The uncertain future of hit comedy

It’s never been easier to make a quality comedy. So what gives?

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.”

I don’t really see it that way, in part because I think smart comedy of a particular kind is in no danger at the broadcast networks for the foreseeable future. In many ways, it’s never been easier to make a quality comedy on a broadcast network. (Not that it’s “easy” in the sense that you or I could do it, but you know what I mean – it’s easier than, say, launching a cable-quality drama on broadcast, which is why the Emmys nominate lots of broadcast comedies and almost no broadcast dramas.) Look at the single-camera comedies on NBC, ABC and Fox, and the striking thing is that most of them become good if they run a year or even less than that. Happy Endings started with a lukewarmly-received pilot and was a good show by episode # 4. Go On, New Girl, Suburgatory, Raising Hope – these shows all got pretty good pretty fast. Even The Neighbors is getting a better reception half a season into its run. And so while I won’t like to see some of these shows go, I’m confident that there will be new good shows to replace them soon enough. Perhaps because single-camera comedy is so well suited to the things broadcast TV can provide – large writing staffs to pack the show with jokes, glossy production values to give the show the look of a movie – it’s the thing that broadcast TV does best in a purely qualitative sense.

But it’s not what broadcast TV does best in terms of appealing to a wide audience. There’s been a proliferation of comedies in the last few years, but there hasn’t been a new hit comedy on ABC, Fox or NBC since Modern Family and The Middle in 2009. (And The Middle isn’t a big hit, but just being a good show that can consistently get over a 2.0 rating qualifies it as a near-miracle in today’s TV economy.) Even CBS, the populist network – or lowest-common-denominator network, depending on how you look at them – has launched only two new hits, Mike & Molly and 2 Broke Girls, and depends heavily on extending old hits like Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother long after they should have been retired, simply because they don’t have any expectation that they can create new hits to replace them.

So at least in the single-camera genre, there’s no real problem finding quality comedies. (The multi-camera genre is another thing altogether, but you’ve heard me go on about that before: we need more of them and they need to be better than they are now.) The problem is finding quality comedies that are popular, which is much more difficult to do, and which the networks don’t seem to know how to do at all. Worse, their ideas of what makes a mainstream hit tend to involve doing what they were doing before. What happens every year is that the networks announce a bunch of new comedies that they expect to be more “mainstream,” more attuned to popular sensibilities, than their beloved but low-rated cult comedies. And every year, they turn out to be exactly the same as their beloved but low-rated cult comedies.

You can see this process most clearly with NBC’s Go On, which got promising ratings early on due to its Voice lead-in, but sank to cult-level ratings as soon as the lead-in was removed. (It will probably get a renewal for a second season, but it’s simply not the hit NBC expected it to be.) Every report on this show was that it was an example of the broader, more mainstream direction NBC was taking compared to Community, a show with a very similar – okay, almost identical – setup. But now Go On is pretty much exactly like Community, a low-rated comedy with a cult following and a lot of Tumblr memes based on its jokes. And there was never a whole lot of reason to see it as more mainstream than Community: both are single-camera ensemble comedies about a cynical man finding his heart when he’s thrown into a group of wackos. Both have similar stories and similar jokes, and appeal to a similar audience. The fact that Go On doesn’t do paintball stories – yet – was maybe worth about .1 in the ratings. (Update: Maybe not even that; Go On‘s ratings were so low this week it’s entirely possible that Community might come back and do better.) The expectation that it would reach a much broader audience than NBC’s previous single-camera ensemble shows was really based on nothing except the idea that “mainstream” is whatever a network proclaims it to be.

We’ll see some of the same thing playing out next year, because NBC and Fox and ABC will pick up a lot of shows that are exactly like the ones that are failing, and expect them to do better – NBC’s Michael J. Fox comedy seems a likely candidate, and so does ABC’s Super Fun Night, a show the network is developing as a possible companion for Happy Endings, even though Happy Endings has never been popular. There are a few exceptions, ideas that sound a little different from what these networks have done before: one of Fox’s most talked-about single-camera pilots is a police comedy from the producers of Parks & Recreation (starring Andy Samberg), and since it’s been over a decade since a comedy cop show made it to a broadcast network, that seems like a tack worth taking (plus if it’s from those producers, it’s got to be good). But mostly, the comedies every year seem like thinly disguised versions of the shows that flopped last year. It’s not a whole lot more inspiring than the era when every new comedy was a fat guy/hot wife sitcom.

The difference between the current situation and the situation a decade ago is that – except in multi-camera – most of the new comedies either are good right off the bat or get good after about half a season; the networks aren’t spinning their wheels on bad unpopular comedies, but good unpopular ones. I don’t know how much of a consolation that is. Because, as I said, most of these comedies are pretty good, it almost reduces the value of being pretty good: a Go On or even The Mindy Project would seem like an oasis if there were no good comedies of that type on the air, but since there are about a dozen good comedies in that basic form, it makes you start to itch for something more. (This is one reason why I liked Apartment 23, which seemed to be trying to do something a little different than the dozen “hang-out” comedies with multiple plots per episode.) I don’t mean to dismiss the worth of a quality show, but quality is something studios can manufacture if they know how to do something; single-camera comedy is to the broadcast networks what drama is to high-end cable – they know how to make all these shows at least good, but only some of them are inspired. Nothing wrong with hip, cultish comedy where the characters talk in memes, but they’re in no danger of dying out, because they are what the industry makes better than anything else. Other types of comedy are much more endangered.

