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In my column last month, I took television network executives to task for cranking out so much dreck. They seem to make a big show of seeking out distinctive comedic voices and then they proceed to muck things up and set up all manner of roadblocks when those comedic voices try to make a funny half-hour of television.
It turns out we all owe those television executives an apology. In a fascinating article written by Warren Cohen (whose quotes are in italics below) for Yahoo News the dilemma faced by the nets is dissected in some detail. It's an eye-opening look into the pilot process and it explains why so many pilots end up on the scrap heap...sort of.
"Every year, the roughly 70 filmed comedies and dramas that don't make it onto a network schedule ultimately die without any kind of burial. The price tag of such failures: roughly $40 million per network."
Of course, I am being facetious when I say that we owe anyone who works for a television network any sort of apology. They are under a tremendous amount of pressure, to be sure; and the constant juggling of commerce and art is undoubtedly nerve-wracking and tricky. But I don't think that $40 million is an awful lot of money when one considers how much profit is to be had in the business of entertaining millions via the tube.
"Because the pilot process is such a given at networks, it's often hard to evaluate the effectiveness of research and development efforts, in part because few alternative approaches have been tried. Even accounting for the hits that pilot season ultimately produces, is the overall return on invested capital worth it for the networks? Could they be more cost-savvy in streamlining the costs of development? How does television's success ratio compare with that of other entertainment industries?"
So many questions Mr. Cohen raises! And few real answers are supplied by the suits. They wring their hands and do little more than a play-by-play on the miserable track record of their business. Their tone seems a hair more frantic recently, though. I suspect it's because, as cable and the internet steals more eyeballs from them, their business becomes more and more competitive. As the competition is more keenly felt, commerce pulls ahead of art in the never-ending horse race. Once business gains an upper hand in the process, the creativity suffers.
"Every year, each network considers almost 500 pitches for new shows from both independent and network-owned studios. The ideas are specifically tailored to each network's perceived sensibilities: shows with young, upscale casts for NBC, hipper and edgier fare for Fox. Through this system, the networks also avoid bidding wars for hot scripts. The ideas are whittled down to 50 or 60 concepts that writers then produce into scripts. After a network peruses the finished screenplays, it commissions 10 to 20 to be filmed as pilots."
Is television doomed? Will there ever be another great sitcom? Who is the next Seinfeld?
The answer to the first question, in my humble opinion, "Yes." The obsession with youth, the tendency to cater to specific, narrow slivers of audience-- they've always been there to some extent. With the addition of competition and the ratcheting up of the stakes, however, it seems that the folks at the big three are so focused on economizing, that $40 million seems like too much to spend on R & D. This can only have disastrous consequences for the "art" involved.
Which brings us to the second question. There will be another great sitcom. It will happen by accident. The likelihood that it will happen on ABC, CBS or NBC is slim. From what I have observed, the atmosphere at Fox or the WB or even UPN is more conducive to a more experimental, less calculated, original comedy.
To answer the third question: The next Seinfeld will be a comic. He will be in his late thirties to mid-forties. (Let's put it this way: He won't be an Oscar-winning actress like Geena Davis or Bette Midler. He won't be a Tony-winning actress like Kristin Chenowith. He won't be the host of a cooking show like Emeril Lagasse. He won't be the second banana from a classic sitcom like Michael Richards or John Goodman or MacLean Stevenson.)
"Most executives say the reason for the high failure rate is a disconnect between a sharp script and a lousy execution. 'Not every good idea makes it on screen,' says Roy Rothstein, vice president of national broadcast research at Zenith Media Services and a former executive at ABC. 'It could be the director, the cast or the production values.'"
Notice the scriptwriter wasn't blamed! No reason to bash the writers now that the strike is over!
Judy Carter did a feature for NPR which ran late last month on All Things Considered under the umbrella of "The Changing Face of America," an 18-month long NPR project "that tells the stories of regular, everyday Americans and the issues they face at a time of rapid and dramatic change in the U.S." Anyway, they managed to shoehorn in a 12-minute piece from Carter which purported to explore how "American stand-up and situation comedy has changed in the last few years." We interviewed Ms. Carter for SHECKYmagazine.com last year and she is a respected standup teacher and the author of what could be called the definitive how-to standup book. But her NPR story was all over the place and it raised more questions than it answered (Kinda like this column!).
