What TBS’s New Strategy Can Tell Us About the State of the TV Comedy

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When the TBS comedy Angie Tribeca premiered in January, the network ran a daylong “binge-a-thon,” airing all ten episodes of the first season in a row, for 25 hours straight. Created by Steve Carell and Nancy Walls Carell, Angie Tribeca is an unabashedly goofy police-procedural spoof starring Rashida Jones. Blink and you’ll miss at least four sight gags; look down at your phone for a moment and you’ll miss one of the countless guest stars who appear in every episode.

The show, which premiered its second season last week, is a gamble for a network people likely associate more with baseball games and The Big Bang Theory reruns than original comedy, let alone something as offbeat as Angie Tribeca. But as the first in a new wave of original comedies — including Tribeca, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Detour, and Wrecked, which premiered on Tuesday — the series is a big part of TBS’s push toward establishing itself as a cable destination for comedy lovers, the live marathon an indication of the network’s desire to go big.

“For so many years we had been about broadcast replacement programming,” says Brett Weitz, the executive vice president for original programming for TBS. “All of a sudden, as we looked into the crystal ball, we realized everyone’s starting to make a move towards cable and here we were sitting in cable, not owning that.”

It’s no secret that the broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, the CW, and Fox — are struggling to attract viewers in the age of streaming, DVR, and online video. Gone are the days when NBC had over a dozen multi-camera sitcoms on the air at the same time; now, according to Ad Age , only 36 percent of new scripted series slated to air next season on broadcast networks are comedies. Four years ago, that number was closer to 50 percent.

As the television landscape continues to shift under our feet and new platforms emerge like whack-a-moles, neither cable nor broadcast channels can afford to coast by on the same model that kept them afloat ten or 15 years ago. TBS’s rebranding efforts don’t just speak to the channel’s desire to stay relevant. They’re symptomatic of a generational shift in comedy on TV.

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If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you probably remember the yellow block lettering of the TBS logo in the mid-90s, when the channel seemed to air Seinfeld reruns every other hour. In 2004, TBS switched it up again, with a bubbly new logo and tagline — “Very funny” — that emphasized its comedy leanings. (It also started running heavily edited Sex and the City reruns right around the time I first got a TV in my bedroom; thanks, TBS!)

In 2015, Kevin Reilly — a veteran TV exec who’s held top positions FX and NBC — left his position as Fox’s chairman of entertainment for Turner, the conglomerate that owns TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, and CNN, among other stations. A few months later, Reilly, who had resurfaced as the new president of TBS and TNT, announced those networks’ intentions to double the number of original series in the following three years, declaring a revolution in scripted comedy at TBS. He pledged to supplement TNT and TBS’s budget by $1 billion and reduce ad loads across the channels’ original series by 50 percent. Describing the move as a “proactive makeover,” he promised to “sharpen the point of view and be even more adventurous in our programming choices.”

That sense of adventure is noticeable in TBS’s new comedy slate. The Detour , which finished a hilarious first season a few weeks ago, is a family comedy set on a road trip; Angie Tribeca weaves complicated plots through a minefield of sight gags, silly names, and puns piled high; Full Frontal is the sharpest late-night show on the air, and the most relentless in its critique of the election campaign; and Wrecked, shot in Puerto Rico, is literally set on a remote desert island. All three scripted comedies have a polished, cinematic look, far from the flat lighting and fixed living-room set of traditional network sitcoms.

Jason Jones stars in ‘The Detour’

Weitz describes TBS’s role in developing these shows as “the bumper on the bowling alley.” The Detour came about after Thom Hinkle, TBS’s senior vice president for original programming, who had worked on The Daily Show, suggested reaching out to Jason Jones. Jones pitched an idea based on the vacations he takes with his wife, Samantha Bee, and their two young children, and the couple wrote the pilot together. (The conversation that led to Full Frontal began while Jones and Bee were shooting the pilot in Wilmington, North Carolina.) According to Weitz, before the show premiered, Jones told him, “’If this doesn’t work, I think I’ll leave the business. Because I’ve put everything into this.’”

