By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 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 Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 4:31 PM - 0 Comments
I don’t usually notice shot-to-shot continuity errors. Not on first viewing, anyway. But this one really jumped out at me when I saw it last week: a character is standing on one part of the set, there’s a cut to him standing in that same spot, and then, without an intervening cut away from him, he’s magically moved to a different part of the set. Continuity errors are inevitable when cuts are made to get a show down to time, but usually there’s something to keep the error from being too noticeable – most commonly, just a cut away to another character so that, in theory, the other character could have moved really fast during that other shot. Here there’s none of that, though the editor seems to have made a valiant effort to at least keep some continuity in the way he eats his food, hopefully distracting us from the fact that he’s teleported across the room.
I’m sure this sort of thing happens on shows I like better, and that I wouldn’t have caught this if I had been enjoying the scene. (I’ve heard it said, for example, that Norm’s beer on Cheers goes from empty to full in all kinds of magical ways, but I never notice.) But that’s always the way; when it happens on a show you like, you can forgive it or you’re having too much fun to notice it.
One shot-to-shot continuity error that always stuck in my mind was this one where the late Tom Bosley’s glasses appear out of nowhere. However, there is a cut to the other characters, so you can always say that he just put those glasses on incredibly quickly during that one second when the camera wasn’t on him.
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 Jaime Weinman - Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 3:00 PM - 2 Comments
The hit show ‘Modern Family’ never bothers to explain who’s interviewing the characters
In the original pilot script for Modern Family, the creators included a subplot explaining why the show’s three wacky families were being filmed documentary-style. The idea was that the interconnected families were the subject of a movie being made by a Dutch exchange student; he was going to have a backstory and fall in love with one of the regulars. But by the time the show made it to air, the documentary filmmaker was nowhere to be seen, and as Modern Family has grown into the biggest hit comedy of the season, the characters have never shown any awareness that they’re being filmed. Co-creator Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me!) made it official in an interview with the Television Critics Association, saying that the presence of the documentarian “felt like an appendage, like we didn’t need it.” Modern Family is now a show that uses documentary film techniques but never bothers to explain why; that’s why Levitan calls it “a family show done documentary-style.”
The mock-documentary is a staple of modern U.S. and British comedy, whether it’s the early movies of Albert Brooks, films like This Is Spinal Tap, or both versions of The Office. But in most of those projects, there’s been some attempt to justify the style of shooting and to follow some of the rules of a real documentary. The documentarian was an onscreen character in Spinal Tap, and on the original version of The Office, the show did an episode in which the documentary actually was released (providing new problems for the characters). On the U.S. Office, people mention the presence of the camera, look in its direction, and even try to avoid being filmed at tense moments. There’s none of that on Modern Family, where the characters never seem to know they’re being filmed, and where Levitan has said he doesn’t want to imitate “families who let cameras in their houses in real life. I just can’t stand those shows.”
Even the “talking head” segments, where characters are interviewed about what’s going on in their lives, are done without any indication of who they’re talking to. On The Office, characters answer questions and even say things like “shut up” to the off-screen interviewer, but on Modern Family, the same scenes are almost like dream sequences where the stars express their feelings to no one in particular. Some people have complained about the refusal to justify the format; New Jersey Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall wrote that the show needs to make up its mind whether the talking heads are real or fantasy, because “the current approach is just distracting.” But Levitan has said the documentary is “just our style of storytelling,” a device to reveal characters’ feelings.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 12:15 PM - 2 Comments
A decade ago, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick were the golden boys at NBC (remember them?) with their then-new creation, Will & Grace. Now look at what they’re working on:
Twitter sensation Shit My Dad Says is headed to television.
CBS has picked up a comedy project based on the Twitter account, which has enlisted more than 700,000 followers since launching in August and has made its creator, Justin Halpern, an Internet star.
“Will & Grace” creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick are on board to executive produce and supervise the writing for the multicamera family comedy, which Halpern will co-pen with Patrick Schumacker. Halpern and Schumacker will also co-exec produce the Warner Bros. TV-produced project, which has received a script commitment.
The article also says that “The comedy’s title will change if it gets on the air.” Yes, I suppose so.
I try not to pre-judge these things; not every show based on a fad — social media, commercials, whatever — is automatically bad. (Cavemen was not a bad show at all.) But does this sort of thing ever really work? The idea seems to be that the network will get publicity and brand-name recognition for doing an adaptation, more than they’d get if they just did an “original” script on a similar topic. But the amount of negative publicity they get usually winds up outweighing the positive value of the brand name.
Remember the ABC executive who got pilloried for saying what was obviously true — that sometimes it’s better to create a loose imitation of a foreign show rather than paying to adapt the show itself? Well, here’s a corollary: sometimes it’s better to create a show that is an obvious imitation of a current fad, rather than base the show directly on the fad. I have a feeling that a show about a young man living with an elderly father (an idea that isn’t copyrighted) would get a better reception than a show based on a Twitter feed.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 10:46 AM - 29 Comments
Unlike other crime procedurals, this No. 1 show doesn’t waste time on how it happened
Why is one episode of NCIS, a forensic murder mystery with a military setting, more popular with young viewers than an entire season of Mad Men? The JAG spinoff, in which Mark Harmon investigates crime in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (Tuesdays on Global at 8 p.m.), has seen steadily rising ratings since it premiered in 2003; this season, it became the No. 1 show on TV and launched its own spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles. But it’s also in the top 10 among the 18 to 49 age group, and gains an extra two million viewers from new-media formats. Shane Brennan, who runs NCIS and created the spinoff, says that there are even “college parties where they sit and watch NCIS reruns.” How did this show become cool when no one was paying attention? Maybe because it’s not a procedural like CSI; one of NCIS’s stars, Michael Weatherly, described it to the Los Angeles Times as a throwback to Barney Miller. NCIS is secretly a sitcom with dead bodies.
Brennan, who has also worked on CSI: Miami (as well as the teen drama One Tree Hill), says that other procedural shows spend a lot of time “putting the clues together in a scientific way.” NCIS spends less time on science and therefore has “more time to develop character.” The mysteries on NCIS are sometimes perfunctory or pointless. A recent episode had Agent Gibbs (Harmon) solve the crime at the last minute without explaining how he figured it out; the culprit was a guest character who had only one scene in the episode (and who, inexplicably, confessed right away). Brennan says that on NCIS, “it really doesn’t matter so much what the story is: it’s how the character reacts.” That makes it different from shows where the characters are secondary to plot twists, or procedurals like Law and Order, where topical issues dominate. NCIS has more in common with young-skewing comedies like The Big Bang Theory, which also has simple plots. Like those shows, NCIS is an excuse for viewers to hang out with characters they love. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, November 6, 2009 at 11:35 AM - 2 Comments
Supernatural does a lot of gimmick episodes, and last night’s episode was done as a parody of various types of TV shows: Grey’s Anatomy-type soap (complete with the overuse of sappy music), CSI-type procedural, multi-camera sitcom. Easy targets all, but it’s still fun. And the easiest target of all — and the most fun part — was the full-scale sitcom introduction, complete with situation-specific yet generic theme song, one character laughing at the wacky things the other one does, and of course, bicycles. The zoom-in on Sam after he sees the ghost is a nice touch; those ’70s and ’80s filmed shows used the zoom lens a lot.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, October 26, 2009 at 6:34 PM - 8 Comments
One of my pet peeves, as a sitcom fan, is the inaccurate use of the term “laugh track.” A laugh track is laughter added to a show to simulate the effect of a live audience, even though it was shot without one. It is not the sound of actual people in the audience laughing at the material as it is filmed. And yet you constantly hear people talking about studio audience laughter as if it’s exactly the same thing as laughter added in post-production. Worse, you hear people criticizing the “laugh tracks” on shows whose entire style, rhythm and timing are influenced by the decision to shoot with an audience, and would clearly be very different if there were no audience present (and therefore no laughter) on the soundtrack. Then you get people who tell us that show X would be better if they would stop using such fake-sounding laughs, when the laughing is real and the actors are obviously reacting to it.
What I’m getting at is that Chuck Klosterman, who spent an entire interview pontificating about the meaning of “laugh tracks” when he clearly has no idea what a laugh track actually is, has become a pet peeve of mine. (“What took you so long?” I hear you say.)
What’s especially phony and silly about all this anti-laughter talk is that you never hear the same principles applied to stand-up comedy, or The Daily Show. (The earliest episodes of The Daily Show didn’t use an audience, and no one misses those days.) Everyone knows why stand-ups need to work in front of an audience, that their timing would not be the same without the audience. Yet people will not only prefer sitcoms without audiences or laugh tracks (that’s fine) but talk as if a sitcom done with an audience is completely indistinguishable from one without an audience, to the point that you’ll hear people say things like “I wish I could see Seinfeld without the laugh track.”
