Monday, January 25, 2010

"Unsold Concepts"

Rummaging archeologically through the rubble of my career, I have unearthed three concepts for comedy series that never got past the “proposal” stage. Other such artifacts remain currently buried. I will share them with you when they surface.

Here we go.

Three Unsold Series Ideas

Idea Number One:

Old Guys

Two elderly strangers are forced by necessity to move in together and share an apartment.

It’s easy to see why this series didn’t go. It’s got “old” in its title. For networks, “old” equals “Thanks for coming.” There will be no sale today.

Even when television does “do old”, the M.O. is to target the extremes. Old people are portrayed as either oversexed motorcycle enthusiasts, or as mind-addled dodderers who eat prunes and fall asleep in their cereal. Comedy is attracted to “the extreme.” It’s the home of the easy laugh. Unfortunately, reliance on the extremes makes any realistic depiction, in this case, of aging, appear to be, less funny.

The “upside” of an Old Guys project is the opportunity to work with veteran actors, enriching the proceedings with proven talent and decades of experience. The “downside” is, being chronologically old, the actors can “go” at any minute, leaving a gaping hole in your carefully picked ensemble.

Had I been permitted to go forward with Old Guys, I would happily have taken that risk.

Idea Number Two:

The Studio

A “fly-by-night” movie studio, run “seat-of-his-pants”-style by a “never say die” studio boss, set in the “rags to riches” heyday of 1930’s Hollywood.

Enough clichés in there for you? Well, gee whiz! That’s the point!

This series idea derived from a confluence of three significant inspirations. One, I worked at studios – Universal and Paramount – that, at the time, boasted a wide-ranging selection of standing outdoor sets – Depression-era New York tenements, cowboy streets, a castle with a moat, a charming neighborhood in Paris. My thought was, “Why not take advantage of these sets, using them as “locations” for some “low rent” studio’s cheesy knockoffs of classic movies?”

Inspiration Number Two: I watched a short-lived English series, called Flickers, which chronicled that country’s early efforts making silent movies. My affection for Flickers inspired me to transpose the idea to the “Gower Gulch”, which, during the 30’s, housed a substratum of studios that sprung up when movies could be made cheaply and “product” was desperately in demand.

And three, I’ve always been a fan of what I call “near miss” comedy. Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada, where nothing we do – except hockey – rivals its American counterpart. The “near miss” concept is capsulized by comedian Victor Borge’s joke about his hard-luck inventor brother, who came up with a soft drink failure called 6 Up. I wanted The Studio to reflect a 6 Up mentality.

I imagined a fast paced series, portraying the day-to-day saga of a studio teetering on the brink of extinction. Their “knock-off” efforts at popular genres, while working “on the cheap”, would invariably lead to chaos – a cowboy star who turns out to be afraid of horses, a gangster who flinches when the guns went off, a second-rate “Lassie” who gets irretrievably lost on her way home, a singing ice skater who can’t quite sing and can’t quite skate.

Imagining The Studio always made me laugh. Here’s why I think it didn’t sell.

The concept hung on the dreaded word, “period.” The show wasn’t about now, or even the “now” of thirty years ago. It was about “back then.” When I pitched The Studio, “period” comedies were hardly in great favor. Think of the hit comedies of the last forty years. How many were set in the 1930’s?

Also, The Studio, by its nature, was a single-camera comedy. (Many of its scenes would be shot on exterior sets, an essentially single-camera assignment.)

At the time I came up with The Studio, single-camera comedies were generally discouraged, primarily because of their expense. Networks (and producers who had to cover the financial deficits) preferred series produced on soundstages, recorded either on film or on even more economical videotape.

Lastly, since The Studio was different, network executives would be required to trust their own instincts as to the show’s potential for success. Network executives don’t like to do that.

Idea Number Three:

Seattle Stu

A highly respected, middle-aged movie critic, frustrated by the artistic emptiness of current cinema, struggles against being marginalized, both at work and home, where he’s transitioning to the life of the “recently divorced.”

Okay, it’s a little down. But I was intrigued by what the lead character was going through, and, from a work standpoint, at least, I identified with his struggle. Show business was transitioning before my eyes. The “Youth Market” focus, and its accompanying coarsening of entertainment, was threatening to knock me out of the game.

The lead character maintained an “open door” set-up with his ex-wife (an arrangement currently depicted on Old Christine and Gary Unmarried), and a thriving relationship with his delightful teenaged daughter (I had one at the time; not an ex-wife, a delightful teenaged daughter.)

Seattle Stu was premised on the idea that the “Youth Market” monopolizes the marketplace. It stood no chance of selling, because the “Youth Market” monopolizes the marketplace.

The common denominator the aforementioned projects is that all three of them would have been written by me.
It amazes me that that wasn’t enough to get them made.


A. Buck Short said...

A lot to be said for near misses. I enrolled in an 11 step program, and I'm already finished.

Ivor said...

You should've talked to the BBC, Earl. (It would've been way better than what they ended up with.)

Love your blog.

Altissima said...

The Old Guys has been done. Someone at the BBC was prepared to take the risk.