Thursday, January 25, 2018

The end of the quirky comedy era?

A recent article in THE GUARDIAN bemoaned the end of the “quirky comedy era” as Amazon and Netflix have recently cancelled off-kilter fare like I LOVE DICK, ONE MISSISSIPPI, and LADY DYNAMITE. Instead these once daring streaming services are gravitating more towards traditional programming at the expense of experimentation and innovation.

On the one hand, I share the author's concern. When network sitcoms have become MODERN FAMILY with different ethnic groups, it was nice that there was an oasis where you could try something new.

But here’s the thing: No one watched these niche programs.

And the question has to be asked: Were they really that good?

"Quirky" to me is a lazy substitute for making people laugh. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” The author of the article, Stuart Heritage, even concedes that these cancelled shows were not laugh-out-loud funny. I’m sorry, but to me that’s a problem if you’re doing a comedy.

Let’s look at the reality. These niche shows are expensive to produce. You need to justify their existence. Expectations are certainly different for streaming services vs. broadcast networks, but if quirky shows can’t get numbers they at least have to get huge buzz. Like TRANSPARENT (which very few people actually watch) you need awards and fawning critics and a boost from the zeitgeist. Otherwise Netflix and Amazon and Hulu are left with… nothing.

This is not unique to television. If you write a quirky experimental play and no one comes it closes. If your movie bombs it quickly disappears. Why should streaming services continue to throw good money after bad?

My guest this week on my podcast is Preston Beckman. (To hear it just click on this link or scroll up and directly underneath the masthead is a big gold arrow. Click on it.) Mr. Beckman put schedules together for NBC and FOX for years. It’s a fascinating interview and one of the questions I pose is why doesn’t Netflix release any of ratings data? One reason, he says, is that more people are watching old TV reruns and movies than their new original programs. If more people are watching my old CHEERS episodes than HOUSE OF CARDS then how paltry must the numbers be for LADY DYNAMITE?

Just my conjecture, but I imagine streaming services picked up these quirky shows originally hoping that one would catch lightening in a bottle. One would be a breakout hit. One would attract a large audience. And thus far it hasn’t panned out so they circled the wagons.

The trick now is for them to develop more traditional fare that is a cut above network sitcoms. Netflix has done that with ONE DAY AT A TIME. Just because you’re trying to reach a broader audience doesn’t mean you have to do 2 BROKE GIRLS.

That breakout show is out there. There’s more to love than just Dick.

34 comments :

Jeremiah Avery said...

Your statements regarding "quirky" and "different" are so true and I agree. For me, if I just smirk at the recognition of some pop culture reference in the show, that doesn't mean I found it funny. When a show is on only for background noise as I'm paying bills or checking e-mail, that's not a good sign I'll be sticking with it. As John Cleese has said, "If no one laughs, then it's not funny." Just like when someone refers to a show as "edgy". If you have to point it out, it probably isn't.

Mr. Beckman's point about viewing habits on streaming services is very accurate for me and my family. When I have an off day and need a laugh, I'll stream some reruns of "Frasier". Likewise, my family look up similar shows - actual comedies - when looking for a laugh and entertainment. Some of the original programming I've seen is good but the access to older shows I've enjoyed is probably what keeps me subscribing to the service as those shows can be watched repeatedly and still enjoyed.

Honest Ed said...

From Britain...

Please don't make the mistake fo taking Stuart Heritage's articles seriously. We don't.

He's got a distinctive tone but really he doesn't know very much about the industry - in the UK or the US. And his point is more about female led 'comedies' rather than quirky comedies. I'm not sure Dick and Mississippi are comedies as such.

That said, I agree with the comment that it is ironic that these female comedies are getting cancelled after the team that commissioned them was dismantled largely because of a sexual harassment scandal.

Andrew said...

I suppose it's a good thing that Amazon and Netflix at least tried something new. But I haven't seen any of those new shows you named, and have no desire to.

I wonder why experimenting with drama shows seems to have worked better. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire - all of them involved some risk-taking. There was no guarantee that they would take off. Were they given more time to develop? Are streaming media companies still at a disadvantage, compared to HBO and AMC?

