As Hollywood rolls out a new season of sitcoms, I couldn't help but wonder if there's a formula for success. Can seasoned hit sitcom writers predict what an audience will love? Are viewers fickle? Do audience demographics and senses of humor shift? I recently had the opportunity to quiz a few experts on the topic including Tim Doyle, executive producer and showrunner of ABC's hit Last Man Standing starring Tim Allen, David Pollock, writer for the Emmy blockbusters Frasier, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Donna Cavanagh, humor expert, author, and founder of HumorOutcasts.com a comedy portal featuring humor writers of every genre.
An expert in classic comedy (although he's too modest to lay claim to that), David Pollock has helped make the world laugh for decades. From Mary Tyler Moore to Frasier, Pollock has now authored Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons, a book celebrating the classic style of comedy/improvisational forefathers Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding. When it comes to predicting sitcom success, Pollock says, as a writer, "You never know..(but) as you continue to do it you become more comfortable at it and presumably know how to do it better." Still, every show is somewhat of a gamble. Adds Pollock, "the longer you do it you sort of instinctively know... There are so many factors (as a writer) that are out of your hands...there are dozens of other people who are involved (beyond writers) at various levels and anything can go wrong."
Tim Doyle has been in the middle of America's successful primetime comedies for quite a while, also writing for Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Ellen, and the Big Bang Theory. Like Pollock, he notes that there are a lot of components to the process, including jokes and story-driven and situational comedy. Says Doyle, "I recognize a really good joke when I come up with it or someone else comes up with it ...and situations especially where you set up something very carefully in the storytelling then the audience gets a surprise and something a little unexpected and fun and interesting happens.... You know where those laughs are going to be." However, Doyle says it's the unexpected in filming before a live audience that can bring some of the best sitcom humor. Doyle credits a live audience show with bringing additional comedy to the mix especially when you have actors, like Allen, who thrive on performing before a live audience.
And while sitcom writers might have different senses of humor, that doesn't necessarily maximize success by hitting varied humor preferences since the team operates as a unit. With respect to sitcom writers, says Pollock, "the common denominator there is the show itself...the staff of M*A*S*H -- when we would be sitting around the room, regardless of our own sense of humor... we all had a common vision of what the show is and who the characters are and what the task at hand is, so we're all aiming at the same target."
Pollock adds, "We're all pulling together in that we know each character; we know their traits; we know what's funny about them; we know where we're trying to get with that story. So while we might not agree on every single point, there's a lot of machinery there pulling in the same direction."
However, even the best teams don't always land a winning sitcom. Donna Cavanagh notes that the subjective side of humor is why HumorOutcasts.com showcases nearly every form of humor. Says Cavanagh, "HumorOutcasts is all about variety. We recognize that a sense of humor is subjective and as individual as a fingerprint. So, in our case, it's good to have a lot of cooks in the kitchen stirring up laughs."
If audiences lean in one direction, Cavanagh hasn't seen it. Says the editor and author, "Humor is hard to gauge. There are posts that make people chuckle, but almost out of nowhere one will go viral and become a star of social media. Is it fun to watch? Absolutely. Can we always predict that success? No. So much of humor depends upon the mood and emotions of those reading it at that moment."
As Hollywood's sitcom season proceeds, it's hard to predict where the hits or misses will be. What is clear from my experts is that the subjectivity of humor means not all sitcoms will be hits, but it doesn't mean they weren't funny. Pollock admits that while he's been associated with some hugely successful television shows, including my favorite -- The Carol Burnett Show, not every show he worked on was a winner. "Everybody has their batting average with these things."
Cavanagh agrees, "A humor writer might not make everyone laugh all the time, but he or she has the potential to make people laugh any time."
Listen to my interview with Last Man Standing's executive producer Tim Doyle here or on iTunes.