Summer 2009

Comedy Talk

Sitcoms aren't what they used to be—or are they? We assembled a panel of accomplished directors to talk about how their job has changed, what's funny now, and the future of television comedy.

Photographed by Mitch Tobias



There was a time not too long ago when sitcoms dominated primetime. In the 1990s, networks scheduled more than 60 programs in a single season. But even with an upswing anticipated for next season, the number of sitcoms planned by the major networks has fallen dramatically. Is that just the latest dip in a natural cycle, or does it represent a fundamental shift in what people find funny—and how they consume it?

To discuss the state of TV comedy—creatively, as well as commercially—the Quarterly assembled a blue-chip panel of directors. The six directors—James Burrows, Pamela Fryman, Ken Whittingham, James Widdoes, Lee Shallat Chemel and Todd Holland—have worked in various facets of the comedy business, from traditional multi-camera sitcoms to the currently fashionable single-camera shows to one-hour "dramedies." It would be difficult to calculate the collective years of experience assembled here.

During the freewheeling exchange, the directors expressed unwavering passion for their craft, and there was mild optimism about the explosion of options available to the creative community. They talked about strategies for dealing with writer-producers and actors, favorite career moments, and modern blessings such as the "instant access" provided by the latest editing technology.

Their enthusiasm, however, was tempered by understandable anxiety. After all, while new venues for producing comedy have created more opportunities, they have also made it increasingly difficult to assemble the kind of mass audience that once made traditional TV comedy so successful. And could the Web actually be changing the way people watch and approach comedy by providing a more personalized viewing experience?

So while the consensus was that there is still great work being done today—much of it by the directors in this room—the future of TV comedy, like any good cliffhanger, is "to be continued." —B.L.


Brian Lowry: Let's start with the big picture. There's been a lot of talk recently about the decline in the number of comedies. How do you feel about the state and financial future of the half-hour sitcom?

James Burrows: Well I've been through many cycles. When Cheers went on the air there was no comedy. And it was okay, then [The Cosby Show] came on. And that's what happens. It just keeps going in cycles. These procedurals are eventually going to fade out, but comedy will just keep coming back. The one thing that does scare me is Jay Leno [going to primetime], because it's taking five hours away from programming. But I just think if the comedy is good, it's going to succeed. We've had a lot of single-camera comedies now that have been very good and they tend to become derivative after awhile, and they'll go back to the multi-camera comedies, which will be good for awhile, and then they'll become derivative. And hence the cycle.

Lee Shallat Chemel: The cost of things is a big issue now. And the fact that multi-camera shows are much cheaper to make than the single-camera shows will certainly help the multi-camera show. The Larry Sanders Show, which Todd [Holland] directed, did a really good hybrid awhile back, a sort of cheap single camera-looking show. The lighting was adjusted in a more mechanical way and it was shot in a confined venue, which made it possible to have a non-audience laugh show. The writing is what really changes when you have to pop a laugh in front of an audience. On single cameras, it's more character-driven, not joke-driven, so the writing has to change, too.

James Widdoes: I think what Pam [Fryman] has been able to do without an audience has been really interesting. How I Met Your Mother is a whole show without an audience but shot multi-camera.

Pamela Fryman: I thought going into it I was going to miss the audience terribly because that's all I've ever done. And what we ended up doing, because when you have 50, 60 scenes in an episode you can't possibly have an audience, we'd invite an audience in and then we'd screen it. Cast, writers, everybody—and that's how we learned the rhythm of the show, and it made the actors really conscious of how the audience reacts. It seems to work and we get to have a fast-paced, wonderful show, and we do it in the three shooting days that we have because budget-wise, that's all we get.

Todd Holland: There's a lot of pressure now on budget.

Ken Whittingham: In this economy that's a huge, huge factor. Even with Entourage it's a big issue this year—whether or not it's going to get a seventh and eighth season because the budget is so big. Doug [Ellin] has started to write longer scenes and fewer locations, which does inherently affect a show like that which moves so fast. When all of a sudden you have a four-page scene for these guys, it gets a little slow.

Widdoes: I think what we're seeing is the end of appointment television. As we stop making that kind of television where I have to be home on such-and-such a night at such-and-such an hour, you're putting more pressure on just making the product work in a vacuum. This needs to be funny regardless of when somebody watches it. I don't have a problem with that. What I worry about is that we're becoming part of the noise—and there's so much noise. All of a sudden YouTube is a competitor to what somebody wants to watch at 11:30 in their boxer shorts.

Lowry: What about the Web's effect on comedy and the idea that people are watching 90-second bits? How has that affected what you do?

