The Genre Report: Talking slapstick and space

In part two of Playback's series, creatives and broadcasters behind hit Canadian comedies and sci-fi series delve into selling internationally, serialization and SVODs.
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Playback caught up with the creatives, producers and broadcast execs making Canadian TV’s hottest shows, to discuss the challenges they face, and what’s exciting them about making television today. 

Part two of this series dives into comedy and sci-fi. Click here to read part one, where we discuss all things drama. 

Comedy

Playback: Canada doesn’t have a deep history in multicam comedies, but as networks look to cut costs, the format is proving more attractive. Is that something you think Canada should be investing in?

Laszlo Barna, president, Pier 21 Films (The Beaverton): Absolutely, Canada will create multicam programming. Cost is an important factor. And, as ad revenues shrink, so will budgets. Multicam shows are usually shot in studios that can house an audience. I think that’s a plus for comedy. It helps the performances and lets the writers know what’s working and what’s not.

Matthew Miller, producer, Zapruder Films (nirvanna the band the show): It seems that the golden age of television was all about moving away from multicam comedies. The HBO single-cam comedies (Larry Sanders, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex in the City) and The Office (BBC) really paved the way for it to become mainstream with American network sitcoms like Parks and Recreation, Modern Family and Last Man on Earth borrowing the form from those shows. Personally, I’m not sure why we’d want to go back to multicam storytelling unless there was an interesting way that the form was interacting with the content. In Canada, shows like Letterkenny, Baroness Von Sketch and Workin’ Moms have demonstrated audiences are connecting to single-cam shows.

Michelle Daly, senior director of CBC Comedy: I think multicamera shows flex different comedy muscles. Canadians are incredible single-camera comedy writers and directors. I would never say never to a multicam format; however the creative would really have to call for it in order for us to move in that direction.

Playback: What’s the state of Canadian comedy sales internationally?

Mark Montefiore, president, New Metric Media (Letterkenny): Traditionally, comedy has been notorious for being very difficult to travel and difficult to sell. There are many reasons for that – sometimes the comedy just doesn’t translate and it’s cheaper to produce locally. Comedy requires a lower budget than drama, so it can be produced locally rather than acquired, and if broadcasters do have a limited acquisition budget that’s spent on getting the American stuff that’s got bigger stars. But now, because of Netflix and Amazon and distribution being more readily available internationally, fans are seeing [more international comedies]. We’re seeing our data on where fans are watching Letterkenny and it’s insane. They’re watching all over the world.

Playback: Are changing audience consumption habits affecting how you create, pitch or distribute your content?

Barna: Television audiences are declining and many people are now consuming comedy online and in smaller units. There’s an appetite for short-form content, and content that is edgy and satirical. There are still traditional sales channels available, as evidenced by the sales that Schitt’s Creek generated, but you can’t ignore the digital world. With our show, The Beaverton, we have television reach through The Comedy Network, but our online audience exceeds that tenfold. The online clips from the show are easily shareable and popular, and they reach a different audience.

Playback: What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges facing Canadian comedy writers?

Ins Choi, co-creator, writer (Kim’s Convenience): I think the biggest challenge facing Canadian comedy writers is finding enough satisfying work to stay in this country and raise a family here. The biggest opportunity lies within the stories that surround new Canadians and within the Indigenous communities. The task is discovering or nurturing or just giving opportunities to those storytellers.

Sci-Fi

Playback: As sci-fi moves from niche to mainstream and attracts increasingly behemoth budgets, how do you make something that will compete on a smaller budget?

Mike Frislev, co-chairman, Nomadic Pictures (Van Helsing): In terms of budget, sci-fi has the ability to spend a lot on bigger sets, VFX and all that. But, ultimately, with any story I think the relationship between the characters and sticking to “simpler mythologies” tends to work better, and when you define your parameters with budget in mind, those are the important defining factors. We make Van Helsing on a pretty tight number and it does very well internationally. Better than sci-fi series with much bigger budgets. I think it’s because of those factors. It’s easy in the sci-fi genre to keep piling on more and more ideas and building on top of your mythology, and sometimes that causes complexities. One thing about this audience that I’ve learned is that they’ll bust you on it. Stay true to what you are. This audience is very – “nerdy” isn’t the right word – but they keep you honest, in my experience.

Pat DiVittorio, VP, CTV and specialty programming, Bell Media: It’s not necessarily about smaller budgets versus big budgets, but about driving the best creative and creative that works for the size of the budget you have. The benefits of sci-fi are there’s no defined world you have to live in and audiences are drawn to the genre, no matter the size of the budget. But because sci-fi continues to become more mainstream, producers and broadcasters can explore innovative financing models from multiple participants to various platforms.

Ashley Park, writer, coproducer (Travelers): I think the influx of big-budget superhero movies – Star Wars getting revived, Marvel making a big push on Netflix – is stoking the appetite of audiences for the genre and it’s making the genre really hot right now. That’s a good thing, because genre sells really well, Canadian sci-fi sells really well. Yeah, we have to operate on a smaller budget, but it’s also something that we know how to do, and something we’ve done for years.

PlaybackWith streamers demanding more bingeable content, does it have an impact on the way you write/pitch/sell your shows?

Michelle Lovretta, creator, former showrunner (Killjoys): I’m pretty passive-aggressive about that shit. So, it never changes my pitch. It just may change whether the things I pitch are bought—and I accept that. That said, fans today are very invested in following shows and in experiencing them collectively in a way that they weren’t before. That’s obviously largely due to social media. What is wonderful about that is this collective experience. And in order for people to have that joint conversation, [there needs to be] a relationship that they’re invested in, or a mystery that they’re following, or a surprise that they didn’t see coming. So, I think certainly, as writers, we are injecting a bit more of those, but I don’t think that’s in a cynical, calculated way. I think it’s that we ourselves are viewers and we are taking in media the same as everyone else. It is whetting our appetite for certain types of stories. And that just naturally ends up showing itself in our work.

Frislev: I do think it has an impact on storytelling, because the results are immediate. You have to come out strong. You don’t have a lot of time for people to hang in there. I believe that’s been true for great storytelling all along, [but] it’s more apparent now, because as much as entities like Netflix don’t like to share their metrics on audience data with you, they do indicate what works and what doesn’t. That’s not to say that they have all the answers – they don’t – but they do see what holds people and what doesn’t.

Playback: What does the shift away from episodic and toward serialization mean for the business?

Park: We are gearing more towards short-form orders and limited series. But I don’t really think that affects sci-fi or genre in any broad existential way, it’s just affecting what kind of stories you can tell. Sci-fi always had a very strong tradition of short stories – some of the most celebrated and influential works weren’t novels, they were short stories. So it’s affecting what kind of properties are getting picked up, what kind of IP is now getting greenlit or the way that an idea is being adapted. Sci-fi has always been very concept-driven and very thought experiment-driven, so working in a shorter medium is an interesting challenge. But I think it also opens up the possibility for certain concepts to now live as TV.

Lovretta: I think it’s a fascinating thing to watch from the inside. I remember not too long ago – in the grand scheme of things – I couldn’t pitch anything that had any serialization. Years and years ago, on my first sci-fi show, we couldn’t even have continuing character relationships as far as romances went, because back then you would make things and they’d be bought internationally in a strip and you never knew if they were going to be aired in order. So, I think it’s exciting as all shit to be able to have this openness on the side of buyers and networks to say: “What kind of story do you want? How do you want to shape it? Is it something that you want to be linear [in terms of storytelling], or something you want to be fully serialized?” That breathes a lot of air into the genre and it allows every writer to have a different type of story.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Playback.