Send in the clowns

Nets' factory system no longer works on comedies

The networks have finally admitted they’ve got a sitcom problem. Unfortunately, they don’t have a clue about how to fix it.

Every year, the six networks collectively spend some $75 million to develop hundreds of comedy scripts and some 70 pilots. Of those, only 24 will get on the air. And if they’re lucky, ten will last until the end of the season.

Audiences don’t seem to want formulaic comedies (NBC’s “Friends” spinoff “Joey” hasn’t set the ratings afire) and yet don’t seem to automatically embrace innovation (Fox’s “Arrested Development,” a critical fave and an Emmy winner, sometimes draws fewer viewers than repeats of “Cops.”)

And if you’re a young writer with a clever idea for a sitcom?

“Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence says that without a proven track record, getting that original concept on the air is all but impossible.

“If you don’t already have a success behind you, the odds our your show will be a homogenous piece of dreck just like everything else you’ve seen before,” Lawrence says.

“You pitch an edgy show about a young married couple. At the end of the meeting, someone says, ‘That’s a great idea, but we’d like them to have kids. Maybe one’s a sassy, funny kid.’ Then the writer says, ‘That’s not what I had in mind.’ At that point, it becomes, how bad do you want to get on the air?”

No wonder sitcom helmer-producer James Burrows says “98%” of what he sees in network sitcoms is crap. He blames network homogenization as well as inexperienced showrunners.

“It’s how you learned, and these guys are being weaned on bad TV,” Burrows says of the new generation of TV scribes. “God knows what they’re going to turn out.”

Burrows is fed up with the network sausage factory, in which nets cut the life out of a show in order to make it “fit” in their schedule.

“They need to have confidence,” he said. “But the networks rarely create new stuff. New stuff on a network happens by accident. It’s said so many times, but TV is an imitative medium. Look what ‘Survivor’ spawned, and next year what ‘Desperate Housewives’ will spawn.”

Sitcoms now even offer fewer laughs than current one-hour dramas such as “The OC” or “Desperate Housewives.” That’s part of the problem. “I Love Lucy” set a formula that was followed for 40 years; “Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City” broke the mold. Now network execs don’t know what to look for.

There’s no doubt the new approaches being taken by the nets are much needed. And they need to be instituted fast. After all, if a sitcom hits big, the payoff is worthwhile: “Friends” and “Seinfeld” will earn $1 billion apiece thanks to syndication.

With few megahits coming down the pike, webheads and production chiefs are trying for solutions:

  • Buoyed by the out-of-the-box success of ABC’s dramedy “Desperate Housewives,” the nets, particularly NBC and Fox, are developing comedies that defy easy categorization.

    Several mockumentaries are in the works, most notably NBC’s adaptation of the Brit hit “The Office.” Both Tori Spelling and Ralph Macchio are set to play versions of themselves in sitcoms that promise to blur the lines between reality and fiction similar to “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

  • Several nets are developing laffers built around faces familiar to viewers who aren’t film or TV stars.

ABC’s working on a half-hour starring Melissa Etheridge as well as one inspired by the antics of Elton John. Over at Fox, Canadian music group Barenaked Ladies is set to topline a sketch-based laffer, while the WB is hoping rapper Bow Wow will one day wow with his comedy chops.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox TV has morphed into Playboy TV, getting into business with Carmen Electra and several other jiggle stars. n That archenemy of scripted TV, the reality show, is being used to inject new life in the sitcom form.

Fox’s “The Simple Life” is technically unscripted, but it’s hardly an accident that Paris and Nicole manage to get in as much hot water as Lucy and Ethel every week. Now, a slew of reality comedies arein the planning stage, from the WB’s “Starlet” to CBS’ “Fire Me, Please” and NBC’s Tommy Lee-goes-to-college laffer.

“We’re marrying celebrities, musicians, reality producers,” says one TV lit agent. “We’re talking to departments we never used to within the agency to find artists and clients who would have never thought of half-hour television.”

