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C21 DIGITAL SCREENINGS

Theme Festival - Sitcoms

About this Festival

Sitcoms have been one of the most effective replacement genres for channels looking to refresh schedules as new programming fails to arrive. We take a look at what’s on offer from the world’s leading suppliers.



Programming Profile

Funny business

Comedy is a serious business when you consider how lucrative a hit sitcom can be. Nico Franks explores how to make a sitcom work and what challenges the genre faces.  

Without question, a hit sitcom is television’s golden goose. And the pandemic has only strengthened the position of the much-loved sitcom, with broadcasters using it as a balm to comfort their stressed-out viewers at a time of crisis.

 

But for every show like Friends or Seinfeld that’s able to command multimillion-dollar fees from an SVoD platform for episodes that everyone has seen a gazillion times already, there are countless turkeys.

 

Stath Lets Flats
Stath Lets Flats

Ash Atalla, who has something of a Midas touch when it comes to sitcoms, having brought shows such as The Office, The IT Crowd, People Just Do Nothing and, most recently, Bafta-nominated Stath Lets Flats to screen, sums up the struggle the genre faces.

 

“People will recommend The Wire and say it gets going around episode seven. Yet people will watch the first couple of minutes of a comedy and say they hated it. That’s just how it is,” says Atalla, MD of Roughcut TV.

 

Nevertheless, there’s a received wisdom emerging in TV that the world is in need of a laugh, which could herald a shift away from the dark high-end dramas that have defined the past decade towards all together funnier fare.

 

Jon Thoday, co-executive chairman of comedy specialist Avalon, says one of the main things occupying him during lockdown has been his mission to change the fortunes of the “under-developed and under-produced” studio sitcom.

 

“Comedy is at its best when it entertains a significantly large audience. A lot of single-camera sitcoms are great, incredibly well-received critically and also loved by lots of people. But not by significantly big audiences,” says Thoday.

 

Not Going Out
Not Going Out

Avalon is behind BBC1 studio sitcom Not Going Out, the longest-running sitcom currently on air in the UK and nearing its 100th episode, and Thoday says he is in discussions with the UK pubcaster about developing more studio sitcoms.

“My hope is that one of the things that may come out of the pandemic is that people will be looking for something that is lighter and there’ll be a move towards more out-and-out comedy,” says Thoday.

 

“There is definitely demand for lighter, more upbeat programming,” believes Sarah Tong, director of sales at Hat Trick International (HTI), which shops shows such as Derry Girls, Worst Week of My Life and Kate & Koji, which launched as the UK entered lockdown in March.

 

“The comedy archive has never been more important. It’s a genre where you know the value is there. Really good comedy is evergreen. In a world of iPlayer and box sets, comedy has shown its worth massively,” adds Shane Allen, controller of comedy at UK pubcaster the BBC.

 

Kate & Koji
Kate & Koji

As a result, distributors are making the best of a difficult situation by shopping – or more accurately, re-licensing – a lot of their sitcoms to buyers looking to give their audiences something to smile about.

 

The old adage that comedy doesn’t travel has been challenged in recent years, with comedies from one country gaining more traction in other territories, usually via streaming services. However, Tong says the genre remains a harder sell compared with drama.

 

“Comedy is really hard; without doubt it’s the hardest genre to sell, and I sell all genres. We all have such different comedic tastes. There are some territories, like Benelux, where they’ve got a similar sense of humour to the UK, so a lot of our shows work well there. But in territories like Asia, it just doesn’t translate,” says Tong.

 

One-and-done deals with the likes of Netflix can therefore appeal, with HTI selling Derry Girls – the Channel 4 show about a group of young people navigating their teens in the Northern Irish city in the early 1990s – to the streamer globally.

 

HTI made further in-roads into international comedy after acquiring distribution rights to off-beat show Magnus, originally produced by Viafilm for Norwegian pubcaster NRK.

 

Created by Vidar Magnussen (Side by Side), it follows an idiotic but brilliant former detective who tries to solve a murder rooted in Norse mythology. Two versions of the series were shot, one in Norwegian and the other in English, and HTI sold a dubbed version to M6- and TF1-owned French network Serieclub last year.

 

But how will the pandemic impact the comedies of the future? The business seems torn over how much it wants to engage with coronavirus, with most comedy execs interviewed for this piece turning their noses up at the idea.

 

“We’re commissioning with the future in mind. I don’t want to do things that feel very much of a moment and are quite disposable, because comedy is expensive and not everything works. I want shows that we’ll be able to play in five years’ time that can be of great value to the BBC,” says Allen.

