Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Cleaning Up My Desk - The Final Adventure"

As you may or may not recall, I wrote a post entitled “Premise Pilots vs. The Other Kind”, in which I weighed in on the red hot debate concerning the premise pilot – which depicts “how it all got started” – versus “The Other Kind”, that being a pilot offering a representative episode of the series.   In that post, I came down unequivocally in the camp, “It doesn’t matter.” 

My indisputable evidence?  The classic Mary Tyler Moore Show opened with a premise pilot, the equally classic Dick Van Dyke Show kicked off with a representative episode. 

It doesn’t matter.  Cased closed.

Not so fast. 

Sorry, I will slow down.  Why?  Because there are readers, and sometimes, they have opinions, which, inexplicably, differ from my own.  Mike decidedly believed the premise pilot to be an egregiously misleading sample, writing:

And that’s why networks request representative episodes for evaluation prototypes.  So they don’t get suckered into buying a series with only one joke.

the words “you ridiculous, self-justifying, over-the-hill know-nothing” left out but entirely understood.

Or perhaps I’m being oversensitive.

I will merely say in rebuttal to Mike’s comment these two words: 

Three’s Company.

a one-joke series that ran for eight or nine years, I am too lazy to Google which it was.

I distinctly recall watching the Three’s Company pilot, and when it was over, thinking, or saying out loud, or saying out loud to another person – they are all the same to me –

“This show is very funny.  I am never watching it again.” 

Why?  Because as a one-joke series, I knew every episode would be, with minor variations, exactly the same as the pilot.  And, for me, once was enough.

Fortunately for Three’s Company, a huge audience enjoyed the repetition of the one joke more than I did, and the show ran for a decade, or nine or eight seasons, does it really make any difference?  The point is, it was a one-joke premise, and it was a hit. 

Proving, at the risk of repeating myself,

It doesn’t matter.

You know what a hit show is?  A show the audience likes to watch.  Networks cannot predict what an audience is going to like to watch; if they could, their failure rate would not be so embarrassingly high.  By the way, it’s not the networks’ fault they can’t predict what an audience will like to watch.  Nobody can predict that.  The difference is, network executives are paid substantial sums to act like they can.  What a job!

“I promised I could pick hits, and in reality, this cannot be done.  Unless I’m extremely lucky, I’m gonna get yelled at!”

The networks glom on to a theory that representative pilots give them a better shot at predicting the success potential of a new show.  I invite someone who is interested enough and has a lot of time on their hands to research past series to determine how many premise pilots became hits, and how many were “The Other Kind.”  My guess is “fifty-fifty.”  Though I am always open to admitting I’m wrong.  Not happy about it, but open.  I mean, when the facts are against you, what are you going to do?  Even the church said, “Yeah, I guess the earth does revolve around the sun.”  It took them a few hundred years, but they eventually manned up.  And so would I.  Just show me the numbers.

Another reader named Jed asked if I was aware of shows

where the pilot was the highlight of the series.

Yes, but they were not successful shows.  If a show reflects a precipitous dropoff in quality, the audience quickly catches on and the show succumbs to early cancellation. 

I once worked on a show called Phyllis, in which a popular character – Phyllis – was spun off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Phyllis benefitted from the audience’s familiarity with and affection for its lead character.  It also had a very funny pilot written by Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels. 

The problem was, though Phyllis started fast, the series at its core had no depth or meaningful direction, making it extremely hard for the writers to come up with new and interesting stories.  (Also, Barbara Colby, a Phyllis regular and a wonderful comedic actress, was murdered during Phyllis’s first season.)

Though, early its run, it ranked as high as “Number 3” in the ratings, Phyllis’s concept was revamped for Season Two, and by the end of that season it was cancelled, a shiny balloon with an irreparable slow leak.

Having said that, for the most part, the problem of a series being a dud after a promising start is rarely a matter of a failed concept.  Failed concepts don’t generally make it that far.  (The exception being when, as with Phyllis, big shots are behind the series.)  

Interested readers should know that – auteurs aside – subsequent episodes –  including the second one – are invariably written not by the writer who penned the pilot, but by a writer on the show’s now assembled writing staff, a writer who does not have the pilot’s DNA in their bones, and to that point has not yet to learn how to successfully simulate it. 

Check who wrote the series’ second episode.  If the name is different from the pilot writer’s, you can expect a creative drop-off. 

(Exception:  I wrote the second episodes of Taxi, Cheers and The Cosby Show, and they turned out pretty well.  I once mentioned having written those three “second episodes” to a writer, who observed, “You were one script away from a billion dollars.”)

Finally, Jill Pinnella Corso wondered,

Do you think it’s possible to do a single camera kind of subtle comedy with a studio audience?

No, I do not.

Even with the current technology, which allows the studio audience a close-up view of the actors via the overhanging monitors – meaning the audience has essentially come to the studio to watch the show on television – the live audience’s expectations – those expectations being “big-time funny” – would not be met by the single-camera style of comedy, which is more, what I call, “glancing blow comedy”, naturalistic, subtle and overheard.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, you are inevitably required to write differently when an audience is present.  These people did not wait two hours to get in to chuckle.  They want to laugh their pants off!  Maybe, in time, you could condition a live audience to respond to something else.  But most likely, they would condition themselves to make alternate choices:

“What’s that show like when you see it in person?”

“I smiled a few times.”

“Yeah, I think we’ll see a show that’s actually funny.”

Having made the effort to show up, an audience really wants to laugh.  That’s why there are no live studio audiences for dramas.

No, it isn’t.  I just wanted to end silly. 


Unknown said...

Thanks! Very informative. I guess I'll just wait until punch line comedy comes back around.

canda said...

I always thought "Third Rock From The Sun" had both an excellent pilot and 2nd episode. Unfortunately, after that the sameness of each show wore thin, and the ratings began to sink. M*A*S*H, on the other hand, began as a more traditional military comedy, but evolved into one of the best written and acted shows of all time.