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Comedy’s Comeback: Networks Push Boundaries With Bold New Half-Hours

To students of television comedy, “Community” star Joel McHale is making a big transition this year.

The leading man of the most unconventional, unrelentingly meta sitcom ever to air on broadcast is moving to CBS for a multi-camera show, “The Great Indoors,” which pokes fun at the pop culture punchline of the moment: those wacky millennials. McHale plays a maverick photojournalist who is brought in from the field to rescue a magazine overrun by young staffers.

Across the dial, from broadcast to cable to streaming heavyweights, the number of comedy series is rising as networks seek a counterweight to the explosive growth of original dramas during the past five years. The expansion has opened up the playing field for traditional three-camera sitcoms as well as more esoteric single-camera fare.

Art Streiber for Variety

To McHale, the significance, in creative terms, of the single-camera vs. multi-camera format has been wildly overstated at a time when the boundaries of television comedy are being pushed from every angle.

“If you look at the way television has gone, there are so many choices, so many formats,” McHale says. “People talk about the [multicam] format going away, but it’s more that other formats entered the arena as well. Some formats became more chic, but look at Jerrod Carmichael [and “The Carmichael Show”] on NBC. Nobody is going, ‘Hey, that’s not cool.’ Nobody’s saying that. Because it is cool.”

The tidal wave of new half-hours hitting in the coming months demonstrates the breadth of material that falls under the general heading of “comedy.” From the return of Kevin James in a classic three-camera sitcom on CBS to the “traumedy” of Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” on Amazon; from the window on African-American experiences opened by Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” on FX and Issa Rae’s “Insecure” on HBO to the serialized whodunit of TBS’ “Search Party” — television comedy hasn’t seen this much innovation since Jackie Gleason and Ernie Kovacs were working for the DuMont network.

There’s simply a feeling that the national mood is ripe for a new comedy to connect in a way that hasn’t been seen in nearly a decade, since CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and ABC’s “Modern Family” first hit.

“The thing that’s so exciting and fun about half-hour right now is how malleable it can be,” says FX programming president Nick Grad. “A half-hour can be anything you want it to be, whereas with a one-hour drama, there are parameters.”

FX’s “Louie” set the tone for the new breed of emotional, highly personal storytelling that eschews traditional sitcom rhythms. Amazon’s “Transparent” and Netflix’s “Master of None,” both acclaimed for their creativity, have also helped unleash a wave of half-hours on cable and streaming platforms that play with the form.

GETTING PERSONAL: Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” chronicles her battles with illness and attempts at dealing with her mother’s death. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Comedy just for comedy’s sake is a hard thing in this day and age. There needs to be some guts to it, some heart and some character,” says prolific producer Dan Fogelman, citing “Master of None,” from Aziz Ansari, as a prime example. “But that’s the challenge — whether you call it ‘heart’ or ‘character,’ you also need to be funny.”

Tonally speaking, the spectrum has become so wide as to make some wonder if multi-cameras and single-cameras are really part of the same genre anymore.
“It is a different beast altogether,” says Jeff Filgo, co-showrunner of CBS’ new Matt LeBlanc comedy “Man With a Plan.” Single- camera shows “often have premises that are more movie-ish. [Multicam] premises need to be ‘Can this run for seven years?’ ”

Chris Harris, showrunner of “The Great Indoors,” echoes McHale’s view that the expanded playing field is good for the business of comedy overall.

“If comedy is about getting to the truths about how messed up people are, I think we’re all speaking to those truths from different directions,” Harris says. “I love that there are all these new shows coming out with new ways of hitting it.”

From a strategic standpoint, the comedy boom makes sense for networks at a time when viewers may be getting maxed out on the sheer number of antiheroes, crime sprees, and moody thrillers on the air. CBS made a point of trying to expand its comedy slate this season to eight shows spread across Monday and Thursday, after trimming back in previous seasons.

“Comedy is always a great balance to what is going on in the world,” says Julie Pernworth, CBS’ exec VP of comedy development. “Now more than ever, people need a little relief. People just want to laugh.”

Broadcast, cable, and digital outlets will serve up at least 119 new and returning scripted comedy series in the coming TV season, compared with at least 241 drama series, according to research by Variety Insight. By FX Networks’ count, 126 comedy series (excluding children’s programming) had aired this year through the end of July, not including the wave of new shows to come in 2016-17. For all of 2015, FX counted 167 comedies, compared with 218 dramas and 34 limited series.

Half-hours are less expensive to produce, which lowers the risk, particularly for cable channels that are less sensitive to ratings, and commercial-free streaming services.

“I think the thing that’s so exciting and fun about half-hour right now is how malleable it can be. Half-hour can be anything you want it to be, whereas with a one-hour drama, there are parameters.”
Nick Grad, FX

“There’s a lot less pressure on comedies than there is on dramas because their cost structure is different,” says FX programming president Eric Schrier. “When you get more people in the cable space doing comedy at a very low cost, there can be more innovation.”

