Network TV Needs to Stop Doubting Its Best Comedians

Network TV
Stephen Colbert's Late Show ratings improved after CBS embraced his political humor. Photo: CBS.

With so many options available, TV audiences are splintered more than ever. And no one has felt the impact of this new landscape more than the regular broadcast networks, who — facing stiff competition from premium cable channels and streaming services — have been forced to figure out how to maintain their viewers with a business model that doesn’t usually favor expensive or niche shows. The default solution we’re used to is that network TV should instead play it safe, producing accessible, if frequently unambitious, programming that can satisfy a general audience. Particularly when it comes to comedy, it favors broad, slower-paced, relatively apolitical humor that isn’t going to offend or confuse people. But what if that isn’t a recipe for success? What if creatively limiting writers isn’t actually a good way to produce quality shows? It may sound obvious that this wouldn’t work, but networks constantly try it, when they’d be better served to instead embrace their talents’ unique idiosyncrasies and comedic styles. For examples, we can look at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the sitcoms by Little Stranger.

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When Colbert took over The Late Show in the fall of 2015, it was clear he and the producers had reached a sort of compromise on what kind of humor and creative direction the show would use. As he pointed out on the show itself, his last show had a lot of “Donnies” (their word for young male audiences) but not a lot of “Debbies” (older female audiences), and for this new show he had been told to try to attract both the Donnies and the Debbies. The results were mixed. While the host’s penchant for more absurdist jokes was a good fit for the Late Show brand, and it was still laced with the familiar wit from his old gig, the show was also unsure of its own identity. Compared to The Colbert Report it was slower, less cerebral and awkwardly nonpartisan, forcing its host — who had literally won the job by satirizing conservative pundits for ten years — to act as though he suddenly had no strong opinions of his own about current events. Its inventiveness was also undercut by its own fears of being inaccessible, which could hurt its ratings against the apolitical celebrity-fest of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, leading to some ideas that felt half-baked. (Consider this first bit with The Big Furry Hat, which can’t seem to tell whether it wants to be absurd or broadly relatable, resulting in an awkward, sluggish middle ground.)

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Network TV audiences can handle intellectual humor.

But something happened in late 2016. A clearly incensed Colbert, who had been gradually allowing more of his own bias to seep into his jokes, began turning his monologue into a more direct comedic assault on the coming administration. Without losing its playful variety show atmosphere, the Late Show positioned itself squarely against Trump, prioritizing a daily takedown of his moral and administrative failings with jokes that were edgier, more wonkish and more from the host’s heart. It was a style that felt much closer to the humor that had befit Colbert so well on his previous show, and — it worked. Instead of alienating its viewers, the show began resonating with its audience’s collective fears and frustrations, leaving The Tonight Show to seem tepid and less relevant by comparison. Now, Colbert regularly beats Fallon in the ratings.  And yet, the reality that this was the right formula for the show should’ve been obvious from the start. Which is not to say that Colbert is objectively the better comedian (Fallon’s still a pro at what he does, even if I don’t usually watch him), but that Colbert is objectively better at being Colbert. Sure, comedians can, and should, continue to grow and experiment with new ideas, but hiring Colbert and asking him to be more like Fallon was like CBS hiring a plumber and asking him to fix their roof. His success also shows that audiences are capable of handling more intellectual or edgy humor than they initially thought. Now CBS has branded his show as “the smart choice” — a smart choice in and of itself — but it would’ve been better just to trust his original formula from the beginning.

We see the same situation playing out in the sitcoms from Little Stranger, the production company owned by Tina Fey with executive vice president Eric Gurian. In 2006 Fey created 30 Rock, a frenetic comedy inspired by her time at SNL, which naturally found a home at NBC. The show was an enormous success, receiving critical acclaim and myriad awards, and in 2009 it broke a comedy record with 22 Emmy nominations. And while it admittedly never attracted a huge number of viewers, NBC’s seven-year commitment to it paid off, and in 2009 was able to sell syndication rights to Comedy Central at a rate of approximately $800,000 an episode. As Robert Carlock, a writer, producer and co-showrunner for the series, acknowledged to Deadline in 2013, “I hope 30 Rock can [help to show] that the standard narrative about ratings probably needs to be re-examined and changed.”

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The fast dialogue of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt leads to a joke approximately every nine seconds. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix.

Following the series end of 30 Rock, NBC immediately lined up Fey and Carlock for a new series, which would become 2015’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Except, the network ultimately passed on the show, following interest from Netflix and seemingly not knowing how it would fit among what NBC head Robert Greenblatt called a “drama-heavy midseason schedule.” So Netflix got the show — which would go on to become another award-winning critical hit — and NBC continued talks with Little Stranger to bring them something else at a later date. That something else is their new comedy Great News, set at a news station and created by 30 Rock alumnus Tracey Wigfield.

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Watch Great News in the context of the two shows that preceded it, however, and something immediately feels off. While all three have the same comedic voice, favoring a kind of straight-faced absurdity and a particular knack for jokes that follow the rule of three, Great News is clearly aimed at a wider cross-section of America, with more relatable premises and a slower overall pace. To double-check this pace and make sure it wasn’t just me, I even decided to calculate the average joke-per-minute rate of the three shows and compare. To keep the creative teams for the episodes I analyzed as similar as possible, I counted the jokes for the 30 Rock season seven episode “Game Over” written by Sam Means and Robert Carlock, the Kimmy Schmidt season three episode “Kimmy is a Feminist!” by Sam Means and Grace Edwards, and the Great News episode “Chuck Pierce is Blind” by, again, Sam Means. I then compared these to a current season episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Emotion Detection Automation,” as my control — an example of a popular, broadly targeted multi-camera network show. A “joke” was difficult to concretely define, but I counted it as anything that would warrant a laugh-track response (which none of Little Stranger’s shows have) combined with any intentional background sight-gags. Big Bang sets their laugh track bar very low, meaning all these shows clipped along at several jokes a minute, but while Big Bang and Great News only had a little more than five on average, 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt clocked in at over six.

Like CBS, we see that NBC, after having a hit with a fast-paced, critically lauded show, then proceeded to pass on a similarly fast, critically lauded show and instead ask the same company for a slower show that intentionally has fewer jokes in it. Tracey Wigfield has said she wants the show to offer “something for everyone,” but given how fast her last show was, it seems unlikely that dialing back the jokes and broadening the humor wasn’t at least partially a compromise with NBC. And — as CBS found with Colbert — it turns out revamping someone’s established style doesn’t actually improve their work. Great News has okay reviews — a 67 on Metacritic, exactly the same as the first season of 30 Rock — but with less buzz and fewer viewers. 30 Rock also quickly found its footing after a few exposition-heavy early episodes, whereas Great News seems to be more or less on a safe plateau.

Audience sensibilities are evolving for a fast-paced, politically charged media landscape.

As these networks’ missteps show, asking comedians to significantly alter their proven comedic styles for a wider appeal results in less critically and commercially successful work. Some comedians, like Big Bang’s Chuck Lorre, have natural aptitudes and desires to write broader humor, and they should be the preferred choice of networks seeking that kind of content. And as audience responses have also shown, the familiar notion that network TV requires broad humor, and that mainstream audiences can’t be trusted with more political, fast-paced or abstract jokes is also no longer certain. With Colbert and Fey thriving in environments where they have the most creative control, they’re proving that Americans are capable of handling much more complex entertainment than some TV executives have initially given them credit for. Our lives in 2017 often present us with rapid, near-constant feeds of news and information as we navigate our daily media landscapes. Is it any surprise that our comic sensibilities would be evolving to fit this environment, too?