go to the cereal aisle at the local grocery store and you can see products not aimed at the total audience but demos. The problem I have is it is not the 1990s - the 18-49 demo is too big and misses groups that matter such as men and women. Yes, I am on the side of more science. Ratings are complex, detailed and come from more than Nielsen. Each network has its own research department.

Where TV is going ratings will mean less and less. Streaming services such as Netflix makes its money off total subscribers, so if you have a show only a few people are watching it can be a success if it is loved by a loyal but small audience willing to pay for the entire Netflix service just for that show. Remember Fringe? Ratings were not good but they hit a small group an automobile company was trying to reach - that kept the show profitable.

I agree with Mitchell Hundred comment above that a mass audience is harder to find in a world of over 400 original series and a variety of platforms. The days of just three choices for the audience are gone.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Millennial here. Can we talk about the elephant in the room? None of these shows are being created by Millennials. Friends was written by a room full of thirty-somethings. Try find more than one thirty-something in a network comedy room these days. Trust me, I've been there. Half of the shows you mention were created by writers old enough to be our parents. There was a NY Times article from upfronts this year where a Millennial is quoted as saying most TV comedies use slang that their parents would use. Which is true, because it's their parents who are writing it.

This is a huge problem for the industry and no one seems to care. The pyramid of having a bunch of lower level writers has been inverted. Most shows have a large number of consulting producers (more than half the staff on three of the sitcoms I've worked on). That's insane. There's no room for younger voices. So of course younger people aren't going to watch those shows.

How I Met Your Mother was very popular and it was created by two guys who were coming off of Letterman and turning 30. It's no coincidence. The average age of TV writers has gone up ten years in the past ten years - and so has the average age of the audience.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Covarr You pretty much hit the nail on the head, though to be fair, they've been doing that as far back as TV goes. After all, let's look at the 60s: fantasy sitcoms were the big thing that decade, such as MISTER ED, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, THE MUNSTERS, BEWITCHED, and I DREAM OF JEANNIE, to name a few. Then we get into the 70s: ALL IN THE FAMILY virtually paved the wave for a flood of social commentary sitcoms such as THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (yeah, I know it came out before ALL IN THE FAMILY, but you know what I mean), M*A*S*H, SANFORD AND SON, and others. Fast-forward to today, and your little satirical write-up pretty much defines it. Another commentator, Tim, mentioned he feels PARKS AND RECREATION is a great example of modern comedies, but it's one of countless copies of THE OFFICE, which has pretty much set the new standard for single camera sitcoms: bland, dull, and awkward mockumentary style.

@Anonymous It shouldn't have to matter what kind of slang or vocabulary a show uses as long as the writing in general is well and solid. M*A*S*H may have used terminology that I was unfamiliar with, but that doesn't even matter when you consider how strong that show was in its storytelling. There isn't a single well-written show on TV today - as others have pointed out, writing has pretty much dropped to the point of seeing how many times the characters can say "vagina" (or even "penis") in a single episode. That's not good writing.

Still, slightly off-topic, I dislike the term "Millennial." Considering I was born in the tail-end of the 80s, grew up mostly in the 90s, the term "Millennial" makes it sound as if I was born and raised during the Turn of the Millennium.

Andy Rose said...

The all-inclusive 18-49 demo is shorthand in the industry that points out the 50-and-older audience generally doesn't appeal to any advertisers. But most shows (and sometimes entire networks) delve much deeper into target demographics. Some shows are targeted at men, others at women. Increasingly the prime-time show developers focus on women because they assume most men are watching sports or playing video games.

They also look at education and income levels. Golf is a somewhat expensive sport to cover that gets terrible age demos, but it attracts a well educated, higher income audience that buys luxury items, so Cadillac is willing to pay a premium to get its ads there. That's also why the radio industry has lasted longer than it probably had any right to. Their formats are so specific and so targeted to narrow demographics that advertisers looking for a specific demo can still spend their dollars very efficiently in radio. You want to target a youngish white audience? Buy CHR. You want a slightly older audience that has more money? Buy Adult Contemporary or Active Rock. Looking for a young male-skewing black audience? Buy Hip-hop. Focused exclusively on a male audience? Buy Sports Talk.

18-35 is more desirable than 18-49, and there have been some networks like MTV that used to tout their ability to deliver that audience. The problem is that so many Millennials have fled traditional TV that it's very difficult for anybody to promise that audience to advertisers now. Even MTV hasn't figured out how to crack that nut yet.

Donald said...

I can't remember the last time I had such an instantly visceral dislike for a show as I did with "Love." Ironic title, that.

Dhruv said...

Agree with you that “Friends” keeps getting new viewers and still the most popular show across the world.

I am amazed at how in India the neo-English class (the very large section of our population which, till now could read-write English, speak haltingly, but rarely saw English sitcoms) are slowly but steadily have become addicted to “Friends”.

One reason could be the use of English subtitles, this helps new viewers who are not used to conversational English.

