Triple Threats Tackle Television

Why This Matters: Nets are hungrier than ever for top talent in this peak TV universe, and are willing to give the right creatives extraordinary power.

While many would give just about anything for a job in Hollywood, some of the industry’s emerging players have no less than three of them. Shows featuring triple threats — one person as the series creator, executive producer and star — are dominating the television landscape like never before. They’re winning over viewers, and awards judges, with a one-in-a-million voice that some say only comes through when the show creator wears these multiple hats.

Season three of Insecure has kicked off, which means Issa Rae, creator, executive producer and star, is a busy woman. Rae plays Issa Dee, who struggles to find her way through work and love in Los Angeles. Exhausting as it is, playing the multiple roles on a series gives it a truly distinct perspective, she said. “There’s a sense of purity, of authenticity,” Rae said. “It’s a unique look inside the mind of the creator.”

With viewers, and networks, seeking more diverse voices, and a younger generation of creators having grown up multitasking on YouTube, there’s a considerable number of current shows with a triple-threat talent at the helm. Those include Pamela Adlon’s Better Things on FX, Lil Rel Howery’s new Fox comedy Rel, Frankie Shaw’s SMILF on Showtime, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix, and a bulk of the slate over at truTV, including At Home with Amy Sedaris and Adam Ruins Everything.

Marissa Ronca, executive VP and head of programming at truTV, likes these shows because they are entirely unique amidst the packed peak-TV landscape, she said. “There’s definitely a sharper point of view, since it comes from such a pure place,” Ronca said. “They are uncopiable — nobody else can make At Home with Amy Sedaris.”

From ‘Goldbergs’ to ‘Girls’, and Beyond

Shows featuring triple-threat talent, to be sure, have been around since the early days of television. Family comedy The Goldbergs, which aired from 1949-56, had Gertrude Berg in the three roles, while Los Angeles cop drama Dragnet saw Jack Webb as its triple threat. Jerry Seinfeld’s landmark comedy Seinfeld dominated the 1990s, and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Lena Dunham’s Girls pulled it off more recently.

But it doesn’t appear there have been as many triple-threat shows on the air at one time as there are today. The modern era of such series likely got going with the FX comedy Louie, starring Louis C.K. The future of Louie is uncertain after Louis C.K. admitted to sexual misconduct last year, but FX continues with the triple-threat trend. Series with such a setup include Atlanta, Baskets, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX) and the Australian series Mr. Inbetween, a half-hour drama with Scott Ryan playing a criminal for hire and a dad.

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf said truly standout shows need a “perfect match” among writer, actor and filmmaker. Those ideal triptychs are rare. If it turns out that one person can do all three roles, he said, creating a hit show gets a wee bit easier.

“What we’re finding now is, it’s got to be best-in-class acting, best-in-class writing, best-in-class filmmaking,” Landgraf said. “Very, very few people are at that exalted level in all those disciplines. You try to create partnerships, which can work. But it’s awesome when you have someone who can do it all.”

Likely the largest factor in the preponderance of triple-threat shows is a generation of creators who grew up on YouTube, and learned to write, shoot, produce and star in their own short works. Before Insecure, Issa Rae did the YouTube series Awkward Black Girl. Similarly, Broad City was a web series from Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson before they created, and starred in, the Comedy Central series of the same name.

“YouTube allows people to develop their voice and cast themselves as the central star. You get 100 million followers and you get picked up by HBO,” said Dr. Jeffrey Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards. “Young people come up with the producer mindset.”

Online video platforms, whether it’s YouTube or Vimeo or Facebook, can give networks looking to hire talent a comprehensive look at a creator’s varied skills, and a peek at whether audiences dig the work. “For us on the buying side, it provides proof of concept right away,” said Brad Gardner, senior VP of development and original programming at Paramount Network and TV Land, where the comedy Teachers features a full six cast members, known as the Katydids, who are creators, writers and producers on the show. “There’s such a direct relationship with consumers nowadays.”

Variety of Voices

The 500-scripted-show universe has enabled a vast array of voices to strut their stuff, as has TV networks’ collective focus on being more diverse on both sides of the camera. The current crop of triple-threat shows is a racial mélange, and showcases a considerably greater number of women creators than television could previously boast of. Gary Levine, president of programming at Showtime, described SMILF creator and star Frankie Shaw in baseball terms, saying she’s a “five-tool player.”

Shows such as SMILF and Lena Waithe drama The Chi provide viewers with “a deeply personal statement,” he said. “They go inside the mind and psyche and soul [of the creator] in a way that is rare.”

These types of programs offer a unique perspective on the world, Jones said. “These people, whether it’s Aziz Ansari or Frankie Shaw, offer some really interesting stuff in terms of race and gender and class,” he said. “They’re not operating under the broadcast model — they’re taking bigger chances.”

Indeed, the emergence of niche series, the polar opposite of the broadcast mindset, has allowed these distinct voices to emerge and thrive. “The multitude of platforms has meant the ability to tell smaller, very interesting, unique stories,” said Terence Gray, founder and executive director of the New York Television Festival. “It’s a whole spectrum of shows that might not have been done 20-30 years ago. There’s a great market for a very creative triple threat. Those are craved by the industry, and craved by audiences.”

They seem to be craved by Emmys voters too. Among the shows up for top comedy, FX’s Atlanta, HBO’s Barry and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm all feature creator/executive producer/stars. IFC’s Portlandia, with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein as triple threats, is up for outstanding variety sketch series, as is truTV's At Home with Amy Sedaris. Pamela Adlon and Issa Rae are nominated for lead actress in a comedy.

Worn Out and Weary

As much as these triple-threat projects are in demand, they also extract an extraordinary amount of energy from those responsible for creating, producing and starring in a series. That level of exertion makes some wonder if they’d take on so many roles on their next series.

“It is absolutely exhausting for people,” Landgraf said. “It really, really exhausts Pamela to make a season of Better Things. It absolutely exhausts Louis C.K. to write and direct and star in and edit that many episodes of Louie. It takes an enormous amount of stamina to be able to do three jobs for a television show.”

Some say the toughest dual duties to pull off on a set are acting and directing, since the two roles happen at the same time. “I’d love to be able to write and direct and act, do the whole thing,” said Scott Ryan, creator/executive producer/star of Mr. Inbetween, which premieres in September. “But it’s very difficult to act and direct at the same time.”

Insecure’s Rae likens a day of wearing the three hats on a show to running a marathon. “I came to the conclusion that I’d never star in something I created again,” she said. “This experience has been great, but I’d like to do multiple projects at once. I don’t want to be stuck on one thing.”

Moreover, some network execs are iffy about placing such power in one star’s hands. As one puts it, “you’re putting all your chips on one number.”

Time will tell if the triple-threat trend continues apace, or if the burnout that can result from such a workload pushes creatives to limit themselves to one or two roles on a given show. But for the near term, expect many more of these projects to hit the airwaves, and to rack up trophies during awards season.

Following the success of Teachers on TV Land, Brad Gardner said a few triple-threat series are in development at Viacom sibling Paramount Network. “Everyone’s looking for authenticity, and what you get with these is purity of voice,” he said. “It’s a very real point of view because it’s all them.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.