One big takeaway from this year’s crop of Emmy nominees in the comedy series category is it pays to break the mold — including your own.
Three nominated series executed daring stylistic departures from their established status quos: “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” savagely sent up true-crime documentaries with “Party Monster: Scratching the Surface,” delving into the history of DJ-turned-kidnapper/would-be cult leader the Reverend (Jon Hamm); the “Black-ish” episode “Juneteenth” adopted the Broadway musical “Hamilton’s” brand of historical enlightenment; and “Atlanta,” which has made unconventional narrative styles a signature, delivered the disturbingly creepy/funny horror pastiche “Teddy Perkins” and the poignant all-childhood flashback episode “FUBU.”
Another contender, “GLOW,” didn’t defy format in its nominated season, but recent second season entry “The Good Twin” played as a complete episode of the fictional cheap-and-cheesy ’80s wrestling series the show’s characters star in.
“Atlanta” executive producer Stephen Glover, who wrote the “FUBU” episode, says mold-breakers come from seemingly crazy writers’ room notions that inspire a commitment to execute something dramatically different.
“It’s hard to do new things in television,” he says, “but if we feel like there’s a good idea or something cool, we think, ‘Let’s try and make this work. Let’s figure out how we can do that.’”
The well-received first season TV network parody episode “B.A.N.” proved the writers could color outside the lines. While they didn’t want to repeat that style, they felt empowered to keep breaking the show’s own rules: “FUBU” sprang from the writers’ shared resistance to flashbacks — yet Glover’s story felt both so personal and universal that everyone agreed an all-flashback approach would make it resonate further, while still fitting into the season’s overall arc.
His brother, series creator Donald Glover, penned the “Teddy Perkins” episode, which began with a much sillier premise and evolved into near full-horror — while still infusing humor.
“A lot of that came from Donald talking to us and us trying to figure out something that was better than just a slapstick comedy episode, but at the same time could be funny,” Glover says.
Format-busting has a long tradition among comedy series, dating back to 1963 when “The Dick Van Dyke Show” set an episode within the fictional “The Alan Brady Show” its TV writers worked on. Later, “MASH” perfected genre-shifting, with several innovative single-episode formats, including a black and white newsreel, a patient’s POV and a real-time narrative. Other more recent sitcoms have experimented with one-off departures as well, including “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “NewsRadio.”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” executive producer Robert Carlock — whose previous sitcom “30 Rock” memorably pulled off the standalone “Queen of Jordan,” mocking the reality series form — says that when discussing unconventional episodes, there’s always some debate about whether such envelope-pushing might alienate faithful viewers.
“[There is] that risk of ‘Wait a minute, are we really going to do an episode where we see our [main] characters only at the very end?’” Carlock says. “It really was a different show with a lot of characters, including the Reverend, who we don’t see that much, and for good reason. … I remember outlining the episode on the whiteboard and saying ‘OK, you’re writing ‘DJ Fingablast talks to Fran,’ and you think ‘What are we doing here?’”
Carlock admits that because of this, the writers considered making Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) more prominently involved in the documentary. Ultimately, they decided against it and in doing so they realized they didn’t have to worry “about the before and after” of the episode as much.
“You can make these kinds of leaps within the scope of one episode, which is very freeing,” he says.
“Juneteenth” writer Peter Saji says “Hamilton’s” “revolutionary way to tell a historical narrative, while giving voice to an underrepresented segment of the population” made its form appropriately adaptable for “Black-ish.” But there was one concern: “Sitcom musicals are often lackluster. They’re fun, but not all actors are hyphenates and there isn’t enough Autotune to save them.”
But in this case, he says, the cast rose to the occasion. “In only one week, they had to not only learn their lines, but they also had to learn choreography and record two songs,” he says. “I’m convinced they’re not human.”
Similarly, crews working on genre-bending shows often relish the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles and collaborate with outside specialists: “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” tapped “Documentary Now” helmer Rhys Thomas to direct; Saji wrote song lyrics with Fonzworth Bentley and Aloe Blacc.
“Every single department — props, wardrobe, set decoration, hair and makeup — they all gave 110%,” says Saji. “The success of ‘Juneteenth’ taught us there’s literally nothing our ‘Black-ish’ family can’t do.”
Glover agrees — and promises to keep taking viewers along for a ride. “We don’t ever want people to feel comfortable with our show,” he says. “That’s a big key with us: we want to keep people off balance.”