Better Off Ted, ABC’s surreal single-camera corporate parody, garnered critical raves and a devoted cult of viewers — the key word being “cult.” The show was criminally low-rated, and looks to be dead; while the network won’t confirm its status, ABC quickly burned off its remaining episodes, running double-shots at odd times, and two more episodes remain unaired and unscheduled, while star Jay Harrington has already been cast in another pilot. (Why didn’t you watch it? Watch it!) This gloomy scenario must seem all too familiar to creator Victor Fresco, who also brought us Andy Richter Controls the Universe, another clever, off-kilter, and short-lived comedy. We talked to Fresco about why the show didn’t find an audience, whether intelligent comedies can survive on network TV at all, and why ALF was the perfect first job for a writer like him.
First off, we love the show and we’re sad that … whatever is happening to it is happening to it.
[Laughs.] I don’t know what’s happening either. I guess it didn’t perform that well. Though we have a hard-core base of fans, I don’t know what’s going to happen with it.
Better Off Ted was a funny show with great reviews, so why do you think it didn’t catch on?
I think not enough people knew about it. It wasn’t like we had a lot of people watch it and they didn’t come back to it. If anything, I think we were building slowly, but to me the way TV works is you spend a lot of money advertising and promoting, or you have to let a show stay someplace for a long period of time and an audience slowly comes to it. And I don’t think we got either of that … I still feel there’s an audience out there for it, because I know that the people who liked it, liked it a lot. It wasn’t like, “Eh, another show, take it or leave it.” There’s also a thing where when a show’s in trouble you think, Why should I tune in now? Why do I want to invest in it?
Even after the first season there was a question of renewal. When the second season started, did the network try to tweak the show at all?
No. The network, to their credit, always liked the show. They liked it creatively. We were on, I think we aired seven times, maybe six, and we were preempted by the president’s speech a couple of times, so we didn’t get a very good run. So they liked it, but they just felt it didn’t get enough eyeballs. To their credit, they didn’t say “introduce a lovable neighbor” or something.
Toward the end of what we’ve seen of this season, the humor seemed more out there: The memo with a typo ordering employees to swear, for instance. Did you guys go for broke when you noted the low numbers?
Not really, because we break the shows so far in advance from when the show airs that we just come up with what we think are funny ideas. A lot of it is based on the craziness of working in this dehumanizing corporate bureaucracy. The memo episode came from the idea that people don’t question memos, and what if there was a mistake in the memo and then it just grows into something else. But we didn’t ever feel like we had to make the show bigger, and I feel like it wasn’t any bigger. For instance, our third episode in our first season was the light detectors that don’t see black people, and that feels about to me the same level as a memo that comes out that encourages people to swear at each other.
I knew some people who knew of it but just heard the name and thought it sounded too sitcom-y. The name doesn’t seem to suggest a show as intelligent as yours.
The idea was a play off of … well, you know. You’re better off if you are Ted, you want to be Ted: He’s the captain of this universe and he’s a guy that people envy. But I agree with you, I don’t think it was a great title, but I don’t think that’s what hurt the show … If this was on cable, I think it would be like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia — it would attract a small, but hard-core following and that would be enough to power it through. But the network needs a much bigger group of people.
Shows like this one and Arrested Development and Andy Richter Controls the Universe are smart, fast-paced shows that didn’t grab a mass audience. Do you think perhaps there isn’t an audience for these shows on network television?
That’s a good question. I don’t know, because then I look at other shows … I think Modern Family is a smart show that’s well written and that works, and when I look at it from my perspective I think, Well, they spent a load of money marketing it. People knew about it, it premiered with a big number. I thought Everybody Loves Raymond was a smart show, going back a few years. It was intelligently written and not big and silly. Then there are stupid shows that work on television, too, so I don’t think it can be parsed quite that way. A lot of things have to line up and you also have to get the right time slot and a commitment to stay with something, and that just didn’t happen for us
Right now I’m working on a pilot that I didn’t write, but that I’m helping out on for ABC, and so that’s gonna be the next couple of months; we’re producing that. Then depending if Ted comes back I’ll go back to that, and if not I’ll think about other ideas that seem interesting.
What is the pilot you’re helping with about?
It’s about a couple that gets divorced [because] the husband is gay. They have a kid and the husband moves in across the street and has a new boyfriend … so it’s two families, the wife is remarried, the husband has a boyfriend, and there’s a son that the ex-wife and husband share, so it’s just navigating a family. As I said, I didn’t write the script but I’m chipping in and helping produce. And it’s a single camera for ABC.
So you began by writing for ALF. How did that show influence or set up your career?
That was my first staff job. ALF was a great show to start on, because it was this high-concept idea and you could do really funny, broad stuff on it. I mean, the dialogue was real but the idea was crazy. And I don’t know if ALF shaped me or if I ended up on ALF because the people who were staffing it saw a certain quality in my writing that they liked, but I did ALF and worked on Dinosaurs, which was also a pretty broad show. When I think of shows in terms of development, I want to do something I haven’t seen a million times. It’s hard for me … I worked on Mad About You, which was a really well-executed romantic comedy, and there’s certainly places for that and I like writing that stuff, but when I start to think about a show I just have to think of what is really interesting and exciting and funny to me, and they tend to be bigger ideas than “It’s a family.” No knock on family shows … but I just love the horrible corporate environment. It seems like a place to mine for comedy.