Tom Hertz is the creator and showrunner of the CBS sitcom Rules of Engagement which will be filming its 100th episode in its upcoming seventh season. Before Rules, Hertz created Married to the Kellys for ABC which was based on his marriage and his wife’s family. Hertz also served as showrunner on Spin City and King of Queens and was on the writing staff of HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show and Dennis Miller Live, for which he won an Emmy Award in 1996. We asked Hertz to give us his thoughts on sitcoms today. Hertz had a better idea: A transcript of his phone conversation with his talent manager.
TOM HERTZ: (into phone): Hello.
HERTZ REP: Hey there. How’s everything going?
TH: Fine. You know, just a regular life.
HR: Great. Well, I think I have an opportunity for you.
HR: No, this is good. They’re doing a Deadline Hollywood Emmy issue, a print thing, and they’d like you to write something for it.
TH: Why? What am I writing about?
HR: They’re open to anything about television. How about something about how you created your show or how you run it?
TH : No, there’s nothing worse than a creative person explaining their process or how they do what they do or how they believe people perceive their work, or ending a list in a way to imply there’s more when there really isn’t, etc. etc. It always sounds so pompous and egotistical. ‘Less talk; more rock,’ I say. People want the steak; they don’t want to know how the cow was slaughtered. Except for me, because I hate cows and take a certain glee in their suffering.
HR: Ha! Funny. Well then how about writing about your show’s under the radar survival or how you got to seven seasons and one hundred episodes?
TH: Because I don’t know how I did it. There was no strategy or secret. I just kept trying to make episodes that didn’t suck. So I guess that’s my secret: Try not to suck. I think that’s a more realistic secret than the book The Secret where you just keep thinking about a boat and all of a sudden you have one. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for Oprah to call.
HR: Well if you don’t want to write about your own show, they also suggested you could write something about the state of sitcoms on television today. And you know if they like it, they’ll put it in the online edition.
TH: Gosh, really? If I do extry-good I can be on the electric porno box?
TH: And besides, who cares what I think about the state of sitcoms today? What revelations am I gonna come up with? ‘Modern Family is good; Work It was bad.’ Oh my God, call the President of Show Business, Hertz has figured it all out!
HR: [chewing sounds]
TH: Are you eating?
HR: [lying] No.
TH: Anyway, Modern Family and Work It were both trying to be good when they were being conceived. And you can have a good show about two guys dressing up as women, there was that show Tit Pals. Actually wait – I think they ended up going with Bosom Buddies. The thing is there are just so many random factors you have no control over in the pilot process. Like what hit shows they’re trying to replicate, the whims of the execs, the politics and leverage between the studios and networks. And of course the biggest factor: casting. Like if instead of Ty Burrell Modern Family had cast one of the Menendez Brothers, there’s a possibility it might not have been such a big hit. And if instead of those two guys they had, Work It had cast both the Menendez Brothers, it might have been huge. Check that – it would have been huge.
And then there’s the all-important ‘testing’. It seems the testing results are more important than what the network, producing the show, thinks. The network could love a pilot but if it tests poorly, it’s dead. And I know of (the) pilots network execs didn’t even like and they get on (the air) because ‘they tested O.K.’ So if you write a pilot, know your fate is in the hands of a bunch of dial-turning humps in Burbank and Vegas. But hey, at least there is a proven, solid, direct correlation between good testing and success on the air… wait, hold on, what’s that? OK, I’m just getting word that there’s no connection whatsoever between good testing and success on the air.
HR: See, that’s all interesting stuff.
TH: I disagree.
HR: OK, OK. How about this – you write something about the future of sitcoms.
TH: Everybody already knows what the future of sitcoms is: If Obama wins, more single camera shows; if it’s Romney, back to multi-cam dominance. Duh.
HR: Come on, all they need is eight-hundred words.
TH: Eight-hundred? That’s a lot. If I wrote something, and I’m not saying I will, the most I think I could come up with would be seven hundred forty-six words. Actually, now that I think about it, I could probably come up with seven hundred sixty-two words. Maybe seven hundred sixty-six.