According to Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, the so-called “crisis” in the comedy genre is one breakout hit away from being solved.
“I do think that sitcoms can reinvent themselves. All it takes is one, really,” he said. “One just bursting through like a comet and then someone will have a night, and they’ll start being able to program it.”
Cherry’s comments came during a panel discussion on the future of television comedy Wednesday night at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills.
Joining Cherry on the dais were Everybody Loves Raymond Executive Producer Phil Rosenthal, Arrested Development Creator Mitch Hurwitz, HBO Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, and former Bernie Mac Executive Producer Larry Wilmore.
On a night when thoughtful analysis often gave way to one-liners, the panel did discuss reasons for the downturn in sitcoms.
Cherry told the audience that one problem is just a lack of fresh ideas. “If I was a network executive, the last thing I would do is develop a domestic sitcom with a wife and a dad and a couple kids. Leave it alone, go somewhere else,” he said.
On the other hand, Rosenthal noted that just doing something different is not enough. “A lot of people are doing different, and leaving out the good,” he said.
HBO’s Albrecht also weighed in on the subject, noting mainstream comedies often just lack quality. “Broadcast networks make a mistake in that they strive for popular and hope for good. I think to strive for good and hope for popular is a better formula.”
The panel also discussed an important aspect of the sitcom: Shrinkage. They lamented the fact a typical sitcom now only runs about 21 minutes in between the ads that pay the bills.
“I think with less time to tell stories you don’t feel you have time to do a bunch of varied things in the course of your episode, and that’s having an effect,” said Cherry. “I have a little bit of resentment against the people who used to give us notes and network executives were like, ‘it’s slow there, it’s slow there.’ I literally felt from people who were the authority figures, they were giving bad notes and bad information.”
Rosenthal also stressed the need to give comedies a shelf life, as he made a point to do with Raymond. “There was a rule: no topical jokes,” he said. “Of course we were doing the show for CBS, but in the back of my mind, it was for Nick at Nite.”
Cherry also talked of the obvious need for promotional muscle, estimating that last year, Desperate Housewives, Lost and Wife Swap got 75% of ABC’s ad budget. “[ABC Entertainment President] Steve McPherson got behind all of those shows in a major way and said, ‘these are the ones I believe in.’ And lucky for him I think he was right. If you unveil a fall schedule and you are giving equal dollars to everyone, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
But in between the problem solving there was plenty of ribbing. Arrested’s Hurwitz blamed Rosenthal for the end of a comedy era. “We were still willing to laugh at Raymond, but Phil didn’t want to make any more episodes,” he said. “So the crisis is really about laziness.”
Later, Albrecht would tease Cherry about how great Desperate would be on HBO, to which an amazed Cherry shot back, “You passed on it twice!”
Albrecht also said he had asked Larry David to get this season’s episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm under 30 minutes, and when he watched the first two episodes earlier Wednesday he found that both were exactly 29:59 long, including the credits.
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