Ira Ungerleider, Angie Tribeca’s showrunner, describes that show as Steve Carrel and Nancy Walls Carrel’s “baby,” and says the couple is involved in “every script, every cut.” A longtime network TV producer — he wrote for early seasons of Friends and created the late-’90s sitcom Jesse, starring Christina Applegate — Ungerleider calls his experience working with executives at TBS “the photo-negative of doing a network sitcom.” Describing a scene from the second episode in which a dog trainer has an apartment full of humans acting like dogs, Ungerleider marvels at the sheer absurdity of the idea — and that TBS never asks him to “rein it in.”

“TBS has been encouraging us to be different,” Ungerleider says. “Where on a network sitcom you might get the note to make it brighter and more colorful, or more familiar, we don’t get any of that. It’s basically as stylized as we want to make it.”

Season 2 of ‘Angie Tribeca’

Wrecked is another highly stylized show, an ensemble comedy about a plane crash created by two brothers who grew up worshipping Lost. At 27 and 25, Justin and Jordan Shipley are by far the youngest creators of the new slate of TBS comedies; they wrote the pilot for Wrecked as a writing sample. Their manager, Jesse Hara, who’s also a producer on Wrecked, sent the script to TBS in early 2014 to try to get the brothers jobs on the writing staff of Angie Tribeca. “He told us to write something unproduce-able,” Justin says. “So we wrote this, and it immediately got produced.”

To say the Shipleys are green is an understatement — the Kansas-born siblings moved to Los Angeles just three and a half years ago — but the execs at TBS took the brothers under their wing. “They wrote a really great script,” Weitz says. After some back and forth with Hara, he called the two in for a meeting. “In come these kids from Kansas,” Weitz recalls. “They were the sweetest, most articulate guys. They sent us a rewrite, we fell in love with it, we gave them $3 million to go make a pilot. They had barely any representation, and the next thing you know they’re represented by the best law firm in L.A., CAA, a great manager, we were flying them to an upfront on a G5. We’re going over Kansas and I said, ‘Guys, we’re passing Kansas!’ They literally looked down like, ‘We’ll never be back!’”

It’s not a coincidence that TBS got into business with two twentysomethings right around the time the network began to develop a new comedic sensibility. On Monday, Turner announced a partnership with the social publishing platform Wattpad, a company that skews young. TBS is aiming for the all-important millennial demographic — and what Weitz calls the “millennial-minded” — and the surreal, offbeat sensibility of its new comedies is an attempt to wrangle a generation of viewers who grew up saturated with TV and online video.

“I’m the biggest Lost nerd of all time,” Justin Shipley says. Wrecked grew out of the brothers’ joking about the uber-capable cast of Lost — and the 30-odd extras in the background who never seemed all that vital to the island’s operations. “We quickly realized that would be us,” Justin says. “We would die almost immediately.” Jordan adds, “We’re the people in the background, who missed the big meeting because we were taking a shit in the woods. What’s the plan? What’s happening? How are we eating?”

Justin Shipley on the set of ‘Wrecked’ with Brian Sacca and Zach Cregger

In addition to Lost, the brothers also name-check Edgar Wright as an influence. “We’re really drawn to anything that sort of injects comedy into genre, any sort of combination of comedy with action or horror,” Justin says. In fact, all of TBS’s new scripted comedies play with genre: Angie Tribeca spoofs both network procedurals like Law & Order and “prestige” cable series like True Detective and Fargo, while The Detour is a family sitcom that’s crossed over to the dark side — its opening credits begin with bright, peppy theme music that quickly degenerates into a sonic mess, like a cassette tape that’s unspooled in the middle of a song.

Ungerleider notes that TV has become a common language, even if you only consume it. “It’s your vocabulary now — Bachelor, Game of Thrones, Fargo, True Detective — you speak in terms of what we’re all watching together, even though we’re all watching at different times and on different devices. TV itself has sort of become a thing to be satirized: the long, confusing, serialized binge-watch, the moody, sometimes inscrutable psychological stuff where you’ll watch a whole season be like, ‘What happened?’”