As a sort of antidote to this attitude, here’s an excerpt from a NewsRadio DVD commentary, where creator Paul Simms and writer Josh Lieb (who ran the show in its ill-fated final season) answer a question about whether they would still do the show in front of an audience. Simms is the first guy to speak; Lieb, who now writes for The Daily Show and is the author of that book with the long title, is the high-voiced guy who says “it’s very hard for a single-camera show to make me laugh.” I don’t think, though, that their comments are meant to exclude any particular type of show; Simms came from The Larry Sanders Show and has worked on Flight of the Conchords. The point is simply that the choice of shooting style is not some kind of pointless affectation, and the show would not be the same if you took away the “laugh track” (which is not a laugh track).
One more thing: one point that’s often made against the use of the studio audience is that movie comedies don’t need an audience to be funnier. But of course, they do: movie comedies are screened in front of audiences, and if the audience doesn’t laugh at a scene, it gets cut or changed. TV shows don’t have time to be pre-tested like that, so the audience is there to inform the actors and producers. They might change a joke if the audience doesn’t laugh, they might change their timing to suit the audience, or they might huddle and realize what kind of jokes need to be de-emphasized in the next episode. But the instant-feedback element is one reason why multi-camera, studio-audience shows tend to have more big belly laughs than their single-camera counterparts. (The most successful and enduring single-camera shows are often the ones that will forego “hard” jokes in favour of smaller moments and a pleasant atmosphere: Leave It To Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, M*A*S*H and The Office are examples of shows that aren’t usually out to compete with I Love Lucy in the slapstick-jokes department, and instead are going for something more realistic and down-to-earth than you can get with multi-camera.)
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 12:30 PM - 6 Comments
I was asked on Twitter to clarify my reasons for saying that multi-camera comedies should stop hiring James Burrows to direct. I’ve said that before, but I said it again after seeing the pilot of Hank, a bad pilot with a script that, line for line, isn’t too bad (after the clunky opening scene). Burrows is the most in-demand director in comedy; if a producer can get him to direct his or her sitcom pilot, it’s considered a huge coup. But while it’s not always easy to explain what a director contributes, and it certainly isn’t fair to blame a bad show on the director, it still seems like Burrows’ pilots and episodes are quite poorly executed these days except in a very superficial sort of way.
There’s one thing he’s good at now: speed. Not pacing, just speed. Burrows is known as the fastest-working director in TV, someone whose filmings are always efficient and over with quickly. (He’s old school, and rightly believes that the actors should know their lines and that the audience shouldn’t have to sit there for ten hours watching every scene being filmed ten times.) And his emphasis on speed carries over into the way his episodes move: everybody talks quickly, gets in and out of the room quickly, and the episodes never stop moving. But for the last ten years or so, it’s seemed like his episodes don’t do much of anything except move quickly. Potentially good jokes often go for too little because the characters aren’t doing the little pauses or physical tics or other tricks that can help sell a joke.
But even more important than the success or failure of an individual joke is the creation of character, and here’s where Burrows’s shows really fall down for me. Every show he directs, it seems, has everyone acting like Generic Sitcom Guy or Generic Sitcom Gal. This may be something that still works in a pilot, where the objective is simply to establish every character in the broadest, quickest and simplest way possible. (Though if you look at episode one of The Big Bang Theory, directed by Burrows, you’ll see that Jim Parsons’ Sheldon is barely established as a distinctive character at all; he and Leonard almost seem like the same person. Starting in episode two, without Burrows, things started to improve.) But it’s a disaster in a series. Since Will and Grace was canceled, Burrows has been the full-time director of three shows: The Class, Back To You, and now Gary Unmarried. All of those shows have characters who act like sitcom robots; the episodes moved along fast, but the characters never seemed to be doing anything that wasn’t mechanical, tied to the immediate demands of the joke or the entrance/exit. Gary Unmarried, the most successful of these shows, has some good writers, and I’m sure every one of those writers would say how lucky they are to have Jim Burrows directing their show. But when my outsider eyes watch the show, I see people who are moving too fast and, in the second season, still have not established actual personalities. It’s the director’s job to work with the actors and help them define who they are through their actions and line deliveries, until we know that this guy wouldn’t sit there, this woman wouldn’t deliver a line that way. That’s what Burrows did on Taxi and Cheers and Friends and many other shows; that’s what made his reputation. But I don’t see much of that in his current work. It’s quick, it’s efficient, but a year after they started, are these characters doing anything another sitcom character would not do?
