Much has been made of the supposed death of the sitcom. With the success of single-camera, no-laugh-track comedies in the vein of The Office and Everybody Hates Chris, programming chiefs everywhere are scrambling to get in touch with their inner Earl. But if the sitcom is dead, Mike Royce missed the obit.
“That's been a bit of a drumbeat the last few years,” says Royce, who was an executive producer on the dearly departed Everybody Loves Raymond. “We're just trying to do a good show, regardless of whatever's happening outside.”
Now, as executive producer of Lucky Louie, premiering June 11 on HBO, Royce will continue to do his part for the endangered sitcom. Sort of.
Created by and starring acerbic comic Louis C.K., Louie is a deconstructed sitcom. It features many of the conventional trappings, down to the kitchen table in the middle of the set. It's also a cringe-inducing take on marriage, with no shortage of f-bombs and a protagonist who makes Larry David look downright sunny. One episode shows Louie and his wife engaging in a series of frank conversations about sex—while having sex.
The comic's comic
Growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., Royce was a fan of Saturday Night Live, fake talk show Fernwood 2Night, and David Letterman. While in film school at Ithaca College, Royce made a short about trying to get on Letterman's show. “I was obsessed with Late Night With David Letterman,” he says.
After moving to New York in search of a TV-writing gig, Royce found success on the standup-comedy circuit (including an appearance on Conan) and befriended fellow comics Jon Stewart, Wanda Sykes and Ray Romano. He found steady work warming up studio audiences for The Jon Stewart Show and Spin City—and even Letterman in 1998. “That was one of my biggest thrills,” he says. “I got to hand the microphone to him.”
After landing—then losing—his first staff job at gone-in-a-flash MTV slacker sitcom Apt. 2F, Royce found himself increasingly busy as pal Romano's TV career took off. Romano had him do standup for Raymond's studio crowd and tapped him to help with his book and to pen skits when he hosted SNL.
When Raymond co-creator Phil Rosenthal offered Royce a job at the CBS show in 1999, he and his wife, an architect, hesitated. “We'd sort of swore a blood oath we'd never move to Los Angeles,” he says. But despite a competing offer from Spin City that would have kept him in New York, Royce and family went west.
Going from the stage to the writers' room required some adjustment, however. “With standup, you're captain of the ship,” Royce says. “When you get in the writers' room, everything you say, people talk back at you. It's a conversation, with the others helping shape your ideas, instead of crafting your own dialog.”
Multicamera comedy lives on
The adjustment was smooth enough. Royce was promoted to producer after a few years and became an executive producer for Raymond's final season. He attributes the show's success to a precise yet elusive mix of ingredients.
“It's catching lightning in a bottle,” he says, citing the different but complementary viewpoints of Rosenthal and Romano and a “stupendous” cast. “Everything has to fall into place—the writing and acting have to be perfectly in sync.”
With 13 episodes of Louie ready to roll and eight more scripts on order, Royce is hoping to catch some of that lightning again. While Raymond's family angst held broad appeal, clearly not everybody will love Louie, which is filmed before an audience and shot on videotape, giving it the cheesy production value of a classic sitcom. “We're looking to make it a theatrical experience” for the studio audience, says Royce, who cites The Honeymooners and All in the Family as influences.
HBO Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss is confident that Royce and his crew can breathe new life into television comedy with Louie. “Mike's not only a terrific writer but a superb leader behind the scenes,” she says. “The show is really funny and really well-done, and I think it'll get people talking about the multicamera comedy again.”
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