'Rules of Engagement' Creator: 6 Rules of Resilience
As CBS' just-canceled David Spade comedy reaches its 100th-episode milestone May 20, show runner Tom Hertz describes the drama of always having been on the bubble.
This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Rules of Engagement is the ultimate underdog. From surviving the threat of cancellation to almost calling Saturday nights home, CBS' perennial bubble show about different stages of relationships began with high expectations. Launching the day after the 2007 Super Bowl as a midseason entry, Rules, which stars David Spade and Patrick Warburton, premiered strong to 14.9 million viewers and a 5.2 rating among the key adults 18-to-49 demo following then-juggernaut Two and a Half Men. (The debut remains Rules' most-watched and highest-rated episode.) But the writers strike from 2007-08 would quash any stability had by the half-hour series, then in its sophomore season. "Everything was tumultuous after the strike," says series creator Tom Hertz (The King of Queens, Spin City).
For better or worse, Rules -- with a season-seven average of 7.7 million viewers in live-plus-7 ratings -- became a utility player, patching up holes in CBS' schedule following rookie failures. During the course of the next few years, Rules would go on to replace such short-lived comedies as Worst Week (2008-09), How to Be a Gentleman (2011) and Rob (2012), among others, mending troubled time slots as a steady, under-the-radar ratings performer. The fifth season, which ran from 2010-11 during Charlie Sheen's infamous Men breakdown, would be the only time Rules aired more than 15 episodes. Credit its longevity to its value in syndication, as Rules is shown in more than 95 percent of the U.S. market and is actively licensed in 144 international markets. "Male-driven shows, in terms of audience skew, always perform well in syndication," says John Weiser, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television, which co-produces the show with CBS Television.
As Rules airs its 100th episode May 20, doubling as a series finale, Hertz says he is almost certain that this time it is the end of the road but remained philosophical about the cancellation: "Psychologically, it's better to say: 'We hit 100. That's it.' " (CBS declined requests for interviews.) Even so, Hertz -- who admits he often was unaware of how closely Rules skirted cancellation before -- has a fallback plan should it ever return. "There is a way to keep the show going. If it does come back, it will be driven by zero percent creative and a hundred percent financial," says Hertz pragmatically, who shares with THR his six rules for having survived being on the chopping block for this long.
RULE 1: NOT BEING THE BIG BANG THEORY CAN BE A GOOD THING
Hertz initially found himself optimistic about the show's level of success: "I'm at the tapings, I hear the laughs and I see the final product, which is really solid, thinking Rules should get a full season." He continues: "What I learned is, it's business. CBS wanted a huge break -- they wanted another Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men, and after the second season, they realized Rules wasn't a breakout hit. It's not going to catch fire and become giant, but it's not a failure by any stretch, so, 'It'll be good in our back pockets.' " The series creator says it took a while before he understood that Rules' ability to play ratings pinch hitter contributed to its long life: "In CBS' mind, Rules became a fill-in, like a backup or a go-to, when something failed. I didn't know or realize that for a couple of seasons."
RULE 2: BE BETTER THAN THE YEAR'S WORST
CBS saw ratings rise whenever they put Rules on the schedule, even with little promotion. "We'd be a clear improvement from any new show that wasn't making it," says Hertz. The parade of shows put through the network's paces included Partners (2012, six episodes), Accidentally on Purpose (2009-10, 18 episodes) and Welcome to the Captain (2008, five episodes) -- "nothing against those shows that the network took a shot with," he adds. On why the sitcom is a stable performer: "I think the show is consistently funny, and the subject matter is relatable."
RULE 3: INJECT NEW BLOOD TO PROLONG THE SHOW'S LIFE
Hertz says that the addition of castmember Adhir Kalyan to play Spade's assistant was the result of network direction: "Maybe CBS wanted Rules to mix things up, maybe that was the impetus: 'They've got to add something if the show wants to continue.' '' The showrunner cast Kalyan, who was on The CW's Aliens in America, which ran for 18 episodes from 2007-08, because, says Hertz, "I'm always a fan of any British humor, and he's got the South African accent. Midway through the meeting, I said, 'You'd be great with David Spade.' Adding Adhir gave us a huge boost as far as CBS was concerned. Adhir might be the closest our show had to a breakout guy. His addition just gave the show a jolt. Creatively, it gave the show a voice."
RULE 4: USE GRAPHS AND PIE CHARTS TO SAVE YOUR SHOW
Once or twice over the course of Rules' seven-season run, says Hertz, "My non-writing producing partner Doug Robinson sensed that we weren't getting the love we thought we deserved, or it was getting close to pickup time and we were still a question mark." Robinson called a couple of meetings with CBS. "We brought charts with statistics and graphs, showing the huge jump in ratings from the show Rules replaced, and that really helped put all our positive points in their heads as they were flying to New York for upfronts," recalls Hertz. "Last year, we didn't get a season-seven pickup until a week after upfront presentations. Doug knows it's easy to get lost in a network of this size and it's easy for them to forget about you if you're not a giant hit. Doug was very good about making CBS focus on what they had, and it really worked."
RULE 5: KNOW WHEN TO STAY QUIET
Hertz readily admits that his strongest skill set doesn't include talking at those critical presentations: "In those meetings, I would sit there, silently stewing. I think I was asked not to talk because I would go on and on and interrupt people and I would get upset. 'Forget the charts and the graphs and the pie charts, it's funny and people like it! If you put it on, people will like your network.' Literally, sometimes I would be biting my fingers so I wouldn't talk."
RULE 6: UNDERSTAND THE SHOW'S PLACE
Hertz is no stranger to the gut-clenching, breath-holding suspense of having your show picked up but not scheduled. Early on in the show's run, "I got the call before upfronts from CBS saying Rules was not on the fall schedule. 'We don't know when it'll be on.' I just laughed because it was like, 'Here we go again.' " By the time season six rolled around, the showrunner was amenable to being put on the graveyard shift: "When I found out that CBS would air the show on Saturday, I was fine with it. At that point, it was better to be on at some point than to be canceled. I also knew from [studio] Sony's business people that they were trying to get to 90 or 100, so 13 episodes whenever they were on was good. I was over thinking it was going to be a hit show, and I understood its place. Something [How to Be a Gentleman] failed very quickly and, all of a sudden, CBS had to promote us and get us back on Thursdays. CBS developed an appreciation for the stability Rules gave them."