By Jaime Weinman - Monday, May 6, 2013 - 0 Comments
After 200 episodes, The Office is done, but its influence is all over comedy—and even reality TV
Greg Daniels, developer and executive producer of the U.S. version of The Office, speaks to Maclean’s from the show’s own offices, where he’s one of the few people left. “They’re tearing them down,” he says. “We’re down to four rooms of edit bays. They’re painting, or they did something where it’s filled with burnt-smelling dust in the office right now.” Filming has wrapped on the series finale, which airs on Global on May 16, and Daniels, who also co-created King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation, is working on post-production for the end of a show about the silly and sad life in a white-collar ofﬁce. Fans and critics have big expectations for the finale, written by Daniels and directed by Ken Kwapis: not just that it will be good, but that it will cement the show’s reputation after a rough few years and the departure of its star, Steve Carell. “It leaves the air with a whimper,” says TV critic Myles McNutt, who reviewed recent seasons of the show for The AV Club. The finale could be a shot at turning that assessment around.
Though it has been NBC’s most popular comedy since Will & Grace, The Office has always been a bit in the shadow of other shows, and not just the hit British show starring Ricky Gervais it was based on. It won the Emmy for best comedy in its second season but lost subsequent awards to newer shows such as 30 Rock. Modern Family, a comedy that copied elements of The Office, including the mock-documentary format, became a bigger hit than The Office. But Ben Silverman, The Office’s executive producer who bought the U.S. rights to Gervais’s series, thinks none of those shows would have been possible without this one. “It had a seminal influence on contemporary comedy,” he says, in its mix of awkward humour and sentimentality, but also the people it delivered to other projects: “We found a new generation of comedians—Rainn Wilson, Ed Helms, Carell, Rashida Jones—who started populating other shows and movies.”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 8:00 PM - 0 Comments
Marc Maron is a pioneer of an inward-looking style embraced by the likes of Louis C.K.
Marc Maron is a stand-up comedian about to get his own TV show. That’s normal. What’s not is that he was never famous enough to get a TV show until he started doing a podcast, WTF?, where he’s less known for jokes than for his serious, confessional monologues about his life and career. “Marc’s a comic who struggled for many years, without really making it,” says Sivert Glarum, writer and executive producer of the 49-year-old stand-up’s new semi-autobiographical comedy Maron, premiering on IFC on May 3. “When he started the podcast, he was at the end of his rope, career-wise and emotionally.” And the experience redefined him as what one newspaper called a “stand-up tragedian.”
Comedy podcasting has taken off in the last few years as a cheap, easy way for comedians to introduce themselves to a wider public. But few people have used it to change their image as spectacularly as Maron, who does WTF? out of his garage and has interviewed almost 400 people since the show began in 2009. Not only does he talk seriously about his frustrations, but his most famous interviews are the dark ones, like the one with Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley, who told Maron that thanks to a Canadian divorce court, “I’m literally obligated to give away 400 per cent of my income, or otherwise go to jail.” Todd Van Allen, a comic who hosts the podcast Comedy Above the Pub, says that Maron is famed for “brutal honesty and the fearless broadcasting of his inner-most feelings.”
That’s a type of broadcasting you don’t normally associate with comedians, but Maron is at the forefront of a more inward-looking type of comedy. Other successful podcasts, like Comedy Above the Pub or Comedy Bang Bang (which was adapted into an IFC series last year), primarily try to be fun, with sketches and impersonations. But Ed Crasnick, host of the podcast The Self-Help Comedy Hour and the guest on a 2010 episode of WTF?, says Maron “probably wants the guest to be more real than funny.” Glarum adds that in the TV show, the podcast is portrayed as a way “for Marc to seek opinions from people on the problems going on in his life,” just as he does on the real podcast.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 5:48 PM - 0 Comments
Last week the news broke that USA is considering picking up Happy Endings if it gets dropped by ABC. The news was leaked to Nellie Andreeva at Deadline.com, who seems to have a lot of sources at Sony TV, one of the producers of the show (you will recall that when Sony’s Breaking In was on, she had an item about that show’s future seemingly every other week). But if USA does pick up the show, it will make a lot of sense. USA paid out a lot of money a couple of years ago for the off-network rights to Modern Family, hoping to use it to branch out from hour-long drama and get into half-hour comedy. But it hasn’t had much luck in finding original comedies to go with Modern Family: it ordered a lot of pitches and a few pilots, but only one of two of them seem like they could amount to anything. So why not dip into the pool of well-liked comedies that are not quite popular enough to survive on broadcast networks? TBS already did this with Cougar Town, and is doing quite well with it.
I’ve said before that the single-camera, young-skewing half-hour comedy is probably the thing broadcast networks do better than anything else at this point. It plays to all their strengths. The larger budgets and large writing staffs allow the shows to be packed with jokes, as well as minimizing the number of weak characters (with a big enough writing staff and lots of rewrites, eventually most of the characters Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
“Right now, people are hitting it big or not at all”
Comedy is more valuable to TV networks than it has been in years. Too bad it’s also more unpopular than it has been in years. With comedies like The Big Bang Theory among the few hits in TV, several networks expanded their comedy lineups this year, but the results were as disastrous as a sitcom plot: not a single new show became a hit. “Right now,” says Jonathan Davis, executive vice-president of comedy development for 20th Century Fox Television, “people are hitting it big or not at all.”
Ironically, these unpopular comedies may be the result of trying to be more popular. NBC’s new comedies, including Go On, a comeback for Matthew Perry (Friends), and Animal Practice, with a monkey as one of the regulars, were announced as part of what network president Robert Greenblatt called a strategy to “broaden our audience and broaden what the network does,” But these shows wound up with ratings identical to NBC’s cult comedies like Community and 30 Rock. Networks and writers can’t seem to help making comedies that appeal only to a niche audience.
Some attribute this to what Canadian TV scholar Myles McNutt calls “fragmented comedy audiences,” with people of every age group preferring different types of comedy: a show that seems mainstream to viewers aged 18-34 may seem forbidding to older viewers. “You want to build something that doesn’t just appeal just to 18-34,” says Fox’s Davis. “We sometimes get in trouble when people feel something is too niche.” But only a few shows, such as Big Bang Theory and Fox’s Modern Family have shown an ability to appeal to multiple age groups. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 10:39 AM - 0 Comments
The broadcast networks’ pilot pickup season has begun, but I have trouble thinking about what to say, since we all know most of these pilots will never be seen by the public, and most of them seem to be:
a) A comedy about somebody forced to move in with somebody else;
b) An edgy high-concept drama which will finally, finally at last win back all those Emmys cable has been stealing from their rightful broadcast owners;
c) Based on a book I haven’t read.
