Ken Levine consistently reveals more behind-the-scenes tips on TV writing and production than just about anybody else in the blogoverse. Many of us here hang on his every musing. Like this one about contemporary comedy specs:
by Ken Levine
It all began with FRIENDS, nearly twenty years ago – a sitcom starring a group of fun lovin’ twentysomethings trying to find their place in the world. FRIENDS was an enormous hit (meaning the right demographic watched) so networks have been desperately trying to copy it for years. COUPLING (based on the British version where they hired comic actors and not J. Crew models), HAPPY ENDINGS, A GUY, A GIRL, AND WHATEVER, HIMYM – the list is endless. So many in fact that with the latest one, FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES they’re even recycling “Friends” in the title.
And these are just the shows that got on the air. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of pilots that either died at the script stage or on the stage stage.
This is a concept that in the right hands with the right cast can be a killer series. You’re watching people you identify with, struggling to make sense of their lives, love, sex, future, and the World Cup. As each generation enters that age group there are new sensibilities and issues unique to them to go along with all the other hurdles. It’s an arena ripe for comedy.
It’s also a no-brainer for young scribes who need to write a pilot to break in. I suspect that 80% of the specs today are (a) versions of FRIENDS or (b) moving back in with your parents.
I’ve read many of these “FRIENDS” pilots (both spec and actually developed for networks) and most fall way short. There are a number of crutches that have emerged. Allow me to point some out so you might avoid them yourself.
There’s generally one character who is roaring drunk. That’s where the big “comedy” comes from. Vomiting in the car, doing outrageous stunts, saying appalling things because he has no filter. That’s all well and good, but if you need your character to be shit-faced for him to be funny you haven’t developed him correctly.
There’s always the man-child Seth Rogen character. The comedy here comes from a character who is completely immature and often borderline brain dead. Long a staple of Judd Apatow movies, this character has now become a tiresome cliché.