Now here’s probably the most famous scene Burrows ever directed, a full 30 years ago. This scene is fast, but it’s not absurdly fast (it helps that there was more running time back then, of course), and it feels looser and more spontaneous than most modern sitcoms. Burrows is working with Christopher Lloyd, who had only been on one episode previously, to develop his character not just through broad, obvious gestures — though there are plenty of those — but little ones like the way he turns around when he hears that loud clattering. Every character in the scene has his/her own distinct reaction to the character’s antics. And the most famous part of the scene was created on the set by Burrows: when “Slow Down!” got a big reaction from the audience, he told the actors to keep going and do it a few more times. This is the kind of superb work that made Burrows the most famous comedy director in Hollywood, but it’s not the kind of work he seems to be doing now.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, July 13, 2009 at 1:25 PM - 5 Comments
Ken Levine’s new post “Your life is not a sitcom,” about people who think that their wacky workplace and co-workers would make a great show, touches on a theme I consider very important: the important thing about a TV show is not the setting or even the individual characters, it’s the relationships between the characters:
Here’s what nobody ever pitches me: a show about a relationship. THE OFFICE is funny because of the relationship between Michael and his employees. It is funnier still because of the relationships among the employees. What they actually manufacture is completely unimportant.
Start with the characters first.
What about the dynamics between them are interesting, fresh, and could sustain stories week after week? And then, what is the best setting to put them in? One that hasn’t been seen before is a plus but not imperative. How many shows and plays and radio series have been set in bars?
That said, there are some areas that are tougher sales than others. Madcap terrorist cells probably won’t fly.
Every TV character is to some extent a known quantity — there are only so many character types to choose from. And the setting, too, is not really that special, no matter how unique and high-concept it might seem. What gives a show its individuality is the way characters interact with each other, how they relate to their environment (the setting) and how they deal with the situations that come their way. A setting and a character, described on their own, are always going to be a lot like every other setting and character; the relationships are where the new stuff happens. The things that make a character “wacky” tend to be the things that make him exactly like every other TV character you’ve seen, but when he makes a choice that another TV character might not have made, or has a relationship with his spouse that isn’t exactly like the relationship of [fill in names of another couple on another show], he becomes something resembling a person.
This is one reason why most successful or semi-successful shows tend to drift away from their original settings, abandoning the high-concept premise for a generic one. 30 Rock started out as a show about a particular kind of workplace, and ended its first season as a show about an almost completely generic workplace; it was pitched as a show about making late-night TV, but it wound up being any workplace where the boss has to deal with inefficient underlings and meddling corporate management. Tina Fey did what most people just dream about: she made a show about the place where she used to work. But that idea couldn’t sustain a show for more than a few episodes, because once you’ve used up all the wacky real-life workplace stories, it’s time to move on to a more generalized setting and more specific relationships. It’s almost like TV is better when the setting and concept are more generic.
Successful TV producers and executives tend to understand that while a high-concept premise or unusual setting might be a good selling point for advertisers or network executives, the concept itself is the least important part. One of my favourite TV executive quotes is from Grant Tinker, who said essentially that he didn’t care about the premise of a show:
Ideas in themselves are never interesting to me. It’s all a matter of execution.
And Bob Boyett, not a quality TV producer but a successful one, said something similar:
Basically, the concept of a show is merely a vehicle to get it launched. What keeps it going is the ability to present characters people want to follow.
In other words, the fact that a show takes place in the craziest office/home/military base/terrorist cell ever is not going to keep it on the air.
Update: I shouldn’t make it sound like there’s absolutely no difference between one premise/setting and another (though I came close to making it sound exactly like that). Different settings do produce different shows, and the setting itself can be a character in the show, like Sunnydale or Mayberry. But when a show depends too heavily on the idea that the uniqueness of the setting is enough to make the concept viable, then it runs into trouble.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:56 AM - 1 Comment
One thing you rarely get to hear with TV comedies is an “unsweetened” version. That is, a version that doesn’t have any of the bits of music or canned laughter that are added after the taping. But here are two clips from an old sitcom scene: one as taped, the other as broadcast. This is from a WKRP in Cincinnati episode, and after the taping, some bits of canned laughter were added to fill in the spots where the audience didn’t laugh (usually when the line was too deadpan or not a hard joke: “I sincerely like the frame” gets a bit of canned laughter to tell the home viewer that it’s a joke). Also, the whole scene was underscored with music: “Breezin’” by George Benson.
It would be interesting to find a really unfunny sitcom scene and find out how much canned laughter was added in the sweetening; most of the laughter in this scene is real. But at least it gives an idea of how laugh tracks and background music are incorporated into the final mix.
Here’s the scene without music or canned laughter:
And the same scene with the music and extra bits of laughter added:
(Cross posted at Something Old, Nothing New)
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, March 4, 2009 at 4:39 PM - 0 Comments
The first season of the popular ’80s family comedy Mr. Belvedere comes out on DVD on March 17, and Jeff Stein, one of the executive producers and creators of the show, was kind enough to answer a few questions about it. Stein and his writing partner Frank Dungan came from one of the all-time great sitcoms, Barney Miller, where they joined the writing staff in the fifth season and stayed until the end of the series; they wrote the last two parts of the three-part series finale, among many other episodes.
