Bill Lawrence On Low-Concept Shows

This is from last year, but I only found it this past weekend, and it might also be New To You™. This long interview with Bill Lawrence, printed back when Cougar Town was starting, includes some very good and sound thoughts on one of my favourite hobby-horses. Said hobby-horse being the weirdness of the fact that, despite the continuing popularity of multi-camera sitcoms, nobody’s developing any hit multi-camera sitcoms except Chuck Lorre. (There’s a very distinct possibliity that we’ll be looking at a future where Chuck Lorre completely dominates the form. And since Chuck Lorre is not a genius, I have to assume the other networks/producers are doing something wrong that he’s doing right.) Lawrence is good at both formats, and he seems to want to do both: had a multi-camera success with Spin City, then created two shows that needed to be single-camera for different reasons — Scrubs because of the M*A*S*H-style approach and cartoony sequences, Cougar Town because it theoretically helps Courteney Cox avoid comparisons with Friends. In between, though, he’s pitched a number of multi-camera ideas, none of which have gotten picked up, though his self-conscious hybrid pilot Nobody’s Watching had some cult success online.

As well as the usual points about why the multi-camera show needs to come back — the massive syndication popularity of the ’90s hits, the success of the watered-down Disney multi-cams — Lawrence gets into the meat of why it’s hard to sell a multi-camera show these days:

The next move, the next thing I really want to see is someone just make a great, intelligent, multi-camera comedy, where for some reason, it still seems really hard to get that through the system…But you know why? It’s because… sitcoms aren’t about the idea, OK? They’re about the execution and the casting and the chemistry… So then, you know, the hardest thing about a multi-camera sitcom is, they don’t have a lot of potential to hit hard with giant buzz. Do you know what I mean? Because they’ve all been done before. They’re about execution… I’m not gonna go ‘hey, did you hear? There’s a new multi-camera sitcom that takes place in a diner!’

…And what happens is, you only get a few shots at the plate. The amount of pilots they make every year has diminished. Even now, the multi-camera show that ABC made [Hank] had to have Kelsey Grammer attached. Huge name. Because what’s tough is when they’re not making a lot of pilots, and it’s hard for anybody, much less network executives or studio executives who are hearing 1000 pitches, to envision something in a realm that they’re only making five or six comedy pilots. The guy that goes in and says, I’m doing a single-camera, mockumentary, talk to the camera take on the modern American family with this, and that, and this, you know, that’s a great pitch, especially when you don’t have the show to look at and see that it’s funny.

A harder pitch is to go, ‘I want to do a show about kind of a workplace family, but they work at a…’ Imagine pitching Cheers right now. ‘I want to do a show, multi-camera sitcom, about a bunch of friends who are really a family and they all hang out at a bar.’ It’d be an impossible sale, unless you’re Chuck Lorre. ‘Are there any stars in it?’ ‘No. At this point, there’s no one you’ve ever seen or heard of.’ Do you know what I mean? To me, that’s the disconnect. That’s what makes it hard.

Now, a high-concept, buzzworthy premise is always pretty much pointless, especially with a comedy. Any comedy, single-camera or multi-camera, burns out its premise in about four weeks and then goes looking for other stories to tell depending on who the characters are. Lawrence himself turned Cougar Town from a bad high-concept show to a good low-concept show; by the end of its first season, 30 Rock was no longer about life backstage at a sketch comedy show, and has not been about anything of the kind since then. But this type of show is less likely to be hurt by its high-concept premise (unless, as with Cougar Town, the premise is just fundamentally annoying). The big, easy-to-publicize premise helps it get off the ground and gives the critics something to talk about.

But you take multi-camera sitcoms, and they really do need to start without too much conceptual baggage. (As a general rule, I mean; there are always exceptions.) Seinfeld was not the only show about nothing; most hit multi-cams are basically just about a bunch of people hanging out in one or two locations. It’s “blue-collar guy comes up with get-rich-quick schemes” or “sane man takes over a radio station where everyone is crazy” (twice!) They succeed if the characters and their relationships are funny enough to support multiple stories and comedic set-pieces, and if the performers click together — something that is often not completely apparent from the pilot. Starting with a high-concept pitch is often really bad for this kind of comedy, because the writers spend the crucial first 13 weeks trying to come to terms with the cool premise, rather than trying to throw characters together and see what happens.

If you look, for example, at NewsRadio‘s first five episodes, the show clicked not in the episodes that sorta kind had something to do with radio, but in the episode “Smoking,” which was just a generic office situation combined with a variation on a generic sitcom plot: one guy tries to give up smoking, while another guy tries to give up coffee. Everything came together in this famous scene and the show’s tone, pace, rhythm started to become apparent. This would be much more difficult if they were saddled with a big premise that had to be serviced in the episode; they basically needed to be free to abandon the premise and just do stories about people who do stuff.

Last year’s crop of multi-camera shows tanked, and while I’m not saying it’s directly attributable to their premises, the fact is that they mostly had high-concept premises: a low-grade Arrested Development riches-to-rags thing (the disastrous Hank, which may have soured ABC on multi-cams for life), a Knocked Up scenario (Accidentally On Purpose). These shows saddled themselves with so much concept that they couldn’t tell normal stories or do relatable scenes, not to mention that they were both greenlit based on established stars of previous multi-camera series. (This doesn’t necessarily mean disaster — it didn’t mean disaster for Lawrence’s Spin City — but it’s usually better to start with a not-particularly-famous cast like Friends did). The only new multi-camera show that became successful was Hot In Cleveland, and even that strikes me as depending way too heavily on fish-out-of-water stories. But at least they have another season to see if they can get the characters to stop talking about how weird it is to live in Cleveland.

Which means, I suppose, that the likeliest way for a multi-camera show to take off is to greenlight a show without big stars, without a cool-sounding premise, and maybe even without a perfect pilot, but just one where the cast and the characters seem to have potential. But you can see why networks would be leery of picking up a Seinfeld today: the investment in a show is so huge (not just financial, either) that it’s better to pick up a show that sounds good. If the high-concept show with stars is a flop, the executives at least have an explanation for why they bought it — it sounded good in the pitch meeting. If the low-concept show fails, as most shows do, the executive has no obvious answer to the question “why did you buy this thing?” So while multi-camera shows are more popular when they become hits (and I keep wondering whether NBC is getting any pressure from its production-company arm to come up with more shows that can be sold into syndication; The Office has done fine, but 30 Rock won’t sell for much, and they need some multi-camera product to sell), single-camera shows have an easier time justifying their place on the modern schedule.

The one thing that seems like a modest reason for hope is that there are at least two multi-camera shows starting this fall that are not trying to succeed on star power or concept power. Mike & Molly didn’t greatly impress me, and the pilot will get a deserved bad rap for its fat jokes (speaking of which, ABC Family’s Huge really is one of the best new shows of the summer, and will be sort of an antidote to that). But it’s got some funny people who aren’t ridiculously famous, a core of sweetness underneath the nasty, and a few relationships that seem to have story potential. And Better With You will have a tough time of it, critically, as the one multi-camera show on its network, but it’s got likable, amusing people from top to bottom, and places for them to go. I would not bet on either show to get good, especially in this climate, but they have a better chance of getting good than most of the multi-cams we’ve seen picked up in the last couple of years.

But nothing’s really going to change, fundamentally, until the networks start taking chances on more sitcom pilots that don’t have Chuck Lorre or former Friends writers attached, and until they’re willing to take a chance that a pilot with a good cast and a smart creator is a place to grow from — the start of what the show is going to be, not the end.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.