Why the Sitcoms Most Cool People Like Suck in the Ratings

With my friend, comic Jodi White.

I’m guessing if you were to do some kind of demographic research on who my typical Fly Over Comedy reader is you would find they are a single dude in their late 20’s. There is a reason for that. Single dude’s in their 20’s read blogs at a higher rate than any other group. They have the time, plus they have grown up with blogs. They also happen to be the biggest percentage of people doing standup comedy because they still have dreams of doing something they like and don’t mind making hardly any (if not no) money trying to chase the fantasy. I’m also guessing that many of my readers would list the NBC comedies as their favorite network sitcoms.

My friend, Jon Weisman, who is an associate editor for Variety, is the most knowledgeable person I know about TV. (He also happens to be the most knowledgeable person I know about the Dodgers, too.) So Jon tweeted an interesting link written by Michael Schneider of TV Guide. The piece is titled With So Many on the Bubble, Can Smart Comedies Survive? The article discusses how shows like Parks and Recreation and Community are struggling to stay on the air, while CBS comedies rack up the ratings.  Here is my theory and I think it is also something to think about when it comes to standup.

Let’s take Parks and Recreation. The show is set in a small-town in Indiana. (the state I live in) All the characters are different levels of snarky and stupid. Not one of them appears to have a normal family life in anyway. It has a single-camera shoot style like The Office. The actors are all talented, but the show really comes off to me like a Christopher Guest movie. Now Guest movies are funny, but they don’t do much business in the theater, so why do networks think a large scale of people are going to want to watch them every week? But Scott, they are so much more clever than 2 and Half Men. The American People are stupid must be the answer, right? Sort of, but on some levels, I guess I’m somewhere in the Middle on that point of view. Let me explain.

I got in a conversation on Twitter with Jon Weisman about this subject.

Scott:I think these shows the TV Guide writer discussed lack a sense of reality. They are smart people who do stupid things. Non-hipsters want more realism in their comedy.

Jon: Parks & Rec and Community have tons of heart and very little arrogance. Community is pretty out there, but Parks isn’t. (I can’t tell Jon he is wrong on this point, as I never got into either show as I’m usually working at night and have limited shows I have time to watch on DVR. I will say the times I saw them they were very Office-like in tone.)

Scott: I live in Indiana and I guarantee you I’ve never met anyone who behaves like the Parks and Rec cast does in a small town around here. I love what Greg Daniels (creator of Parks and Rec) did w/Mike Judge on King of the Hill, but Parks and Rec has no one who seems real to me. Too much like a Chris Guest flick. The show(s) reflect LA writer’s version of life. No kids. too much irony, too much strange. Watch the Middle. That’s small-town Midwest.

Jon: I live in Los Angeles and I know no one who behaves like the guys on Big Bang Theory. And that show is not “dumb” comedy.

Scott: I would agree that Big Bang Theory is an absolute exception 2 my point. I can’t explain its numbers, besides its joke rhythm. (and it followed 2 and Half Men for awhile which built it’s initial viewership.) I think those (NBC shows) lack a sense of reality. They are smart people who do stupid things. Non-hipsters want more realism. Friends used the smart single people/stupid things formula, but they had traditional sitcom joke style like Big Bang Theory does.

Jon: Outside of Two Broke Girls and Rob, which ride the coattails of their lead-ins, the most successful new comedy this year is New Girl. Much of what we’re talking about can be explained by NBC being too weak to promote its shows.

Scott: Some truth, but here’s my theory. Single people don’t watch network sitcoms at same level that married people do. Single people more apt to watch cable shows with more grit. Also, they use more technology like Netflix, youtube, etc. I think a big reason there wasn’t a bigger hit new sitcom was that ABC failed to put a show that fits better with Modern Family. Glee and New Girl was good programming.

This is where Jon and I left it. He’s a great writer and way more clued into the Hollywood biz than I am, but I do have one advantage that people on the coasts don’t…I live and perform comedy in Fly Over Country. And this is where I start discussing standup. It actually fits into my TV theory, too. Before I start, though, I want to mention that I’m not trying to alienate any of my readers. I appreciate how this blog has grown and now is getting hundreds of hits per day.  I put in a lot of time here, so I want it to continue to grow. Ok, disclaimer out of the way.