As original series multiply to an exponential degree and TV moves further away from a fixed schedule, networks and creators need to work to make sure their series is not lost in the shuffle — that it’s not just another piece of “content” floating online but a communal experience. During the Angie Tribeca marathon, TBS invited viewers to phone in and ask questions to the cast and crew. Weitz says the vast majority of those calls came from viewers aged between 12 and 20, a demographic for which picking up a phone and dialing into a TV network is foreign to the point of novelty. “And these aren’t kids that saw Airplane or the Naked Gun movies,” Weitz adds, referencing two of Angie Tribeca’s most noticeable influences. “These are kids that grew up on Anchorman.”

“I think TBS has transformed itself into a place that is interesting and weird and different,” Ungerleider says. “That gets a more specific, maybe smaller [group of] viewers, but a more focused, rabid audience that you can really count on, and that helps build your brand.” He pauses. “I don’t know why I’m talking so much about branding — I’m a comedy writer.”

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In television, creative decisions are almost always intertwined with business decisions; many early TV programs were comedy-variety shows with names like Texaco Star Theater (1948-1956) and The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-1955). TBS’s push toward original comedy programming isn’t just an effort to attract millennial-minded viewers but a long-term survival tactic.

The explosion of boutique cable channels and digital-only original content has splintered the TV viewership, making it more difficult for a new comedy to reach the 100-epsiode mark, the traditional threshold at which a show becomes eligible for syndication. If TV continues to move away from the traditional broadcast structure, TBS’s old model of subsisting on acquisitions like The Big Bang Theory and tossing the odd original comedy into the works to beef up its offerings can’t sustain itself for very long — particularly if viewers are more likely to watch reruns on Netflix or Hulu than on TBS.

But in many ways, the proliferation of streaming services and cable channels has benefited comedy creators and lovers alike. “For the last 15, 16 years we’ve seen cable and streaming build up slowly year after year, and the content has gotten so interesting, especially in comedy,” Ungerleider notes. “You can do weird comedies and out-there comedies and fringe comedies and surreal comedies. For a lot of comedy writers, myself included, it is such a boon for the creative mind to be able to do some of the weirder stuff.”

I spoke to them separately, but both Weitz and Ungerleider referenced AMC when asked about the changes at TBS. When Mad Men premiered in 2007, a channel that had been known for airing classic American films became a destination for quality drama on par with Showtime and HBO. Ungerleider points out that “cable networks and streaming services have made their mark by being purposefully the opposite of a network show. Mad Men makes no sense on a network — it’s too expensive, it’s period, it’s slow, it’s character-y. I think the key to branding yourself as a cable network is to be out there, to be doing what you can’t do on the major networks.”

TBS’s new mandate — “Be different, be weird,” as Ungerleider puts it — isn’t just a millennial battle cry. While comedy creators like John Mulaney and Jerrod Carmichael bank on viewers’ nostalgia for the glory days of multi-camera sitcoms, TBS’s strategy to move even farther away from the hallmarks of the Must-See-TV era points toward a larger shift in television creation and consumption. The network’s situation — a destination for reruns suddenly realizing it has the capacity and motivation to venture into bold, creator-driven original programming — sounds a lot like Netflix circa 2013, when the streaming giant premiered House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.

Yes, it’s been just three whirlwind years since Netflix entered the original content game, and just one since it released its first comedy series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Like many of Netflix’s comedies — Lady Dynamite, W/Bob & David — the new TBS shows feel designed for the short-term. In contrast, a traditional network sitcom is built to last, with the same familiar characters sitting in the same familiar living room week in, week out.

But that model doesn’t only no longer reflect TV viewers’ habits — it doesn’t reflect the world that today’s millennials have grown into. I don’t know anyone in their 20s or 30s who assumes she’ll have the same job for the majority of her career, or even the same career for the majority of her life; at 28, I have very few friends who are married, and even fewer who have children. It doesn’t make sense to cater to this generation with another round of sitcoms that revolve around a stable, unchanging nuclear family or family of friends, like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory.

For me, this is bittersweet. Like Ungerleider, I’m happy to have the option to watch weirder, less broad comedies on TV rather than the same bland network fare every weekday. But I also miss the stability of a fixed TV schedule, particularly now that I’m out of school and on a regular working person’s schedule — now that there’s not much of a difference between September and July. In a way, the traditional network sitcom is threatening to disappear just when my generation needs it the most.