Karl Marx, who knew a thing or two about show business, once said that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”.
That’s what happens in the entertainment industry with material. If something works as a drama – and when I use the word “works”, what I mean is “makes a lot of money” – people spend a lot of time trying to figure out if there’s a way to adjust it slightly and turn it into a comedy.
It’s sort of like when you make soup out of the leftovers of a great meal: you get another meal for the same price. Maybe it’s not as good as the first one, but it’s incredibly cheap.
Right now, the biggest sensation on American television is a show called Breaking Bad, about a mild-mannered and unlucky high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into a dangerous and violent drug kingpin. It’s dark and scary and deeply gripping – but let’s face it: it’s not a comedy.
“We’re looking for something sort of Breaking Bad-ish,” a network comedy development executive told me not long ago. “But, you know, the funny version.”
“Breaking Bad is a great show,” I said, “but there isn’t a lot of comic material in there. I mean, people are shot, things are blown up, families are torn apart – what part of that do you think is good for a chuckle?”
“Well, not that stuff,” she said. “But we like the area of the teacher.”
Luckily for me I already have a television show on the air and I’m not in the marketplace this year pitching projects to television networks. I met the executive at a party, and we were just making polite conversation. And because for this year, anyway, I don’t have to nod cheerfully and pretend I think what she’s saying makes any sense – that could change, of course, if my current series gets cancelled and I’m back in the bazaar next year – I could push back a little. Just a little.
That’s how you have to sell something in Hollywood these days: it has to be the comedy version of something else. The “comedy version” of Breaking Bad means something that involves the “area of the teacher”. By that metric, of course, the television show Dexter – which has at its centre an unrepentant serial killer who lives in Miami – could be adjusted slightly to be about a guy at the beach who’s just not great with people.
The comedy version of any of the gruesome CSI television series, which are all about medical examiners investigating uniformly graphic murders, could be about a simple country doctor who arrives just a little too late to his patients’ bedsides. Could be funny, right?
The Sopranos? I could pitch that: blue collar family guy tries to get along with his quirky family. Some of them are armed. But in a funny way.
The truth is, every one of those “comedy version” pitches makes sense as a comedy. Well, maybe not the tardy country doctor, but the others certainly do. There have been doctor comedies and teacher comedies and quirky family comedies from the very beginnings of the television industry. But the only way to sell it to a network, apparently, is to make it seem like a comic twist on something dark and dramatic. Oh, and successful. Can’t forget that.
That’s what it’s come to, in this uncertain period in the entertainment industry, with internet video streaming and a thousand channels of content beaming into our houses and smartphones every second. The moguls and executives who used to trust their instincts and swan around town making big bets on scripts and new ideas now cower under their expensive desks, fingering the buttons on their bespoke shirts, trying to figure out how to stretch one successful show into another successful show without going to the trouble of coming up with something new.
“Why is it,” I finally asked the executive at the party, “that you guys are only interested in something if it’s pitched as a ‘comedy version’ of something else?”
She was instantly offended. “I really resent that,” she said. “I’m so sick of you writers thinking that all we executives want are retreads of what we already have. This afternoon, for instance, I bought a comedy pitch from a writer and it was a totally fresh idea. It’s a unique setting and a risky premise and I really went out on a limb to buy it.”
I apologised immediately. It’s rare to hear that, and I was impressed.
That was, as I said, not long ago. It was just long enough, though, for the script to be written and the series to be produced and for it to have its broadcast premiere last week, where it was all but ignored by the audience.
This morning I heard that the executive I had insulted at the party, and who had bought the fresh new series that had turned out to be so unpopular, was fired. Which is a pretty tragic turn of events, I suppose, but with a little effort I could probably work out the comedy version.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl