Fears of a Clown

For years it's been opined in newspaper arts sections across the nation and in overcrowded Coffee Beans across Los Angeles, but only now does it seem to be factually accurate: comedy is dying. The Upfronts (television networks' annual presentation of new shows to national advertisers) has come and gone with all the exuberance and artistry of an outgoing Lions Club treasurer's report -- and the results are grim. This coming fall there will be six new comedies on broadcast television: one-third the number of new dramas, and the fewest new network comedies in at least a decade. Even worse, this comedic downsizing comes at the heart of what's being praised, in every other respect, as television's Golden Age. More and more dramas with terse titles and baritone voice-overs are striding into network time slots and expertly crouching there, weapons drawn. More and more reality shows are clamoring with the usual carnival barking onto the air; more and more innovative digital offerings promise more and more online and hi-def opportunities to watch, well, the same stuff. And more and more, those of us in the business of comedy development have been greeted by networks with the polite welcome and routine dismissal of schoolkids selling candy: Well, how perfectly delightful -- but no thanks, heh heh, that's the last thing I need.

As a studio executive, I have watched as our humorous half-hour fare, once the lifeblood of network popularity, has been quietly ignored, prodded aside and canceled to a point of near-extinction. Therefore, I would suggest -- at long last -- conditions are ideal for our success.

Here's the thing. Comedy, by nature, is the klutzy underdog, the uninvited at the party swiping a drink and hamming it up. We're Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball; we're Gilligan and not Matthew Fox; we're Wayne's World broadcasting from the basement and not Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. We're Steve Martin and Sasha Baron Cohen and Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen and any idiotic striver facing any preposterously uphill battle -- much like the one we currently, finally, face. The networks don't particularly want us. In fact, there's no room for us on the air. And that's exactly the kind of working environment in which comedy was built to thrive.

Let's face it: media companies' attitude toward comedies has shifted from a voracious desire for a lucrative weekful of laffers to a grudging willingness to develop a few of them just in case. And that's perfect. Rock-bottom expectations are just what we need. Laughter comes loudest when people are startled, when routines and assumptions are uproariously confounded; and the more conservative those routines and assumptions, the easier they are to demolish by surprise. Any comedian can tell you -- not to mention any nine-year-old who has ever farted in church -- that comedy works best when it shatters silence. The recent dearth of dominant comedies has helpfully provided that silence. All we have to do now is to face the holy quiet, muster a bit of bravery, and let 'er rip.

Yet be warned: surprise is harder to achieve in television than one might think. There's a reason it's been missing from our earnest efforts for years. For one thing, TV comedies are particularly little bits of fiction -- 21 minutes on the screen, some 30 pages of script -- which makes them a lot more vulnerable than their heftier cousins (hour-long dramas, two-hour movies, 300-page novels) to the ravages of editorial overprocessing. Pitches are screwed with, outlines revised, plots retooled, and almost every scene of every script pummeled by the insistently logical notes of rational executives until the characters, stories and projects are rendered more easily saleable -- and inevitably less surprising. Meanwhile, the roaring popularity of dramas and reality shows continues to be fueled by their ability to astonish and outrage on a weekly basis with unexpected story turns and inexplicable tantrums and victories. The ballsy diva who abruptly breaks down sobbing in the finals of The Bachelor would never survive a typical comedy notes call demanding that we see hints of this frailty 20 pages earlier. Nor would Simon Cowell or Dr. House be allowed their startling meanness without the addition of heartwarming scenes that assure audiences of their likeability. While non-comedies have prospered by showcasing sudden and extreme emotion (try to find a solid minute of any episode of Deal or No Deal or 24 without torrential human anguish, or 30 seconds of Grey's Anatomy or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition without bursts of weeping and/or unbridled joy), we have been nervously engineering unsurprising story arcs featuring likeable kidders -- with equally unsurprising results. In the past, comedy has done well to embrace eccentricity and raw sentiment: some of our greatest and most enduring shows, from All in the Family to M*A*S*H to The Cosby Show to Cheers to Seinfeld to The Simpsons, have been driven not by the comforting yuk-yuks of a studio audience, nor by the slick flair of single-camera direction, but by the sudden emotion and inexplicable character quirks typical of, well, human beings.

We have to learn, and quickly, to treat the element of surprise not as a narrative liability but as a life-giving spark in need of protection -- both within our stories and, even more challenging, in our development process. For writers, this may mean penning more scripts in secret instead of pitching ideas to networks. For studios, it may mean having the guts, and investing the money, to shoot whole pilots before exposing them to networks; or even bypassing the pilot system (a system constructed, after all, to limit surprise) by producing several episodes of a series ready to be put on network air, online, on DVD, directly into local markets, and/or otherwise on sale. And for all executives, it may mean occasionally having the humility and creativity not to give notes. Major Hollywood studios reliably spend some $50 million a year on comedy development; why not take, say, $1 million of that, divide it among four writers who excite us, and encourage them to write ambitiously and unfettered for once by corporate opinion? The stiff overlords of the network television industry are clearly not expecting much from comedy these days. This provides writers and their studios with a prime opportunity -- in the age-old comedic tradition -- to shock them into laughter.

Ladies and gentlemen of humorous television: we have in hand, at long last, the key to our success. There is officially no time for comedy. Now is our time.