Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Cartoon sitcoms

I was lying on the sofa channel hopping at 11pm last night, as you do, when I found something odd. Family Guy was playing both on BBC Three and FX at the same time. They both had two episodes on in a row (although due to no ads, the BBC block was ten minutes' shorter than FX), both from around the same series.

(Nerdy Note: You can tell when it was made without Googling the episode title by the animation quality - worse on earlier ones, fantastic on newer ones with bits of 3D on vehicles, sets and the like... and also the occasional continuing story - ie Brian's girlfriend for a lot of eps later on. Also the newer eps tend to have the name of writer/producer Cherry Chevapravatdumrong
at the front and you can't help but notice that one. She's just down as staff writer on old ones.)

Quite odd, scheduling the same show at the same time, although it came in quite handy for me as I'd watched one ep on Three and the next one I'd iTuned and iPodded a few days ago, so I could switch to FX and watch another one.

I'm not going to say Family is better than The Simpsons but I have to say it's certainly now up there as one of my favourite sitcoms. The Big Three - Family, Simpsons, Park - have now all made hundreds of episodes over decades of production, and despite the occasional lull (or in Family's case, cancellation and re-commission) they've all maintained a very high quality over this period.

How come? It's so hard to make anything funny, why have these three shows produced more laugh-out-loud comedy than almost every other sitcom on TV put together?

Here we go - making this up as I go along, in true blog style, so here are my x number of reasons. I won't even edit the 'x' out...

Firstly and massively hugely importantly - they're all run by the same people who invented the show in the first place. Groening, MacFarlane and Parker & Stone. Their original vision is still in place, from tiny insert into The Tracy Ullman Show from Mr Groening to rude crude web Xmas card from Matt'n'Trey.

(Nerdy Note: 50% of the creators are called Matt. Discuss)

These four people are, not to put to fine a point on it, geniuses. Groening because he managed to get Fox to leave him alone in the first place, then moved from a kidsy Bart-focused comedy to a Homer-centric 300 cast-list strong comedy epic. Parker & Stone because they revel in being crude and rude and un-PC, and in Eric Cartman they've created the ultimate anti-hero for television. And MacFarlane, lastly, because his show is simply funny.

Yes, Family Guy doesn't push as many boundaries as South Park, but it's much edgier than The Simpsons. OK, Matt'n'Trey did a fantastic spoof of Family in their show, focusing mainly on the habit of a character saying "I haven't been this impressed / depressed / shocked since..." and cutting to a flashback scene, and how it was written by giant sea creatures knocking balls around in a tank (season 10, Cartoon Wars p1 and II) - but you know what? That habit of Family Guy is damn funny. It makes it more into a sketch show than a sitcom.

Family Guy really pushes some gags until they break. And then some. An ep I watched the other night had Peter trying to scoop a dead toad up in a box as it lay against a wall. He failed for at least a minute, it kept flopping out. And, unlike my description, it was very, very funny. Like when Peter fought with a giant chicken for no reason, right in the middle of an episode, then went back to the plot after.

This went on for FIVE AND A HALF MINUTES. Watch it here:

They do this kind of thing all the time - it's as if the freedom they have from (a) being successful; and (b) having a powerful man the network love as showrunner from the start means they ain't scared of anything.

In other reasons-why-it's-good, I'd have to cite the lovely animation (Youtube does it no favours above, but look at the 2D/3D mixes in the background), great voices and - so important here - fantastic score. I think in the latter it bests The Simpsons. Although the latter's musical spoofs are just incredible - watch the Sherry Bobbins one for a perfect pitch Disney pisstake.

Anyhow, raise a glass to the two Matts, Seth and Trey - here's to many more years of sitcom-making tomfoolery. The Matts have said they won't be making any more movies to concentrate on the show, as it's too hard to do both. I understand that, but South Park: The Movie and Team America are two of my favourite films (musicals in a way, hmm, I see a theme). I loved The Simpsons Movie as well, unlike most people who said it was just an extended episode. Well, it was in a way, in that it was longer therefore 'extended' over the telly. In other ways - the animation and plot being just two aspects - it was much more complicated.

The only bad thing I have to say about these three series is that they set the bar so high that the rest of us who work in telly and/or cartoons shy away from competing. There have been efforts but they've all been more niche-y, smaller concepts, piddling away round the edges.

And don't get me started on why we can't make something like these shows here.


Thursday, 15 January 2009

"Your eyes are bigger than your belly"

The title comes from something my Ma used to say to me when I'd ask for seconds of dinner then leave some of it on the plate. An old Geordie expression, no doubt, which I use in a more general sense when people's ambitions don't quite match their... er, um... I was going to say 'talent' but it's not quite the right word. When ambitions don't match reality perhaps?

I was thinking of this when reading about how Richard and Judy, morning titans and ratings' winners for many years on ITV, then successful in the afternoons on C4, are now watched by an average of 44,000 people on the stupidly-named channel 'Watch'.

(SLIGHT SIDEBAR - I mean, come on. Watch. Who thought of that? Bet he or she had a stupid name too, like Tarquil, Doodah or Ampersand. Whereas Dave is a good channel name, Watch is just idiotic. Probably repeating myself but Dave is similar to something in the US. Over there, yer Americans have two radio formats known as Jack and Jill, one more blokey, one more girly. You often hear "You're listening to KYFC, Jack 99.4 FM" or the like - it's well-known. So Dave was 'inspired' (ahem) from that. I should imagine. Don't sue me Mr UKTV bigwig. Anyway, Watch is still a rubbish channel name. Do they say "You're watching Watch" at any point? I don't suppose you, me or the 99.99% of the population who don't watch Watch would know. Rant over. Breathe.)