 

“Will Covid-19 affect what we commission? I think in the next year we’re probably not looking for things that are set in an affluent, high-end world. You want things that feel more real and people can identify with. But this isn’t a massive gear shift.”

 

Atalla is similarly wary of focusing on the pandemic itself as a source of comedy, preferring to leave it to the comedians who are reacting to the situation day-to-day on social media with short, rough-and-ready sketches and skits.

 

“I don’t want to develop pandemic shows; I can’t think of anything worse. It may well look very dated by the time it comes on or it may be a global hit, but it’s certainly not something I’ll be investing my time in. The worlds of scripted comedy and drama are very slow moving. We are slow tankers and there’s a danger in over-committing to something.

 

“The better question is how much do we reflect Covid-19 in the shows we are already developing? And that’s a little more nuanced, because it’s very possible you’ll look quite tone deaf if you don’t. We’re working with Sky on a show called Bloods set in the world of paramedics, so it would be remiss of us to not at least reflect that something happened. But it’s something we’ll decide when we come to film,” says Atalla.

 

Others may be opposed to using the pandemic as a premise on the grounds that so many people have suffered huge tragedies as a result of it. But Tong points to Dad’s Army and M.A.S.H, which both revolve around wars that cost countless lives yet remain enduringly popular, as proof that audiences are open to embracing comedies set during dire times.

 

“I’m sure there are some fantastic writers who will be able to find the humour in it and make us all laugh,” says Tong.

 

The pandemic is also having an impact on how sitcoms are being made right now, with many shows having to shut down production in recent months and some hitting upon innovative ways to make new episodes or shows under lockdown.

 

Many of these have engaged head-on with the realities of life during a pandemic. For example, Spanish broadcaster RTVE and producer Morena Films’ Diarios de la Cuarentena (Quarantine Diaries), where each 30-minute episode follows the confinement of 10 households, was declared the world’s first lockdown sitcom and has been picked up for local remakes in France and Mexico.

 

Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet

Apple TV+, meanwhile, got in on the act with a special quarantine episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet in May. Its co-creator, Rob McElhenney – who is also behind the longest-running live-action comedy series in US television history with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia – says it took three weeks to make from conception to delivery.

 

Speaking at the virtual edition of SeriesFest in June, McElhenney explained how the Lionsgate, 3 Arts Entertainment and Ubisoft production was shot on 30 iPhones (this is an Apple production, after all), with cast and crew working remotely in multiple locations across the country.

 

“When you have the full weight and force of the biggest company in the history of the world, it’s very helpful when it comes to getting stuff done. We wanted to bring 25 minutes of levity to people and make them feel less alone and leave them feeling optimistic about the future,” says the actor, writer, director and producer.

 

Elsewhere, while the majority of live-action production was on hold around the world, animation production was still able to be completed remotely, which resulted in animated episodes of previously live-action series getting the green light.

 

Bento Box Entertainment in the US is one animation company that’s been going full tilt during the pandemic – so much so that it brought more than 100 people onboard between its studios in Atlanta and LA, according to co-founder and CEO Scott Greenberg.

 

Bob's Burgers
Bob’s Burgers

As well as its current series for its owner, Fox Entertainment, and others such as Rooster Teeth, Apple TV+, HBO Max and Netflix, the Bob’s Burgers producer is also set to animate a live-action series that has had to shut down production.

 

“There is one but I can’t say what it is yet. It’s hard to shoot live-action dramas right now, so we’re leveraging our tools to help them,” says Greenberg.

 

This comes after ViacomCBS-owned US cablenet Pop TV ordered an animated special of Norman Lear’s former Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time after Covid-19 forced the show to suspend production.

 

This coincides with what Greenberg calls the “renaissance” of the animated sitcom, driven in large part by the interest of the streamers in creating long-running hits to rival stalwarts like The Simpsons, something he believes the pandemic will “accelerate.”

 

Netflix, which appointed former Sony Pictures Animation exec Mike Moon as its LA-based head of adult animation in 2018, has leaned heavily into the genre as part of its originals push, with shows such as BoJack Horseman, Disenchantment and Big Mouth.

 

There’s been a subsequent boom in demand for animated content aimed at adults that is now growing outside the US. At the beginning of this year, Netflix appointed Julio Bonet as its first UK-based executive to commission adult-skewing animation from non-US producers, as revealed by C21.