Burrows: I think the Web is responsible for the hit reality shows because I think America would rather see their peers fall down and hurt themselves than actors. So based on YouTube and everything, that's why reality shows are so popular.

Widdoes: But I think they'll get sick of that, Jimmy. Like you said, everything is cyclical. This is a new cycle.

Lowry: Just to continue with the Web issue, it almost seems like when you have so much of everything you can basically have personalized comedy. There's comedy for 18-year-olds, and 12-year-olds, and slightly older women, and African-Americans, and Hispanics.

Widdoes: I think that might be the future of television. It's just going to be really personalized so you might not have access to all these things that you never watch.

Holland: Fragmentation is the future.

Lowry: If it becomes that fragmented, can you amass enough of an audience to do the kind of shows that all of you have done?

Holland: I always say hits are made. I agreed to [do] Malcolm in the Middle because I thought it was hilarious and truly believed no one would ever put it on the air. And they wouldn't have except that Doug Herzog was president [at Fox] for the essential 15 minutes he needed to be. It tested terribly. And he said, 'I don't care. It's a funny show I'm putting on the air.' He was promptly fired. If any piece had been different, Malcolm would have been this very funny pilot that never got on the air. But the corporate will was there at that moment. Without corporate will, you could make great comedies till the cows come home and no one's going to see it [except on]

Fryman: It has to be good and it has to be supported.

Whittingham: You look at a show like 30 Rock and the numbers and you're like, why? Brilliant show.

Lowry: If people are watching everything á la carte, are you going to be able to use a Cheers to prop up a Family Ties until an audience catches on to it anymore?

Widdoes: As we look forward, everything has to be standalone. As NBC cuts out an hour [for Leno], broadcasters are not broadcasters anymore. They're narrowcasters, and they're coming up with specific ways to sell to a particular group at a particular moment.

Fryman: We dare you to be a hit. That's what it is. We dare you to get an audience.

Burrows: The problem is if networks knew what would be a hit show, they would all have hit shows. They literally don't have any idea, and the minute a show becomes a hit they start to develop shows exactly like it.

Holland: Hollywood is the only business where everyone wants to be second to do something.

Lowry: For a while everything seemed to be single camera and now CBS has one night [of traditional multi-camera comedy] with the highest-rated sitcoms on television.

Widdoes: But that goes to Todd's point, which is everybody's now saying I want Two and a Half Men. Well, duh! Of course you want Two and a Half Men. It's hard. Trust me.

Lowry: Do you think there will be a mini-resurgence of multi-camera comedies?

Whittingham: This year there are a ton of multi-camera pilots being shot, and it really gave me a lot of hope that it was coming back because I do mostly single camera, but I got to be honest with you, I'm tired of getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning.

Holland: There's a corporate will to create multi-camera shows, and so resources are being poured into that. Whereas, you know, 10 years ago, it was all, 'Single camera's the new thing.' But it all comes down to the writing and the casting, that's the magic. But it's just like any comedy; it's a crapshoot.

Lowry: One of your colleagues, Dennis Dugan, wrote a story for the DGA Quarterly where he said the secret of directing comedy was 'Get a funny script. Then get funny actors.' Is it as simple as that?

Widdoes: I never realized Dugie was that smart. [laughs]

Burrows: But then you need luck. The first year we did Cheers we were [rated] last on Thanksgiving weekend, we were number 72. And the only reason that show stayed on the air was NBC didn't have anything else to put on.

Lowry: And today some of the things that are being qualified as comedies for awards consideration are one-hour dramedies. How do you feel about that?

Widdoes: Well, Todd and I actually spent a few hours a couple of years ago judging the DGA Awards, and I believe we saw two episodes of 30 Rock, the pilot of Pushing Daisies and a Desperate Housewives. It was a 'very special' Desperate Housewives. There was a hurricane. And I must say, it doesn't matter who won or lost, but I think when we were finished seeing all of these, we all sort of turned to each other and said, 'Am I crazy or was most of this not comedy?' We really did find ourselves at a crossroads there.

Holland: Drama with humor is not a comedy.

Fryman: It's insane. How do you put one of Jimmy's half-hour comedies up against Desperate Housewives and Entourage? It just makes no sense. What are you basing your vote on?

Chemel: Yeah, and are you laughing?

Widdoes: I always talk about shows as 'laugh comedies,' which generally to me are multi-camera. And there are 'point-funny comedies.' Point-funny comedies, whether they're an hour or half-hour, are [when] you point at the screen and go, 'That's funny.' And that's the difference to me. When Jerry Seinfeld did a big joke, you laughed. But I don't think you do that at Let's Rob Mick Jagger. I watched that pilot and I went, 'Oh, that's a clever idea, but...'

