Monday, July 13, 2009

"'Period' Comedy"

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:

“Cowboys.”

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?

Probably not.

(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.

They didn’t.

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.

13 comments:

Rebecca said...

What about F Troop? And Hogan's Heroes?

I was never a fan of F Troop, and it was only on 2 seasons but, according to Wikipedia, not because it had bad ratings. And it did quite well in syndication.

But I loooved Hogan's Heroes.

Of course, those were both well before the 80s.

Oh yeah, I loved Bat Masterson, too. Really dating myself now, but I was actually still pre-school when that show started. Guess I was just a Gene Barry fan. Because I also liked Burke's Law, and his episodes were my favorites in Name of the Game.

*Wondering in the vacuum of cyberspace if anyone who reads this blog is familiar with any of that stuff I just mentioned.*

Sigh.

It seems kind of a shame, though, that historicals aren't more popular. Shouldn't they hold up well over the years, since they are already dated?

Marv said...

We had that fairly poor show on Abe Lincoln's butler a few years back. It was a great idea - sort of an American Black Adder - but it just wasn't funny enough, but there was nothing wrong with the idea that got it killed from before it even premiered. We did have Wonder Years, and on the Family Channel they had a wonderful show - whose name I forget now - about a Jewish family living in South Carolina (?) during the 50s. Also, Brooklyn Bridge about life in the 50s. I'm not even including all the gary marshall 50s shows.

William C Bonner said...

I immedieatly came up with "The Wonder Years" and "That 70s Show" but perhaps I'm misusing the term "Period Comedy" and need to reread your post.

growingupartists said...

That was great!!! Definitely a keeper for the time when cowboys make their comeback, they will. Earl's magic formula.

Can the way western comedies work be translated onto other populations, giving it the same vibe but different characters?

Anonymous said...

Do you think part of the problem is keeping the shows accurate in the time period with out sacrificing humour. Also what about MASH

A. Buck Short (alleged bard) said...

OK, as we old Jewish cowboys like to say down here in Texas, Chhhhhhhhhowdy….and oh, did I just get a little of that on ya’? Here’s a paper towel.

Whatdaya mean “Best of the West” was a period piece? Have you never been to Fort Worth? Where they still boast both kinds of music: country AND western. The kind of place where Argus Hamilton might point out the crosswalks say “mosey” and “don’t mosey.” A place where a simulated gunfight I was watching with a visiting screenwriter labored well onto 25 minutes in 95 degree heat. I told my companion, “If something doesn’t happen in the next three minutes, I’m going to grab the gun and shoot one of them.” To which he replied, “If this isn’t over in the next three minutes, I’m going to grab the gun and shoot myself.

I used to think all those western supporting actors like Dub Taylor, Sam Elliot, Pat Butram, Burt Gilliam and Barry Corbin just did one hell of a job of recreating those arcane western accents and dialects. Until we moved here to Lone Star Limbo and realized, what arcane accent? That’s the way at least a quarter of the population still talks, to one degree or another. Who knew?

Besides, all sitcoms are period shows, if the syndication lasts long enough. I do appreciate this discussion, however, since when I hear "period production" I have a hard time visualizing anything but one of those French farces where people flutter about going in and out of doorways, somehow just missing each other. Not westerns, which I always thought of as, well, westerns.

But, yes Rebecca, I do remember Gene Barry for two reasons. One, because my actual last name is Burke, and I got real tired of the nickname “Stoney” Burke assigned by the gym teacher after that other Jack Lord “Burke” rodeo series. And two, snagging the roll of Bat Masterson. When you’re essentially a Jewish song and dance man gunslinger from New York City, you pretty much have to go with “dapper” as your deal – unless maybe you’re Gene Wilder?

I was so impressed by someone who spent that much time hanging out at Hillcrest with Jan Murray actually making it as a western hero, that I became A. Buck Short – last of the Jewish poets. If you want you can see a photo and some of that oeuvre here. Hey, we all have our media. It’s coming up on our 20th year – who says you can’t milk a steer?

A. Buck Short said...

Uh, that should have been Jewish COWBOY poets. Doesn't really make sense otherwise, does it?

Anonymous said...

To William C Bonner: I think the success of "The Wonder Years" and "That '70s Show" had a lot to do with nostalgia and romantic tension (Kevin and Winnie, Eric and Donna). I'm pretty sure no one from the 1980s grew up in the old west, and therefore had a harder time relating to Earl's show. Not only that, as Earl pointed out, westerns weren't "in" during the '80s for whatever reason. That said, I'm not involved in the television industry and don't really know how things work there (that's partly why I like reading this blog), so I could be wrong.

David said...

Seems to me that period comedies can work IF they are about two decades behind the times, so that the kids who grew up in the period are now young adults reaching the point where nostalgia for their younger years is attractive.

Examples:
That 70s show, done in the 90s
Happy Days (50s), done in the 70s
Wonder Years (60s), done in the 80s
Hogan's Heroes(40s), done in the 60s.

It helps if the show features children or teenagers, so that nostalgia for childhood is encouraged. Hogan's Heroes is an obvious exception in that it wasn't based on nostalgia so much as cathartic laughter, done from a safe distance.

MASH is an obvious exception because it was started as a contemporary movie/show about Vietnam using Korea as a safe analogy. Even after Vietnam was no longer contemporary, MASH continued to succeed because it HAD succeeded and was familiar.

In short, successful period comedies target exactly those scenarios where the viewer IS familiar with the time depicted in the show, and audience familiarity is not a problem - at least for the target audience. That doesn't mean it always works, but there seems to be a pattern there.

PALGOLAK said...

"Black Adder goes Forth", set in the trenches of WW1, was the funniest sitcom ever IMHO...

Anonymous said...

Maverick?
McHale's Navy?
Flintstones?

Brian Phillips said...

I am quite grateful for blogs, as they give me an opportunity to publicly thank writers for such shows as "Best of the West".

My favorite exchange, which I will get wrong, because it's been twenty years on was a denouement that resulted in this:

Sheriff Best: I apologize. I'm the sheriff. I should've thought of that.

Laney Gibbs: Well, I'm the mountain girl. I shoulda thought of it.

Frog Rothchild: That's that great thing about being stupid. You never feel guilty.

Thank you for a wonderful show and great memories from this and the other shows you have worked on, Mr. Pomerantz.

Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation (and it probably isn't), the theme song from Best of the West has been stuck in my head for approaching 30 years now.