Will Packer had a big summer.
The producer’s “Straight Outta Compton” was the No. 1 movie at the U.S. box office for three straight weeks in August, during one of the most competitive times of year. This fall, he turns his sights to television.
Packer is executive producer of “Truth Be Told,” NBC’s lone new comedy of the fall, which premieres Friday. The show, created by DJ Nash, follows Mitch (Mark Paul Gosselaar), his wife Tracy (Vanessa Lachey) and their best friends Russell (Tone Bell) and Angie (Brenda Webb). The cast and the show itself reflect a trend toward diversity in broadcast comedy.
“This is not a show that is diverse for diversity’s sake,” Packer told TheWrap. “It’s not a show that’s about four white friends and we cast a couple of them black or Asian or Latino. This is a show that is about a white guy and his black best friend and his Asian wife friend and his best friend’s black wife, and they have conversations that all of us are having every day with our true friends.”
Packer spoke to TheWrap about the state of comedy on NBC, his leading man’s “Saved By the Bell” past, and his upcoming remake of the classic television miniseries “Roots.
TheWrap: How is getting a TV show on the air different from getting a movie in the screen?
Will Packer: In the television process, one of the major differences is that you can go and work your butt off and develop a project, make a script, shoot a project, and it can never see the light of day. Whereas at least with feature film, if it’s made for a certain budget level, you know that it’s coming out on some medium somewhere. At some point somebody is going to see it. But once the show is picked up, like “Truth Be Told,” then it’s like a roller coaster. Now you’re shooting every week a new mini-movie. So every week you’re going out and shooting new content, and hopefully audiences are taking the ride with you.
Why do you think that broadcast networks have had so much trouble establishing new comedy hits?
People oftentimes these days gravitate toward content that feels really organic and real, not polished and rehearsed and scripted. Network comedy is the very definition of this — joke here, laugh here, break there. That’s not really where the sensibilities of many viewers have been recently. I think we’re seeing broadcast comedy getting better. I think you’re seeing different types of broadcast comedy. It’s a process, but ultimately you will see viewers going back and finding a certain kind of comedy on network TV that it’s doing better than other outlets.
So how do you make something funny while also making it safe for broadcast?
I don’t know that you make it safe for broadcast. I think you make the best possible content that you can make, then you make it fit into the network’s round hole, if you will, even if you’ve got a little bit of a square-ish peg.
NBC had some success this summer with an African-American cast show in “The Carmichael Show.” Is NBC becoming a more hospitable place for black-cast comedies?
Look, it’s no secret NBC has not been the home of mega comedy hits. So I think when that’s the case, obviously, what you’re doing, you’ve got to switch it up. I love the fact that they are reaching out and have been open to trying to bring in audiences that are not tuning in to their network on a regular basis. If the black audience happens to be one of them, I think that’s really smart. I think it’s a good business practice to go out and say, “Look, this is a monster demo. Let’s make shows that resonate with that audience.”
Do you think Mark-Paul Gosselaar‘s Zack Morris-ness works in your favor?
There’s two sides to that. I certainly love the fact that he has an audience. Network shows have to cut through the clutter. But what I would also say is that his particular skill set works really well with this character. It’s a different character than he’s played, which was part of the appeal for him, but also part of the appeal for DJ Nash and myself bringing him in to play this guy who has this incredible need for justice, who wears his white guilt like a badge of honor sometimes. That’s different for Mark Paul.
You’re also producing the upcoming “Roots” remake on A&E. Why remake that series?
It’s a remake, not a retelling, because a retelling implies that you’re telling it again for the audience that heard the original story. You remake it because there is a huge audience, especially among the youth demographic, that don’t know that story. Frankly, the original doesn’t hold up for a youth, contemporary, movie-going, television-watching audience. They’re not going to sit through and be impacted by the original “Roots” like generations before them were.
Why doesn’t it hold up?
Like many things that were made that long ago, the style of the filmmaking is different, the process of delivering the narrative is different, the way that audiences are receiving and interacting with their content is different. There’s not a fun nostalgia with “Roots” that makes parents and grandparents say, “Come kids, let’s sit around and watch this.” I know for a fact that there have been groups that have tried, and it’s been summarily dismissed by youth audiences. I don’t think that’s anything against what the original is or represents. It’s iconic.