THR Emmy Roundtable: 'New Girl,' 'Big Bang' Showrunners on Dropping F-Bombs and Comedy's Tough Year
Matthew Carnahan, Greg Daniels, Bruce Helford, Liz Meriwether, Steve Molaro and Mike Schur also talk to THR about turning down product placement, their most absurd network notes and whether "Anger Management" is the model of the future.
Schur: I think it's all vestiges, too. When TV started, there was I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, and shows that looked like I Love Lucy were comedies, and shows that looked like Gunsmoke were dramas. Today it's gone from four channels to 1,000, and there are 300 million people. Emmy classification is problematic. What do you do? Do you start adding more categories? What's Nurse Jackie? What's Californication? They're half-hour shows, which makes people think about I Love Lucy; but they don't have laugh tracks, and that makes people think about Gunsmoke. It's really about, what do people like? Its gets a little dicey when you start trying to classify any show.
Meriwether: Don't you think there is more emphasis on the emotional side of all comedies that are on the air right now? There's more emotional stuff [on TV] than I remember when I was growing up.
Helford: There was a really superficial period of sitcoms after Roseanne went down and some of the other shows that had a lot more substantive stuff.
Daniels: But Seinfeld was so dominant, and it was so unemotional.
Helford: Very true.
Carnahan: I will say that in terms of a trend, comedies are much "voicier" than they used to be. I feel like there is much more a sense of the voice of the person at the helm of the show, which I like. I like to turn on your show and hear your voice.
Schur: They feel more specific or something.
Carnahan: They feel specific to the voice of the person who thought them up, or who is running them.
Meriwether: And the networks actually want that.
Carnahan: I think so.
Meriwether: Which is surprising.
THR: Bruce, before Anger Management launched, you said if the 10/90 model was successful, it could fundamentally change the way TV gets made. Do you feel now, well over 40 episodes in, you're there? And do the rest of you look at what he's doing and think that sounds appealing or terrifying?
Helford: It already is changing the business. George Lopez, Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence are all doing them now because it's simple economics: The show costs half the money, and if you lay it out properly, you're strong in your organizational skills and you have a good writing staff, you can do the same quality of show for half the money and in half the time. It took me five years to get to 100 Drew Careys; it will take me two years to get to 100 Anger Managements. That's also good for the actors because they don't have to spend as long getting typecast in the role, they get to re-create themselves sooner and not be on the air for six to nine years. For the creators, you get to move to a new project after that, it moves to syndication faster, and the truth is, the process is actually, in many ways, easier, except for the writing staff. So it will change. But because we're shooting so many in advance -- we have probably 20 shows that haven't aired yet -- I have to anticipate when the audience will want certain things, or when we feel right to change the dynamic of the characters. We've had conversations with FX about: When will the writers get bored and decide to change things? Can the audience go longer with the same dynamic and love it and not want it to change? It's tricky to have to decide way in advance.
THR: Lionsgate keeps turning to veteran showrunners to run these 10/90 projects, but each time they seem to be people who haven't done a lot of recent TV work. Why do you think that is?
Helford: It's organizational skills or their kids are now in college and they want to come back. In my case, my kid was off to college, and I was like, "OK, let's try a challenge, I know this will be a challenge." At one point, I did 100 episodes in one season when I had four shows going.
Daniels: You're 300 years old.
Helford: Yeah, I'm approaching 800 episodes of television, half-hour television.
Meriwether: Oh my God.
Helford: [Writer-director] Sam Simon recently pointed out to me, "You're shooting 25 pages a day, and you're writing about seven. You need to pick it up." So we broke into two writing rooms, and did all the things that you wouldn't have to normally do when you have a full week to do one episode.
Meriwether: So you shoot 25 pages a day of one episode?
Helford: We shoot two shows a week. We're on the air for 90 weeks in a row, so I have to deliver the episodes consistently. We're only off for holidays, so it's the opposite of the cable model.
THR: So, any takers for a 10/90 deal here?
Meriwether: As you were talking, my entire body was tensing up!
Carnahan: I was loosening my bowels.
Daniels: Do you have arcs on the show or is it more episodic?
Helford: For syndication, they always say they want it as episodic as possible. But you can't get a show to go 100 episodes without good, strong arcs, and you can't get the audience involved [without arcs]. So we have arcs where two characters may be having a relationship, they'll break up for a bit then they'll get back together. We plan arcs for all the different characters like we used to, but I did that every show because it made life easier when you had some string to follow, and you got a skeleton you could put the flesh on as you went.
THR: Greg and Mike, one of the things that came up this year among NBC execs was this desire to broaden its comedy brand. Was this a mandate that each of you received, and what did you think of it?
Schur: I think that quote got a lot of play because it sounded very sinister. It was Bob Greenblatt who said it at TCA, and I very strongly believe that what he meant was, "We would like more people to watch our network." And the word "broad" means something in the comedy world that it doesn't mean in the [real] world, and so it was like, "Oh, you want people slipping on banana peels." That's not what he meant. Also it should be noted that at no point has anything like that been communicated to me at all about the way we do our show. They give us notes and are mostly hands-off. At no point do they ever say, "You need more banana peels."
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Daniels: No. And I think as of [March] The Office and Parks were the No. 1 and 2 show on the network.
Helford: I think the conundrum now is shows having individual voices. I go back to Family Ties, and there was a time when the shows were more cookie-cutter, but the point was that everyone took the idea of being a broadcaster and that you would reach a larger audience more seriously. That's why the shows felt somewhat homogenous -- there were so many family shows, but that's universal, and so almost everyone in America could watch that and understand immediately what that meant. It started changing with Seinfeld, which took four years to grab the audience. Now you hear the voice of the author more in shows; there's more of an audience that's specific to that niche or that view that that author has.
Daniels: Do you think if you were to recreate a show with the tone and sense of humor of those broadcasting tent shows from the '80s or '70s today, it would mean that the ratings would flock to it, or people would stop watching all the cable channels?
Helford: If it was contemporary. Modern Family did a great job of kind of getting a bigger tent going. But there's really not much now for the average audience. When I'm sitting on a train looking at all these houses in the Midwest, I'm thinking, "Are they really watching all these shows that I love?" There really isn't much being written to them. Nobody really kind of has their finger on the American pulse, and maybe the American pulse just changed that much.