Whittingham: But you're not laughing.

Lowry: Is the best-case scenario as a comedy director to stay with a show over the long haul?

Widdoes: I sense that everybody, just from what they've done, would prefer to stay with a show. In the late '80s, early '90s when I was starting out, the way to stay with a show was to also be the executive producer. It was an opportunity for a director in television to affect a show like a feature director does, to say, 'Eh, we're not doing that' to a writer or, 'Yes, we're doing this and let's do more of that.' And that's not to say to lord over a writer, but it's to have that place at the table that says we're all making this together, we're all partners.

Lowry: Is there something more gratifying about a pilot because you're laying out that template and maybe have more input?

Burrows: Not without a reputation. I did a couple of pilots when I was starting out and had to struggle to have my voice heard, and sometimes it wasn't heard. But once I started to have some clout, pilots are great because they're a total change of pace. When I do a show I like to do all the episodes in a year, so when I get to do pilots it's a really fun way to get with new writers and new actors and try to do it again. Everybody in this room probably has incredible clout on a pilot, and the smart writer will realize that. The stupid writer will say, 'No, no, let me handle it,' and not include you, and that's where you start to have trouble.

Chemel: That's exactly right. I can feel when I'm on a new set whether I'm going to have an opinion that's going to be listened to or not. You can tell right away, and as a woman, it changes a little bit, too. Not so much now, but earlier on there was a little bit more difficulty achieving a kind of equality. But you can smell it the minute you walk on and get to know a new executive producer whether you're going to have the ability to push through. And it's only in the last several years that I've had the courage to smell that negativity and still push on and break through it and have my opinion heard and accepted.

Holland: When I meet on pilots I always say, 'Look, I'm here to work with you, to collaborate. I'm not going to work for you.' If that's what you want, then you hire somebody else.

Fryman: You only have to do that a couple of times to realize you never want to do it again. It's a very difficult position to be in. But when it does work, it's so much fun to collaborate. When everybody's on the same team, it's a blast.

Burrows: I have two [things] I say to a writer: 'If I talk to you about your show, you can defend your material. I appreciate that. The minute you become defensive, that's it.' If you say, 'No, do it, it's funny,' I don't want to work with you. And the other thing I say is, 'It's your vision, whatever you want to do, because 50 percent of what I say is great and 50 percent is shit and it's your job to figure out which is which.' So I'll just keep saying it. But they have to defend the material.

Lowry: Is it more difficult to know if something's working when you're working single camera?

Chemel: I don't think so. What you don't have is rehearsal time. What you don't have is time to experiment a lot. So in a way, when I'm prepping the script that's when I try to solve some problems on the page before it gets to the stage. Once it gets to the stage, it's pretty clear whether it's working or not. I don't think it's a mystery.

Whittingham: I think you can totally tell on the page if it's not going to work. On some single-camera shows you don't have a tone meeting, and a lot of times you won't have a table read. So [the writers] never really get to hear it, but I think I can hear the voices and I know when something's not working. So I almost demand a tone meeting just so I'm clear on this joke, and then I say, 'Now what do you mean?' I'll act like I'm a little confused about the joke. And then they'll say, 'Oh, you didn't get it, oh, maybe we should look at that.' And then if they still don't do it, I'll just make up a joke in the back of my head so when we get on the set I'll throw something out and we'll do [the writers'] and then we'll do some of mine, and hopefully mine lives. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

Lowry: Is there a part of the process—the prep, the rehearsal, the actual shooting—that's more important to you or that you enjoy the most?

Holland: I'm like the weirdo of comedy. I never watched comedy as a kid. I like suspense and thrillers and action movies. So the only way into comedy for me is the authentic human moment. That's why I got Larry Sanders. If I can't make a living moment out of those people, I will be miserable. Like, I'll fuck with people. Not in a mean way, but I'll just try to trick them... The jokes don't make me laugh as much, so I work to capture a living moment. That's what gets me off.

Burrows: For me it's opening night. Most of my shows are [taped] in front of the audience. And that's just because I was trained in the theater. That's opening night for me. The rehearsals are New Haven. I love rehearsals and coming up with stuff because I do put in a lot of jokes and a lot of sight gags. Some of them crash and burn, some of them are great. But you got to be able to crash and burn to have good stuff. But that Tuesday night in front of the audience? That's heaven.