If I want to laugh out loud, I have three default shows that never fail: Cheers, Seinfeld, and Frasier.

VincentS said...

Agree 100%! I've always considered quirky stories and characters lazy writing. It's easy to write a character based on, say, an eccentric aunt or the class misfit. I knew THE WEST WING - or as it turned out Aaron Sorkin, at least - jumped the shark when they brought in Lily Tomlin to play a quirky character. Like sugar in bubblegum, it immediately satisfies but never lasts which I suspect is one of the reasons shows like this don't hang onto viewers for very long. When somebody recommends a quirky show to me I say I'm into complex, not quirky.

Jim S said...

I am reminded of a interview Jerry Seinfeld did with Chris Rock. They both said that keeping score in comedy was easy. Count the laughs. If the audience laughs, it's funny. If no laughs come, it isn't funny.

Seinfeld even likened comedy to baseball. At the end of the game, you counted the runs and hits and strike outs and knew who was successful.

Great drama can be hard to like. I saw an episode of "Rectify" and could tell that it was an intelligent, well-written, well-acted thoughtful drama created by adults for adults. It was no doubt excellent in all respects.

I never watched another episode. I am the bad guy in this story. But if I am going to watch a drama, there has to be some sort of entertaining hook. Breaking Bad was serious, but it was funny, fascinating and just watchable.

That's the trouble with drama. It can be great, but that still won't catch eyes.

Comedy, if something's really and truly funny, people will watch. Just count the laughs.

Tom said...

Why bother calling them (or one's own show) comedies if the point isn't to laugh? Just call them dramas, no?

I'm reminded of seeing Buddy Hackett on some talk show (maybe Dick Cavett's) where the host referred to something allegedly humorous said by Woody Allen. During the ensuing audience silence, Hackett said: "You and he have the same kind of comedy: no laughs."

Dr Loser said...

"Quirky" can mean much more than a substitute for "funny." "Quirky" can mean Seinfeld, or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Seinfeld was famously given chance after chance because NBC wanted to hang on to the lead, who wasn't even (really) the core of the show.

Which doesn't mean that you waste money on "quirky," although I suppose it's an argument for hot-housing "cheap" quirky and developing the heck out of it when it goes viral. Which is sort of what the Internet was supposed to promise us back in the day, but, well, it never happened.

Hank Gillette said...

Does naming a sitcom “I Love Dick” make it quirky? Isn’t that just the male equivalent of “Two Broke Girls” using the word “vagina” in lieu of actual jokes?

Note: I never watched “I Love Dick”. For all I know, it could have been a show about a gay bathhouse.

McAlvie said...

It comes to do what the problem with entertainment - books, movies, tv, you name it - always is: trends. One new show hits the magic spot, and suits decide it's because it's "quirky" or "anti-hero" or [insert here]. They miss the part about the show/movie/book actually be GOOD. Seinfeld was very different from anything else on tv at the time, but what kept it on the air and popular went beyond its being different. It was genuinely funny most of the time. Few recent sitcoms manage that. I like Man With a Plan, and that surprised me, but it really does play much like an 80s sitcom, and the main character is likeable. That's a novelty right there these days, so does that qualify it as 'quirky'?

Different topic: Ken, the reboot of Murphy Brown is getting lots of press today. What do you think of its chances? I know a lot of people claimed it would never play well in reruns, and few have tried; and yet I've caught it a few times and enjoyed it, even though I no longer remember, let alone 'get' some of the references. I was young enough then that much of it went over my head anyway. But in watching it now, I'm still pulled in because of the great characters and smart, fast-paced dialog. Do you think its possible to recreate that magic? Or would the smart part doom it from the beginning in today's culture?

Karan G. said...

Friday Question: Regarding the series “Becker” - Did you get any criticism for (constantly) making fun of the visually impaired character of “Jake?” At first blush, it seemed a bit shocking, but somehow it worked.

Covarr said...