But since the start of pilot season coincides with the cancellation of Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23, a show I greatly enjoyed for its attempt to bring the sociopathic comedy of American Dad to live action, I thought I might talk a bit about what the networks seem to expect from their comedies and whether they still have the ability to create popular entertainments. Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter reacted to the death of Apartment 23 by arguing that broadcast networks need to lower their ratings expectations, or else smart comedy will be in danger on television: “Anyway, put another tombstone in the crowded graveyard of funny sitcoms. And if the networks don’t recalibrate their expectations about modern-day ratings results, we’re going to need a lot more shovels.”
By Emma Teitel - Friday, December 21, 2012 at 12:41 PM - 0 Comments
Tom Green, the man who brought you Freddy Got Fingered and the Bum Bum Song, has abandoned his traditional antics for a tour on stage. He’s got Canadian stand up shows lined up for the new year, as well as a role in the next Trailer Park Boys movie. Here he is, on all of that, below.
Emma Teitel: What are you wearing?
Tom Green: Blue jeans and a t-shirt. I’m just relaxing around the house. No need to dress up.
E.T. I’ve heard that you’re trying to get more “mainstream” and “sophisticated” with your comedy. What exactly does that mean? Less rodent tasting?
T.G. I wouldn’t use those words myself. I’m just talking [in my stand up] about issues and subjects that I think are relevant to people, and making jokes out of them: things like social media and technology. I’m making a point not to do a prop-driven, prank-driven show. It’s been a cathartic experience for me doing stand up because I like to interact with my audience.
E.T. Why social media?
T.G. I’m in a unique position because I’m 41 years old and I very clearly remember a different, Internet-free, cell-phone-free world. I’m so glad that I didn’t have that stuff at the time. I was always amazed by new technology, right back to when I was in high school–using computers to make music. All that stuff was brand new. When I was 15, I’d work a summer job to buy a new machine to make hip hop beats [with his rap group, Organized Rhyme.]
As soon as we started posting things online, getting the feedback from the public was interesting to me. But I was doing it because I was trying to get my comedy out there for people to see, and I could put up with all the positives and negatives [of public feedback.] Then all of a sudden Facebook comes along and people are posting a video because they can. Every single person is aware of every single person’s life. It creates a scary world. I like to make people laugh about things they’re actually worried about—make a funny situation out of something dark and scary.
E.T. How did you hook up with the Trailer Park Boys?
T.G. At the Montreal comedy festival a few years ago, we met up, had a few drinks, had some laughs. I’ve run into them several times since then. They asked me to be in their movie. That was really fun, I’m a big fan of theirs. We shot up in Northern Ontario. I’m playing myself in the movie; wasn’t much of a stretch. I knew the character pretty well.
E.T. Do you like Rush?
T.G. Yeah, of course. Every Canadian has to like Rush.
E.T. Favourite song?
T.G. Tom Sawyer, cause it’s got the name Tom in it.
E.T. If you could address the Canadian people en masse, what would you say?
T.G. Love and enjoy your Crispy Crunch bars and your Coffee Crunch bars and your Littlest Hobo reruns, and cherish those things. Embrace those things. It’s what makes you different.
E.T. Was the raccoon you sawed in half a real raccoon?
T.G. I don’t give away trade secrets.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 2:13 PM - 0 Comments
The ugly ratings for broadcast TV this season – you can tell they’re ugly because broadcast networks are making loud noises about trying to convince advertisers to pay for 7 days of DVR viewing, an acknowledgement that nobody’s watching live – are particularly ugly on Tuesday, except for The Voice and the NCIS franchise. There’s a specific problem on Tuesday that a lot of people predicted when the network schedules were announced: Fox, NBC and ABC all had very similar comedies going up against each other at 9 p.m., and they were almost certain to cannibalize each other’s ratings.
The counter-argument to this was that there’s always room for two hit shows, or even three: they may take some viewers from one another, but there are enough viewers to go around if the shows are popular. (Particularly since the “Live plus same day” ratings system counts the people who watch one show and then watch the other show on DVR playback the same night.) But as it turns out, none of the eight comedies on this night are huge hits, though two of them are popular enough that they will probably be back next season. So there does seem to be some reason to believe that the pile-up of comedies is preventing any of them from standing out.
NBC is probably faring the best on this night, because it has the best lead-in, The Voice, and that lead-in is guiding a lot of people to Go On. It’s hard to know just yet how Go On would fare without the Voice lead-in, but for now it’s the highest-rated comedy of the night (both in 18-49 and total viewers), and has gotten good reviews. It’s one of two new NBC shows for this season that essentially demonstrated the network’s desire to remake Community as a more mainstream show. Both Go On and Animal Practice had the same basic premise, a cynical leading man who finds his heart, and maybe even love, when he’s forced to interact with a bunch of weirdos. The latter show bombed because it had to lead off a night; Go On isn’t a major hit, but should be a lock for another season at least. The show that follows it, Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal, is a lot less popular, but still manages to out-rate the two comedies it’s up against, so it’s not a liability for NBC in the way that its Wednesday and Thursday lineups currently are.
The other two networks placed big bets on Tuesday that don’t seem to be paying off. The success of New Girl last season inspired Fox to create a two-hour comedy Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Dark and absurdist sitcoms of today owe debt to this ’90s show
“I appreciate your interest in a 22-year-old show,” snarks David Mirkin, co-creator and chief director of Get a Life, a show ahead of its time—and maybe even a little ahead of ours. The complete series, which ran from 1990 to 1992 on Fox, comes out this week on DVD. It stars Chris Elliott as a deranged 30-year-old newspaper boy who travels through time, and dies at the end of multiple episodes. Though it had a cult following, and even inspired a hip-hop album, music rights kept it off DVD. Now the question is whether audiences have finally caught up with a sitcom about insanity and death.
Mirkin has learned that it takes awhile for people to get accustomed to this kind of humour. “For an American audience, you have to kind of ease them into that,” explains the Philadelphia native. “Starting at full speed with a surreal, dark, violent show was never going to get past the American testing system, which is incredibly flawed and stupid.” With Get a Life, he began with a relatively conventional pilot and then introduced bizarre elements, like a story where Elliott is transported to a ’40s movie world. The process paved the way for recent shows like 30 Rock and Community, which also started semi-realistic and wound up as live-action cartoons.
Get a Life was also ahead of its time with its ambiguous attitude toward sitcoms. Mirkin says they deliberately dressed a character “in the outfits you saw Jane Wyatt wearing on Father Knows Best,” and many of the plots were sarcastic takes on the old plots the writers grew up with; one episode has the old story of two characters getting trapped in a meat locker, except the meat locker is inexplicably in the middle of a suburban living room. “The feeling,” Mirkin says, “was that you seem to be watching an episode of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best, but something horribly wrong has happened to it.”