The promo on the NPR website says that Carter "says audiences don't want 'joke-book' comedy anymore. And neither do the producers of TV sitcoms." We listened to it on our laptop and she interviewed writers and producers on this topic. They all seem befuddled-- not so much by what the public wants as much as by what producers want! They all speak as though they have definite ideas as to what the public wants, but we can't help but think that they're all just repeating what they heard at the upfront advertisers meetings or they're repeating what they have rehearsed for their next pitch meeting. Carter tells all of her students (and all of us NPR listeners) we must all "tell real and sometimes painful truths about ourselves" in order to be truly funny and that "the lousier your life, the bigger the laugh." I suspect that Carter is merely telling her students this because she knows it's what the TV execs want to hear. She is, after all, conducting a class in Hollywood.
This should clearly illustrate the huge rift between what the public wants and what Hollywood thinks the public should want: They'll tell anyone who'll listen that Titus is the tip of the iceberg; that we want our sitcoms with heaping helpings of suicide, tragedy, pain, emotionally abusive fathers. Yet the comic who is making the biggest waves out there (in the clubs, where people actually get off their butts and pay money to sit and witness comedy live), the comic who is exciting the imaginations of comedy club patrons like nobody since...well, since the boom went bust... is Mitch Hedberg.
Mitch Hedberg (who, it seems, is finally getting a show built around him by MTV) is the hottest comic right now in the clubs. (With the possible exception of Brian Regan. But for the purpose of this argument, we'll say that Mitch is hotter.) In his act, he reveals NOTHING of his personal life, or his pain, or his angst, or his fears. He betrays no hint of a dysfunctional family or of a crooked upbringing. His one- and two-liners are pure "joke-book comedy," to use the pejorative term used by NPR. He makes jokes about opening a yogurt container. And guess what? It's funny! Hysterically so. And it's clever and no one else does anything like it. It's art.
We don't care about Mitch's pain! We want to laugh. We are saying so by voting with our feet and our wallets: We drive to our local comedy clubs, pay cold, hard cash and watch him live. The networks can't figure out "what to do" with Mitch Hedberg. MTV thinks it can. I would venture that nobody has asked Mitch Hedberg!
In the Carter/NPR piece, Titus himself says that when he pitched his idea to nervous network execs, he told them that he'd been doing his dark material in the clubs and they loved it. He also said that club patrons were a good barometer for what might be a successful TV show. He went further and speculated that perhaps those folks who were going to comedy clubs were doing so precisely because they didn't like what was on TV! Fox bought it.
We like all kinds of comedy, but it's all gotta be funny. Now that Hollywood has completely enfolded standup, they are the tail that wags the dog. And they have an unnerving tendency toward lockstep thinking. ("Trends" are how they like to put it.) This is what all the networks are doing. This is what the American viewing public wants. Malcolm becomes a hit and Family Shows are what gets developed. Titus becomes a hit and all shows must be edgy. Why can't it just be funny? Funny first, then figure out how to present it to the public. The concept of funny is too vague and squishy for the suits.
And this isn't a zero-sum game. If some folks like edgy, others can like goofy. If I create a successful series and the subject matter is somewhat dark, it isn't automatically the death of goofy, silly sitcoms. And there can be an overlap! Some folks can laugh at dark and goofy! What a concept!
Now that Hollywood is scrambling around, trying to discern a pattern, trying to identify a trend, it's having a damaging effect on standup. Comics were the artists, who had the vision. Now it's executives who have the vision and the "artists" are desperately trying to conform. A formula for disaster. Trying to catch a wave or a trend (engaging in the artistic version of body surfing) can be maddening and, ultimately, deadening to the artistic vision.
In the setup for the Carter feature, NPR's Noah Adams said that reality programming has "stolen viewers" from sitcoms, (Don't you love that, stolen?!) and this, in turn, has led programmers and producers and writers to seek "new answers to the question 'What is funny?' "
The answer to that question, as any comic will tell you is: "Funny is funny." Memo to television execs: There is no new answer.
Did you see the cover of TV Guide? Jerry Seinfeld and, in big, yellow letters, "Jerry, Come Back!" Matt Roush goes on and on about how TV isn't the same since Seinfeld folded its tent and "Why TV desperately needs Seinfeld."
Hold on a minute! It's a show that all the critics freely admit "was about nothing. The creators of the show had an explicit prohibition against substance! ("No hugging, no morals, no lessons learned.") "The defining TV comedy of the '90s," as Roush calls it, is gone. His solution? He fervently hopes that Seinfeld comes back! That's his solution. That's just brilliant. We think it's partially tongue-in-cheek, but it's only partial! Is Roush thinking like a TV exec, or what?! The only way to duplicate the success of Seinfeld is with...a copy of Seinfeld... or better yet-- Seinfeld himself! Jerry, Come Back! Matt Roush has answered the question for all the television executives who ask "Who is the next Seinfeld?" His answer: Seinfeld!
Television is doomed.
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