The Canadian comedy showrunner survey

From Playback magazine: Taking Canada's TV comedy pulse with some of today's top showrunners.
Seed - L to R: Harland Williams as Sheldon, Jay Malone as Ryan

This article originally appeared in Playback‘s Winter 2014 issue

When sitcoms work, they can be a goldmine. Reruns! Simulcast! Worldwide sales! (And hey, maybe a future feature film.)

Finding that nugget of sweet success though, is no laughing matter.

Looking at last year’s crop of Canadian comedy, it’s easy to get disheartened. NBC-Global TV copro Working the Engels lasted but one season. City’s Seed only lasted two episodes on U.S. net The CW, ending its run on both sides of the border. Season 3 of City’s Package Deal looks unlikely. Call Me Fitz and Less Than Kind have both wrapped after four-season runs.

But step back and the picture brightens: CBC’s upcoming Schitt’s Creek landed a U.S. broadcaster (CBS specialty Pop) and its Mr. D will kick off its first coproduced season with City midseason. Also ahead on City will be SEVEN24 Films and Accent Entertainment’s Young Drunk Punk and Counterfeit Pictures and Buffalo Gal Pictures’ Sunnyside. Spun Out will be back (narrowly). Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys both hit the big screen.

So how does one win with comedy? In the U.S., it’s a numbers game. Nets develop and commission dozens of pilots every year in the hopes that one Modern Family emerges. In Canada, where budgets are tighter and capacity for risk lower, all the comedy eggs tend to go in one or two baskets.

Working the Engels exec producer Noreen Halpern, president, Halfire Entertainment, says that although she’s found broadcasters risk-averse regarding comedies, she senses a shifting attitude toward quality over quantity, which is good news for producers. Still, Project 10 partner Andrew Barnsley says, even with a greenlight, ancillary revenue opportunities are another obstacle.

“One of the problems we still hear from distributors [and] international partners is that comedy doesn’t travel. That’s really tricky when the rest of the television industry has shifted to a more global and international model,” he notes.

There’s no easy answer to increasing the success rate for comedies, Canadian or not. But we’re giving it a shot anyway. In the pages ahead is a panel of Canada’s top comedy showrunners, weighing in on what’s working for the genre, what’s not and what’s ahead.

Why haven’t we had any breakout comedic successes over the past few years?

Paul Mather (Men with Brooms): Most things don’t work. If we did more things, we’d have more that worked. I’m not convinced our strikeout rate is worse than anybody else’s. By contrast we seem to be doing well with hour-longs right now – I think that’s because they sell better internationally, so there’s more of an incentive for the broadcaster to really buy in and more time for a show to find legs.

Brent Piaskoski (Spun Out): Comedy is just really hard. In Canada even though we have great comic actors from Second City, stand-up and sketch, it’s not always an easy transition into a sitcom. I don’t want to be as bold to say that comedy is harder to write. However, a comedy will get judged harder because you are trying to be funny every few lines. If you’re not, it shows. The main reason is we still just don’t do enough comedies.

Sheri Elwood (Call Me Fitz): I guess this depends on your notion of breakout success. There have been a few great examples of Canadian comedies travelling internationally, making a profit and garnering critical acclaim. Slings and Arrows. Trailer Park Boys. Less Than Kind. Call Me Fitz… I think one reason we don’t make as much of a splash in the U.S. or U.K. has to do with the fact that Americans make great comedic products on their own, as do the Brits. They simply don’t need us as much as we need them. And because of our subsidized financing, there is no real financial incentive to acquire our ready-produced shows because back-end participation is limited.

Should we continue to invest in multi-cams in Canada?

Andrew Orenstein (Package Deal): Of course. Partly because I have a multi-camera show, but also I think it is a terrific medium that’s under-used in Canada. Some of the best and most-watched shows are multi-camera, but for some reason Canada doesn’t have a deep history of doing them. I think they make a lot of sense financially – standing sets used over time are more cost effective than filming outside in the snow – but also creatively. When sitcoms work, there’s nothing better.

Mather: I think it’s a mistake to write off any genre. In fact, multi-cams make a lot of sense in Canada – I’m not a line producer but shooting a show in one night should be cheaper than employing a crew for five days to shoot the same half-hour. If a Canadian network had more than one multi-cam, they could use the same crew on each and save even more money, but now we’re into science fiction.

Jeff Biederman (Spun Out): Of course. Multicams can be cost effective and profitable and a great outlet and experience for comedic writers, directors and performers in this country. And you can and should be shooting them year-round, regardless of weather.

