Who’s Really to Blame for the Lack of ‘Empire’-Sized Comedies? (Guest Blog)

When trying to finger the culprit for a failed sitcom, it’s always the last place where execs look — themselves

Last Updated: November 2, 2015 @ 4:01 PM

After reading TheWrap‘s Oct. 16 piece about today’s lack of big-ticket sitcoms in which ABC comedy development head Samie Falvey said, “Drama is incredibly competitive, but I do think comedy has the added challenge of creatively being something that you have to build toward,” an analogy gnawed at me:

If some restaurants operate virtually customer-free while their neighbors continue doing brisk business, maybe the unpopular places need to stop looking at the industry for an explanation and start taking a look at their menus.

In other words: When it comes to the barren landscape that is primetime network comedy these days, isn’t it worth asking whether the “Empire”-sized hits aren’t emerging because much of what’s being served just isn’t all that good?

Yes, as the original article indicates, times are as tough these days as the choices are many. Is it difficult to get viewer attention, even on a good night? Sure. So perhaps Falvey has a point.

On the other hand, perhaps Selfie just wasn’t very good.

As sitcoms go, maybe “The Neighbors” and “Manhattan Love Story” and “Super Fun Night” and “Mixology” and “Suburgatory” and “Trophy Wife” and “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23” and “Back in the Game” and “Cristela” from ABC’s past few years weren’t, either.

To be sure, the sensibilities of pop culture have changed. So when producer Will Packer says they’ve trended “away from traditional network comedy content … to other outlets with edgier, more provocative, more envelope-pushing content,” who I am to argue?

On the other hand: Huh?

So traditional network programming like “The Big Bang Theory,” which routinely attracts 14 million-plus live viewers in a ninth season, has yielded to the edgier, more envelope-pushing sensibility of, say, “Veep,” a brilliant satire but which, for its fourth-season premiere earlier this year, drew barely north of a million?

If edgier and more envelope-pushing are the new black, wouldn’t that mean that NBC’s lone comedy offerings of the season, the edgier “Undateable” and Packer’s own more-envelope-pushing “Truth Be Told” (“Undateable” won fastest-to-first-mention-of-genitalia two Friday nights ago, though, with “penis” at three minutes), would have done better among the provocative-loving 18-49 demographic in their most recent outings, instead of averaging a barely there .65 live plus same day between them? Even in the content dumping ground of Friday, isn’t an audience the size of a few Rose Bowls more reflective of interest in the material than of the times?

Maybe these sitcoms and others on NBC the past four years like “A to Z,” “Bad Judge,” “Marry Me,” “One Big Happy,” “Welcome to Sweden,” “Working the Engels,” “Are You There Chelsea?” “1600 Penn,” “Animal Practice,” “Best Friends Forever,” “Bent,” “Free Agents,” “The New Normal,” “Guys With Kids,” “Go On,” “Save Me” and last summer’s “Mr. Robinson” — a personal favorite, if only for its female character’s nickname (Tight Fit) — just didn’t interest enough people.

Maybe viewers just know “Meh” when they see it. (For that matter, maybe beyond pushing an envelope, the envelope should have something in it to begin with.)

In all my years as a network suit I can count on one hand — and have three fingers leftover — the number of times I was party to or even heard of a meeting in which the failure of a new show was autopsied in order to learn from it; to see what, if anything, those of us involved might have done wrong. But looking within just doesn’t happen in a town where you can get run over on the sidewalk by a speeding car only to have the driver first blame you, then the car.

Misjudged the writing? Guessed wrong about the concept or star? Might this knowledge not inform future decisions, so that we stop blaming the universe — worse yet, the zeitgeist — for shows that don’t rate? Or at the very least have specifics to offer about an alarming trend other than “Comedy has the added challenge of creatively being something you have to build towards.” (All due respect to a storied exec, I’ve read the sentence seven times and still don’t know what it means.)

My own guess is that the lack of any “Empire”-sized sitcom since 2009 can be attributed to premises predicated on quirky headline-grabbing titles or kills-in-the-room ideas rather than good material that can sustain a TV series. (I’ll point again to “Big Bang’s” 14-million-plus live viewers and to my long-held belief that whatever sitcom is waiting out there to be primetime’s next mammoth hit won’t be single-camera.)

If networks are looking for an “Empire”-sized sitcom — and not for nothing, but isn’t it more the case that “Empire” found FOX, not the other way around? — it could take a look at whose coming up with them.

One morning not too long ago, toward the end of an ill-fated stint I had in Comedy Development (hats off to those who succeed longer than I did in those rough trenches), I had a meeting with a then-unknown comedy writer who, endorsed by her reputable agent and a successful production company hot to hook up with her, came in with a pitch.

“It’s a comedy called ‘I Want to Kill My Lover,'” she began.

Interesting, I said. What’s it about?

“It’s about a girl who wants to kill her lover.”

Okay, I said, smiling. So tell me.

“Well, there’s this girl who wants to kill her lover.”

Wow. OK. Cool. What happens?

“Each week she thinks of different ways to kill her lover.”

I try a different tack.

“So, like, week to week what happens? Like, where are we when the season is over? What plays out after the 22 or even 13 episodes?”

“She kills her lover.”

Hmm, I muster. “And then what? What happens after that, like in season two?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I haven’t thought that far yet.”

She wasn’t kidding. Nor being ironic. And therein might be found the trouble.

Maybe comedy is in dire straights because there is more writers like this one around town than there are executives who can tell them that tricks and titles tend not to be TV series. Stories and characters do. They make for well-written TV shows, and well-written TV shows can become “Empire”-sized hits.

They draw viewers, starving for a good comedy meal. Even in today’s rough times.

Just food for thought.