Dr Loser: The problem isn't that quirky is never funny. The two can go hand in hand, and quirky can make an excellent starting point for comedy. The thing is, it's just that. A starting point. In the last several years, many writers (whether of their own accord or at network insistence; I'm not at those meetings or in the room and therefore not qualified to even try and cast blame) have taken to using it as a finish line instead. It's all concept, no execution.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I also agree that "'Different' doesn't necessarily mean 'good.'" That also applies to "quirky" characters within a traditional sitcom. When FOX's New Girl debuted I watched because I had previously worked with one of it's stars. Unfortunately, the show screamed, look how "quirky" we are. Aren't we "quirky?" We're so "quirky." But that really translated to the characters being more annoying than interesting. The show did improve when it started to be more about the relationships and less about the quirks. But, it was too little too late. I don't know how that show stated on as long as it did. As for the ratings for the above mentioned shows, I still believe a lot of people don't want to pay for television. Or at least don't want to pay MORE if they already have cable or satellite. I can't comment on the ratio of subscribers to viewers. Maybe as more people "cut the cable" their audiences will grow and these unconventional shows will get more of a chance. But, to reiterate, "if it ain't funny it ain't funny."

VP81955 said...

Moreover, the term "quirky comedy" in recent years has become a code word for "we're not multi-cam," using the term that's supposedly the kiss of death to millennials who deem themselves oh-so-hip. Then again, that's the same group watching "The Big Bang Theory" and "Friends" reruns (neither of which admittedly are my sitcom cup of tea), so who's fooling who?

Oh, and in regard to a reply to a comment I made recently, a Friday question for Ken: Have you ever written for Chuck Lorre, and if he contacted you about writing an occasional ep for him (with no constraints about having to be part of a writers' room for a prolonged period, given your schedule and commitments), would you?

Tom said...

None of those shows was interesting to me; I didn't even get through a whole episode of Lady Dynamite. But Netflix's verge into more mainstream production has another effect I'm unhappy about: it correlates with the ongoing reduction in availability of non-Netflix content. If they're actively competing with other sources offered of completing them then the business model changes. It's all about this year's version of the tropes, not about offering an expansive back catalogue.

I might end up back where I was before Netflix and Hulu came along: someone who doesn't watch TV.

Chester said...

BBC's "Detectorists" isn't a "laugh out loud funny", but what it's sweet, endearing, has lots of heart and it has some great acting and writing. So I'm not sure I agree that comedies need first of all to be only gut-achingly funny.

Max Clarke said...

When I see "quirky," I think "gimmicky." Never watched any of those quirky shows.

So many TV shows these days. Makes you wonder about the depth of writing talent.

Actually, there are a lot of capable writers. But by the time you're in your 30s, you've seen almost every kind of show there is. Almost every sitcom premise sounds like something you've seen.









Pete Grossman said...

The breakout show is there - The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Hope you've had a chance to eyeball it and would love to hear your take.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I can't second Chester's comment enough; Detectorists is one show that I've excitedly anticipated its return with new episodes. It's not "Bwah Hah Hah" funny, and it doesn't have idiotic catchphrases, but I'll take it over any Chuck Lorre sitcom any day of the week.

For well done "quirky", I turn my attention to stuff like Catastrophe, or Fleabag, or the Detectorists, or Lovesick, or Fresh Meat, etc. The English seem to do "quirky" a lot better, and English audiences seem to prefer that sort of comedy a lot more than we do. All of those shows are funny, without the "wait for it, wait for it, PUNCHLINE!!" style of traditional sitcoms.

John H said...

"If more people are watching my old CHEERS episodes than HOUSE OF CARDS then how paltry must the numbers be for LADY DYNAMITE?"

This made me smile. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I've always considered David E Kelley's shows as quirky. Boston Legal, Picket Fences (where the hell are the DVDs?), his writing on LA Law. I loved Picket Fences because it had 'normal' core people and the supporting characters were quirky at best, lol.

Quirky for quirky's sake doesn't work.

Pam, St. Louis

Mike Schryver said...

I agree with Pete Grossman that THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL is a standout, and I think it proves Ken's point. The show is wall-to-wall funny, and the only "quirk" is that it's a period piece.

Steve Bailey said...

This is not a new phenomenon. I remember in the late 1980's when NBC broadcast "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and thought they were doing something daring. A "dramedy" without a laugh track! And I thought, Did they ever watch later-era "M*A*S*H"?

Terrence Moss said...