Still, scribes, agents and even some webheads believe the smallscreen’s system of developing comedies is broken.

“The whole process stifles and crushes jokes,” one agent says.

Or, as manager-producer Gavin Polone puts it, “None of the people who are running networks are good at picking comedies, with the possible exception of CBS.”

In most cases, several studio and network development execs, along with top brass at both the web and the studio, need to sign off on a script before a net will even greenlight production of a pilot episode. If a project gets to the pilot stage, network execs of various stripes — from the head of research to midlevel suits in marketing– get a say in whether the show’s any good.

“I’ve sat in meetings pitching comedies to the least funny people on the planet,” says one producer of a hit drama. “I have to imagine there are a lot of funny people out there who haven’t been given an opportunity to succeed.”

“OC” creator Josh Schwartz said he tried to develop half-hour laffers for the nets, but couldn’t figure out how to work in the webs’ convoluted development system.

“I tried, but they ended up being not so funny,” he admits. “I think it’s because there’s a certain rhythm and a set of rules as to what’s acceptable in sitcoms, and it’s hard to do well. It’s very formulaic, and the formula is kind of exhausted.”

Some also fault the networks’ obsession with creating “companion programs” for existing hit laffers.

NBC, for example, spent so much time trying to find a Thursday 8:30 p.m. show that would fit with “Friends” that the net probably missed several good shows along the way.

Hit laffers, after all, are rarely premeditated. The great shows of the last decade — “Raymond,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” — weren’t created because they fit a specific “type.” They got on the air because they were funny.

Even webheads agree that they’ve done the genre no favors in recent years.

“We raised a generation of artisans who knew how to create the perfect, sterile sitcom,” NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly says. “They tend not to be exciting or original. The networks had a hand in that. As I search for the next thing, I’m willing to try anyone who has a good voice. That’s going to be the healthiest thing that comes out of this tough cycle of comedy.”

But ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson says it’s shortsighted to blame network development execs.

“If the process is broken, wouldn’t it be broken across the board?” he asks, pointing to the strength of network drama.

That said, “Comedy is driven by a unique point of view that’s executed by someone’s vision,” McPherson adds. “If there are things that get in the way of that vision, that’s a problem.”

Some blame the lack of any sitcoms that really tie into what life is like in 2004 — and “Drew Carey” creator Bruce Helford says that’s a major problem.

In the 1970s, viewers embraced comedies about war (“MASH”) and societal upheaval (“All in the Family”). In the 1980s, it was the American family (“The Cosby Show”) and the financial struggles of middle America (“Roseanne”). The 1990s brought the age of Gen X and irreverence (“Friends”).

“It’s really about catching what the times are about,” Helford says. “It’s tough for glossy, superficial sitcoms to do that. Once someone hits those chords, you’ll see sitcoms reborn in a huge way. You simply have to find that person who ties into the dynamic of American life at that moment.”

But the networks are trying to find that right person. After two decades in the film business, Joe Roth recently signed a deal to develop comedies for CBS via sister studio Paramount. He says he’s jumping into the sitcom game because he misses the days of broad-appeal laffers that the whole country watched together, and he doesn’t believe auds have given up on the format.

“People still stand in line for movie comedies, so it wouldn’t make sense that they wouldn’t want to watch them on TV,” he says.

For now, though, anyone who doubts how bad things have become on the sitcom front need only look at NBC.

The Peacock, which a decade ago boasted 18 half-hour laffers, battled through the November sweeps with just three comedies. By comparison, ABC has eight laffers; CBS, Fox and UPN have six each; the WB programs four.

It’s telling that one “must-see” sitcom was at the center of the pop culture universe last month, with millions of Americans buzzing about it.

Unfortunately, it was a show that went off the air six years ago: “Seinfeld.” The show’s first three seasons are out on DVD, and the hype accompanying its release dwarfs anything generated by even the few successful sitcoms still on the air.

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