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S.O.S. Save Our Sitcoms

A decade ago, in the heyday of Seinfeld and Friends, the idea that the sitcom genre might need assistance from a couple of unorthodox comedies on also-ran broadcast networks would have been, well, a joke. But today, with the networks' humor landscape looking particularly bleak, tremendous interest—and a lot of marketing energy—is being focused on two new shows, NBC's My Name Is Earl and UPN's Everybody Hates Chris, as possible elixirs for an ailing institution.

“Especially for the younger audiences right now, there is just an association that sitcoms equal stale or stupid,” says NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.

Both Earl (about a smalltime crook who wins a lottery and resolves to right his past wrongs) and Chris (Chris Rock's comic look at his tough childhood) seem devoted to bucking those perceptions.

For a start, both shows rely on a single-camera style, which involves one camera shooting nearly every day and produces a movie-like effect, instead of the traditional four-camera, once-a-week, live-studio-audience sitcom setup. Single-camera TV comedy does not have a great track record; two recent platforms for the style are Scrubs and Arrested Development, both ratings-challenged.

UPN President Dawn Ostroff says a combination of factors has limited the number of single-camera shows even making air: “Some people think they are too expensive and don't want to get into them. Some think they don't have anything to pair with it because it's such a different art form. And some think it's hard for them to be successful because they don't do well in the aftermarket.”

Because of these hurdles, NBC's Reilly says single-camera shows are “perceptually handicapped” before they even start. “Every time a single-camera show fails, they are put in a cooler for two more years at that network: 'See, they don't work.' Believe me, between Earl and Chris, there are a lot of people cheering them on, because there are a lot of writers who would like to write them and they want the networks to have the confidence to program them.”

Not that the executive producers of Earl and Chris, Greg Garcia and Ali LeRoi, respectively, see themselves as responsible for anything beyond their own scripts. Both Garcia, former executive producer of Yes, Dear, and LeRoi, a longtime Rock collaborator, decline to weigh in on the state of TV comedy (“Show runners who do,” says Garcia, “always sound like idiots”). But they spoke freely to B&C's Ben Grossman about their shows, how they got to air and what their own expectations are for these comedies that so many in the industry will be monitoring closely this fall.

Goal: Quirky But Sweet

Greg Garcia, e
xecutive producer, My Name Is Earl (NBC)

Fox decided against making this show. Why?I pitched the idea to Fox in fall 2003, and some people felt that it wasn't a series, based on my pitch. But maybe my pitch wasn't any good. I thought it was a series, so I went off and wrote the script, which had more of a story than my pitch did. And when I gave them that script, the same people said it was a series. They liked it and kicked it up to the upper level, to people like [then Fox Entertainment President] Gail Berman and [then Chairman of Fox Television] Sandy Grushow, and the decision was made to not do it. I know that the press likes to ask Fox about passing on Everybody Hates Chris and Earl, but networks pass on stuff all the time. You usually do get passed on by multiple networks. That's normal. They pass on a lot of bad stuff as well.

But Fox wasn't the only network that passed on this show, was it?

I was basically told during that development season that everybody passed. As far as I was concerned, it was dead. I was trying to figure out how to make it a movie, because I really liked the concept and the character. But at the same time I was still running Yes, Dear, so I didn't really have time to do anything movie-wise. And the next thing I know, a year later, NBC is interested. Once I figured it was dead, I finally did come up with a way that I thought I could make it a movie, and now I think that's the way I'm going to end the series. I just hope it's not very soon.

This doesn't look much like a typical NBC sitcom, does it?

I just hope it's a good show. I don't know if people turn on NBC and say, “That's not like their other shows so I'm not going to watch it.” Where would you put it? I guess the argument is, it's more of a Fox show, but I think it's a good show and it doesn't matter that it's not like something else on NBC.

What was the inspiration for the show?

I have no idea. I wish I had a good story, I'm thinking about making one up. I just went on vacation with my wife's family in North Carolina and decided I was going to come up with a new show, and this is what I came up with. I honestly have no idea where it came from. Let's be honest: I was in North Carolina, so I was definitely around a lot of Earls.

Was Earl designed as a single-camera comedy just to stand out?