After Barney Miller was canceled, they signed a development deal with 20th Century Fox, but found that there wasn’t much of a market any more for adult-oriented sitcoms in the Barney Miller vein. They finally got a project when ABC expressed interest in having them develop a property that Fox already owned, and which had already been made into two unsold TV pilots by others. “ABC called us in for a meeting and pitched us the idea,” Stein says. “We were a little taken aback, since they already had Who’s the Boss, which was tanking, and we weren’t sure why they would want another housekeeper show. But since we hadn’t gotten anywhere with our adult, Barney Miller type ideas, we agreed to write a pilot and show the network we were team players. Perhaps it was this indifferent approach that led our Belvedere to its rightful place in TV infamy.” The executive producers of the show were Stein, Dungan and another Barney Miller writer-producer, Tony Sheehan. Sheehan directed all of the first season, and all of the second was directed by Barney Miller‘s regular director, Noam Pitlik.
Watching the show again on Shout! Factory’s five-disc DVD set — which includes the first season of seven episodes (it was a mid-season replacement) and the 22-episode second season — I think the reason for the enduring cult appeal of Mr. Belvedere is the fact that it was one of the few family sitcoms of the era where the characters were dysfunctional and openly hostile, within the boundaries of the need to have everyone make up and learn something by the end of the episode. The character of the youngest kid, Wesley (Brice Beckham) was particularly popular with kids because he was an out-and-out brat, a self-described sociopath with destructive urges who is basically evil even when he tries to do the right thing. He really does seem like the prototype for Bart Simpson, especially when you learn in one episode that his parents had to get married because the mom was already pregnant.
Stein says that their approach to writing the show was that “since nobody at the studio or network level was interested in smart, we tried to make it as subversive as possible.”
The most famous episode on this set is “Wesley’s Friend,” where Wesley’s previously-unseen best friend gets AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion. Here is Stein’s explanation of how that episode came about:
Frank and I were managed at the time by the legendary Helen Kushnick. Her son Sam was perhaps the first publicly acknowledged AIDS cases from tainted blood (a transfusion he received as an infant), and we did the episode as a homage to him.
In later seasons, Mr. Belvedere did other “very special” episodes, but those, Stein says, were done with less sincere motives:
Every other “issue” show after that was nothing but a desperate attempt to get a TV guide close-up, which never happened. Not even for the “Wesley gets molested” episode, which still makes my toes curl to this very day.
Perhaps because of the air of weirdness and wrongness that pervaded the show (Bob Uecker as a dad, a running gag about how no two clocks in the house ever Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 12:52 PM - 7 Comments
Just to follow up on my last post with the most pointless YouTube video ever, here’s what I think 30 Rock might be like if it were taken over by new producers and re-tooled (including a more Urkel-like emphasis on Kenneth). The video mostly has clips from two episodes, “Sandwich Day” and the second season finale; if I’d gone through every episode I probably could have found more appropriate clips — what this kind of sequence really needs, apart from the Jesse Frederick theme song, is a scene where the whole cast goes on some outing and has fun together — but I didn’t wanna.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 12:34 PM - 3 Comments
More on this later, but Michael Schneider of Variety has a detailed look at how the networks are responding to the increased demand for comedy.
Here’s the conundrum for every network that isn’t CBS: Audiences want light comedy, as evidenced by the success of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the Disney Channel tween hits, and much more; but audiences don’t seem to want single-camera comedies without laugh tracks (as the article notes, there is no “broad, smash hit” in that format); but most networks and production companies don’t have a lot of traditional comedies in the pipeline yet. That’s why a lot of the network people quoted in the article are talking more about how they would like to have more comedies, or need more comedies, as opposed to being confident that they have more comedies on the way.
Three years ago it looked like the single-camera show might finally break through to something resembling genuine popularity; My Name Is Earl looked like a breakout hit back then, and it was a show that signified NBC’s new commitment to “modern” comedy, as well as the way showrunners were leaning toward the newer, more expensively shot, densely-plotted format: the creator, Greg Garcia, had previously created the long-running but little-known CBS multi-camera comedy Yes, Dear, and his success with Earl demonstrated the greater freedom and acclaim a showrunner could get by making the move to single-camera. Now Earl has become symbolic of all the reasons this format never really caught on: it’s too expensive, depends too heavily on in-joke references to previous episodes, and most importantly of all, tends to burn out really, really quick. The networks are probably looking longingly at Yes, Dear at this point, but having placed a lot of faith and investment in the idea that the single-camera comedy was the future of TV comedy, they are still adjusting to the very difficult situation they face: the traditional comedy isn’t back, exactly, it’s just that they haven’t found anything to take its place.