This postmodern take has become a familiar part of TV shows like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Louie, but another innovation may have prevented Get a Life from catching on at the time: the lead character wasn’t a hero but a complete sociopath. Most episodes revolve around Elliott’s character being unable to understand what’s going on around him, including one where he believes an evil alien is actually a cute, cuddly friend like E.T. “American sitcoms like to focus on winners,” Mirkin says, and the Fox network was “concerned that a guy living at home with his parents would be perceived as a loser. We said: ‘He’s not a loser, he’s insane!’ Which didn’t make them feel any better.” Destructive comedy heroes are common now, from Family Guy to Two and a Half Men, and Elliott’s Chris Peterson seems sweet by comparison.
That shift in TV comedy came about in part because of Get a Life, but also because of The Simpsons. Based partly on his Get a Life work, Mirkin was chosen to take over as executive producer for the fifth and sixth seasons of The Simpsons, where he pushed it in some darker directions, including an exploding-head gag. “Why should I think of new things when I can do the same old crap?” he jokes. But with The Simpsons in syndication, and Get a Life unavailable, fans aren’t aware how much that dark humour stems from the earlier show. “The Simpsons has overshadowed it a bit,” says Mirkin, now a consultant for the show.
Now that the complete series is out, Mirkin hopes more people will discover the show, and how much of modern comedy it anticipates. At the time, it seemed unusual to play to what Mirkin calls “an audience that doesn’t mind if the main character is killed and then returns, à la Bugs Bunny,” but he’s seen live-action shows become more surreal in the wake of Get a Life and “more comfortable with flexible reality.” But he can’t give too many specific examples of its influence. “People are afraid to tell me that they have been influenced by it, because I instantly sue.”
By Rosemary Counter - Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at 10:58 AM - 0 Comments
Censors are sharpening their scissors, but a good roast is the Super Bowl for comedians
There was no shortage of snark last weekend at Comedy Central’s roast of Roseanne Barr. “Normally when I roast a pig, I put an apple in its mouth,” said stand-up comedian and roastmaster general Jeff Ross. “You got a gastric bypass in 1998, and then you beat it!” zinged comedian Anthony Jeselnik. Barr’s ex, Tom Arnold, added, “She actually had ‘Property of Tom Arnold’ tattooed on her hip, which made me the fourth-largest property owner in California.”
Harsh, yes, but not if you’re a comedian. “There’s a misconception that the roast brings someone down, but it’s actually the opposite,” says George Reinblatt, a Toronto-based comedy writer whose jokes have aired on Comedy Central roasts and Just for Laughs. “The point is to honour somebody’s career.”
At the birthplace of the roast, the Friars Club in New York, one of their mottos is, fittingly, “We only roast the ones we love.” The private mens’ club—women weren’t allowed in until 1988—was mocking celebrities in what they called “smokers” as far back as 1910, though their first official roast (of French actor Maurice Chevalier) was held in 1949. Dean Martin hosted TV roasts between 1974-84. To the lovely Lucille Ball: “How about you, Luce? That’s what the football team used to call her!”
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 11:41 AM - 0 Comments
Canadian comedy legend on life in the fast lane, his hepatitis C diagnosis, and the miracle he is praying for
Mike MacDonald has been described as a “comedy legend” and inspired a generation of Canadian stand-up comedians. He holds the record for most consecutive appearances at Just For Laughs, the Montreal comedy festival. But last year the 57-year-old was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and following a serious infection, his liver and kidneys have shut down. He posted a message on Facebook seeking a live donor with type-O negative blood for a liver transplant. Friends have created an online campaign to raise money for his medical bills and there has been an outpouring of support. It overwhelmed MacDonald, who spoke to Maclean’s from his mother’s home in Ottawa.
Q: Were you surprised by this campaign?
A: It’s been totally unreal. Like I said in my thank-you note, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams and I can dream with the best of them. It’s been less than a week and the response has been amazing. Thank God for Facebook. I have a bit in my act about the top three uses of the Internet: No. 3, hate-mongering, No. 2, the downloading of free music, and the top one is porno. But something like this, this is what the Internet was intended for: to help people, to pass on information, the positive things in life.
Q: Before you had to stop working, how were you doing financially?
A: Well, I was trying to work as much as possible, but for the last two or three years, for the first time in my entire career, I was starting to feel the economic crunch of the time. Especially the corporate gigs, the gigs where sometimes in one night I could make what I could make in a whole month in the clubs. They were dwindling because major corporations weren’t doing as well as they could, so they weren’t having the big celebrations and hiring the big entertainers. And then with the complications of being bipolar and manic depressive, it seemed to go downhill. So financially, we were in and out of debt, with a heavy credit-card debt. To my wife’s credit, she pulled and scratched and crawled our way out of the debt.
Q: When did you find out you had hep C?
A. My father passed away in July after a long bout with diabetes. When I went up there to Ottawa about a month before, I’d displayed some slurred speech, and I was dropping things and tripping, which is uncharacteristic for me, because I’m very physically adept in my comedy. My wife insisted that I check in with a doctor. I checked in with the family doctor in Ottawa, they did some tests, and they said “some of these numbers are a little weird.” They checked it further, I went to a specialist, and they diagnosed it as hep C. That changed everything. Now it’s this situation where I can’t work at all and I’m stuck in Ottawa.
Q: Did the doctors say how you got it?
A: The No. 1 way is intravenous drug use. Going back 25 years, I went through my bout of trying to emulate my heroes like John Belushi and Richard Pryor, getting involved with heroin addiction and cocaine and all that stuff. I got through all that and did anti-addiction documentaries for the CBC, figuring it was the least I could do. I was so lucky I got through all that and I’m still alive. The doctors said my symptoms should have shown up sooner. My friend who went through hep C, when he found out about it, he said, “This is so weird. About nine or 10 other people have popped up from that scene alone who have hep C.” It’s like a generational time period thing, almost a mini-epidemic. I read somewhere that hep C is something that anyone from the ages of 45 to 60 should be tested for, because there’s something about that era.
Q: Do you think comedians take drugs in part to emulate other comedy idols, like Belushi, who died of an overdose, and Pryor?
A: I think that was a factor. I think another thing is that you go back to the hotel by yourself, and you have the choice between picking up somebody else, getting into that debauchery, and using the booze and the drugs to subside the loneliness. It’s all self-destructive. It took me a long time, especially after the drugs, to learn how to be by myself.
Q: Is it necessary for a Canadian performer to move to L.A., or is it possible to make a career in Canada?
A: I certainly thought, when I moved there, that it was necessary. There was all that “go to Hollywood” thing in the back of my mind. In hindsight, the only reason to go to L.A. is if you want to be on an American sitcom or in an American blockbuster movie. You can make films just about anywhere. I have bad luck stories about my experiences in L.A. There was an agent who approached me and said, “I always liked you, I thought you deserved to be farther up in your career than you are.” He said, “I just got my two top clients, John Candy and Steve Martin, five years of work, and now I would like to concentrate on you.” The next night, the guy wakes up in the middle of the night, gets a glass of water from the fridge, has a heart attack and dies. I’ve got a million bad luck stories.
