Recently fellow-blogger, Ken Levine (bykenlevine.com), asked me to contribute an answer to a question he’d received concerning what they call “period” comedies, which just means comedies that are set in another time. Since I created a comedy western series called Best of the West, Ken thought I might have some useful observations. This in an expansion on those thoughts.
They don’t make many “period” comedies, and, other than the Garry Marshall series, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, set in the fifties – which is sort of “period”, even though nobody rode a horse – I can’t recall one “period” comedy, including my own, that was truly successful.
The question is “Why?”
Let me start by explaining why I decided to write a “period” comedy. Up till that time, I had provided scripts for contemporarily set series, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My involvement in the Mary show occurred late in that show’s run, and by then, fresh and exciting story ideas were getting harder to come by.
It was pretty much down to “Mary Gets A Bad Haircut”, “Mary Breaks A Nail”, and “Mary Chips A Tooth.” (That was me exaggerating for effect. Mary never did any of those stories. Though I do remember a “bad haircut” story on Taxi.)
The truth is, I was tired of stories that, perhaps, had deep, psychological implications, but which were, to me at least, not all that interesting. Dating problems. Mary went through every imaginable variation. The date was too short. The date was too old. The date was poor. The date was bald.
I rather quickly grew weary of dating problems. I wanted a story about something I could care about, something that really mattered. (That’s why I came up with “Ted’s Change of Heart”, an episode where Mary regular, Ted Baxter, was stricken with a heart attack. This was a “reactive” suggestion. For once, I wanted someone on the show to have an actual problem.)
One day, a breakfast meeting was arranged between me and then ABC executive, Tom Werner (who would go on to make billions with The Cosby Show and Roseanne, and win two World Series as co-owner of the Red Sox). When Tom asked me what kind of TV show I really wanted to create, my response was immediate:
Why “cowboys”? I love cowboys. Old cowboy movies are still my favorite today. Years of watching them had trained me in understanding how westerns worked, and I felt confident (or at least as confident as I get) that I could do a funny version of one. But, arguably, the primary reason I wanted to do a western was because I was certain that the storylines in such a series would never, or at least rarely, deal with dating.
They’d deal with outlaws. They’d deal with Indians. They’d deal with stagecoach robberies, hostage taking, shootouts in the center of town. We’re talking about life and death issues here, not “I’m meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time and his Dad’s wig in on crooked.”
My enthusiasm carried the day. I got to make Best of the West, a creation that retains a special place in my heart. But despite my passion for westerns and my “take” on how to pull one off comedically, should anybody really have been betting on a “period” comedy?
(Regular readers are familiar with my negativity. I never believe anything’s going to work. But this time I actually have reasons. Well, I always have reasons, but this time I have good reasons.)
The way I sees it, all successful television series rely on audience identification. People identify with the characters, they identify with the situations, and through that identification, a bond is created, linking the audience with the program, insuring they’ll be back week after week.
So you’re flipping around the channels, and there’s Best of the West. What do you see? People wearing holsters and cowboy hats, living in dirt-floor cabins, and talking about a “passel of owlhoots fixin’ to ‘tree’ the town and tear the place six ways from Sunday.”
Your first question is:
“Why are they dressed like that?”
Your second question is:
“What are they talking about?”
And your third question is:
“What has this got to do with me?”
So much for audience identification.
Contrary to the successful formula, an absence of identification leads to distancing between the audience and the program, a distancing that is supplemented by the fact that Best of the West was filmed in front of a live studio audience, leading to Question Number Four:
“What’s a live studio audience doing in the West?”
The final nail in the coffin? If there’s no personal identification, an audience might still have connected with Best of the West if there had been other westerns on the air to give them some familiarity with what exactly we were going for. How many westerns were on TV when Best of the West premiered in 1981? I believe there were none.
But wait a minute. If Best of the West was such an obvious long shot, why did ABC agree to air it in the first place?
Because the pilot episode was extremely funny.
This was the show’s only hope, that is was so funny that everything else didn’t matter. All you needed was for the network to keep it on long enough for the “it’s strange but it’s funny” buzz on it to spread.
Best of the West was cancelled after twenty-two episodes.
Was ABC behind Best of the West? You can gauge their support from their scheduling strategy. Best of the West was first scheduled against the Tom Selleck-starring Magnum, P.I., and when that show took off, ABC moved Best of the West, running it against the Number One series then on the air, Dallas. You don’t do that to a show you believe in.
“Period” comedies are always a difficult “sell.” (They do better in England. But England has a stronger attachment to history, and a greater tolerance for the silly and the bizarre.)
The good thing about “period” comedies is that they’re different. Writers like them, because they offer fresh avenues for comedic exploration. The bad thing about “period” comedies is that they’re different. You’re fighting the “What’s that?” factor.
A “period” comedy’s only hope is that the audience is more tickled by the
“different” than put off by it. And that the network gives it sufficient time to settle in.
Otherwise, the wardrobe goes back to the costume rental place, and it’s wall-to-wall modern dress.
And stories about dating.