Another point from the article that I found interesting is that the network “brand” can sometimes outlive all the shows associated with that brand. So ABC used to be the network of broad, videotaped comedies about families, like Roseanne and Home Improvement (both created by Matt Williams) and Full House, but they haven’t had a show like that in a decade. But the network discovered, when deciding whether to pick up Bob Saget’s previously-mentioned comedy Surviving Suburbia, that people still think of them as the network that does shows like that, even though they’re not:
“We were all skeptical when we went to look at it, but it does feel like a traditional ABC show,” says ABC Entertainment exec VP Jeff Bader. “Our research shows that’s what people expect from ABC, even though we haven’t had a show like that in years.”
This may explain some of NBC’s problems (I said some, not the ones that are explained by luck or Silvermanian ineptitude); people still think of them as the Seinfeld/Friends network even though they’ve tried to get away from that kind of show. And CBS’s relative success may have something to do with the fact that, for better or for worse, that network is still doing pretty much the same kinds of shows it was doing ten years ago.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM - 0 Comments
A scientist incapable of social interaction is the reason to watch ‘The Big Bang Theory’
Every sitcom needs a breakout character. Usually it’s the coolest guy, like Barney on How I Met Your Mother. But on The Big Bang Theory, whose second season just began on CTV, the most popular character is the one who hates coolness and everything associated with it. Sheldon (Jim Parsons) is a theoretical physicist and a tall, cold-eyed intellectual monster, incapable of showing affection or understanding human interaction. He says that the best part about having friends on MySpace is that he never actually has to meet them. He refuses to give his roommate a birthday present until he’s told that birthdays are “a non-optional social convention.” He prefers video games to sex because “sex has not been upgraded to include high-def graphics and enhanced weapons systems.” He’s so misanthropic and anti-social he makes Dr. House seem cuddly. No wonder the audience loves him.
When The Big Bang Theory premiered in 2007, it received mostly poor reviews, and seemed to be another piece of evidence in the case against the multi-camera sitcom. But recently the show has gained a fan following and even some kind words from critics. The main reason for that is Parsons, who two years ago was unknown except for a brief appearance with Zach Braff in the movie Garden State. His character has been compared to Niles Crane on Frasier: they both look down on people who aren’t as smart as they are, and Parsons even looks a bit like David Hyde Pierce. But Niles was basically a conventional person, with a wife, a sex life, and interests outside of his job. Sheldon gets laughs from his lack of any normal emotions at all, and his contempt for anyone who doesn’t share his asexuality and workaholism: “Screw him,” he says of a young scientist who gets interested in dating, “he was weak.” He’s Mr. Spock with regular ears, and he’s turned a hackneyed premise—a bunch of nerds hanging out with a ditzy sexpot—into a show that becomes unpredictable the moment Parsons walks in.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, September 5, 2008 at 5:21 PM - 3 Comments
This is one of those Weekend Viewing posts that gives us a chance to see a beloved TV star Way Back When, in this case, Alyson Hannigan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, How I Met Your Mother). This was the first TV show she was in, a Sunday night sitcom that ran on ABC in the 1989-90 season, and following up on her role in My Stepmother is an Alien, this one could have been called My Nanny Is a Witch. Yes, in a strange mish-mash of Bewitched, Nanny and the Professor and Full House, a widower with three kids, one of them being Hannigan, gets a new live-in nanny who is actually a witch, sent to live with this family for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The three kids know she’s a witch; the dad doesn’t; every week a spell goes wrong in some wacky way; in this episode, Hannigan is accidentally turned invisible; you know how it works. Corinne Bohrer, whom you know best as Veronica Mars’ mom, played the witch. Yes, we’re talking bad ’80s sitcom land.
When I found this on YouTube I was kind of hoping that this would be a true ’80s train-wreck, but it’s not bad enough to be good. Actually, despite many, many stupid lines, it seems like it might have been a little better than most of the fantasy shows of the late ’80s (or My Stepmother is an Alien, for that matter), but that’s not saying much because the ’80s were full of fantasy shows that bombed. (I’ve never figured out why the networks did so many shows about ghosts, witches, superpowers and the like; all these shows tanked except the Canadian My Secret Identity.) Hannigan is one of the things the show has going for it, and the other is Bohrer, who is attractive and likable even when she has to do dopey ’80s gags like bursting into song for no reason (the two songs that were most over-used in ’80s TV were probably “I Feel Good” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and this episode has both of them).
