Diane Haithman is contributing to Deadline’s coverage of TCA.
Do shows like Don’t Trust the B— In Apartment 23, CBS’ 2 Broke Girls and the Fox series New Girl mean we’re in some kind of women’s renaissance in network TV? At this morning’s TCA session on Apartment 23, creator/executive producer Nahnatchka Khan concluded, well, maybe. But in an afternoon panel featuring producers from ABC’s successful Wednesday night comedy block, the female showrunners of The Middle, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, pointed out that they’ve been funny for some time now — behind the scenes. “It’s exciting, but we always thought women had funny things to say,” said Heisler. “I think Tina Fey — and us — poked a little hole that allowed for this. We’ve been doing it for a while, and we’re glad to have company.” The Middle is a family show, not a snarky sitcom about a bitch or an emotionally unstable female roommate. But after the panel, Heisler said the show will continue to borrow as guest stars the veterans of that classic comedy about the “girl” who’s gonna make it after all, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Harking back to his Lou Grant character, Ed Asner will portray the editor of the local paper.
Like the morning’s producers, the Wednesday comedy showrunners pointed out that TV is a cyclical animal. It’s hard to identify a trend that won’t be gone tomorrow. Modern Family showrunner Steve Levitan said that with any story line, you could point to a comedy that has done it before, so “I actually tell the writers not to watch TV so it doesn’t kill story ideas. We try to keep the blinders on.” Heisler joked that once she and Heline got a note from the network that they had pitched a similar story line to one on Modern Family, about a family excursion, but it didn’t matter because “Modern Family was going on a fabulous vacation, but we went on a crappy camping trip.”
Looking at their own work, showrunners for the programs represented on the afternoon panel — The Middle’s Heisler and Heline, Suburgatory’s Emily Kapnek, Levitan and David Caspe and Jonathan Groff of Happy Endings — said single-camera comedy has virtually replaced the multicamera, live-audience sitcom as the TV norm. Said Kapnek: “There was a time when the audience found a laugh track reassuring. It’s the opposite now.” The Middle showrunners said of their comedy, about a working-class heartland family: ”We felt there had already been Roseanne and other families in the mulitcam format. We also wanted the Midwest to be a character we could show. In a multicam show, it would just have ended up looking like a couch.”
TV comedy veteran Levitan said: “In L.A. you sometimes hear coyotes eating cats — to me, that’s the sound of a multicam laugh track. I hit the wall. I just couldn’t take another minute of it.” He added that Modern Family’s commitment to realism really left no other choice but the single-camera format. The panel was asked whether today’s audience, so exposed to comedy across various entertainment platforms, actually has developed a more sophisticated sense of humor. Groff said it is possible that a show is able to succeed today with a smaller niche of the audience appreciating its comic style. When writing a joke, he said: “You’re aware that this is going to be a 20 percenter in the room, but that’s OK.”
Joked Levitan: “After years of people coming up to me to tell me what would make a funny episode of Modern Family, I can assure you: The audience has not gotten any funnier.” When asked whether there was anything new coming up in this season’s episodes, it was once again Levitan who cracked wise: “Lily says fuck,” he said, referring to Mitch and Cam’s small daughter. Naturally the other panelists were more worried about the futures of their shows than Levitan. Groff and Caspe said they hoped that ABC’s decision to stick with The Middle despite a slow start in the ratings would bode well for their quirky comedy. “There is such a history of great shows that started slow – Cheers started slow,” Heisler said. Observed the always-irreverent Levitan: “There is an even bigger history of bad shows that started slow.”