Dramas embrace half-hour refugees
TV scribe Joe Keenan spent most of his career writing for multi-camera half-hour comedies — and even exec produced one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the past decade, “Frasier.”
But when CBS unceremoniously dumped his followup, the under-rated “Out of Practice,” Keenan knew the writing was on the wall.
With few comedies out there — and even fewer traditional multi-cam, studio audience laffers — he accepted an offer to join ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”
Comedy writers, who lived like kings during the 1990s, are learning that if they want to work in the latter part of this decade, they’re going to have to adapt to the new primetime order.
“It certainly makes sense to broaden your horizons,” Keenan says. “I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to diversify. The jobs are not there. I know a lot of people I’ve worked with in the past who are looking for work and not finding it.”
After “Out of Practice” was cancelled, Keenan says he went hunting for a single-camera comedy, never having worked on one. Then he ran into “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry at the GLAAD Awards, and the two began to chat.
Cherry is the poster boy for career reinvention. Despite a resume thick with laffers (including “The Golden Girls”), the scribe’s career was on its last legs when he switched course and wrote the campy one-hour sudser that would become “Housewives.”
“Housewives” contains enough comedy — ABC even enters the show in the Emmy laffer categories — that it has proven to be a perfect bridge to the hour-long world for a comedy vet like Keenan.
“I was interested in trying the show’s mix of satire and creepiness,” says Keenan, who this year focused his writing on the relationship between Bree (Marcia Cross) and her mysterious new husband Orson (Kyle MacLachlan).
He also wrote November’s pivotal episode “Bang,” in which characters are held hostage in a supermarket by an unbalanced neighbor.
“Having concentrated purely on comedy, it was nice to write an episode so dark like ‘Bang,’ ” he says. “You don’t get to kill people in multi-camera comedy. It’s great to explore other kinds of scenes that you’ve never written before.”
Keenan places some of the blame for comedy’s decline on critics, who he believes have been too quick to trash multi-camera laffers in favor of fare like “The Office” and “30 Rock.” But he also blames the networks for killing the golden goose, having OD’ed on laffers in the late 1990s.
In those heady days, comedy scribes were given multimillion-dollar development deals just by showing up to work. And scribes were given their own shows after barely paying their dues on more successful comedies.
The result? Viewers soured on too many mediocre laffers.
Now, 10 years later, there are so few comedies on the air that every time another veteran show ends its run, the marketplace is flooded with even more out-of-work scribes.
“I hadn’t been on a show in a season or two, and that meant I was competing with a lot of people coming off successful shows,” says “Six Degrees” story editor Pang-ni Landrum. “When a show like ‘Raymond’ or ‘Will & Grace’ go down, that means all those comedy writers are being introduced into the market. Seeing how few comedies were being picked up, I saw the writing on the wall.”
Landrum, whose experience included writing on “Malcolm in the Middle,” decided to try her hand at something entirely different: Writing a spec script for the procedural “Without a Trace.” She eventually wound up on “Six Degrees,” a relationship-fueled drama with comic elements. Its staff includes several comedy scribes on staff.
“I was fortunate that my first experience in hour-long was a nice hybrid of what I was used to,” she says. “Our show aims to have that nice mix of comedy and drama, and it helps having people who come from that background.”
“Bones” exec producer Stephen Nathan, who spent years writing on shows such as “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Love & War,” says he looks at hiring comedy scribes in order to bring out the show’s humor and develop its characters — something that may be unfamiliar to writer on a procedural drama.
“With ‘Bones,’ we can be as funny as we ever were on a sitcom, but it’s an odd, macabre kind of humor,” he says. “One of our writers this year came off both ‘Killer Instinct’ and ‘Kitchen Confidential.’ She’s got a fabulous sense of both sides, and that just helps enormously.”
Nathan moved to the drama side in the late 1990s just as he felt the sitcom world was starting to get “tired.”
Now, with the lines blurring between comedy and drama, he believes they’re “getting great again.” Most of TV’s newer comedies, including “How I Met Your Mother” and “My Name Is Earl,” include a fair amount of drama.
At the same time, after years of procedural dominance, humor is creeping back into hour-longs — including top-rated “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House,” for starters.
“The line between what’s a comedy and what’s a drama has never been more blurry,” says one top-level agent. “It’s now totally fungible. Writers can go back and forth between an ‘Ugly Betty’ and an ‘Office’ or a ‘Scrubs.’ ”
The real question, he says, is how much more evolution the sitcom will go through before it finally experiences a renaissance on par with the drama’s modern golden age.
“People are still focused on the holy grail, and there’s still a strong feeling that a comedy will break out and pave the way for other comedy successes,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Dana Walden.
In the meantime, however, the agent says it wouldn’t hurt to keep up with the times — such as writing a single-camera script sample, and toting around original material such as a feature script or a one-act play. That “Two and a Half Men” spec isn’t going to cut it.
“At the heart of it, you just have to be able to tell a good story,” Landrum says. “If you’re able to do that, then I think you can adapt to anything.”