Elwood: At risk of being slaughtered with a rubber chicken…my gut says no. With only so many dollars, we need to stick to what we do well, or have the potential to do well – take risks and avoid perceived copycat syndrome. Truth: a few shows are forging ground here, but it’s a tough slog…there’s simply a too dense multi-cam tradition in the U.S. to compete, plus they’ve stolen much of our talent.

How much retooling did your last show have to go through in order to make it on air?

Brent Butt (Corner Gas): [On Hiccups] the network pretty much bought the creative as a whole, but wanted a casting change. I had cast someone else in the male lead, but they wanted it to be me. That was a deal breaker for them.

Mather: [On] Dan for Mayor we were pretty much free to do whatever we wanted. Men with Brooms had a pilot, then after we were picked up, CBC made us recast an actor and reshoot the pilot, more or less with the same script. One funny thing with CBC was they did audience testing but they wouldn’t share it with us. What’s the point of testing a show if you don’t share the results with the people writing it?

Katie Ford (Working the Engels): Rewriting (par for the course), but not retooling.

When crafting a pilot, do you consider a Canadian audience?

Butt: No. I don’t consider the audience at all. I consider the story and the characters and making them as good as I can. The various notes about “what the audience wants” will come from the broadcasters or distributors soon enough.

Mather: Everything I’ve done in Canada I’ve only thought about Canadian audiences. When I was a kid, Canadian TV shows were always set in generic North American cities and I thought that was so lame. So I’ve always been upfront about referencing Canadian stuff – Participaction or The Littlest Hobo or whatever – and making no effort to explain it for an American or international audience. I think Canadians find that sort of unique cultural reference delightful. Why not play to your strengths? As smart as I think it is to pursue cross-border opportunities – and maybe I’ll be doing that down the road – there is something depressing about the retreat from unabashed Canadiana.

If you had a bigger budget how would that affect your series?

Orenstein: We could have more swing sets, more money for big-name guest stars, and it would allow us to write bigger, elaborate set pieces. A larger budget would mostly help in the writing – we would be freer to come up with stories without always thinking about how many extras that will require or how to afford the set, etc.

Mark Farrell (Seed): More writers for longer amounts of time. The shows we compete with have three times the writers for four times the amount of time than I do. It’s a huge difference.

Piaskoski: More extras, maybe. I would love to shoot on a lot so you could do that fake exterior scene where they’re walking down the street.

Elwood: Not at all, other than the fact there are more bean counters weighing in so I really need to choose my battles. I’m developing several shows right now in the U.S.:  for Warner Bros. Television and Universal, and the notes process is no joke.

What do we need to do better in our industry?

Orenstein: I think we need to build more of an infrastructure to teach how to become a showrunner. Writing for TV and producing your own TV show are two different skills. On Package Deal I try hard to include the writing staff in all stages of production.

Ford: Support each other. Give things time. Train writers to be producers (more of the writer-producer system that’s in the States).

Copros: good or bad for the 22-minute format? What about cable/specialty?

Piaskoski: Anything that gets people working is a good thing. I would do a copro with a lost civilization if it meant people working. I would hate to see their notes, however.

Elwood: Tricky. The financial incentives are smaller for 22-minute shows. Margins are smaller, so tough to make the considerable copro logistics worthwhile.

Butt: It comes down to the people involved. Are they driven by story or driven by money? There are good copro situations (because of good people) and bad copro situations (because of not so good people).

Does Canadian television take comedic risks?

Butt: No. I think many execs think they do. But they seem to define “risks” as doing shows about thirty-somethings banging each other lots. Not a lot of risk there. The whole “edgy” thing cracks me up. If it’s pretty much the same thing a 13-year-old is obsessed with, it’s not edgy. Taking comedic risks means doing something no one else has done, and there isn’t much of that going on.

Elwood: We’re trying! I know Fitz did. All of my Canadian writing colleagues are brilliant whack jobs, with the goal of making noise. I do see network rationale, the hard numbers of it all. Hard to justify a show about the offbeat, unlikable antihero when you can do two straight up procedurals. Perhaps that should be a rule. For every two doctor-cop-lawyer knock off, the network has to green-light one talking zit comedy.

What are we lacking here?

Biderman: Quantity, not quality.

Mather: Here’s the thing that I notice about the U.S. compared to Canada. When you walk into a room in the U.S., they light up because you’re potentially going to make them a lot of money. If you help bring to fruition the next Modern Family or whatever you are going to put tens of millions into the pocket of the corporation. In Canada, that’s just not the case. Corner Gas was a giant hit, and I’m sure the folks at CTV were proud, but it didn’t do much for their bottom line. At the end of the day, Canadian writers aren’t and never will be walking money for any Canadian network because producing original TV is not how those organizations live or die. To me, all the other problems with being a TV writer in Canada flow from that.