When you do standup outside of a few comedy clubs like Acme in Minneapolis or some of the college town clubs like Austin or Bloomington, you are going to be performing for a wide range of audience. I have played most of the IMPROV’s and I promise you that their Friday and Saturday night early show crowd in Irvine or Tampa doesn’t look much different than the same early shows in Kansas City.  These early weekend shows are the one’s that make the clubs’ their money for the week. These audiences have often hired a babysitter and they are there to get away from their boring lives for a couple hours.  They (for the most part) don’t want to hear clean comedy, as they would have stayed home and watched Nick at Nite, if that was the case. They (for the most part) aren’t looking for some comic to be hacky with their material. What they do want, though, is someone who comes off confident and doesn’t go too many seconds between the jokes. What they really don’t want to watch (for the most part) are some 20 something act workout his or her concepts with just scattered punches and tons of irony.

You can do pretty much any type of style you want onstage as long as come across confidently and bring the laughter at a consistent pace.  I have discussed in the past where I believe using Daniel Tosh as your template for standup is a big mistake, because he has way more charm and charisma than you will ever have.  This is what enables him to say horrible things about almost everyone and get away with it. Well for this piece, I’m going to change my mind. Daniel Tosh throws in more punchlines than almost any comic out there.  He delivers the goods at a rat-a-tat pace.  It’s almost at Dave Attell-speed.  Learn from here the way he structures his act.  I’m not saying this is going to work for everyone, but if you want to connect with an audience, you need to create a rhythm. Like them or not, the Chuck Lorre created shows (2 and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, Mike and Molly) formula works on a large scale because the audience gets in a rhythm.

I would also argue what works in these shows is that not everyone is beautiful.  Most of the characters look like real people. I think real people have a better chance of delivering a comedy line that works because in life, most of the time the funniest people are not beauty kings or queens.

I try to sit down and watch every sitcom at least once because I like to stay in the Zeitgeist.  The sitcoms that I actually DVR are Modern Family and Raising Hope. They are very different shows. MF follows a trio of upper-income people in nice suburbs in LA. The show is based very strongly in reality, as nothing on the show ever seems fake to these people’s lives.  MF is the highest-rated sitcom on TV.  RH follows a lower-income family who live in a neighborhood that reflects this. The show stretches reality sometimes, but they always seem like versions of people I know. RH is a middle-of-the road rated sitcom.  What these 2 shows share is that there is very little irony in their script.  They do a nice job of showing dysfunction, but showing how their families stay together and protect each other, like the best families do.

I know I’ve rambled here a bit and I’m not sure I’ve made a real concrete point, but I want to open your mind a little to what I consider the mentality of the audience. I can promise you that if I read this when I was in my 20’s, I would have felt very differently about what I write here. I had no time for sentimentality, as I wanted to consume the most snarky comedy I could find. I will admit that things in my life has made me more willing to share my heart with my audience. Anyon who has seen my show knows I have a lot of dark elements and stories, but I try hard to show there is a decent core inside me.  Here’s what I think Network TV needs to realize. There is no shortage of snarky, ironic comedy. Every cartoon on FOX or Adult Swim is filled with it.

Too often I think the mainstream audience picks up on how the writers of these sitcoms have disdain for the average person.  These shows too often come off like they are kind of talking down to the viewer. Critics generally love these shows because critics (for the most part) look down upon Joe and Jolene 12-pack, so they totally relate to the ironic snark-fest they become.  There is a large audience out there that doesn’t like that and never will. It’s not just people over 35 either, as I perform standup every week of the year and I see a majority of people in their under 35 responding to what I deliver far more than they do to comics that just act cool and ironic onstage.  Don’t be afraid to reach into your soul and share some raw truth about yourself.  The more real it seems, the better chance it has to connecting with your audience.  Some irony and snark is great, but keep it in moderation. Like profanity, snark and irony used sparingly, hits harder and gets bigger laughs.

Postnote: Any Network TV executives. Feel free to contact me if you would like to get in the Scott Long sitcom business.

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