Back to R&J. So their eyes were bigger than their belly. They wanted primetime. They wanted, in effect, to lead a channel. More money was probably on offer too, and Paul O'Grady and Deal or no Deal were doing better for C4, so they maybe had little choice.

But their brand of television shouts daytime. Sofas, chat, small scale, no audience, etc. It was never really going to work at 8pm, was it? I suppose the high-ups at Watch thought the next afternoon repeats might do OK too, but I assume they're not. Slightly-warmed-up-last-night's-topical-telly wouldn't be top of my list of viewing.

So they were moved to 6pm but it hasn't helped the ratings. Expect them to leave amicably before their contract is up. A deal signed before the current downturn is probably cheaper to buy out than cruddy ratings day after day.

This happens all the time in tv. I worked with a really great presenter. He was clever and great on screen, popular with the audience of the show he presented, the people he worked with AND the channel the show was on (all three is very rare), and moving on up the food chain of the television world.

Series 1 of this show had been a minor hit, series 2 had done incredibly well, in the channel's top ten most weeks, rating much better than the low budget and pre-primetime slot should've got for them. So big cheers all round, here's to series 3!

Er, no. He refused to present it, as it was sponsored by a company he didn't like. He also wanted lots of other things too, feeling - quite rightly in some ways - he was a big part of the show's success and he'd been underpaid and overworked for two series, and that the show wouldn't work without him.

He was unceremoniously replaced. And you know what? The show didn't work as well without him, as the new presenter was an actor who knew nothing about the subject matter. I was a producer on this series, and spent aeons with this guy (a really lovely talented bloke who is now a big proper actor in primetime dramas) coaching him, scripting almost everything and preparing him, only for my boss to rip them all up the day before shooting and tell him to 'wing it'. Sigh.

Anyway, this show was a bit of a disaster. The content was better than ever, but the lack of the naughty humour of the previous presenter really showed. And it looked cheaper, a mixture of a crap location and hurried filming. The content was great though and the ratings held up OK until the format was revised yet again halfway through, into what became such a disaster lawsuits by people on the show were filed at the end.

Series 4, funnily enough, saw the return of the previous presenter. And it was great... but, it's funny, the time had somehow passed and it just seemed a bit 'been there, done that'. Ratings dipped, the content was weaker and the ladsy gags got grating, and the series slipped away almost unnoticed a few series later.

That's usually the way a show dies in telly but it's odd, that third series could've been a blockbuster, lifting the show into primetime, bigger budgets, greater ambitions and a much higher profile. But the presenter's eyes were bigger than his belly.

No-one ever seems to learn lesson one of appearing on telly - you're famous for Being On That Show On That Channel At That Time, not for being fabulous or funny or brilliant or beautiful. Be like Ken Barlow, stick around for ever and the public love you.

Don't go to a small channel from a big one, even if the money or hours are much better. Eamonn Holmes is watched by 10,000 people on Sky News in the morning, compared to a few million in his heyday on GMTV. It's a fact that 98% of the people staring at the ever-expanding Mr Holmes are in gyms panting on treadmills listening to their iPods, not his lilting Irish brogue.

And don't leave daytime telly - if you're good there, you can do it until you drop. Primetime is unforgiving, people get bored quicker; both the viewers and the commissioners.

The sad thing for Richard and Judy is they did all three.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Telly Twenty Oh Nine

It's annoying being nine years into a decade that doesn't have a name. The 'Noughties' never took off. The next one is the same - someone suggested the Teens but that won't include 2010, 2011 or 2012.


Anyhow, television. It's always a bit quiet in Jan when it comes to tvland, but it's worse this year due to the entire crux of capitalist society collapsing. My little company is as badly affected as most, with commissions thin on the ground and what is there being cut back to the bone.

The one fact most people agree with is that tv viewing goes up in recessions. Makes sense - more people can't afford to go out so they slump on the sofa and watch the box. But it's not quite that simple - subscription tv does well too, as people are willing to pay more money if they're around at home and think it's good value.

The trouble is the advertisers have run away like a bunch of scaredy cats. On fire. In a war. On the Moon. So there's little money around, even less for C4, Five and smaller Sky-type channels, as with budgets plummetting, the remaining advertisers can get afford time on ITV1, which still delivers the best bang for your buck.

With the public service broadcasting review from Ofcom investigating the sorry state of serious telly in the UK adding to the confusion in the industry, it's not a nice time in tv. A senior broadcaster - a man who NEVER swears - said television "is in the shit".

It's not just the current problems, it's that no-one can see a sustainable business model for telly in the UK in five years' time. Sky should be OK (can I bet on Sky1 just showing The Simpsons every half hour by 2014?), the BBC probably fine-ish (less original programming, more repeats), ITV... well, totally buggered probably, more cheapo quizzes replacing expensive dramas, C4... er, maybe worse; wall-to-wall pop factual or reality, no comedy or drama, Five... um, part of Sky?

Not a nice thought. It must be hard to, say, be someone working for Five and knowing that if you showed 4 eps of CSi every night instead of the current 2, replacing original, home-grown programming with an import, you'd (a) save money; and (b) almost certainly increase ratings.

In the current economic climate, the cheapest option will win every time, as it has in other sectors. That's not The IT Crowd, Doctor Who or even I'm a Celebrity (£1m an ep apparently - I'm sure it's profitable but that's a HUGE cost) - cheapest = Masterchef, Mastermind and something else with master in the title. They're good shows but cheap as chips.