And in particular, one thing we have not seen from the broadcast networks since 2009 is a show that combines quality and popularity, a combination that has its own unique rewards. It’s the combination of mainstream appeal and ornery individuality, of meeting the mass audience halfway without pandering to it, that characterizes most of the great hit shows, and is the most distinctive combination of great popular entertainment in general. A show that speaks only to a niche audience, while wonderful, can’t do exactly the same things a great work of popular entertainment can do. But in the last few years, we’ve seen that the broadcast networks don’t know how to make great popular comedy: all of NBC, ABC and Fox’s hoped-for popular hits turned out not to be popular, and the biggest new hit, 2 Broke Girls, turned out to be a bad show, even though there’s no real reason why it couldn’t have been a quality hit if it wanted to be (but making a quality hit takes skill at doing what’s popular without pandering, and this is a skill most TV producers seem to lack at the moment). If drama has bisected into high-quality cable and lower-quality broadcast, then the division is worse in comedy: broadcast still has most of the best shows, but nearly all of them are unpopular. I don’t know if I can think of a comparable recent case: usually if the networks can figure out how to manufacture quality, popularity will come. But ABC, NBC and Fox can manufacture quality one-camera comedies almost with ease, they just can’t make them into hits.

Now, I don’t really know if there is a solution to this. The world (and by the world I mean my long-suffering friends) knows my preferred solution, which is that networks should make the big, difficult, and slow re-investment in the high-quality three-camera sitcom, something much harder to do at this moment in history than the high-quality one-camera sitcom, but whose rewards are therefore greater. (Shows like Go On and The Mindy Project are second-raters in the single-camera world, but if they were in multi-camera format with that level of writing, by today’s standards, they could pretty much rule the world.) But I recognize that this is my own personal bias talking. I certainly don’t want to fall into the old trap of assuming that what I want to see has to be good for business. If it turns out it’s not good for business, I won’t stop wanting to see it, so why put it that way? It’s highly possible that the real solution to the comedy problem is something else entirely, and some smart young exec will come up with it someday.

But something does have to be done, because the broadcast networks have this strange problem in comedy: they know how to make good shows, but for the last three years they’ve shown almost no ability to figure out what will be a success, even a modest Middle-sized hit. Maybe something is up with testing (but there’s my personal bias talking again, since I think most testing is probably useless), maybe network executives and studio executives are confused by our fragmented entertainment universe, but their idea of a potential mainstream hit is often wildly out of whack. NBC thought Animal Practice was a potential mainstream hit. The previous regime thought Outsourced and Perfect Couples were going to be mainstream hits. Fox thought Running Wilde was going to be more mainstream than Arrested Development when almost everything about it guaranteed that it would be even less popular. These are things that call to mind Bill James’ pronouncement that he didn’t expect executives to be geniuses, he just expected them to notice what he, as an outsider, could see. If we could see Animal Practice was never going to be a hit, why couldn’t a network full of people with suits and degrees?

There’s nothing wrong with picking up shows that aren’t going to be big mainstream hits: in that fragmented entertainment world I just mentioned a second ago, shows can last for years if they appeal to a small but desirable segment of the audience, as 30 Rock lasted for years on its scarce but affluent viewers, and New Girl will probably last at least a couple more years on its invitingly young audience. Other cult shows survive by being sacrificial lambs, like Community and Raising Hope survive on their ability to get low but not disastrous ratings in time slots the network can’t possibly win anyway. It’s when a show is expected to be a mainstream hit and the anchor of a network that the trouble starts. And that’s what’s happened a lot this year: shows like Animal Practice, Go On, Happy Endings and even New Girl were expected to anchor competitive comedy blocks as if they were big mainstream hits, even though they were almost identical to previous shows that didn’t become mainstream hits. The networks have gotten into the habit of thinking that if they take a non-mainstream show and make it again, but add “heart,” it’ll be a hit.

This is a process that isn’t good for the quality cult shows, because like good players on bad teams, they’re not used for their strengths: they’re asked to do things that they were never built to do, and appeal to people who would never watch them. Happy Endings isn’t struggling because ABC scheduled it weirdly or put extra episodes on Sunday or whatever; it’s struggling because it was asked to go out and perform like a hit, even though it will never be a hit. Treated for what it is – a cult show that’s valuable for its very young audience – it could maybe take the hit on Thurdsays at 8 the way Community does, survive for a few years as a utility player and make its fans happy. The more networks expect these shows to be big hits, the more they put them at risk of failing.

None of this will likely be solved by the next pilot crop, which seems heavy on the same types of shows that got the networks in this hole in the first place: future cult comedies, and a smattering of three-camera comedies that aren’t really expected to be good (which seems to miss the point: even CBS’s hits are usually the best of their crop, not the worst). Which means that I think the future of smart comedy is assured at least for the next few years, since most of the shows the networks pick up this season will be essentially in the vein of their current single-camera shows – and with single-camera comedy, you can almost bet that no matter how muddled the pilots seem, the shows will become smart, worthwhile cult comedy by mid-season. That’s not nothing, but it’s not a substitute for the networks’ inability to launch a new smart-and-popular comedy. To do that will probably require either a freak hit, or a fundamental rethinking of the process by which comedies are developed, produced and staffed. Given the way TV works, I guess “freak hit” is a slightly better bet.

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