Q: Why did you decide to come back?
A: It just feels right. I’m a Canadian citizen. I started here, I’ll end here. I used to exaggerate a little bit with the jokes I made about Americans, but now I don’t have to exaggerate any more. They’re really crazy down there!
Q: Has anyone come to visit you?
A: One or two close friends that I’ve known since high school. But so many people want to come and see me, so many people want to talk on the phone, so many people have offered to drive me to the health food store. When we were in B.C. or Vancouver Island, there were places where you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a health food store. But here in Ottawa, when you start looking for salt in everything, boy, you realize that the salt barons are out there laughing their asses off at the heroin and coke dealers. They run their products with impunity. They make tons more money than anybody else, their product is everywhere. At Tim Hortons the bottled water has five milligrams of salt in it.
Q: Before people started calling and donating, were you aware you had so many friends and admirers?
A: No. There have been people, especially comedians, who I’d met once or twice at Just For Laughs, and I thought there would be politeness, but I had no idea of the deep respect and concern or the outpouring of love and prayers they’d have now. It’s been a humbling experience to say the least.
Q: Have you tried over the years to encourage younger comedians?
A: Not so much, but according to the messages, apparently I have. People remind me of stuff. I would do little things, like have these seminars. I would sign up a maximum of 10 amateurs, and we’d go through their act, examine it, take it apart, and answer any questions. And by a collective think-tank kind of thing, they’d all walk out learning something. To me it was just a little thing. But according to the messages, it was such a big deal. For some of them, it started their careers. But if you’d asked me before all this happened if I had any influence, I’d have said, “I don’t know. Maybe. One or two.” It’s comforting to know that I wasn’t an asshole every second of my life, that at least I did something good. I have a tendency to remember the bad times more than the good. But it’s like one of my favourite song quotes: “Only good people wonder if they’re bad.”
Q: Is there anything you see differently about your life now?
A: Absolutely. This has been a life-changing experience. I have a responsibility, if I get the miracle ending that I’m praying for, to use that gift properly. There’s also the realization that if you touch people in a positive way, you can touch people in a negative way. Let’s say you’re in a restaurant, and the waiter comes over and says, “I’m sorry, I got your order mixed up earlier.” Instead of saying “Well, yeah, maybe next time you’ll do better,” say, “It’s okay, you came with the right order and everything’s fine now.” Maybe he’s had a bad day, and your answer could be what makes him go and be mad at somebody else, to quit his job, to take the drugs that send him into the spiral.
Q: How do you look back on your career?
A: There was a time that I wished I would have been more famous, made more money. But who knows? I could have killed myself with more money and more fame. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that I’ve been most popular in Canada. At my level of fame, people would come up to me, and say, “I loved you on Just For Laughs,” and then they’d walk away. Where I’ve been out in public with friends that are much bigger and more famous and popular than I am, like Tim Allen and Drew Carey. People come up and expect the world from them. And I’m sitting there going, “I am so glad I’m not you right now. Even though you have tons of money, and I’d love to be able to buy my wife a new house, I don’t envy this moment at all.”
Q: Will you keep doing Just For Laughs?
A: They’re arranging a special benefit for the 30th anniversary. Originally, when they asked me last month, I had to turn them down. But lately I’ve been feeling so positive with the energy, that I said that I’m really going to try to at least get down there just for the day. I’ll take the train, because I can’t fly, and try to appear at the benefit, because Montreal’s not too far from Ottawa. My wildest dreams would be to stand up on stage and just do one joke, to get a laugh, to thank the audience for being there and thank the comedians for working for free.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, May 4, 2012 at 11:33 AM - 0 Comments
Here’s one idea I’ve been pondering when it comes to half-hour sitcoms: we (and I mean me) tend to fixate too much on jokes. A lot of the discussion is about the quality of individual jokes or how many jokes a show can cram in. But nobody really remembers jokes. What we remember is moments, or more broadly, scenes.
The most memorable moments in a comedy occur when a scene reaches a point where everything that happens in it is funny, because the scene is funny and the build-up has been properly done. That’s what we remember. The one-liners are almost irrelevant. They’re not totally irrelevant, but they’re really like punctuation; a comedy needs jokes because otherwise we won’t be in the mood to laugh. Jokes are like the warm-up.
I say this with respect to sitcoms because I think everyone understands this is true when it comes to, say, a film comedy or a play. A great comedy film does not need to have hilarious lines every five seconds, and it doesn’t provoke a lot of argument over the style of jokes (setup/punchline vs. conceptual or whatever). A great comedy film is hopefully going to be remembered for a few hilarious scenes. Even a stand-up comedy set really catches fire when it becomes something more than a series of observations or jokes and turns into a big, sweeping aria where we’re laughing at the whole thing, not the individual lines.
Instinctively, we understand that that’s true of a great half-hour comedy too, but discussion sometimes seems to get sidetracked by the focus on jokes or the frequency of Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 2:00 AM - 0 Comments
There’s a movement—it’s a clever piece of magazine marketing, actually, but we’ll call it a movement—to build some sort of local monument in Edmonton to the SCTV television series, which was produced here from 1980 to early 1982. Why would Edmonton build a monument to SCTV? Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 10:08 AM - 0 Comments
This is the week where everyone wants to be Louis CK.
In case you missed it, here’s the story so far: Louis CK, the vulgar, brilliant, humanist comedian, has just circumvented the entertainment industry completely by independently producing, promoting, distributing, and (here’s the tricky part) monetizing his latest comedy special. Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater is available only through the comedian’s personal website, for a fee of $5. After four days online it sold over 110,000 copies. That’s a hit by any standard: Had he moved that many copies through DVD sales and iTunes, he would still have one of the top comedy videos of the year. But he did it on his own, without having to split a dime of the proceeds with anyone (well, anyone but PayPal).
Is there a comedian, filmmaker, author or band out there that isn’t enviously taking notes on how he did it?
It was easy: He just did it. Anyone can sell content this way. His website, though well designed, is technically simple. It sells you a video download for a small fee, handled by Paypal. It’s a business model developed years ago by the porn industry, and you can easily find “turnkey” templates that’ll let you plug your own video and branding into a pre-built site.
That explains distribution. Now, how about promotion? It was similarly easy, and cheap. Actually, it was free. Louis CK used Twitter and Youtube to get the word out, release “outtake” teasers and mobilize his fans to help build a viral hype.
So there you have it, a complete disruption of the content industry, available for anyone to duplicate. There’s just one more thing to consider, however, before you try: You have to be Louis CK for it to work.
