When showrunners who have worked in broadcast television move to cable or streaming platforms, they are frequently asked how the newfound freedom will impact their material. Will it push them to add more explicit language? Will their characters be naked all the time? How will they push the envelope?
Admittedly, it’s a different world outside ad driven TV. “Look, we did a thing this year where there were two horses copulating right in front of our characters, and it was unbelievably graphic. And it was hilarious,” says Alec Berg, co-creator of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” “That’s not the kind of thing you can do on a network. You just can’t.”
Similarly, the network’s “Veep” features a fair amount of adult words expressing adult conflicts and a recent episode centered entirely around who exactly called the president an expletive.
Netflix’s “Master of None” opens with a broken condom and Plan B, while Amazon’s “Transparent” explores fluid sexuality and gender identity in a well-to-do California family.
But although many of the creators and showrunners of this year’s Emmy- nominated comedies have a freedom their broadcast colleagues may lack, it’s not the exploration of language and nudity that excites them creatively. “This is a fairly vague statement, but I feel like we can do anything,” says “Master of None” co- creator Alan Yang. “No one’s going to tell us no. But we take that freedom as a serious responsibility.”
The way Yang and his co-creator Aziz Ansari have decided to use that freedom is to structure each episode as a close-ended short film, and play around with pacing. “I feel like we’re free to not have three jokes a page,” Yang says. “I enjoy a lot of shows that do that, but I like that we don’t have to do that on our show. And we don’t have commercial breaks, so it’s suddenly up to us, right? It’s your responsibility to make sure that there are story act breaks. It’s your responsibility to make sure the story is funny and engaging and interesting and says something.”
On “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which was developed and shot for NBC but streamed on Netflix, broadcast vets Tina Fey and Robert Carlock jumped at the opportunity to experiment with structure. “One of the things Tina raised early was, ‘I wonder if we can play with time a little bit more, because people won’t have to wait weeks to see how something pays off?’” Carlock says.
The first season of “Kimmy Schmidt” starts with a Christmas scene, but it’s not until the eighth episode that Christmas in the bunker is put into full context. “I’m not sure that would have been something that we would have tried on broadcast,” Carlock says. “And I’m not sure it would have been something that we would have had the time for. I think we would have gotten into editing that first episode, and said, ‘OK, we’re five minutes over, that scene’s gotta go.’”
Writers and showrunners are also relieved to avoid the time constraints of ad breaks on a half-hour network sitcom. “It’s very annoying, believe me,” says Mike Schur, executive producer on “Master of None” and Yang and Ansari’s former boss on “Parks and Recreation,” who is back on NBC this fall with “The Good Place.” “Every single week when I have to get an episode down to a specific number of seconds with a specific number of acts with a specific number of act breaks, I curse my situation far more vehemently than anyone who has my job should curse anything.”
Carlock agrees with Schur. “I would say that very few [‘30 Rock’ episodes] were at their very best at 21:15 on broadcast. We always have to kill some beloved things to get there and take air out of emotional moments and lose pretty establishing shots just to get to that ultimately — from a creative standpoint — arbitrary number.”
That said, both showrunners strongly believe in parameters for creativity. “I believe obstacles and structure are good for comedy,” Schur says. “Comedy needs to be crisp. The risk of not having structure and a time limit is that you run the risk of getting flabby.”
Another, perhaps less-sexy, creative difference is the ability to use product names in dialogue. “[On network television] you can’t say Jell-O. You have to say gelatin, which nobody really says,” says Mike Judge, co-creator of “Silicon Valley.” “That’s just not right.”
Co-showrunner Berg appreciates that on HBO there are no brand-name restrictions or bans on which products can be used as props. “Because there are no sponsors, we can use any product we want as long as we don’t disparage it.”
Berg and Judge have come to value not just the ability to write what they think is funny without the limitations of advertising, but also suggestions from HBO regarding plot points. “I used to be very afraid of interference,” Berg says. “People used to come in and they’d go, ‘We need to fix this and change that.’ And that’s all wrong, but I guess I have to do it because they’re paying the bills. [Working with HBO] is a totally different process. It’s not adversarial at all and I care what they think because they’re smart and they’re helpful.”
A recent experience outside “Silicon Valley” made Berg realize the unique position he is in. “Every once in a while, my friend does a network pilot and I’ll go help out for a day,” he says. “And at the table read, there’s the director and the writer and the actors. And then, there are literally 15 executives there. I counted at the last one I was at. The most HBO folk we’ve ever had at anything was three. Usually, it’s one or two. And it’s because they find people that they think are talented. And they bet on them.”
David Mandel agrees that network trust is invaluable, especially when he assumed the role of showrunner for the fifth season of “Veep.” He also calls it a departure from some of his previous experiences. “When I was doing ‘Seinfeld’ back in the day, ‘Seinfeld’ was pretty darn funny, but most of my experiences on the networks since then is that funny is something that they don’t particularly care about. They’re so worried about a thousand other things, comedy is just an afterthought” he says. “In a lot of cases, they’ve hired you, but they want to tell you what they think is funny, which particularly doesn’t make sense.”
When Mandel took over for “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, he wasn’t sure what to expect. “One of the really great things about HBO, where they had every reason in the world to tell me how to do ‘Veep’ because it’s their baby, is they listened to what I said,” Mandel says. “There’s a reason they picked me for the job. They didn’t pick me so that they could have me do what they wanted. And that’s a very refreshing change from my more recent network experiences.”
But as any good showrunner knows, great trust comes with great responsibility. “Even though we’re getting fewer notes and there’s less looking over the shoulder, we need to be as self-critical as possible,” Carlock says. “A good network executive is a thoughtful producer. Last year, I was having writer Jack Burditt read scripts and said, ‘Just pretend to be a network executive and give us notes.’ Our feeling always was, even if you get a note that you disagree with or that you thought was poorly phrased, we would try to see it as, ‘This is a person watching the show who had a certain reaction. What are they really responding to?’”
And as the platforms multiply and opportunities grow, the only thing that matters is where your show will reach its target audience. “There’s a bunch of different systems,” Schur says. “You pick the one that’s best for your show.”