Second is due to the boring one-dimensional family drama crap in their own regional languages, which has driven them to English channels.

Third, “Friends” never went for the diversity dimension. Just good comedy with good actors

But Hollywood as always has gone for the overkill. To embrace all these new millions (market) into their fold, have started using horrible Indian actors/actresses with fake Indian accents in their sitcoms.

Hence the inevitable backlash – ‘Big Bang Theory’ flopped here in India and has been kicked to the past midnight slot. They deserved it too - that actor playing Indian was not even born here, a British actor playing with fake Indian accent. 'Old western world' disdainful view of Indian society like comments on beggary and such. No sir...we didn't find it funny... so moved onto other better sitcoms and they got kicked.

Elf said...

Well, of course none of your students are going to mention 2 Broke Girls. They've got to be smart enough to have read your blog and would know that to cite 2 Broke girls as a favorite would be the easiest path to getting an F from Prof. Levine.

H Johnson said...

I don't care who you aim a show at, the writing has to be good. Then if you are lucky enough to have unique actors for the parts you might have a chance at a hit. Nothing for sure but maybe. One thing is for sure, without those two things as your base, it doesn't matter where your story is set, or what job your characters do, or what the hell their sexuality is, you won't have a hit.

I just can't imagine anyone looking at a program description and saying "Oh look! They hang out in a coffee house. Let's watch this" Or "Wow! She lives with a Cuban nightclub singer. Let's watch this for the rest of time!"

The actor portraying the character has to be compelling and the writing has to be great.

And this idea that you have to aim the shows at millennials because they are the great spenders is misguided, I have two at home and believe me, I'm the bank. So if you please pay the writers more and kill the suits. It's a start.


Kenneth Sanchez said...

In terms of show that could have mass appeal I always though if not for the unappealing title that caused "Cougartown" to lose potential eyeballs off the bat it is something that could be recieved well to a lot of people. Like Friends,GG and Cheers it is charecter driven and you have a lot of different broad archetypes of people in the cast could gravitate to as a favorite.

VP81955 said...

I will never truly understand the overwhelming appeal of "Friends." While I'll concede it was competently made, its smug attitude (thanks to a lot of TimeWarner corporate logrolling) makes it a terribly overrated series to me; it lacks the wit of "Frasier" or the edge of "Seinfeld."

And while Millennials aren't the target audience for "Mom," I'm shocked no one in Ken's class mentioned it. Then again, CBS treats it with little respect, making its fanbase wait until November to see its season debut -- and since it's a multi-camera sitcom filmed before a live audience, it already has two strikes against it to much of the Millennial crowd.

ScottUSF said...

Hi Ken,

Possible Friday topic.

I’m enjoying the new comedy “Speechless” and it’s nice to see a family with a disabled child, especially knowing that the actor is actually disabled and NOT playing it that way. I’m also interested in the choice to let Minnie Driver keep her accent and not choose for her to “play American”. It makes sense to me, since there are actually Brits living in America. I assume we’ll get some interesting backstory on that choice, and see some additional quirky family members played by British actors.

Here is my question – can you talk about the producer’s choice to keep her accent, since we know that Minnie Driver can do a believable American accent. Did you ever have a similar situation in your shows?

Pat Reeder said...

I think that one of the problems with today's comedy not hitting with mass audiences is hidden in something you said: that all your students who want to be comedy writers watch every sitcom on every format in existence. To do that, you have to spend every waking moment watching TV. Writers should live life. When all you do is watch TV, you just regurgitate stuff you've already seen on TV.

Think about those sitcoms that are still so popular: "MASH," "Andy Griffith," "The Golden Girls," "Friends," "Frasier," "Cheers," etc. The characters in them save lives, go out on dates, attend the opera, make bar bets, go to church, have conversations at coffee houses or in the kitchen over cheesecake, sing songs on the front porch, and so on. The one thing you seldom see them do: watch television. How can writers create characters like that when their entire lives revolve around watching TV?

I realized how pervasive this insular effect had become years ago when I was asked to be head writer on a locally-produced sketch comedy show. Every sketch handed in was in the form of a TV show. If it was about two people talking on park bench, it started with an announcer saying, "And now, time for another episode of 'Two Guys on a Park Bench.'" I suggested that they cut that part and instead of having it be a TV show about two guys talking on a park bench, just let it be two guys talking on a park bench. They looked at me like I was speaking Esperanto.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Too funny the timing of this. The wife & I had a wedding to attend this past weekend. Our baby sitter is an 18 yr old HS senior.
We get home just before 11PM. What's she watching? Nick at Nite marathon of "Friends" --I had to laugh.

Also, love your Vin Scully stories. He's the best.
I was in a pet store recently, late at night and the cashiers (both millennials - a guy & girl) were making an closing time announcement over the loud speaker.
I say: You're like the Vin Scully of this place.
He says: Who?
I say: Vin Scully. The Dodgers radio announcer.
He says: I don't watch sports.

Ken, you wonder why America is in the state it's in, --LL