Eleven of the TV industry’s top comedy creators and showrunners came together to talk about the so-called return of the broadcast sitcom, the daunting task of reshaping and adhering to beloved IP and why the workplace comedy is still a tried-and-true format during Variety‘s “A Night in the Writers’ Room” event Thursday.
During the comedy roundtable, TV editor Michael Schneider chatted about these topics and more with Jenny Bicks (“Welcome to Flatch”), Quinta Brunson (“Abbott Elementary”), Dave Burd (“Dave”), Greg Daniels (“Upload”), Chris Miller (“The Afterparty”), Tracy Oliver (“Harlem”), Saladin K. Patterson (“The Wonder Years”), Joe Port (“Ghosts”), Issa Rae (“Insecure”), Meredith Scardino (“Girls5eva”) and Hayden Schlossberg (“Cobra Kai”).
Brunson, who said in a recent Variety cover story that she does not want credit for the “return” for broadcast comedy to go to her and ABC’s “Abbott Elementary”, elaborated on that opinion by saying, “I only think the success of ‘Abbott’ is as great as a lot of the other shows of people sitting here right now.”
“We got to come off the heels of ‘Insecure’ going off the air and I think that meant a lot for ‘Abbott.’ l think people left, I know I did, saying, ‘What the hell am I gonna watch now?'” Brunson said. She thinks that’s when viewers were able to come over to ABC’s “Abbot Elementary” and “The Wonder Years,” CBS’ “Ghosts,” NBC’s “American Auto” and “Grand Crew” and Fox’s “Welcome to Flatch” to get their comedy fix via what is still the largest-reaching medium for TV — broadcast networks.
“I knew I wanted it to be a show for anybody to watch anywhere: home, jail, here, wherever they needed to watch it,” Brunson said. “I knew I wanted it on network television. And so, there it is.”
Speaking of the end of “Insecure,” which had its home far away from broadcast on premium cabler HBO, Rae said that “the scariest part” of her comedy’s conclusion was that how the audience left these characters was her decision to make.
“We were, in the beginning, so caught up on how to land the plane, a terminology that we were really using and that puts so much pressure on it,” Rae said. “[Writer and producer] Amy Aniobi was like, ‘Guys, we’re not landing the plane, these characters lives aren’t ending and they’re going to continue after this… So the plane will be in the air and we as writers are just jumping out.’ That was really helpful and freeing, and so we were able to just kind of take the pressure off and write like we were gonna have another season, but we’re not.”
Pressure for comedy writers comes in all shapes and sizes, including the physical toll it can take on those who are both creators and stars of their series, like Dave Burd, aka Lil Dicky, of FXX’s “Dave.”
“I make music and making music is probably more mentally exhausting. But making a TV show is just literally physically, like, my body by the end… literally like, my back is not the same. I’m not kidding,” Burd said. “I know I’m getting older, so it’s probably a factor, but I physically am different than I was at the beginning of doing this. So it’s not funny, but.”
Greg Daniels, the creator of the U.S. version of “The Office,” arguably the biggest broadcast comedy hit of the modern era, spoke about how even a passion project like his Amazon Prime Video comedy “Upload” can become exhausting with how much time it takes to get a streaming show going and then how quickly its consumed.
“I sold it in 2015. And I’ve only managed to squeeze out 17 episodes since then,” Daniels said. “But for me, I wanted to do nudity, I had all these things that I wanted to do. And I did all that kind of stuff in the pilot. And then I was like, ‘Okay, well that was uncomfortable and awkward and weird.’ So I went back to making it more, I guess, a comedy or something. I’d have to bleep some stuff to get it on network, but I would love to have it drop every week. The way that that rollout is, I kind of feel like I’m publishing a book every two years and it just comes out one weekend.”
Meanwhile, “Ghosts” showrunner Joe Port spoke about how the CBS sitcom strikes both a comedic and dramatic chord that isn’t always easy for a half-hour network series to get to.
“It may sound kind of Pollyanna-ish, but the thing I love about the show is that it’s this group of people that never would have met, that never would have been together, that never would have known each other… It’s hard to ‘other’ people when you have to deal with them,” Port said. “And I think that’s a good thing that the show allows us to explore.”