Anyway, the interesting part, aside from ’80s nostalgia, is seeing an unknown Allison Hannigan doing much of what she would do in more popular shows. It’s easy to say, with hindsight, that someone seems destined for a brilliant career (flop TV shows are full of lovable performers who never had a regular role on a hit show, not because they weren’t “destined” for it but just because they weren’t lucky enough). But you can certainly see why Hannigan made it and those other kids, not to mention the dad, did not: not only is she likable, but her face communicates and “reads” beautifully. In act 2, when Hannigan is (of course) invisible and (of course, this is the ’80s) trying to get into a cool clique of snobby girls, you can see her doing all the Willow faces while she’s listening to what the girls are saying about her: the open-mouthed combination of outrage and hurt, the sad face that’s designed to make us all want to protect her. Joss Whedon has noted that they always tried to put Willow in danger because the audience was so protective of her and so upset when she felt bad. The reason is that Hannigan, like most good TV performers, knows how to communicate, without words — and that’s a good thing, since a show like this doesn’t give her many good words to say.
Theme song (see, back then, most shows had the theme song first and then commercials) and Act 1:
Click “read more” to see Act 2, with Hannigan demonstrating that she’s already a polished practitioner of the sad face:
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, June 9, 2008 at 2:24 PM - 0 Comments
CBS is going to promote a cable comedy, TBS’s The Bill Engvall Show, by giving it a special one-time-only network showing in advance of the second season of the show. CBS and TBS are not part of the same corporate family, unless there was yet another merger last night while I was sleeping; the cable network just struck a deal with CBS, which serves a similar demographic, to plug its show (while giving CBS something different to broadcast during the summer doldrums, since the writers’ strike made summer programming hard to come by).
Bill Engvall is another example of how cable has essentially become a refuge for the kind of programs the networks were doing only a few years ago. (Other examples are mystery and non-serialized action shows, Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 12:03 PM - 0 Comments
To me, one of the most interesting shows to revisit is a show that failed but became the template for many other, greater shows to come. He & She, which I talked about a few weeks back, is a show like that, a one-season flop that didn’t have time to reach the heights of the later sitcoms that copied it. And another show like that is Square Pegs, a 1982-3 cult flop starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker as two smart, geeky, awkward high school freshmen trying, and failing, to get into the school’s cool clique. Sony released the complete series on DVD today — we have SJP’s Sex and the City movie to thank for that — and it’s reasonably-priced for 19 episodes (including one hour-long special) and new interviews with the creator and nearly the entire cast, including Parker. This show has been borrowed from so much that it’s practically like watching the next 25 years of “teen” entertainment in embryonic form. Other reviews call it “An awful show”; I don’t. It’s not a great show, though it might have become one if it had run longer, but it’s a very important one, and quite fascinating to watch.
Square Pegs was created by Anne Beatts, one of the founding writers of Saturday Night Live; like almost all the other writers and actors, she left after the fifth season and went to L.A. looking for new worlds to conquer, and her agent suggested that she write a show based on her experiences as an unpopular smart girl in high school. So she did, and Square Pegs came out before Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club, before Head of the Class, before The Wonder Years, before Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie or the TV series), before My So-Called Life, before Clueless, before Freaks and Geeks, before Election, before Napoleon Dynamite, before the WB network started and before the WB network ended. There were very few high school shows of any kind; the TV adaptation of Fame had started earlier that year, but that was about a different kind of high school. And there was the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which came out after the pilot of Square Pegs was shot but before it was picked up, but that was about sex and drugs in high school (hence, Fast Times); it was, in a way, a brilliant comic take on a sub-genre of high school entertainment going back to Rebel Without a Cause, showing us the sordid truth about what really goes on in high school. Another type of high school entertainment was the show from the teacher’s point of view; this gave us The White Shadow and that first Bill Cosby show that nobody remembers. (He was a high school gym coach.) And then there was high school as pure comic fantasy, like Dobie Gillis (and why isn’t that on DVD, for Pete’s sake? It’s got Bob Denver, Warren Beatty, Tuesday Weld) — basically the old-fashioned college comedy transplanted to high school.
