Monday, August 4, 2008

A Presidential "State of Comedy" Address

As the oft-told story goes, in the spring of 1983, people were saying the sitcom was dead. On NBC, freshman Family Ties was struggling, and another brand new comedy Cheers, ranked dead last in the Nielsen ratings. Then, in the fall of ‘84, The Cosby Show premiered and changed everything.

Now, to end network comedy’s current drought, comedy fans have been waiting for the next Cosby for over a decade. Although the sitcom had proliferated on TV in the ‘90s – to an extent, wearing out its welcome – trend after trend has chipped away at the number of half-hours on each network’s lineup. First there were the umpteen editions of Dateline, taking up valuable NBC real estate. Then game shows, like ABC’s eight-days-a-week Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Then the continuing reality juggernaut (some would say “scourge”), starting in 2000 with CBS’ Survivor.

But these competing formats are not totally to blame; network comedy has all along been devouring itself. And this is why: if you, average aspiring writer, happen to have the world’s best idea for a new network comedy, you can’t just walk into NBC and slap it on Ben Silverman’s desk. No, in order to create one’s own sitcom, a would-be comedy writer must first make his or way through “the system.” That is, a writer must land an agent, then a highly-coveted, nearly non-existent starter’s (or “staff writer”) position on an existing sitcom, then be lucky enough to maintain steady employment so as to toil for years, working his or way up the ladder to the ultimate rung of “executive producer.” The trouble is, with so few comedies on the air, this career-path has become non-existent. There are no shows for one to work one’s way up on. The pipeline is blocked.

And thus with fewer “showrunner”-level writers available – and their continued unwillingness, despite their professions to the contrary, to look outside the pool of usual suspects – the networks have fewer choices when it comes to developing pilots, and fewer chances of hitting the great sitcom lottery by producing the next, game-changing Cosby.

It’s a downward spiral. And from what the networks’ presidents each told me last month at the Television Critics Association convention in Los Angeles, they obviously know it. I heard Fox’s Kevin Reilly and CBS’ Nina Tassler discuss The Great Comedy Question from the TCA stage, and cornered ABC’s Steve McPherson and NBC’s Ben Silverman at their respective networks’ parties. What is the state of network comedy today?, my fellow critics and I asked each of them. What are you doing to revive it? What are you looking for, and where are you going to find it?

The answers below may sound encouraging, but beware: we’ve heard some of this, particularly about opening the studio gates to untested talent, before. So believe this stuff when you see it – that is, when you finally find that screamingly funny sitcom showing up on your screen.

I’m so confident and excited about where we stand as the clear comedy leader in broadcast TV… I love our lineup on Thursday, with a night of sophisticated comedy with movie and TV stars that transcend the genre. …These are the best talents assembled. Our comedies rock. I’m very excited and I feel bullish about it. [And as for multi-camera comedy] , we’re aggressively looking for those as well. We’re developing it. We’re just trying to find the best talent to invest in and believe in their ideas.

[As for any further upcoming new comedies], Thursday night is still the home of the vast majority of our comedies, and that’s probably where we would target. But over time, I’m hoping that we get some traction and some hits and can open up new nights.

- Ben Silverman, Co-Chairman, NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio

We’ve talked about [the dire state of comedy] every year. And I can’t even talk to the platitude of “it’s cyclical; it’s going to come back.” My observation is that a lot of confidence has left the creative space on a day-to-day basis. I see really talented people coming in very skittish, not knowing what to pitch, what will sell. I see executives trying to figure out where there is a nerve to hit…

We’re really going to mix it up this year. I’ll tell you one thing we’re doing, which sounds silly, but we’ve agreed in our comedy pitches we’re not going to take most of our pitches in our office. We’re going to go out and meet the writers on their own turf, and that could be at a restaurant. If they want to do it in their house, we’ll do it in their house -- anything that just gets it out of a sterile environment and try something different. …We’re going to try to … pay writers a little bit of money… and say, “You want to shoot something before you come in? Don’t sit on our couch and pitch us. Go shoot something and then pop it in the machine, even if it’s not for air.” We’ve got to do anything to mix it up.

We’ve got one project,… Boldly Going Nowhere for midseason that I think is going to be a great stake in the ground for the next generation of comedy for us. It’s one of the funniest scripts I’ve read in a long time. It’s single camera. It’s sort of The Office in space – petty jealousies and incompetencies on a long-term mission to wherever they’re going. …I feel like right now there’s opportunity for a lot of young voices to come up, and we’re not giving up… Our comedy brand has been a little anemic… for all of our success in the last batch of years, and we’re ready for our next Malcolm in the Middle.

- Kevin Reilly, President, Entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Company

I think comedy is not dead at all. I think comedy is alive and well -- it’s just that we’ve got to execute some good ones. [As for single-camera versus multi-camera format], I don’t think it’s the form that matters – I think it’s point of view and content and whether it’s good or not. [It may be in the more traditional, multi-camera format, but] you watch reruns of Seinfeld, because it’s a great show. Sitcoms aren’t failing because of the form, but because there haven’t been great ones that have worked.

We’re trying to find new things and voices from other places, whether it’s the book world or feature world or [elsewhere]. We’ve just got to keep looking. We’re lucky when we can put together a Don Todd with a Christina Applegate [on Samantha Who?] It doesn’t come along that often. Or for example take Chuck Lorre and Charlie Sheen – you’ve got to find these great combinations, and we’re looking for that.

I think that’s one of the challenges of the comedy world, that there isn’t the same bench strength …that there is in the drama world. So we’ve got to keep pounding the pavement and be open to new voices. We’ve got to be much more open to all different angles of getting the stuff. We’ll just keep looking… We’ll continue to develop year-round and announce [new shows] when it makes sense.

- Steve McPherson, President, ABC Entertainment

Certainly [with] our comedies, … look at the huge step we made this year in terms of building to a second night. Adding Worst Week to Monday nights certainly speaks to... the future of comedy at the network. So I think that we've been very, very calculated in building shows and adding shows that are certainly within the wheelhouse, but certainly expanding the brand.

- Nina Tassler, President, CBS Entertainment

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