Jenny Bicks said the same goes for “Welcome to Flatch.”
“It’s about a small town, but it’s really about how hard it is to be in a community,” Bicks said. “It’s kind of what you were saying about ‘Ghosts,’ that I think it’s a lot harder to be in a small community than a large community because you’ve got to get along with people who you may absolutely hate. But when the chips are down, you’ve got to take care of each other and I think that’s a good kind of metaphor for where we’re at right now, which is as a country, we could use some of that.”
Exploring communities, particularly often-overlooked communities, is what Tracy Oliver set out to do with her Amazon show “Harlem,” albeit in a much larger setting.
“I kept seeing all of these New York-based shows where Black people were just kind of gentrified out of them. And I love ‘Friends,’ I love ‘Sex and the City,’ but I just like, never saw people of color,” she said. “And then when I was living in New York, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s very, very diverse and you wouldn’t know that necessarily from watching TV.’ And so I just wanted to kind of give the New York that I saw some love and some representation and some space on the air… It was coming from a place of just need and just representation, I wanted to see those women on the screen.”
Being given the chance to represent Black culture in a comedy series is still something few writers have experienced, and is a project that can become a challenge depending on complications presented by the need to honor a sacred IP, which is what Saladin K. Patterson was tasked with doing for ABC’s “The Wonder Years” reimagining.
“A big note I got in the beginning, when we dealt with the death of Martin Luther King Jr., they really wanted me to have some sort of family moment at the end where the family gathered the kids together and talked about what this meant to them as a people,” Patterson said. “I talked to my family and my friends and their families, their parents or aunts and uncles, about what was it like for Black families after Martin was assassinated. None of them said they had a family moment. None of them said they gathered the family together to talk about what this meant to our people because the adults had no idea what to say, they were still processing it and during that time, children were seen and not heard. The kids had to figure it out on their own. And I was like, ‘No, I have to show that. That’s what the show is gonna be.’ And thankfully, they saw the value in that and that kind of helped us create what I hope would be a reimagining of the classic show.”
Patterson noted he “certainly benefited” from the “post-racial awakening” within Hollywood since 2020, which allowed him to say to network and studio executives, “You’re gonna tell me how Black families handled this situation?” and have them accept his decision.
Netflix (former YouTube) series “Cobra Kai” is another new series based on a beloved title that has worked to both honor its predecessor and break away from it.
“At the core of it is what I fell in love with, which is the ‘Karate Kid’ and why it’s a classic. The different cultures meeting, people that you wouldn’t expect to be connecting,” showrunner Hayden Schlossberg said. “And so, every year we’re like, OK, let’s forget everything for a second and go back to the ‘Karate Kid.’ Why do we love this? We watch the movie again. And that’s why I think it’s worked on a global level because they’re universal stories. We try to focus on that while taking advantage of different characters’ genders, backgrounds and play things out so it feels like the ‘Karate Kid,’ but it’s something totally different.”
Moving from “Cobra Kai” to another strongly character-driven series, Chris Miller spoke about the unique way in which his Apple TV+ show with Phil Lord, “The Afterparty,” played with story format to unravel different personalities and archetypes.
“Each episode did a deep dive into one character and one person and their point of view,” Miller said. “And at the end of the day, you could start the episode thinking one thing about them and then end feeling empathetic toward them and thinking another thing. And the whole goal was that for the whole show, that you would be able to think about, ‘Oh, maybe if I just took some time to get to know people and put myself into their shoes for a little bit,’ that you would have a lot more empathy and understanding.”
Building unity and empathy among the characters in-universe and viewers at home is something “Girls5eva” showrunner Meredith Scardino has strived to do with the Peacock girl-group comedy series, particularly in its second season.
“They kind of choose each other and learn from each other and the four of them collectively make, like, one fully realized perfect person,” Scardino said. “And they kind of call each other on their shit and ultimately, they’re all bending towards becoming the versions of themselves that have agency, that have a voice. And it’s all candy coated and fun because you get to look back at the ’90s and unpack what was fucked up back then that kind of snuck by as normal. And them kind of being like, ‘Oh, well, let’s not do it that way this time,’ but still going up against a remaining sexist and ageist industry — not like it’s fixed.”
Watch the full conversation above.