It’s true, as CNN has put it, that it took Louis CK just four days to make $200,000 ($550K minus production expenses). On the other hand, it also took him 27 years. That’s how long he’s been a stand-up comedian. He spent decades in crappy comedy clubs and casinos, facing hostile crowds and honing his craft. He’s blown a shot at a network sitcom and at an HBO series. It’s only in the last five or six years–a period of time during which he’s toured rigorously, writing a new act each year, and using social media–that he’s built a critical mass of dedicated fans (over 800,000 of them on Twitter alone).
His relationship with his audience is so tight that it allowed him to do something that Hollywood and the music industry have spent fortunes trying and failing to accomplish: He has beaten piracy. He’s beaten it without threatening his fans with lawsuits and without putting digital locks on his content. He beat it by simply asking his fans, very nicely, to please not steal his stuff.
Almost all of them complied. When Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater came out, the pirate who uploaded it as a Bittorrent file actually apologized in the release note:
” honestly louis i know ur here and i know u mite be mad at me but u gotta realize not everyone has paypal, not everyone has credit cards….sorry!”.
As the entertainment industry struggles to comprehend just what has happened here, they will call Louis CK an outlier, a special case, an exception. And they will be right.
But of course, all celebrities are exceptional. Whether it’s on the Internet or on MTV, there will always be many artists struggling for every one of them who makes a living. Up to now, though, we’ve had millions of artists earning close to nothing for every one who made millions. Soon, there will be thousands making hundreds for every one who makes hundreds of thousands.
It’s a better deal for creators, and a better deal for fans. A download of Louis CK’s old special sells on Amazon for $14.99.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 7:20 AM - 0 Comments
Dramas and reality shows are getting trounced by half-hour comedies
The biggest hit of the television season was supposed to be The X Factor, a reality performance show from American Idol’s Simon Cowell. But something has changed since the days when Idol and Survivor were crushing all other TV in North America. The X Factor is a success, but on Wednesday, it’s beaten in the ratings by the comedy Modern Family, and then it comes back on Thursday to lose to The Big Bang Theory. Meanwhile, new dramas like Pan Am and Terra Nova are getting trounced by comedies like the retooled Two and a Half Men, which is getting even more viewers with Ashton Kutcher than it did with Charlie Sheen. This scenario would have seemed bizarre only a few years ago, when reality and hour-long drama were the future of TV. But now everyone wants to do half-hour comedy. Matt Watts, a Canadian writer-performer who stars as a neurotic therapy subject in the CBC’s Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays (airing Tuesdays, but not Thursdays), told Maclean’s that although it’s “more dramatic than most half-hours,” if it were an hour-long drama, “it would be tedious.” Comedy is where the fun is, in more ways than one.
The death of the sitcom was a big story in the ’00s, when Lost and American Idol were the huge hits and Two and a Half Men (the Sheen version) was one of the few comedies in the top 10. Veteran drama and comedy writer Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) warned blog readers in 2007 that “comedy is coughing up blood right now.” Critics speculated that hour-long dramas with comedic elements, like Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, would replace the sitcom entirely; Emily Kapnek, creator of the popular new half-hour comedy Suburgatory, told Maclean’s there were “a lot of one-hours that wound up getting nominated in the comedy categories at awards show time.”
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 12:44 PM - 12 Comments
Norm Macdonald has, after what amounts to a decade-long absence, returned to television as the star of his own show. I know many of you will greet this news with a “Who cares?” Macdonald is almost as polarizing and distinctive a comedian as Andy Kaufman, though it is easy to overlook this because of the pathological purity of his approach. He’s an intelligent man who would seemingly rather die than make a joke that was even slightly “inside”, and a fairly gifted mimic who wheels out an impression maybe once every three or four years.
The ultimate Norm Macdonald punchline is a simple statement of the obvious, delivered in a spondaic sort of way; the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson jokes that defined his tenure as host of SNL‘s “Weekend Update” segment largely consisted of these, and if you appreciate the approach, you will probably love his Comedy Central Sports Show. (It turns out that Tiger Woods’ “sex addiction” is very, very amenable to this sort of treatment.)
Though Macdonald has a sizable cult, his continuing recognizability has relied, to an unusually large degree, on the reverence of comedy peers like Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien. A person turning 18 today would have been four years old when Norm was fired from Saturday Night Live, and only 12 when he put out his lone comedy album, Ridiculous. There is a natural temptation to blame Macdonald—because of his diffident way of speaking and his love of gambling—for his own low profile. He doesn’t like letting evidence of special effort show in his comedy, so one assumes he doesn’t like to work very hard. Well, it’s more than an assumption: he has joked that he got into comedy because it seemed like the most congenial “of the unskilled labours”.
I find myself wondering whether Macdonald pushed himself back into a higher gear because of his friend Artie Lange’s bloody suicide attempt, which deprived us of a fast-improving talent in its prime. The fact is, though, that Macdonald has already taken several runs at creating TV and web projects where he sits behind a desk and cracks wise à la “Weekend Update”. Based on hints he has dropped about the conditions of his release from SNL, he probably has to be careful not to just do a straightforward “Weekend Update” clone. The sports theme of his new show seems like a Solomon-like solution, and if it succeeds, it could fill a nice little three-of-a-kind with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central franchises.
I hope Canadians are pulling for Norm. Of all the Canucks who have gone south to seek fame and fortune in the entertainment business, Macdonald is in many ways one of the most Canadian. I still remember hearing his vertiginously raised vowels for the first time on SNL and experiencing a rare shock of recognition. He carries one passport, a Canadian one. And he has one of the stronger theories out there about why Canadian comics enjoy disproportionate success in Hollywood.
By John Intini - Thursday, April 14, 2011 at 5:56 PM - 1 Comment
John Intini reviews Tina Fey’s new book
The closest fans ever came to getting inside Jerry Seinfeld’s head was in his 1993 book Seinlanguage, which, at 192 pages, was full of pithy everyday observations (most of which appeared in one form or another on his show) but was terribly thin on anything biographical. Tina Fey, thankfully, takes a different approach in her much-anticipated memoir. In the self-deprecating style that has made her famous, the brain behind 30 Rock pretty much starts at the beginning: she writes about developing breasts when she was nine (“so weird and high, it’s possible they were above my collarbone”) and getting her first period at 10 (“I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi-pads to test their absorbency. This wasn’t blue, so I ignored it for a few hours.”).
But this isn’t just about Fey’s awkward youth. In addressing sexism in comedy, Fey strikes back at the critics, namely Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Lewis, who claim women aren’t funny. “It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”
Fey, whose killer impersonation of Sarah Palin some claim altered the 2008 election, also details her rise through the comedy ranks, from Chicago’s Second City to head writer at Saturday Night Live, and, finally, to creator and star of 30 Rock. Fans will enjoy the many peeks behind the curtain, especially during the six weeks she spent channelling the Republican VP candidate on SNL.
