This could be the first year an Internet distributor harvests an Emmy from the funny farm.
Both freshmen shows competing for the comedy series prize — Amazon Studios’ “Transparent” and Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — hail from digital outlets. Regardless of whether they take home any trophies, the noms reflect the heightened competitive field for unique and compelling laffers.
And raise the question: Have digital players changed the rules for what’s considered a top-tier TV comedy?
Opinions vary. According to some industryites, any show created for Netflix or Amazon could just as easily run on premium or basic cable — or even broadcast. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that “Kimmy,” from the “30 Rock” tag team of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, was in production for NBC before Netflix struck the deal to save it from an uncertain future.
“As much as (‘Kimmy’) was written for NBC, obviously NBC and we agreed that it wasn’t for broadcast TV really and never was,” Carlock says. “It is creatively different (to work for Netflix), but we wrote the show creatively different to begin with. Because we’re obnoxious, I guess.”
Others, though, say digital challengers are less likely to refashion a showrunner’s creative vision than television nets, which typically try to hew to a certain tone and style. And that freer rein can be a critical ingredient when it comes to comedy.
For Netflix, “What’s important to them is keeping the voice of the artist intact, rather than approaching it as, ‘How do we help the creator change their voice to fit the network?’” says Principato-Young Entertainment partner Peter Principato.
Principato, an exec producer on Netflix’s original series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” adds that the No. 1 subscription VOD provider has a relatively small team running the development process. At studios and networks, he says, “There are more layers, more decision-makers.”
Jill Soloway, creator of transgender dramedy “Transparent,” has been vocal about wanting to do her show for Amazon and no one else. Of course, that was after several TV networks gave the Jeffrey Tambor starrer a thumbs down, and she concedes the show could have worked on a channel like HBO, Showtime or FX.
However, Soloway, who’s in contention for directing and writing Emmys for “Transparent,” believes digital distributors have altered the formula for comedy success. “There’s a shift in the culture about what comedy is,” she says. “I think there’s something about the democratization of the Internet and the removal of gatekeepers that’s behind that.”
TV network execs, in Soloway’s experience, have preconceived ideas of what’s funny and acceptable to audiences (and advertisers). That’s a mindset she hasn’t encountered with Amazon, she claims: “I feel very lucky to have this creative palette.”
Needless to say, not everyone agrees. To HBO exec VP of programming Casey Bloys, the Internet arrivistes have the same advantages as premium cable in terms of not being beholden to advertising or time constraints.
“With more people getting into the business of comedy — whether that’s basic cable, pay cable or digital — the proliferation has given creators a lot more freedom,” he says. “The distinction is not digital versus everybody else. It’s subscription services versus broadcast, and we’ve enjoyed that for years.”
In fact, none of the other Emmy comedy contenders this year conforms to the old-style three-camera sitcom model. HBO has two horses in the race, “Silicon Valley” and “Veep,” alongside FX’s “Louie,” ABC’s “Modern Family” and the final season of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”
Plus, Bloys points out, the two Emmy-nommed digital series are from creators with TV pedigrees. They’re not diamonds in the rough that were discovered, say, from hilarious homegrown sketches posted on YouTube. (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” was up for a comedy Emmy in 2014; many felt it was more of a drama, and the TV Academy this year classified it as such.)
Ultimately, the disruption that Netflix, Amazon and others are causing in the TV industry boils down to one thing: the presence of aggressive new buyers, says Adam Berkowitz, co-head of CAA’s TV department. Hulu and Yahoo, for example, have planted flags in comedy by picking up shows nixed by networks. Hulu rescued “The Mindy Project,” the Fox laffer from Mindy Kaling, for a fourth season set to debut Sept. 15, and Yahoo brought season six of Dan Harmon’s cult-fave “Community” to the Internet after NBC axed it.
“The digital foray into comedy has been great for the TV business,” Berkowitz says. “It has opened up a new marketplace for high-end comedy, which has traditionally been dominated by premium cable networks like Showtime and HBO.”
Though more parties are now shooting for the Emmy prize, the fundamentals of great comedy remain the same, says Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s president of content development and original programming. The best shows aren’t necessarily trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
“Anything that’s any good,” Alterman says, “is going to offend to someone.”