Chemel: Many years ago, I was talking to [producer] Steve Levitan and I said, 'What, what makes Jimmy Burrows great?' And he said, 'He adds two laughs every rehearsal.' And it was the greatest lesson to realize my job isn't just to make this work; my job is to add shit, just add funny. And ever since that's what I've been doing. I'm not trying to please them anymore, I'm trying to make myself laugh, and all of a sudden my directing got better. And do you know about my $20? It's amazing how venal actors can be. When I did multi-camera I would paste a $20 bill on the podium and say, '$20 to the best added laugh today from you guys,' and they'd love it. They want to win that $20!

Burrows: I'm a success because I put $100. [laughs]

Whittingham: There are two things Jimmy said years ago that have stuck with me and I think about them all the time: One, die with your boots on. And the other, add leaves on the tree. And that's what I think a director [does] in this multi-camera or single-camera television comedy. The jokes are there, the story's there, you just got to make it funnier, if you can. Add to it. That's what a director does. And I will fight with a producer if I'm convinced that something is funny. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but if I'm convinced that something's really funny, I'll go to the end.

Burrows: We've had meetings about this with the Guild, about creative rights and what a director's job is and what his rights are. I believe… if you have your time with the actors, if you can create something with them, make something funnier or add some stuff that makes it funnier. That's your job as a director. So many directors in our particular field are hired by writers to just be traffic cops, and so the writer controls [things]. That's why we all get a bad name.

Fryman: You have to respect everybody, or at least attempt to or act like you do, and I feel it's important to create an atmosphere on the stage where everybody's working toward a common goal, everyone feels like they're being heard, and everyone feels important.

Widdoes: Just to add to Pam's point, yes, you have to respect everybody, but I also think you have to command respect. And that's where I've just seen too many directors get run over in the half-hour business, when it's that traffic cop [thing]. That reference makes a lot of us crazy. I just don't accept it. When I do pilots I say, at least for the first couple of nights I'm going to come in and spend a couple of hours in the [writers] room with you because I want to be there to hear where you're thinking this is going to go. Because at a certain point I always say to them, someone's got to get up with the children. I've got to go to the stage, so I'm not going to stay till 3 in the morning just to get a free dinner. It's that I bring something to this and I'm not going to be told to go sit in a corner.

Lowry: How has technology changed things, in terms of digital shooting and editing?

Widdoes: Editing has been phenomenal. I confess that 20 years ago I made a couple of editing choices based on the fact that I wasn't willing to spend the next 10 minutes rewinding, knowing that there might, might be a better take. And we'd say, you know what? That's fine. Isn't that horrible?

Holland: Instant access is great.

Widdoes: It's just great. I know I have the best performance. I know I have the best shot. And I know it in a minute.

Holland: It's a double-edged sword, because then everybody can see everything [during] the process. I just finished a pilot [Sons of Tucson] for Fox... and in the middle of our shoot the whole Eye of Mordor of Fox was on our show. And they loved us. And I said, 'Okay, the good news is they love us, and the bad news is they love us,' because we started to crazy second-guess everything. The studio got their cut, then their second look. And then the network got a sneak peak. It was the first battalion, all of Fox and all 20th. You're trying to protect your show through the whole process… [because] that's just too much examination. Comedy has to have spontaneity to stay alive.

Lowry: Are there particular tricks each of you have for working with actors, or is that unique to every show?

Widdoes: For me, it's a great opportunity to be able to say, 'I have no interest in doing what you're doing, but I have every interest in facilitating what you're doing. So let me point to things, let me do what I can to help it.'

Chemel: I was in theater for 20 years before I went into television and I also taught acting. So in the beginning I was too on the actor. Instead of sitting back and enabling the actor to be good, I used acting and teaching instincts. I was micromanaging too much and had to learn to step back and not try to control the actors' performance because I felt the resistance. When I was with a really good actor, I felt like they wanted to take me off like a jacket. I was too cloying. So it was a tough lesson I had to learn.

Holland: What I learned on Larry Sanders was that you had Rip [Torn] and Garry [Shandling] and Jeffrey [Tambor], and their process couldn't be more different. Rip was like, 'Where's my mark and where's the door?' And then Jeffrey was able to play and improvise and would want to discover. And then Garry was the most interesting, but he would be at the table read with his writer's hat on and read it perfectly. But as soon as he put on his actor's hat he needed to intellectualize his obstacles and intentions and didn't know how to say the words at all. So you learn that everybody has their different dialogue. You have to learn to speak their language to be of use to them.

Fryman: And you have to give them the freedom and the space to make a mistake, to really blow a joke and let them discover. There's nothing worse than starting out a rehearsal at 9 o'clock in the morning and have 'em say something and [you] say, 'Well, hold on.' Let 'em do it. Because the beauty of multi-camera is you have some time. Just because I'm saying it doesn't mean it's going to be right. You get to do it and fail and then do it and succeed.