At the same time, comedies can be harder to launch than dramas, requiring more patience from programmers.

“Part of the reason that some of the broadcast networks are struggling in comedy is they need things to just hit right away,” says Grad. “It’s a big word-of-mouth business. … I think there’s a business where we can really foster those voices, and it doesn’t need to be, from episode one, this smash hit. They can build over time.”

The high degree of experimentation reflects a perception that the comedy-series form is in need of reinvention, both for a new generation of target audiences (hello, millennials) and for the new ways that viewers of all ages are watching television. Some networks are taking big chances this year, not only with narrative structure, but episode orders and scheduling patterns.

The half-hour realm has been overshadowed by the intensity of the serialized drama, which has commanded so much acclaim and attention in pop culture. Viewership of half-hours has been seen as suffering from a lack of urgency to watch in real time, unlike a drama series that offers twists and cliffhangers in every episode.

Amazon is going big and bold in the genre, touting September as its “Month of Comedy.” In the period when competitors try to stay out of the way of the Big Four networks’ onslaught of premieres, Amazon has premieres set for each week, capped by the Sept. 30 debut of the first TV series created by Woody Allen, “Crisis in Six Scenes.”

In the fall, CBS is banking on established leading men, including James, McHale, and LeBlanc. ABC is breaking ground with “Speechless,” a comedy that features a teenage actor with cerebral palsy. Fox is getting out there with animation/live-action hybrid “Son of Zorn.” The CW is dipping into dramedy territory with the hour-long apocalyptic romancer “No Tomorrow.”

Laugh Riot
As the number of scripted series has climbed in recent years, the number of comedies has increased accordingly.
167 (2015); 158 (2014); 139 (2013); 122 (2012)
Credit: FX networks Research

No network has more of a comedy legacy to rebuild than NBC. The Peacock’s strategy has careened in recent years. It has gone niche and broad; there have been starry shows and wholesome ones. The network is now putting great stock in the second season of its workplace comedy “Superstore,” which showed potential last season.

The lesson learned from futile efforts during the past few seasons, according to NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, is to stop trying to find a show that can magically be all things to all people.

“Comedy is polarizing by nature,” Salke told reporters during the TV Critics Assn. press tour earlier this month. “I think the lessons learned were that you should still go for the sophisticated, smart, great creators’ point of view and get behind that. You might not please everyone. [But] do something really excellent that works for a large group of people. Don’t try to end up in the middle.”

Ted Danson is well-versed in the modern history of sitcoms, having top-lined NBC’s “Cheers” and CBS’ “Becker.” He understands what NBC is going for in his show, “The Good Place,” a new comedy from Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation”). It co-stars Kristen Bell as a morally challenged woman trying to secure her place in heaven.

Schur structured the first season as a 13-episode arc that would build to a big finish. That goes against the grain of the traditional job of broadcast TV comedies, which is to be reliable workhorses that run 22-plus episodes a year.

“We are now, in network television, competing with cable and the expectations of the audience to be delighted and surprised and not lulled into the status quo,” Danson told reporters. He pointed to the shorter order as one “that you can binge watch. … For the network to compete, I think they do have to provide this kind of exciting, propelling kind of adventure.”

TBS is taking steps that are even more dramatic with the formats of its new half-hours. “People of Earth,” about a support group for those who have experienced alien abduction (complete with extraterrestrial characters), has been billed by creator/exec producer David Jenkins as a mix of “Greg Daniels-type human comedy” and “a J.J. Abrams magic-box-type show.”

TBS’ “Search Party” revolves around college friends who band together to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a classmate. The full 10-episode run will air the week of Thanksgiving in an effort to boost binge-watching among the target millennial audience during what is presumed to be downtime from school and work.

KINGS OF COMEDY: Donald Glover (center) wrote, stars in, and produces FX’s “Atlanta” Courtesy of FX

The series will rerun on TBS during Christmas week, and then become available online on a per-episode basis. Exec producer Lilly Burns assured reporters last month that “Search Party” is “a very bingey, intense show [where] you want to see what happens next.”

Amid these efforts to reinvent the form, there’s also a belief that viewers are ready to embrace comedy that’s more escapist, as an antidote to the glut of dramas and disturbing real-world headlines.

CBS’ “Kevin Can Wait,” which brings James back to the network where he led “The King of Queens” for nine seasons, is unabashedly designed to be comfort food.
“We are a meatloaf sandwich,” James told reporters.

On the other side of the mood spectrum are a clutch of new shows in the “Louie” vein that focus on the dark and light of real life.

