Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"What Matter Least When You Are Pitching A Series Idea To A Network (Though At The Time You Think It Matters The Most)"

I could begin this post two ways.  And, being lazy and indecisive, I think I will.

The first way to begin this post:

Once, (flying high on the ratings success of Major Dad which I had helped create), I had a meeting at CBSMajor Dad’s network and therefore appreciative of my efforts – where I pitched them four series ideas at the same time.  Not exactly at the same time – that would be noisy – but at the same meeting.

When I was finished, the president of CBS said he liked three of them. 

Side Note – one of my favorites:  After the president of CBS said he liked three of my series ideas, he proceeded with the traditional “Let us talk among ourselves and we’ll get back to you in a couple of days.”  To which I said to the president of CBS, “So you’ll call me?”  To which, he responded, gesturing to an underling, “She’ll call you.”  To which I spontaneously replied, “Oh yeah.  That way, everybody has a job.”  I get full of myself when they like three of my ideas.

What I gleaned from that arduous experience – I had to stop for a “water break” between the second and third idea – was that despite all the attention focused on the locales of series ideas, in the grand scheme of things, this highly scrutinized element of a series makes virtually no difference whatsoever.  (What was significantly more important was the track record of the writer.)

The second way to begin this post:  (Don’t be surprised if it ends up at the same place.):

My writer friends are always telling me about “civilians” coming up to them and saying, “The place where I work would make a hilarious setting for a situation comedy.”  (I rarely hear that directly because, overall, people are – correctly, I believe – so in awe of my reputation, they are afraid I would dismissively reply, “No, it wouldn’t.”  I would never actually do that, but, from an annoyance standpoint – I am better off with people believing that I would.  Uh-oh.  The cat is irretrievably out of the bag.)

The thing about people insisting that their workplace would make a hilarious setting for a situation comedy is that, with the exception of, say, a slaughterhouse where there are random entrails and body parts laying around and the employees’ aprons are spattered with blood…

They’re right.

You could probably create a successful situation comedy premised on their workplace.

The thing is, they are not right for the reason they believe they are – that their workplace is uniquely hilarious – but rather because

You can set a successful situation comedy anywhere. 

(Case In Point:  Hogan’s Heroes, a successful comedy situated in a Nazi prison camp.)

Wait!  I just thought of a third way of beginning this post.  Which I believe is a record:

Once, a veteran NBC executive named Paul Klein – who coined the phrase “least objectionable programming” to explain how the TV audience decides what to watch – they watch the programming that they object to the least – presented a seminar at the studio I was working at proclaiming that the most bulletproof subgenre of situation comedy – the one, Klein assured, guaranteed success – is the family situation comedy.

My professional response to that is that, in my view, every successful situation comedy is a family situation comedy.  And their becoming successful has nothing to do – once again – with where you locate them.  You can guarantee failure by locating them in a slaughterhouse, or something equally… “I do not want to go there.”  But, you know, you try to be so brilliant, coming up with a previously unexploited locale – forget about it.  Because it doesn’t matter.

In the end, wherever they’re working, though the participating characters are not blood relatives, they ultimately – sometimes rapidly – coalesce into some version of a family.  A dysfunctional family, perhaps, but how many actual families aren’t?

At that point, the show’s original construction – the “what” and the “who” and the “where” – like leaves in a Canadian autumn, it drops flutteringly by the wayside.

Forget Modern Family, because it is a family situation comedy, so “Duh!”  Also The Middle and Mom, because…okay, you get it.

Think instead of two other comedy successes: The Big Bang Theory and the recently ended Parks and Recreation.

The Big Bang Theory:  A family of four nerdy brothers, representing various gradations of nerdiness.  But they’re brothers!  You can detect the caring and commonality.  And the pettiness, but that’s brothers. 

It is, in my view, that non-sanguinary fraternality that holds The Big Bang Theory together and draws us to be concerned about them in the face of a bombardment of funny but emotionally unpenetrating punchlines.

You can detect the same “family spirit” in Parks and Recreation.  No parents as weekly regulars, the show predominates with a panoply of siblings – a plucky one, an intelligent one, a goofy one, a rebellious one, an entrepreneurial one, a emotionally manipulative one, plus, I don’t know, a cranky older brother or a contrarian uncle – your choice.   

Though they are different and invariably in conflict – it’s a family.  You could tell from the hugging and the commiserating in the final episode.  You may call this a “surrogate family” but why bother?  The participants’ actual families are of peripheral consequence.

It is not about “The Office” – whatever office that might be.  (I mean, what – they sold paper?)  If it feels like a family – that’s what grabs ‘em, and keeps ‘em comin’ back for more. 

And by the way, nothing guarantees success.  I did a series called Family Man­ – it had the word “family” right in it – and it lasted seven episodes.

Take that, Paul Klein!     

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