Despite the power and prestige cable dramas carry with Emmy voters, their comedy counterparts have faced an uphill climb in the past.
Last year’s comedy series win for HBO’s “Veep” broke broadcast’s 13-year winning streak in the category, becoming only the second cable show after “Sex and the City” to claim the top prize. (Drama honors have gone to cable all but four times over the same period.)
This year, the comedy race includes two broadcast titles (ABC’s “Black-ish” and five-time winner “Modern Family”), a pair from cable (HBO’s “Veep,” up for reelection, and “Silicon Valley”), and three digital shows (Netflix’s “Master of None” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and Amazon’s “Transparent”).
“Even in the comedy race, we’re getting edged out,” says “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, whose show is a first-time nominee in the category. “I think that a lot of the reason that networks are having to swim upstream in those races is the storytelling has to be more exciting and provocative and a little bit nuanced to include more groups. It had gotten so same-old, same-old.”
Over the years, some network comedies have found creative ways to push the limits of what they’re allowed to talk about, be it the double entendres of “Arrested Development,” which won best comedy series in 2004, or the classic “Seinfeld” episode “The Contest,” which earned Larry David his lone comedy writing Emmy.
In that tradition, “Modern Family” took on teen sex and “Black-ish” discussed the evolution of the N-word. But between network censors and the requirement to produce double (or triple) the number of episodes per season than their cable and digital brethren, broadcast comedies face daunting challenges.
|“It’s harder to do 22 or 24 episodes a year than it is to do 10 or 13. But we’re not complaining.”|
“There’s a general feeling that network channels aren’t as cool; they aren’t quite as cutting-edge as some cable and digital shows,” says “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan. “I don’t want to, in any way shape or form, look like I’m complaining about all the disadvantages that poor ‘Modern Family’ has had when we have been so fortunate in this department. That said, it’s harder to do 22 or 24 episodes a year than it is to do 10 or 13. But we’re not complaining. We’re not saying it’s unfair. It just is what it is. We’re happy, after seven seasons, to just be in the mix at all.”
Christopher Lloyd, “Modern Family” co-creator, began his writing career on “Golden Girls.” Years of experience have taught him to accept that this is the downside of having a successful show.
“The studios and networks want to make them for as cheap as possible, which means fewer writers and tighter production schedules,” he says. “If you happen to be on a good show that’s doing 24 episodes a year, you’re burning through good stories in a short amount of time. By the time you’re in your fourth or fifth or sixth season, you’re already in your 150th episode where it is hard to find new areas to go. At least from an awards standpoint, you’re competing with people who are only on their 20th or 30th episodes because their orders are shorter. But that’s a high-class problem.”
Barris adds that “cable and streaming networks seem to really campaign for their shows in a major way.” Other than a few exceptions, he says, “I don’t see broadcast networks really having that sort of reach.”
No matter the rewards, both the “Modern Family” duo and Barris stress that maintaining a creative edge on broadcast begins with teamwork. “Love your writers and know that you can’t do it without them,” Barris says. “Expect them to go get rest and come back in with energy. We’re running our own race and we’ve got to pace ourselves because it’s a marathon and not a sprint.”
But is he afraid of tripping over the biggest hurdle of all: writer’s block?
“Don’t put that out there,” he says, a bit nervously. “It has not happened yet, but I’m sure that it will and I would not be shocked if it did. It definitely helps when you have a staff that you feel like you can just talk to. That has been our secret power: we have a show that we all enjoy.”