 

“Everybody sees the value of what those shows do, particularly on streaming,” says Greenberg, who adds the firm is on the hunt in Australia and Europe for local creators to work with, after years of US dominance in the field.

 

“It’s going to change over the next couple of years. We are actively talking to creators and writers and comedians in the UK, Europe and Australia,” says Greenberg.

 

The firm signed a first-look animation development deal with Australian prodco Princess Pictures earlier this year, with all projects to be produced in Australia with local talent and crew.

 

BlackAF
#blackAF

As well as sitcoms made with animation studios, Netflix has also been commissioning plenty of its own live-action sitcoms, from #blackAF – recently renewed for a second season – to the big-budget but critically maligned workplace comedy Space Force.

 

While it’s originals from streamers like Netflix that tend to dominate the headlines and awards shows, the reality is that their most viewed programmes are the comedy shows they acquire – hence the huge bidding wars for shows such as Friends, The Office (US) and Seinfeld.

 

But if the pandemic has highlighted the long-term value of a successful sitcom, then the continued protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have demonstrated how problematic shows from decades past can be.

 

As Donald Taffner Jr, president DLT Entertainment, writes here, what was once considered boundary-pushing and edgy can now be seen as inappropriate and offensive.

 

Atalla believes the re-appraisal of comedies such as Little Britain, which was made in the 2000s and removed from the BBC’s iPlayer, Netflix and BritBox in May over its use of blackface, is justified when the intent and context don’t match up.

 

“These shows are in our recent history. There were very, very few complaints when Little Britain aired. But history is full of moments of realisation, when you see things differently to how you saw them even the week before,” Atalla says.

 

“The BBC is right to react to that and it’s the right thing to do. Blackface wasn’t OK when Little Britain was made. What people in my business have said is that you can cross various lines if it’s funny. You run into issues when something is both offensive and not funny.”

 

McElhenney’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – a show which relishes in making its lead characters do and say unspeakable things – also had an episode from 2010 pulled by Netflix for featuring a character in blackface.

 

Discussing the subject at SeriesFest in June, McElhenney said: “We’ve always endeavoured to swim in difficult waters and grapple with really difficult subject matter, especially in a comedy. When we look back, we always try to recognise what was our intent and what was the context, because those are really important.

 

“Where we’ve made mistakes, we recognise that it was mostly likely because we were ignorant and cavalierly just pressed forward, and there’s no excuse for that. We try not to apologise for anything we’ve done in the past as we feel as though our heart was in the right place.

 

“Our intent is always to make sure we’re right on the edge of what is being presented anywhere else on TV, so we’re going to step in it from time to time.”

 

Meanwhile, Thoday says the “completely brilliant” Black Lives Matter movement has the potential to change things more than any other campaign before it.

 

“The implications with regards to comedy are de minimis [minimal] to it. The actual movement is far more important. I really hope it’s not a moment people forget about,” says Thoday.

 

Avalon has made critically adored shows such as Catastrophe and Breeders with US partners, but Thoday doesn’t think the international copro model is aligned with breaking through new talent in scripted comedy.

 

Part of the reason studio sitcoms have fallen out of favour, Thoday believes, is because the world of TV comedy has gone in the direction of drama, where international coproductions have become the norm.

 

“It’s great to be able to have US money in UK shows. That said, in a way the fewer funders you need for a show, the more creative you can be. It’s the funding model that concerns me most for British sitcoms rather than the virus,” says Thoday.

 

This poses a challenge for new talent to break through, adds the UK comedy veteran. “The chances of being able to piece together a number of different buyers with new talent are quite slim. Unless you start associating well-known elements but that means it’s harder for the new voice to flourish. There is a problem in the funding model in the UK with respect to surprise hits,” adds Thoday.

 

Meanwhile, the challenging but potentially hugely lucrative deals to get sitcoms remade internationally could be in decline as streamers make the originals much more accessible to audiences, which can spoil a buyer’s appetites to remake them.

 

Atalla believes this might be the case, as UK originals fast-tracked their way stateside on streaming platforms. HBO Max was one of many US buyers stocking up on British comedies, including Roughcut TV’s Stath Lets Flats. A US remake of the latter is on the cards, he adds, “but it’s not the straightforward sell it used to be.”

 

Episodes
Episodes

HTI made comedy out of the messy process of remaking sitcoms in the US with its meta BBC2/Showtime coproduction Episodes. And Tong says demand for remakes remains intact, with an international version of The Worst Week of My Life, which ended its run on the BBC almost 15 years ago, set to be announced soon.

 

The TV’s industry’s golden goose strikes again.

 

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