The book has all kinds of laugh-out-loud moments, but the effortlessness of Fey’s writing is what’s most impressive. It reads like a series of funny letters from a close friend. The friend just happens to be an Emmy Award-winning comedian.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 4:00 PM - 18 Comments
The friends known for humiliating each other go their separate ways
“I don’t think there’s one bad episode, personally,” says Kenny Hotz, co-creator and co-star of Kenny vs. Spenny. “We did 88 episodes and there’s not one dud.” He and his colleague, Spencer Rice, have a reason to sound less than humble: when Showcase airs their show’s one-hour series finale on Dec. 23, they’ll go out after making the kind of international impact that most Canadian shows only dream of, including foreign remakes and a devoted Internet following (Hotz claims it’s “the most downloaded show in the history of Canada”). It’s the end of another paradox for Canadian TV: in an era when our TV shows were improving their production values to compete with the U.S., one of the biggest hits was a shoestring-budget show about two idiots who undertake challenges like “who can wear a dead octopus on their head the longest?”
By macleans.ca - Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 12:00 PM - 0 Comments
Plus: Walter Mosley’s latest, a biography of the Atlantic Ocean, the father of modern taxidermy, what Boomers can expect from the rest of life, and the late night TV wars
For Black, a stand-up comedian who’s carved out a healthy chunk of fame with his angry rants, Christmas might seem an odd choice of topic for his third book of humour. Odder still for a Jewish comic who’s not overly sentimental about the holiday season: “we Jews [at Christmastime] . . . are like the spectators who stand outside the fence and watch those idiots who have chosen to run with the bulls.”
Not to worry, though; Black offers a thorough explanation of how the book came to be (mainly due to needling by his editor, whom he calls “a crack dealer for my self-esteem”). He also includes a cautionary note for those to whom Christmas is sacred: Black Christmas will offer little in the way of holiday cheer and is unlikely to make them “s–t fruitcakes and gingerbread men.” His book, he warns, is “for the rest of us.”
Then he gets down to work, doing what Lewis Black fans expect. He rails against such injustices as kids at seaside resorts (“Why is he screaming? Is the perfection that surrounds him not enough?”), the earthquake in Haiti (“a hideous cosmic joke”), and the tree erected every holiday season in Manhattan (“the hooker at Rockefeller Center”). The funniest material in the book—an account of a USO Holiday Tour in the Middle East with Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and Kid Rock—is unfortunately tacked on in an appendix.
But among all the wisecracking, Black sneaks in something truly shocking: honesty. As he takes us through how he’s spent his last 10 Christmases—writing cheques to charity and consuming copious food and drink at the homes of two of his closest friends—he opens up about a topic most comics won’t touch with a 10-foot candy cane: loneliness. Black, 62, with a disastrous marriage far behind him (there was DNA testing involved, which revealed that he had been cuckolded), admits that being alone at Christmas “pounds relentlessly on my psyche.” But he’s done the baby math generally reserved for women of a certain age, and knows a family isn’t likely in the cards. By book’s end, he makes a sort of peace with his life, and has a renewed appreciation for his friends. Peace and gratitude. Sounds like a bit of the Christmas spirit.
- Jen Cutts
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 9:40 AM - 11 Comments
It depends who you ask. But even if it isn’t racist, that doesn’t mean it’s enlightened.
From the reaction to Outsourced, you’d think it was the most offensive portrayal of India since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The half-hour comedy, which airs on Global at 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays, is about an American (Ben Rappaport) who is forced to take over a call centre in India—or at least a Hollywood sound-stage version of it. Rizwan Manji, the Canadian actor who plays the hero’s scheming assistant Rajiv, says he thought the show would be criticized for making light of outsourcing and “the unemployment rate in the United States.” Instead, critical reaction to the pilot mostly ignored economic issues and focused on racial ones; Joshua Ostroff in the Toronto alternative newspaper Eye Weekly wrote that it “pushes the offensive line toward out-and-out racism,” while zap2it.com declared that the jokes about “timid women” and Indian food are familiar to “people with senile, racist grandparents.”
Most of the complaints have been about the mocking of Indian customs and names. There are jokes about the name “Manmeet,” and Manji’s character tricks his boss into thinking that vindaloo is a god as well as a food. In response, the writers have argued that comedy is based on exaggeration, and that the Americans are also treated stereotypically. “It’s a comedy first,” Manji says, while head writer Robert Borden told the Kansas City Star that “we have to have the right to make the Indian characters out to be as silly as the white ones.”
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, November 25, 2010 at 1:11 PM - 5 Comments
Does it seem to you that half-hour comedies try too hard these days to have happy endings, or at the very least redemptive endings?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I wanted to talk about it a little more this week, because the Thanksgiving episodes (non-Canadian Thanksgiving, I mean) have mostly ended the way most Thanksgiving comedy episodes do: the gang gathered around the table, being relatively happy and thankful. Cougar Town had the most literal version of it last night; The Middle, a better show, managed to do it a bit better. But generally you can bet that a happy whole-cast Thanksgiving celebration will be part of most shows.
Now if we compare the Thanksgiving episodes of comedies past, that sort of happy gathering certainly happened sometimes. But many of the classic episodes end in something resembling disaster. The famous Cheers “Thanksgiving Orphans” plays the whole-cast-gathering bit sort of straight, except that it turns into a gigantic food fight. The Bob Newhart Show‘s “Over the River and Through the Woods” is about pathetic single men getting together on Thanksgiving to watch football, get drunk, and order Chinese food; there’s no redemption or sentimental moment except that Bob’s wife comes home to rescue him from the misery of single life.
There were a lot of shows that had sentimental endings or sentimental speeches, of course. (WKRP‘s Turkey Drop episode has that lesson-y speech people always fast-forward over between the big scene and the final punchline.) But the need for a moment of emotional connection or redemption was not always as great, particularly as the Very Special ’80s moved into the more cynical ’90s. The Cheers spinoff, Frasier, got everyone together for the episode “A Lilith Thanksgiving” but never actually allowed them to get together for dinner: instead, Frasier and Lilith ruined the Thanksgiving dinner and neglected their son while trying to get him admitted to an exclusive school. Also, they got a young Jane Lych really P.O.’d. And even this ending was happier than usual for a Frasier episode — Frasier and Lilith got what they wanted, even though they exposed themselves as obnoxious people and bad parents while getting it. Frequently the end of an episode would be Frasier or Niles screwing up and losing everything they tried to get.
But now if you look at half-hour comedies, one thing most of them have in common is that they do feel a need to provide a redemptive moment or a nice ending. Either the characters get what they want, or if they don’t get it, there’s a reminder that they have each other. If you look at a typical Community or Modern Family or How I Met Your Mother story, there’s usually an ending that is happy or at the very least pleasant — the Seinfeld type of ending, where characters fail miserably, or Jerry loses the girl or George breaks up a marriage, is quite rare now on mainstream network television, and it’s even getting harder to find on cable.
