Greg Garcia (the creator and executive producer of Fox’s “Raising Hope”), Nahnatchka Khan (the creator and executive producer of ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23”), Michael Schur (the co-creator of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”) and Mike White (the co-creator, co-star and executive producer of HBO’s “Enlightened”) gathered in Manhattan this past weekend for a New Yorker Festival event entitled “The Future of Sitcoms.” While the panel did not, as jokingly promised by moderator Emily Nussbaum, the magazine’s TV critic, come up with a plan for the next stage of comedy during its 90-minute run, it did cover some very interesting ground about how sitcoms are evolving in a way that may be quieter but is no less significant than what’s happening with dramas. Here are some highlights from the event:
Storytelling is getting more sophisticated. When working on his 2004 Fox series “Cracking Up,” the single-camera aesthetic was “still in its infancy,” according to Mike White, and “networks were extremely prescriptive about how it should look and feel.” White said he feels it’s since changed and opened up considerably. That said, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s ready to come along for the ride — as Garcia pointed out, “the shows that get the biggest ratings aren’t doing anything new” and that the definition for success is “what will make the most money for networks in syndication.” But Khan was hopeful, saying that what’s important is that these ideas are “percolating” and that “change takes time” — “what’s considered a hit now” is different, she said.
Everyone’s in awe of “Louie.” Louis C.K.’s FX show was brought up several times as something to admire. “Among writers, that’s the number one thing we talk about,” said Schur, while Khan called out the episode “Dad,” in which a long sequence was dedicated to Louie running away from his father, as “fantastic to me” — “It’s so raw. I find it refreshing. For me, that’s hopefully where comedy is going.” But they admitted the show wasn’t for everyone, and that it wasn’t something everyone could pull off. Garcia acknowledged that “some members of the audience could find it offputting,” and Schur cautioned about claiming the show heralds a new era: “To do what he does, you have to be as funny as Louis C.K. — and that narrows the field down to one person… It’s hasty to say everything’s different because of Louis C.K.”
The mockumentary style is becoming a standard option, regardless of whether or not a show is a mockumentary. Having come from “The Office,” Schur pointed out that “people just accepted it as a storytelling form,” with the confessions to the camera, and that “this is the way the stories are told,” noting that “Modern Family” was first conceived as being filmed by a foreign exchange student who’d lived with the Dunphys, but that that was deemed unnecessary.
The look has allowed “Parks and Recreation” to shoot with two handheld cameras they keep rolling and three-quarters of the room lit, which allows them more freedom but means “you have to have actors who are not vain” — but having characters talk to the camera is “incredibly useful.” Garcia agreed, saying that writers care more about explaining the confession scenes than audiences seem to, and when they asked someone in a test screening to explain one of those scene, the person said, “That’s just when they tell us what they’re thinking.”
What’s offensive is all a matter of opinion. Coming from Seth MacFarlane’s “American Dad,” Khan has a pretty open mind about boundary-pushing jokes, including a 9/11 one that spoofed ‘Bewitched” before blaming the attacks on witches. “To me, if you’re a little offended, maybe it’s good. Humor doesn’t have to be safe.” And what surfaces in the writers’ rooms tends to be much worse — as Schur put it, “all writers’ rooms are horrifying places” in which everything’s open for a possible joke. “You have to feel like there’s literally nothing on earth you can’t say.”
Diversity issues are due to deeper problems. People don’t hire with the overall makeup of a writers’ room in mind, according to the panelists, they go with “whoever the showrunner thinks is the funniest,” according to Khan. “It would be insane to pass someone over” who was talented because of these issues, added Schur, who felt “the problem is more systemic and calcified” and one of “who are the people getting interested in this as a career.”
You can’t always hold too close to your central premise. Khan said that she wanted Chloe (Krysten Ritter), the titular “B” in her show, to experience a little bit of growth, but “at the end of the day she’s got to be a bitch.” But Schur said that they faced a similar dilemma when dealing with Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) running for city council and trying to decide whether or not she should win. As he became more and more convinced she should, he asked the room of writers if anyone could give him a good reason to the contrary, and someone said “The show is called ‘Parks and Recreation’!” Ultimately, they decided it didn’t matter.
Networks like the internet, but it’s still not a priority. “My impression is that the networks are happy when your show gets something to trend on Twitter, but until they figure out how to monetize that, online is not going to matter,” said Schur.
Garcia pointed out the deal in which Hulu bought “Community” was based in part on the strength of the show’s web following, so that does seem to be changing. And if any creator claims to not go online to see what people are saying about his or her show on Twitter, “they are lying,” because the lure of instant feedback is irresistable.
Dealing with notes. No one on stage seemed to be having bad experiences in their dealings with the network. White said his experiences with “Enlightened” at HBO have been less fraught than those he had at Fox, though he did at one point make t-shirts in support of keeping a line that the head of the network said “just makes me want to kill myself.” He had to do more explaining about the tone of “Enlightened” and the fact that it wasn’t always funny rather than its content — the show, he said, was more about “trying to take somebody that seems like a joke seriously.” Garcia noted that he once had a battle over the casting of Kate Micucci in “Raising Hope” in which the president of the network called him and said “Sometimes you have to pick your battles,” and he thought “Okay, I pick this one,” and obviously got his way.