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Comedy Producers on Surviving and Thriving as TV Goes Through ‘Tectonic Shifts’ (Video)

TheWrap Screening Series: Seven producers unpack the perks and pitfalls of bringing content to a changing industry

For more from these producers, including much love for “Abbott Elementary,” check out the full conversation here.

When it comes to making successful television comedies, the challenges are always changing. Producers from seven shows, which span multiple formats, genres, and sensibilities, joined TheWrap’s awards reporter Libby Hill for a spirited conversation about finding the funny no matter the method. 

The panel featured “Abbott Elementary” creator, star, and executive producer Quinta Brunson. She was joined by “Peacemaker” creator and executive producer James Gunn; Jeff Astrof, co-creator and executive producer of “Shining Vale;” Bill Wrubel, executive producer of “Ted Lasso;” Steve Yockey, co-showrunner and executive producer of “The Flight Attendant;” Justin Noble, co-creator and executive producer of “The Sex Lives of College Girls;” and Steve Holland, executive producer of “Young Sheldon.”  

“I’ve gone through like a lot of tectonic shifts. I was [working] on ‘Friends’ and the counter-programing was going to be ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’ And that was going be the end of ‘Friends,’” Astrof said about intense competition comedies face. “The first thing that almost killed us was game shows. And then TiVo, we were dead.”

“Then there was subscriber-based TV. And then there was reality. There have been so many things that have been the death of TV,” he added.

Gunn shared that while he moved to Los Angeles in 1998 and wrote pilots each year, he eventually turned to films because he “could not figure out the code” in TV.

“But television has changed. And television has kind of become more like what movies used to be than what they are now, where it really is more about premium television and quality shows and telling the stories that you can’t tell in the theater, because only so many movies can get made,” Gunn explained.

“There’s political stuff that I probably couldn’t do on regular television, there’s obviously a lot of sex and violence and crass humor that I couldn’t do on regular television. I could not exist in the old model of television, and I’m really, really grateful to HBO Max for what they did,” he added.

Wrubel said that, given his background, the move to streaming has spurred him to reconsider the presumptive edicts of TV comedy, crediting “Ted Lasso” executive producer and star Jason Sudeikis with opening his mind.

“You learn this rule, which is comedies play best at 22 minutes. Not 25. Not even 27. 22,” Wrubel said. “And I couldn’t have been more wrong. Jason’s vision was, ‘Why can’t it play 29 minutes? 32 minutes?’ What I learned is that the audience doesn’t care. The audience isn’t aware of the time.”

“That’s what was so interesting to me about streaming. You can tell a comic story and tightness or brevity isn’t necessarily essential to it working,” he added.

This idea of streaming TV allowing for more experimentation and fewer hard and fast rules was seconded by Yockey, who has experienced that freedom throughout both seasons of “The Flight Attendant.”

“It feels like on streaming that there aren’t guardrails,” Yockey shared. “What streaming does is it opens it up for creators as well. It’s not just sex or language or anything like that. It’s the scope of the story you’re telling. And I don’t just mean going to a lot of places or having like real locations, I mean, the scope, aesthetically, of the show that you’re creating can be more specific. And a lot more exciting, creative, and powerful because of it.”

In comparison, Brunson, who got her start in digital entertainment, creating clips for BuzzFeed and Instagram before the launch of her network smash “Abbott Elementary,” was excited by the restrictions required for crafting a network series. 

“Coming up through digital was an entire other way of sharing comedy. It produced bite-sized comedies like vines and YouTube. For my generation [digital] was another platform, in addition to streamers, in addition to network television, in addition to film,” Brunson explained. “Moving through all of those spaces comedically, as a performer and a writer, I find it really inspiring to say, I want to go tell this 22 minute story. I actually want to build the act breaks for commercials, and I want to be a part of the family television viewing legacy of ABC.”

“But then I have other things I’m developing where I’m like, that needs to actually be on FX because it needs to be dark. What’s really exciting, as a creator, about the changes in television is now there are different places to go to tell these different types of stories,” Brunson added.

Holland, a producer on “Young Sheldon,” another broadcast comedy had similar views with regards to the legacy of the traditional TV model. 

“I think doing a network show, there’s certainly a jealousy. Like, I would love to write 10 episodes of something instead of 22,” Holland said. “But I also think there is a space for shows on network that do that many episodes that fans get to live with week in and week out.”

“There are shows I watched and I would tune in every week. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Friends,’ shows that you grew up with and they become part of your DNA because you spent so much time with these characters and with these people. It’s definitely a different kind of storytelling,” he said.

For Noble, someone who did make the leap to streaming with “The Sex Lives of College Girls” after coming up in the industry on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” he was shocked to learn that life wasn’t necessarily easier making the leap to shorter seasons.

“The only thing that is static is it takes a year to make a season of television. The rules change based on what that is. So if you make 10 [episodes], all of a sudden you’re breaking 40 scenes instead of 15 and you’re shooting on two different coasts,” Noble said. “You can do so many more cool things and that’s what’s great about streaming, but I’ve been working so much harder on 10 episodes of TV than I ever did on 24.”

“It was the perfect karmic conk to the head,” he said.

For more from these producers, including much love for “Abbott Elementary,” check out the full conversation here.

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