Square Pegs was something different at the time, though it doesn’t seem that way now. It was not about the seamy or sexy side of high school: Beatts recalls in her DVD interview that she was able to assure networks that the show wouldn’t have any untoward content because: “These girls don’t have sex and they don’t do drugs; they only wish.” It was not told from the teachers’ point of view and had few adult characters of any importance at all. It emphasized the idea that high school is about cruelty, heartbreak, and constant scheming to get in with the right crowd. The lead characters can’t get the boys they want and they don’t want the boys they can get. It is, in short, the template for the type of high school show that we have seen over and over again since then: the “bittersweet” high school show, where you spend 1% of your time studying and 99% of your time trying desperately to fit in with the cool crowd, where episodes always seem to be leading up to a dance at the gym, kids have unnaturally hip taste in music, and the stories usually end in failure followed by a little bit of life-goes-on uplift. If you compare the end of the pilot of Square Pegs (with guest stars The Waitresses, a New Wave band that did the theme song and also performs their own song “I Know What Boys Like”) with the dance-at-the-gym ending of the Freaks and Geeks pilot, while the shows are very different — for one thing, Square Pegs is a sitcom with a laugh track and Freaks is an hour-long dramedy — there are similar story beats and a similar idea of how to structure a story: your characters don’t get what they want, but they’re happy and smiling at the end because they make the best of what they have. “My life is over — I might as well dance with Johnny Slash” is a line that, filling in a different name, any character on any teen show after Square Pegs could have said.
As a show, Square Pegs is, like most sitcoms in their first seasons, notable more for its potential than for Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, May 12, 2008 at 5:08 PM - 0 Comments
Because I’m always missing stuff, I didn’t realize until I read McGrath’s post that Fox had announced the cancellation of Back to You, touted last year as the last best hope for the multi-camera sitcom. Turns out that the Fox studio is trying to interest CBS in picking up the show, on the accurate theory that it should have been there all along. It’s a reminder of how the current habit, of having networks mostly air shows that their own studio produces, is actually not a very good deal for the studios in many ways: Back to You was courted by several networks, Fox won the bidding war in part because it was a Fox property (at least I’m assuming that was part of the reason; Steve Levitan, the talented co-creator of BTY, has been at the Fox studio for some years now, producing one flop after another). Now the studio is reduced to trying to peddle a failed show to the network that probably should have had it in the first place.
Back to You had a number of problems that the writers never really solved — I remember watching the pilot and being surprised that The Big Bang Theory, much reviled at the time, was actually more promising — but one big problem it always had, probably the biggest, was that any time a sitcom is built around the star of a big, beloved long-running hit, it’ll have serious trouble living up to the attendant hype. That’s not to say that once someone stars in a hit sitcom, they can never do another good comedy. (Though it’s certainly hard to name anybody who starred in a huge hit sitcom and then did one that was equally good. You could say Mary Tyler Moore, though her role on The Dick Van Dyke Show wasn’t precisely a starring or even co-starring role. Newhart, I guess.) But the expectations for the follow-up show will be very high, even though the actual record shows that the best sitcoms tend to be the ones that don’t have stars with a proven track record of hits. The best sitcoms tend to draw their cast members from the following talent pools: Respected, funny actors with a long track record of flops; stand-up comics without a lot of acting experience; “Hey, it’s that guy!” character actors; former second or third bananas on successful shows (Mary Tyler Moore fits into this category). What you don’t usually find is the headlining star of a hit show starring in a show that’s just as good. The dispiriting thing about TV shows in general, but especially sitcoms, is that you get to star in one huge hit and everything from then on is diminishing returns. That’s how you get from I Love Lucy to The Lucy Show to Here’s Lucy to Life With Lucy.
So Back to You had a built-in problem despite the fact that both Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton are very funny and talented and professional: the expectations for a show with this cast were out of whack with what it was likely to deliver. This is especially true in the case of Kelsey Grammer, who had already made the leap from second banana to star and therefore had to be considered unlikely to strike paydirt again; Patricia Heaton probably had a better chance to headline a hit, because she was technically the second banana on Raymond. (Brad Garrett has a reasonably successful show, after all, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a good show; second bananas still have somewhere to go and something to prove, so the audience is willing to follow them to a starring role and not judge them by what they’ve done in the past.) I’ll try a baseball analogy: if you take a 30 year-old superstar and judge him by what he has done in the past, he looks like a great free agent signing, and he commands a huge salary. If you judge him by what he’s likely to do in the future, he doesn’t look quite as good, because most players have their best years before they’re 30. The analogy breaks down because actors, unlike athletes, don’t decline in skill as they get older. But the best bets for a hit sitcom are nearly always — not always, just almost always — the ones with people who have not yet become established stars of hit sitcoms. So Back to You was a problematic investment because the presence of Kelsey Grammer made it more expensive to produce, even though casting another, cheaper, less well-known actor might actually have made it more likely to succeed.