No. This idea had to be single-camera, and it wasn't because I was sick of four-camera shows. The way this is set up, these guys are going to be out and moving around; it has to be single-camera. I did a four-camera show for Fox this year [called Fugly], and it didn't get shot, so I wasn't trying to stay away from four-camera shows. With some of the single-camera shows, it's kind of hard to latch onto a character. I think sometimes, by design, some of the shows are quirkier and perhaps they don't go for the big emotional stuff all the time. On this show, we are going to go for emotional storylines and hopefully have some sweet moments at the end.

How has production gone so far?

I knew we were in business when we started and our first shot was a one-legged woman with a shotgun.

No Lessons, Just Laughs

Ali LeRoi, e
xecutive producer, Everybody Hates Chris (UPN)

This is being called by many the best pilot of the fall season. Have expectations for this show been raised too high already?

Yes and no. I am absolutely thrilled that they expect the things they expect, and I absolutely hope that that's what happens.

From a work standpoint, we didn't plan to get this much attention, so we figure we'll just do the best work we can and whatever comes from it comes from it.

We can't try to respond to press, critics or the various entities that think we represent this or that. Chris [Rock] and I just have some ideas, and we try to take the funniest ones and get them down on paper and up on the screen.

So can you give Joey and NBC a run?

They have at least 20 million more homes. Everybody that watches UPN would have to watch the show in order for us to beat Joey. It's not a fair comparison. Will we be a better show for UPN? I certainly hope so, but it's not the same playing field. I hope that we can be for UPN what South Park was for Comedy Central: a real breakout hit that gives them a higher profile and maybe draws a different sort of talent to the network. That would be cool. But are we gonna beat Joey? C'mon, let's get real.

The spotlight around this show has been focused on Chris Rock. Are you comfortable being the man behind the scenes?

That's fine with me. It's so cool. Chris and I worked together for years. I'm not a guy out seeking to be the front man and get accolades. I don't care if anyone ever says my name. You know who I want to say my name? [Viacom Co-President] Les Moonves. That's who I want saying my name. I want him to say, “I love that Ali LeRoi. Let's keep him and get him more shows and get him more money.” If nobody else has anything good to say about me, I don't care. I just want Les Moonves to say my name.

How different is writing for network television from writing for films or premium cable?

It's commercial television. “Commercial” is the operative word in this scenario. They have a lot of gods to serve in terms of advertisers and costs and what return they're going to get on shows, so you have to deal with that reality. And there are a lot of meetings. Man, there are a lot of meetings. Little script notes: Can you say this or that, is it going to play in Peoria, will the advertisers like it, will this particular company or group like that? They'd like us to reflect a certain standard. It is what it is. Again, you are broadcasting, so because you are hitting a wider group of people, you have to be sensitive to a wider group of interests, or possible offenses. If you are talking to 20 people, chances are you won't offend anyone. If you're talking to 20 million people, you might slip up.

Execs from both CBS and UPN have been asked if your show will end up on CBS. What are your thoughts?

[UPN Entertainment President] Dawn Ostroff developed the show. Hey, I met with people at CBS. They read the script. They didn't say, “Hey, let's make this show.” Dawn Ostroff is the one who looked at the script and said, “Instead of spending your time doing something else, let's do this.” That's what set her apart from everyone else. I just want to stay with the people you got in bed with. They'll be your champions.

Did you meet with ABC and NBC as well after Fox's option expired?

Yes. Again, they all said the same thing: It was one of the best scripts they have seen, and they wanted me to do something else. They wanted me but didn't want the show. But I was glad they thought it was good enough that they wanted to work with me.

The Cosby Show was criticized at times for not taking on enough serious issues. Does doing an African-American family show mean you have added responsibility?

We have everyone from Catholic organizations to black organizations looking at this show, and they have expectations, and they want it to represent something. We can't realistically try to serve all the various agendas that would like to be represented in this show because it is a high-profile show. We just want to be funny and make people laugh. We're not trying to teach lessons at all. Learn lessons from your parents or in school. When you want to see a funny show, turn us on. I'm not saying we won't do situations people can relate to or can find a certain universality in. But our goal is not to teach people lessons. We're comedians. Our goal is to make people laugh.