Pamela Adlon, a “Louie” alum, is the creator and star of FX’s “Better Things,” which hails from C.K.’s Pig Newton banner. The show draws from Adlon’s ups and downs as an actress and the single mother of three daughters. The series has its dark moments, she says, but she works to ensure that it has heart.

“I just feel like there’s really no category for this kind of thing,” Adlon told reporters. “It’s not comedy or dramedy. It’s like the ‘incredible feelings’ show.”

Kate Robin, exec producer of Amazon’s “One Mississippi,” concurs. That series is loosely based on the downward spiral that comedian Notaro faced a few years ago when she was diagnosed with an intestinal disease and cancer in both breasts, and lost her mother unexpectedly.

“We all feel like life is tragic and hilarious when seen through a comedy-seeking eye,” Robin told reporters. “When people survive through seeing the humor in things we undergo, you get a tone that feels comedio-tragic and tragicomic.”

Paul Simms, a sitcom vet who created NBC’s “NewsRadio,” has spent the past few years helping newbie creators realize their visions on comedies with very different rhythms than those that built Must-See TV in the 1980s and ’90s. He’s worked on “Flight of the Conchords,” “Girls,” “Atlanta,” and, most recently, HBO’s darkly comic half-hour “Divorce,” with Sarah Jessica Parker.

The uniqueness of the prism through which a show is presented is more vital than ever, he says. “These days it’s not enough just to be funny. With so many shows, you could make the funniest show ever and it’s not going to feel like something new.”

He jokes that in the best-case scenario, his job is akin to the Maytag repairman who is constantly waiting to address a problem that never comes. “If you’re a young, smart writer and you stay true to your vision, you know what you’re doing. It’s the people who don’t really have a clear vision that flail around,” Simms says.

FX’s “Atlanta” and HBO’s “Insecure” offer what are at times provocative looks at what it’s like to be an African-American in modern-day America. These are narratives that often don’t lend themselves to laugh lines.

“A lot of the stories are about the gray areas. You are not sure if you are supposed to laugh,” “Atlanta” director-producer Hiro Murai told reporters. “You go into it thinking it can be funny, and then you feel bad for feeling that way afterward. We are trying to create a tone in a world where those things can happen — where you are allowed to laugh at the hard jokes and the characters, but you can also feel real stakes.”

Ratings Winners
Audiences are tuning in for comedy. Here are the average audiences for some of TV’s top half-hours during the 2015-16 season.
20m – The Big Bang Theory
9.8m – Modern Family
7.2m – Black-ish
6.7m – Superstore
Source: Nielsen

Rae’s “Insecure” puts the lens on the sometimes-awkward nature of relationships between blacks and whites, and emphasizes that there is no such thing as a single black experience. The show revolves around two black women who live in South Los Angeles as they navigate their friendship, relationships, and careers.

“What Issa has done smartly, and we tried to bring it to the show, was to poke fun at these things,” “Insecure” showrunner/exec producer Prentice Penny told reporters. “Hopefully, they can start a conversation and bring an awareness, and be like, ‘Hey, we can talk about these things at work the next day — things that make us uncomfortable, things that are kind of funny.’”

“Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson made a point of road-testing the show’s pilot before the series premiered in 2014. The experience taught him that the Johnson family’s trials and tribulations would transcend race in their appeal, even as the show was grounded in an African-American perspective. “Before this pilot aired,” Anderson told reporters, “I took it around the country and played it in places and everyone overwhelmingly said, ‘When I see your family up on that screen, I see mine.’ ”

Just as the style and tone of comedy series can be wildly different, so is the yardstick by which their success is measured. For shows on ad-supported networks that are heavily dependent on ratings, the battle is not only to generate sampling, but to give viewers a reason to tune in each week.

Paul Reiser lived on the roller coaster of overnight ratings for seven seasons during the ’90s run of NBC’s “Mad About You.” Now that he’s a regular on Amazon’s “Red Oaks,” he doesn’t miss the network game one bit.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be able to say the full legacy of this show will not be established on overnights,” Reiser says. “It’s about the long range. We say: ‘Here’s the full series, go watch it at your leisure.’ That’s such a wonderful way to present it.”

But most shows won’t have that luxury. Most of the new crop will be evaluated on ratings eked out at the most competitive moment in TV history for scripted series, which explains the effort to innovate and elevate the selling points of new shows.

“Our competition is everything else and newscaster bloopers on YouTube,” says Filgo of “Man With a Plan.” “You’re not going to be funnier than the guy who has a bee fly in his mouth. So you have to build relationships with your characters.”

His wife, “Man With a Plan” co-creator and co-showrunner Jackie Filgo, is understandably daunted by the 400-plus series that will air this year. “It can make you crazy,” she says. “At some point you just have to till your own garden.” Adds her husband, “And hope that something grows.”

Geoff Berkshire and Debra Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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