Skip to main content

The Serious Side of Comedy

Tom Werner is a sitcom guy in a reality-TV world. He and his partners at Carsey-Werner-Mandabach (CWM) have been giants in the half-hour–comedy game for two decades, responsible for hits ranging from Cosby to Roseanne to That '70s Show. But even Werner feels squeezed as broadcast networks increasingly load cheap reality shows into slots once occupied by $1 million-an-episode sitcoms.

Werner is adamant on one point: The sitcom isn't dead. Great ideas will break through, he says. But he admits he's going with the flow, since CWM has started producing much less-expensive fare for cable, including sitcom
Good Girls Don't for CWM-backed Oxygen. It's also developing ultra-cheap product for VH1 and Bravo.

After appearing at last week's Cable Television Advertising & Marketing (CTAM) convention in Boston (he's also a partner in the Boston Red Sox), Werner spoke with
B&C's John M. Higgins about the state of the sitcom.

NBC's Jeff Zucker says the network sitcom is dead.

People were saying that in 1984. Jeff's a very bright guy. He's not going to give up on development of half-hours. When I was at ABC, I knew the people who had the most successful comedy schedule were going to have the No. 1 network. Friends
was enormously important to Jeff, as is Joey. But it's a challenge. The public is a little weary of shows that seem derivative. However, it's always
been that way. And people are going to get weary of reality shows. I'm confident that somebody's going to have an explosive new comedy.

Is the problem the creativity or what comes from the producers? Are good ideas getting stopped at the networks? Or are the ideas just not around?

I wouldn't want to point the finger at anybody. It's a challenge to come up with ideas, even hit movie ideas. If there's Spider-Man, there will be a Spider-Man 2. If there's Manchurian Candidate, there will be a remake of Manchurian Candidate. But having sort of been an independent, I admired the work of people like Susan Harris, who created Soap
and Golden Girls, and Norman Lear. I know someone's going to come up with a fresh idea.

What's the best thing you did that didn't work?

I was bullish about Whoopi. It was well on its way to becoming something special.

You thought Whoopi
was a creative breakthrough?

She played a character that was living in the real world. Too many shows seem to be taking place in some sort of reality that I didn't connect to. She was talking about current events. It was building an audience, when it was put up against American Idol. It was just knocked out by that. I was disappointed NBC didn't renew it. But Jeff didn't renew many comedies. It was a victim in many ways of the landscape.

What did you love that didn't get picked up by the networks?

One that Steve Martin was executive-producing with us, a light Hart to Hart
type of show, an hour-long comedy. It was very surprising to me it didn't get picked up.

You say that Hollywood needs to get costs down. How do you do it?

You have to accept that you can't have stars that command huge network prices. That's one of the things we did with Good Girls Don't. We said, "If you come in for a reading, this is what we're going to pay you." Hopefully, we'll find some new talent. We think we did. There were people who said, "I won't come and read unless I get my network quote." We had to say, "Don't bother." You finally have to say what people say in all kinds of business: "I want the best product available, but I can only make sense of it at a certain price."

Will you get the talent you need?

Take That '70s Show. These actors are in their seventh year, so they're all getting generous salaries. But we started when all these people were kids with no acting experience.

We noticed.

Working on these shows is an education, because they get to be better actors. Look at the growth of all those kids in That '70s Show. The impact it's had on their performance has been remarkable.

What about the little guys who are doing the Discovery Channel shows for $100,000 an hour. They have no rights, and they don't keep anything.

I don't know how they do it. We're struggling, too. We have a big overhead, and we have a model that can't support that idea. I understand both sides of the equation. The cable networks are saying that's all they can afford. They're only getting a 1 Nielsen rating, and they can't afford a huge license fee.

What's the future of independent production?

We had a very challenging year, and it's getting harder and harder. [Networks] are not going to be paying for deficits, so you have to believe that your idea is going to survive the vagaries of scheduling, the vagaries of all kinds of competition. We're stupid enough to keep doing it.