The unsentimental ending is often associated with Seinfeld, but in fact it was big before Larry David coined the “no hugging, no learning” phrase. Cheers had been moving towards it for a long time. The idea, though I don’t think the producers ever spelled it out, was that if you establish that the characters really do like each other or are basically okay people, you can make them act as badly as possible and don’t have to include a sweet moment at the very end. In “Thanksgiving Orphans,” the nicest moment is Sam’s toast to Coach, which everyone joins in: that’s how you’re reminded that you like everybody at that table. Then they can just go back to being destructive. But there doesn’t have to be a scene where they overcome obstacles and succeed and fix everything. The actual arc of the episode is just about building up to the moment where they ruin everything. Frasier‘s “Ham Radio” episode is a non-Thanksgiving example: the first part is the build-up to the scene of putting on the radio play, the second part is the play where everything goes wrong — and after everything has gone wrong and the play is in a shambles, the episode ends.
The “failure comedy” is an important part of the sitcom, of course. One of the templates for the U.S. and UK sitcom alike, The Honeymooners, had that in every episode. The hero has a goal. He tries to achieve the goal. He fails completely. Then there’s a little bit at the end where we’re reminded that in spite of being a failure, he’s still lucky to have a hot wife. Fade out. (Arrested Development uses a variant of this in many episodes: complete failure followed by thirty heartfelt seconds.) I Love Lucy, the other “template” sitcom, has a similar structure. Some shows, like Fawlty Towers, added to the template by making the failures more elaborate and by eliminating the sentimental comfort of a happy marriage (or at least reducing it; even though Sybil isn’t likable, the fact that she hasn’t left Basil is one of the subliminal ways we know Basil isn’t a complete psycho). And then you have Seinfeld, where it was a shock to see anyone succeed at anything. Since failure is funnier than success, and since comedy is to some extent about failure — it’s funnier when Charlie Brown doesn’t kick the football than when he does — it’s not surprising that a lot of sitcom episodes would follow that structure.
Now, however, it’s surprisingly rare. Even shows that could do pure failure comedy, like the Office family, tend to mitigate the failures, or mix a success story with a failure story, or create the sense that someone has actually gotten something positive (if only a moment of connection with another person) out of all this. The ABC shows all want to have “heart,” so it’s not surprising that they’re not going to end an episode with someone driving a car through a wall. Virtually all the new comedies introduced this season, on all networks, are essentially happy-ending comedies — Shat My Dad Says is that most depressing type of bad comedy, a negative show that tries to force positive endings on us. Other shows do need, by their nature, to have happy endings much of the time; The Office or Corner Gas are shows where a pure failure ending would often seem too bleak, whereas on Seinfeld, the cartoonish nature of the show and the characters’ basically consequence-free lives means that the writers can do more or less anything to them. Failure comedy isn’t right for every show; it’s just odd that the backbone of comedy — the zany scheme that fails completely — is in such short supply.
The failure comedy still turns up in some venues. FX has a bunch of them — there’s a reason why it gets much of its audience with reruns of the most amoral network comedy, Two and a Half Men. Its flagship original comedy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has elements of both Seinfeld and Men in its stories of sociopathic heroes, and its best comedy, Louie, doesn’t always care how happily a segment ends because it’s not a plot-driven show. And of course there’s always Curb Your Enthusiasm. But just as a general rule, it seems like sitcom heroes have it easier than they used to: they achieve their goals, or make things right, more often than we would once have expected.
I think a return to the comedy of failure would be a pleasant change back (this is yet another possible explanation for the continued success of Two and a Half Men, which almost has a network monopoly on bleak endings), since failure tends to be funnier than success and failure is the most reliable source of great comic set-pieces. But that would almost require recalibrating the way writers are trained to create scripts: instead of building up to the nice moment as the climax of the episode, you build up to the most disastrous moment possible as the climax. And either you end it there, or you treat the Ralph-Alice scene as an afterthought. Until that happens, though, a sitcom character can usually sit down for Thanksgiving dinner knowing that there might be a slap or a fight, but it will mostly be the kind of Thanksgiving dinner the audience wishes it could have.
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 12:00 PM - 0 Comments
Plus, Patrick McCabe’s latest ‘Bog Gothic’ novel, Nora Ephron in fine form, writers’ favourite books, comedian Russell Peters, and the war between chocolate-makers
On Feb. 27, 1943, the ﬁnal roundup of the Nazi capital’s remaining 10,000 Jews took place. Some 1,800 so-called “privileged” Jews—mostly males who had an Aryan parent, or were married to non-Jews or were decorated veterans of the Great War—were corralled in the Jewish welfare office. What followed next was one of the most astonishing spectacles of the Third Reich: arriving alone or in small groups came the men’s German wives, at times swelling the crowd to almost 1,000. For a week, in the words of a contemporary diary, the women “called for their husbands, screamed for their husbands, howled for their husbands, and stood like a wall, hour after hour, night after night.” The Gestapo threatened but in the end blinked, and released the prisoners. It was only a tiny wobble in the inexorable progress of the Holocaust—the other 8,000 Jews rounded up went straight to Auschwitz—but a striking moment in the life of a city that was at once the heart of Nazi power and the least Nazi-supportive part of Germany.
Moorhouse opens his engrossing story of life in Berlin during wartime with Hitler’s 50th birthday party in April 1939, an event marked for the 4.5 million Berliners by a public holiday, parties and a parade of military might that stretched for 100 km. It ends six years later with Stunde Null (zero hour), as survivors—including 1,400 Jews hiding in Berlin’s underground—emerged into a city reduced to rubble after relentless Western bombing, and now subject to the Red Army, which arrived in one of the most ferocious displays of fire and sword (and rape) ever recorded.
In between, Berlin at War offers tales from the black market and from the blackouts (including tales of serial murderers), and such vignettes as the air raid shelter encounter between William Shirer (the anti-Nazi American chronicler of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) and Lord Haw-Haw (the Irish pro-Nazi propaganda broadcaster). “An interesting and amusing fellow,” Shirer recorded, if you could get past him being a “scar-faced Fascist rabble-rouser.”
- BRIAN BETHUNE
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, November 15, 2010 at 3:40 PM - 14 Comments
This idea has been talked about for a while — NBC was rumoured to be thinking about it even before this season — but with the collapse of their new dramas and the atrocious ratings for The Apprentice, the network has decided to open up a three-hour comedy block on Thursdays, scheduling two half-hour comedies at 10 pm.
Now, let’s step back and remember the last time this same network came up with the innovative, brilliant idea of scheduling comedy at 10 o’clock. And then let’s remember that whatever happens, the network will follow these steps: a) Claim that this an idea whose time has come, that the broadcast model has changing, and that comedy could provide a great alternative to whatever else is on the other networks. b) Admit a year later that this was an idea they’d been kicking around for a while and pulled the trigger on because they didn’t have anything else.
