So you want to be a sitcom star |

So you want to be a sitcom star

Stewart Oksenhorn

Billy Crystal got his start on one. Bob Newhart had two of them that were all his own. Martin Mull’s been on a few of them. Last I heard, Bette Midler and Geena Davis had them, but that was a few weeks ago, and they may have been taken away from them by now. Michael Richards rose to fame on someone else’s and died on his own.Debi Gutierrez just got a deal for one. Bob Marley knows that most of them flat-out suck, but he wants one anyway. Alan Aymie wants one; Jim Gaffigan wants one. Sisters Jennifer and Stefanie Courtney want to get in one, preferably together.Harry Shearer would rather be tortured than have one or even watch one. I suppose I’d be in one if someone offered, but I can’t remember the last time I watched one.There are 100 young comedians gathered in Aspen at the moment for the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, and what every one of them wants more than anything – more than a weekend-long sex tryst, an oxygen tank, or a suite at the St. Regis next door to Bernie Brillstein – is a sitcom deal. Every one of the young comedians – the single mom, the single dad, the son of the professional bowler, the Chicago thug, the former Disney World “cast member,” the sisters transplanted from New York to Los Angeles – is certain that his or her schtick is the stuff of television genius. And what better way is there to transfer one’s character onto the TV screen than through the situation comedy?”In the world of comedy, it’s the most direct transition,” said Alan Aymie, a comic who has created the one-man show “Child’s Play” about his determination to be a devoted single father. “You look at the most successful sitcoms – `Rosanne,’ `Titus,’ `Everybody Loves Raymond’ – they came out of stand-up or one-man shows. There’s a direct transition from having a comic persona to doing a half-hour sitcom. It translates very easily, whereas a book would translate more easily to a movie, or a weekly series.”Given the money and publicity that come with a network sitcom deal, however, it seems to matter little how naturally a stand-up act translates into a sitcom. A comic would happily spend a year trying to squeeze an elephant’s tuchus through the eye of a needle for the kind of dollars and name recognition offered by the networks. To the young, rising – or even old, fading – comic, the sitcom is the golden ring.”Big bucks. Longevity. It’s just so lucrative,” said John Moffitt, executive producer of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, ticking off the benefits of a sitcom deal. “If you’re Drew Carey, you do stand-up and you’ve gone as far as you can go. Now, he’s parlayed his brand of comedy into a sitcom, and he’s beloved. The man is going to go away fixed for life.”Once you have a sitcom, you can move on to movies, or just fantastic bucks in Vegas or big arenas. It’s a no-brainer.”In the chase for the money and recognition, however, comedians and network executives alike often overlook little factors, like whether a certain act really will make for good weekly television. Most sitcom pilots never get turned into an actual series; most of those that do get a network slot disappear without registering a blip on the public consciousness. But the few that do succeed – “Seinfeld,” “Rosanne,” “Drew Carey” – rake in so much money that an unrealistic model has been forced into existence.”The way the business is now, it takes you in that direction,” said Bob Marley, who is featured as a stand-up act at this year’s USCAF. “But a guy who’s done stand-up for two or three years, I don’t think he’s ready to be in a show, and ready for a deal. Acting and stand-up are two different things.”Marley agrees that most sitcoms are putrid. “They suck because they’re not bringing something to the table that is strong and good and works. They’re doing it because they see other people are bringing in good ratings.”One thing that frequently is overlooked in the attempt to turn a stand-up act into a sitcom is the sanitizing effect of network television. In comedy clubs, raunch rules. On network television, cursing, direct sexual references and even everyday nastiness are frowned upon.”You go to a meeting and they try to mold you,” said Marley, who reads for numerous sitcom pilots. “They say, `Oh, you’re young and single. Good.’ And I say, no, I’m not.”Still, Marley continues to pursue his sitcom dreams.Harry Shearer, who has made only the very occasional guest appearance on sitcoms, has another take on the form: Artistically, sitcoms died years ago. But commercially, they remain sufficiently lucrative that all parties involved have kept hushed about the demise.”In 1982, everyone said it’s dead, it’s gone, it’s over,” said Shearer, a “Simpsons” cast member who wrote and directed the film “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” which has its world premiere at the USCAF. “And then it got another 20 years of life, thanks to `Cosby.'” Assuming Shearer’s calculations are correct, that extended life should be up next year. “I wouldn’t be counting on it as my career. Networks are realizing that the public interest in sitcoms is waning,” he added.What sitcoms suffer from most, said Shearer, is the effort to duplicate rather than create. “They all look the same,” he said. “Increasingly, people surf, and more and more rapidly. What stops you is when you see something different. People watch `Survivor’ because it looks different.”`The Simpsons’ looks different; it’s yellow. Sitcoms have been stuck looking the same for everyone who’s now walking the planet Earth. The jokes are the same. The characters have to be likable, by network decree. So the only way you can get laughs is by wisecracks. In the past, Bilko and Jack Benny got laughs by being scoundrels.”Marley agrees that the pile-on mentality is pervasive in the sitcom world. Among the many pilots he has read lately, he continually sees gay characters gratuitously inserted into the script.”They’re in there for no other reason than that `Will & Grace’ has been successful,” he said.Marley is intent on getting a sitcom deal because he believes he has something different to bring to the screen. A native of Maine, Marley moved to Los Angeles five years ago after getting a development deal from NBC. The deal went nowhere, largely because the character forced on him – a fish out of water from Maine, living in Los Angeles – was too thin and didn’t feel authentic.”On the inside I was thinking, that isn’t really me,” he said. “It was working, but I was thinking, if I’m going to be this character, I’m going to be doing a lot of acting. I knew it wouldn’t work. I wanted to develop a show and then go out on the road and be the same guy. It’s got to be real. It’s got to come from the heart.”Marley thinks he now knows enough about what doesn’t work that he can find a way to make a successful sitcom.”We all forget about the setting, what’s unique about the show,” he said. “Where are the obstacles? Where are the conflicts? What’s going to happen week to week?”There’s no voice. There’s no through-line. Tim Allen, Rosanne – they’re people who aren’t just funny. They developed a voice.”Not that it’s likely to happen, but probably the best thing for the sitcom would be its own death. That would allow a return to a time when stand-up comics wanted to be stand-up comics and didn’t have an eye focused on the TV screen. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most successful sitcom star of recent times, Jerry Seinfeld, is the one who lived to do stand-up, never wanted a sitcom in the first place and only went to television relatively late in his career.And Marley’s comic heroes – Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Bill Cosby – were from an older generation, where a stand-up routine was not seen as a springboard to television.”They were around before all this sitcom craze,” said Marley. “They were around when it was just about stand-up. They were out there every night, pouring out their heart and soul. They were true fans of the art form. And that’s what really makes a difference.”The minute you start pandering to everybody else’s needs, you’ve got nothing.”Return to The Aspen Times or Comments about this article? Send them to mail@aspentimes.comLooking for a particular article? Search our Daily ArchivesPosted: Friday, March 2, 2001

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