Whittingham: And then when you give them that space and compliment them on something they did that was really good, I think that wins them over because they say, 'Okay, he's on my team. He gets me.' I always like to give them the freedom to do it first because you might find something you thought should be [another] way. Tina Fey is a perfect example of that. You read the script and say, 'This is what it is,' and then Tina might take a totally different twist on it. And you go, 'Oh, I never thought about that.' My experience is you read the script Monday and it's funny, everybody's laughing and everything. And then it seems like by Friday the writers start to second-guess themselves.

Widdoes: That's part of your job, though. That's where you have to say to the writers, 'Don't change it.' It was funny. It'll be funny again, and that's what great about those 200 people [in the audience].

Lowry: Jim, I remember hearing a story about how you actually listen with your eyes closed.

Burrows: Yeah, it's what my Dad [playwright Abe Burrows] used to do. To me, it's radio. I mean, any good script, any good sitcom can be read on the radio and you'd get big laughs. So to me it's about [hearing] those rhythms, and I've been doing it so long I can. Out of the corner of my eye I can see if a camera's moving wrong or something like that.

Lowry: I'd like to ask you if there's an episode that you worked on—good or bad—that stands out as a particularly memorable experience for you?

Holland: I was doing Larry Sanders and we had this one where Hank is getting a divorce and he checks himself into a hotel room. I had Rip and Jeffrey alone for three days and they were making me crazy. I was so angry and hostile, and we got to this one scene where Arthur (Torn) comes to the hotel room to confront Hank (Tambor) and he puts this gun down and says, 'You want to end it? Just end it.' And Hank starts to cry and he says, 'I don't deserve a friend like you.' And I looked at the monitor and I got really choked up. Like, they really moved me, and I had trouble saying 'Cut,' I was so moved. And I said, 'Oh, those fuckers! They can still get me! They made my life a living hell and I hate them, and they're still that good.' That's powerful stuff. That's the living moment that I'm talking about.

Burrows: For me, one was the 'What does the yellow light mean?' episode from Taxi [in which Jim (Christopher Lloyd) takes a driving test]. In that scene, the joke was written once, only once—'What does the yellow light mean?' 'Slow down.' And I said to them, 'I'm going to let it go.' And he said it five times, and it was just a religious [experience]; the audience never, never stopped laughing.

Whittingham: My first episode of Scrubs. It was the first time where I was on a show that budget wasn't a big thing and you could spend all the money you want. So I put a crane on top of a hotel and wanted to do this big, huge shot. Everybody just loved it and they were very welcoming and said, 'welcome to the team, you're one of us now.' So that was a real nice moment.

Lowry: You probably get asked this a lot by college students, but would you advise people who are starting out to get in to the business now?

Chemel: Sure. There are a lot more opportunities actually; it's not such a closed shop, not just three networks. There are so many ways you can go.… It's always daunting. But if you have a desire and a passion, yes, absolutely.

Holland: I got my first job out of film school with a short. Steven Spielberg saw it and it gave me my first job writing and directing on Amazing Stories. And then 20 years later they had a reality TV show where Steven Spielberg was going to [help choose] the winner. I said, 'Oh my God! If I'd done this 20 years later I'd have to win a reality TV show.' I'd probably do a digital short at home. The technology you have in your hand, it's remarkable what you can do. I think there are so many more people doing it, that I don't know if it's easier or harder. I don't know what it is.

Widdoes: I would probably do what happened to me, which is I'd discourage people. I'd discourage people from getting into this business and then when they ignored me they would have done what they wanted to. I mean, there are millions of people out there watching what we do. And assuming that they study and learn and train and respect [the job] and they get discouragement and push through it, fine. Yeah, join us.

Fryman: I would just simply say I love what I do too much to discourage anybody else from doing it. It's been and continues to be just so wonderful in so many ways. And the ones who don't take that discouragement to heart, then yeah, they have a good future.

Whittingham: I just love directing. It's such a challenge, especially comedy because it's hard to make people laugh. I worked with Jay Sandrich for six weeks on a show and learned so much from him. I watched Jim direct a couple times and there are not many people that I get inspired by, but these two men have been greatly inspiring. I never get tired of it. So I just say, 'Jump in. Just push, push through it.' That's what I did. I just pushed. I had a lot of doors slammed in my face and I just kept going, just kept pushing.

Burrows: I don't think that question's any different than when I started in '74. I always say the hardest thing is not getting the first job, it's capitalizing on that opportunity. So when you go after that first job, you have to be ready. You can't not have the tools. To me that's the most important thing. When you're given that opportunity, run with it.


Roundtable Bios



Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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