Can half-hour comedy work at 10 o’clock? It’s difficult to know. In this era, the 10 o’clock slot is increasingly unwatched on broadcast TV; it’s the hour when viewers either watch what they’ve DVR’d or watch cable, which is why the networks have had serious trouble coming up with a genuine new hit in that hour. With fewer people watching, and audiences that tend to go older, a half-hour comedy (which usually appeals to younger audiences than the usual 10 o’clock show) could be decent counter-programming but it’s more likely just to get disappointing numbers.
NBC seems to know and even expect this: that’s why the show they’ve chosen for 10 o’clock is 30 Rock, whose time slot change coincides with a guaranteed pickup for more seasons. In other words, 30 Rock is low-rated but it’s cancellation-proof, and if it does something like what it does at 8:30 — or somewhere near it — NBC will be satisfied, and the show won’t be in any trouble if it goes below that number. If NBC put a drama at that hour it would just get beaten (even in the Coveted Demographic) by The Mentalist and Private Practice Putting 30 Rock there may make the beating less troublesome at worst, and might unexpectedly pay off if the show finds some new viewers. For Tina Fey, the news is all good. She gets to keep her show on the air forever, she has the chance of anchoring an hour, and she no longer has to suffer the humiliation of losing in the ratings to a show as bad as Shat My Dad Says. Now she’ll be losing to a Very Special Episode of Private Practice, but that will be far less hard to take.
This new schedule is also great news for Parks & Recreation, which finally gets back on the air and gets the 9:30 slot after The Office that it’s always wanted. This is the last season when the post-Office slot is guaranteed to mean anything in the ratings so the network had better get as much use out of it as it can. This is the best news for me, too, since Parks & Recreation is my favourite part of their lineup — I find it more satisfying than Community (which has great moments but a lot of times that I find not-so-great, and a central character I just don’t seem to enjoy watching) and more character-based than 30 Rock.
It’s terrible news for the two freshman comedies, Perfect Couples and Outsourced. The latter, which was doing well after The Office — it’s actually NBC’s highest-rated new show, mostly by default — is being moved from the best slot to probably the worst, asked to perform with a less compatible and less popular lead-in, while airing at a time when most people are starting to drift away. I don’t know if NBC has too little confidence in the show or too much (or, knowing how executives can never agree, maybe both). Meanwhile the new midseason show, Perfect Couples, will be airing after the low-rated Community; launching a new comedy is tough enough as it is, but it’s incredibly difficult with no lead-in support. I could easily see a scenario where the 8 o’clock hour winds up doing worse for NBC than the 10.
All of this is sort of a band-aid, of course: a way of patching some of their holes while getting some press attention while doing so. Next season, with Carell gone from The Office and both CBS and ABC surpassing them in the live-action comedy department, NBC is going to have to make some serious decisions about how to restructure their lineup. In a way, this new decision might at least be a hopeful sign in one way: it shows a flicker of understanding that the magic of “NBC on Thursday” is gone and that they need to try something different.
Also, I have a feeling that three hours of single-camera comedy is too unvaried — if they hadn’t been too snobbish to pick up some live-audience shows, they’d have some chance to create variety on their new block. But I suppose if they had any traditional shows, they would get all the blame if the new block didn’t work out. In any case, some would argue that there’s enough differences in approaches and the way these shows have been paired (one hour of mock documentaries; one hour of movie-style “insane workplace” comedies) that there will be variety.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, November 8, 2010 at 3:00 PM - 1 Comment
When Conan O’Brien took a job on basic cable, some saw it as a step down. Now it’s looking smart.
Is Conan O’Brien reinventing the talk show, or is he just the latest washed-up network star to be exiled to cable? Less than a year after the tall, red-haired host was forced out of his job at The Tonight Show (it was the most famous late-night battle since the fight to succeed Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno won both times), he’s coming back on Nov. 8 with Conan, which will run on the basic cable network TBS and in Canada at midnight on the Comedy Network. When he took the job, many observers saw it as a step down for a man who had hosted a major network show since 1993, when Late Night With Conan O’Brien debuted. The person who’s trying hardest to portray this as a step down is Conan O’Brien himself. The obligatory musical group for the new show is called the Basic Cable Band. Brian Kiley, a writer for O’Brien’s shows, told Maclean’s that the staff is planning “jokes about being on basic cable, and that kind of thing,” while another writer, Dan Cronin, adds that they’ll be saying, “What’s TBS? What channel is that even on? We have no idea.” Back when he was an inexperienced talk-show host, O’Brien made fun of his own inexperience; now he’s mocking his exile to cable before the rest of the world can.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 2:40 PM - 0 Comments
Once obscure, head writers of TV shows are becoming stars in their own right
Who’s starring in this fall’s TV series? Who cares? The real stars are the “show runners”: head writers who, according to The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, “have final say over the hiring of writers, actors and directors.”
Two new shows with unknown actors, Undercovers and Mike & Molly, have tried to build ratings by publicizing their high-profile writers, J.J. Abrams of Lost and Chuck Lorre of Two and a Half Men. Today, the creator of a show has to be prepared to be its public face: Dan Harmon, creator of the comedy Community (whose second season recently started on Citytv), says he’s not getting stopped in supermarkets yet, but “the group of people who know who I am has gotten larger.”
This kind of fame for writers is unknown in Canada, where TV writers have much less control over shows (which has been suggested as one reason why our TV isn’t as good). But for many years, it was also unknown in the U.S. Shows would become huge hits without anyone but insiders knowing the creators’ names. “I grew up in the ’80s when you thought you were watching the Dukes of Hazzard make the decision to drive around in the car,” Harmon says. “You never knew or cared that anything was written.” The fact that Star Trek fans knew about the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was seen as a sign of how geeky those fans were. But when Lost went off the air, Jimmy Kimmel Live did segments with the show’s co-creators, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and the jokes assumed that the audience knew who they were. We’re all geeks now.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 11:00 AM - 0 Comments
New teen comedies from young male directors are ‘feminist filmmaking’
In Easy A, a new high school comedy, Emma Stone stars as Olive, a sharp-witted, kind-hearted 17-year-old who cultivates a reputation as the school slut even though she’s a virgin. In a bizarre twist on a girl protecting her honour, she takes to wearing satin bustiers emblazoned with a red “A”—inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which, conveniently, she’s studying in school. It all starts with a fib to her best friend about a wild weekend tryst that never happened. Then, as an act of charity, she fakes drunken sex with a gay friend—which involves a charade of torrid screaming behind a bedroom door at a party—to immunize him against homophobia. “I always thought pretending to lose my virginity would be a little more special,” she sighs. But as Olive is branded a tramp, she turns the stigma into a mark of empowerment, waging a one-woman culture war against the school’s Cross Your Heart Club of Christian prudes. “If they want me to be a dirty skank, fine!” she says. “I’ll be the dirtiest skank they’ve ever seen.”