I always fall on the side of blaming network interference since they're now run by business people instead of creative people with a business sense (or even vice versa).

The only success any network can have is to bring on great talent and let them do what they do. It's really that simple. It's no guarantee, but neither is their micro-managing every aspect of production.

Jerod Butt said...

I wonder how the ratings tie into the suggestions from the streaming services.

If Netflix is going to recommend that I watch 13 REASONS WHY because I saw FULLER HOUSE, are they trying to tell me something? Are they planning a crossover?

Andy Rose said...

Doesn't Netflix have to let *somebody* know what their real numbers are? How can the unions calculate residuals if they aren't given auditable information about how many people watched?

Reggie Kolowski said...

I wouldn't say One Mississippi was trying to be quirky,like Transparent it really is more like an Indy Drama that has occasional laughs. That said I don't think the problem for Hulu/Amazon is people not watching "Quirky Comedies"their problem is most people who use their streaming services aren't watching any of their original content whether it's comedy or drama. Outside of Handmaid's Tale Hulu hasn't had a breakout hit in any genre and Amazon is even in a worse position.

Quirky Show that's actually funny- How's that for quirky? said...

Here is a very quirky brand new show that's actually evoked laughs out of me: "Corporate" on Comedy Central. The first three: Thumbs up. The execution, the performances. See what you think.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

What does strike me - and I loved ONE MISSISSIPI and am very sorry to see it disappear - is that the streaming services are inevitably going to struggle for mass audiences if they're not opening up their new content to outsiders. HBO sells DVDs of its shows; Netflix does; Amazon does not. I would *love* to buy DVDs of TRANSPARENT. Can't. Ditto ONE MISSISSIPPI. If they're going to insist you have to subscribe to their service (or torrent) to see their shows, they're cutting off an important potential revenue stream. And it's not as if they'd have to do a huge run - Amazon already has a DVD print-on-demand service for old movies.

wg

DyHrdMET said...

Here's a Friday Question (which I hope I didn't ask already several years ago):
I'm watching an old rerun of Frasier on TV. It's the one where Sam Malone comes to visit Frasier. You and your partner got a writing credit. What was it like writing for the old Cheers characters again several years after that show had ended? I think you've said you were involved the other times the Cheers characters appears on Frasier as well.

Johnny Walker said...

Honestly I hope they keep trying new things. I love a lot of their “Original” shows and see them as a pretty safe bet if I feel like something new. It’s ok to give them a chance and move on, but I hope they don’t stop experimenting altogether.

cleek said...

i never saw "I Love Dick", but i thought "Lady Dynamite" was brilliant. the first season was fantastic and Maria Bamford is a genius, IMO. but that show had a very specific kind of comedy: cutting extremely dry humor between segments of wild absurdity (including lavish fantasy sequences). it's a bit like "Crazy Ex Girlfriend" but the theme is "Maria is a struggling comic actress who suffers from mental illness" instead of "Rebecca desperately wants her childhood sweetheart back". much dryer than CrazyX and a lot less sweet.

i can see that it wouldn't attract a big audience. and it sure looked like it cost a lot to produce. but, it's a shame to see it go.

Brian said...

I believe Ken is right, quirky or not, Netflix and Amazon just need to make good shows. But I do think that in the beginning they were trying to make their mark much like Fox did in its early days with shows like "Married With Children" and "The Simpsons". At the time I thought, "adults watching cartoons?", but it was funny. Ken - I went back and watched "Dancing Homer" and could now recognize your voice as the announcer thanks to the podcasts.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Is there sexism in the cancellations?

according to WHAT TO MAKE OF STREAMING’S MASS CANCELLATION OF WOMEN-HELMED COMEDIES: https://filmschoolrejects.com/streaming-cancellation-women-helmed-comedies/?utm_content=buffer97260&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
"It’s difficult not to see a pattern; the streaming landscape feels gutted of some of the best women’s voices in comedy. Does this cancellation spree spell the end of a brief but fruitful revolution for women in television"


Steve Bailey said...

I couldn't agree with you more about "quirky" comedy. I remember in the late 1980's when "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" was getting raves for being a "dramedy" without a laugh track. Even back then, I thought "M*A*S*H" had already done the same thing, and better.