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What It’s Like to Be a TV-Comedy Creator in 2023

Gina Yashere on Bob Hearts Abishola; Rachel Bloom on Reboot. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: CBS; Hulu

This week, the Writers Guild of America voted to authorize a strike for the first time since 2007. The vote comes after years of mounting tensions over how writers are treated by the big streamers when it comes to issues like reduced episode orders, smaller staffs, and the loss of residuals. This move has the potential to significantly impact the TV that will be produced in the coming months and years.

In February, Reboot star Rachel Bloom, Reboot creator Steve Levitan, and Bob Hearts Abishola creator and star Gina Yashere spoke about the benefits and shortcomings of the new TV climate as part of the University of Southern California film school’s annual Comedy Festival, which took place weeks after Reboot was canceled by Hulu. On Good One, the trio discuss the realities of creating a show, keeping it on the air, and trying to make it actually funny. Read some excerpts from the interview below, or listen to the full episode of Good One wherever you get your podcasts.

“Basically, I came into the industry ten years too late, and I’m pissed.”

Steve Levitan: There are so many effects that it’s kind of hard to sum up. Streaming opened a lot of doors, because there was suddenly this tidal wave of new shows. In the old days, it was broadcast. If your idea is too specific, or it’s too niche, people won’t go for that. Like, “Oh, a show with gay people will be too off-putting to too many people!” Fortunately, things like that changed. But streaming became very much “the nichier (is that a word?), the better.” The more specific, the weirder, the louder, the more personal, the better. That was all very, very good.

Many, many years ago, I was invited to 10 Downing Street, which is the center of government in the U.K. It was a handful of American and some British producers. The point of it was — in the U.K., they have all these amazing shows that do six or eight episodes per season, a few seasons of them. Then they go to the U.S., where they make billions of dollars, because they suddenly do 22 or more episodes per year. Why is that? I remember, Julian Fellowes was one of the people who said, “The question should not be ‘Why don’t we do that?’ but ‘Why should we do that?’” It was very, very British — no offense. But it occurred to me recently that we have, in fact, become them.

Gina Yashere: When Netflix came out, it changed the game and opened the industry up to more diverse stories, different stories, because there were so many more avenues. Before, it was those four networks that were the gatekeepers for everything. And the internet has changed the game in that people can bypass the gatekeepers and just put their content out there. Which is what I started doing — making my own specials and putting them out there: “Netflix, Showtime, you don’t want to buy my special? Well, fuck you then. I’m going to go make my own, put it out there, and sell it direct to the people.”

Streaming came on the back of everybody making their own content and things opening up, but because of that, they’re not regulated. They can pay people whatever they want, which helps and doesn’t help. These streamers have a certain few people who make all the money, and they’re not beholden to the same rules that the networks are, so they can go, “We’re going to give you this much money for your show and not a penny more, and we don’t even have to tell you how many people watch the show.” So you might not get residuals and all that other stuff that you got in the old days, when your show could carry on making money for you for the rest of your life. Those kinds of things seem to be slipping away. Basically, I came into the industry ten years too late, and I’m pissed.

SL: There are incredible opportunities out there to tell your story. The downside is that there is so much product that it’s getting harder, harder, harder to break through. There are amazing shows out there that you haven’t heard of. It’s exhausting! And the talent pool is spread thinner than ever. It’s harder to get a writing staff that is experienced. Usually, you like to have a staff that’s very experienced, then it works down, and there are people who are new, and those people rise through the ranks and become the experienced ones. Then it becomes harder to get good people, because now people are scrambling for jobs on six different shows, trying to put together a year. In the old days, you could put together 22 episodes, and if you were on a show that could run for a few years, you were really good, and it was a good living. There is a new class of writers who are trying to get episodes anywhere, but maybe they’ll get eight episodes this year. So the people who broke through in the past were the lucky ones, but there were a lot of people who were left out. Now more people are being let in, but what’s there is not quite as rosy as it once was.

Rachel Bloom: What everyone is articulating are the issues going on with the WGA right now. I would never normally tell aspiring writers to “read THR or “check Deadline,” but it’s important with what’s going on right now. There’s the potential for a WGA strike coming up, which has not happened since 2007–8, when I was in college. I didn’t know what was going on then, and I wish I had, because the strike was over new media on the internet — and that extends to streaming. The internet is all of the TV you watch. So all of those reasons you’re not getting paid enough — you only get eight episodes here or six episodes there, you’re not getting the set experience — these are all very practical issues for earning a living right now that are quite interesting and scary.

“It’s just a really turbulent, weird time.”

SL: Here’s what I think happened: Reboot’s cancellation was a collision of events. Our show was not inexpensive — just by the very nature of Rachel. There are some shows that have a cast of people who are new, and they’re getting paid a lot less. Our cast was this all-star cast.

I don’t like to be a complainer about it. I’ve been so lucky in this business. We are now at a time when the stock market has pulled back, suddenly companies like Disney are laying off gigantic portions of their workforce, and all the streamers seem to be finally realizing that there’s too much product, so it’s not the best time to be that show that has a lot of potential. It’s a time when you say, “Cut. It’s not working for us today. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.” I think that’s what happened.

RB: I had a pilot with Hulu that Aline Brosh McKenna and I created. It was our second show after Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — called Badass (and Her Sister). It’s an action-comedy, in which I play twins, because I guess I don’t want to see my child. I want to play twins! About a month and a half before canceling Reboot, Hulu passed on our pilot. And I said to one of the executives, “What’s the deal? Did we not deliver?” because they were so excited about our pitch. And the executive just keeps saying, “We don’t have money. We don’t have money.” Basically, he’s like, “We liked your show. There are just some others we like better, and we had to pick and choose right now.” There definitely seems to be a crunch, specifically over at Hulu, happening. With Bob Iger back, I know there are talks about Disney selling Hulu. I’m sure it’s very scary to be a Hulu executive right now. It’s just a really turbulent, weird time.

SL: I’m somebody who’s been in this business for so long, and the changes are happening in such a dramatic fashion at such a ridiculous pace. I have a deal at Disney, so I’m trying to develop shows for Hulu, Disney+, FX, ABC — all these different places. You would ask, “What are they looking for?” and nobody really knew what that streamer was looking for. That’s not putting anybody down — the idea of managing that mess of trying to monetize something that is losing money at ridiculous rates right now and trying to carve out your audience and develop shows that are the right shows for these things — it’s mind-boggling.

“Comedy should make you fucking laugh.”

SL: There are some amazing shows — half-hour shows that are really, really good and compelling, but there’s not a laugh in them. I have nothing against those shows. I don’t even think I’m being insulting. They’re not trying to get a laugh. But then it’s competing in a Best Comedy category. Not that awards are the end-all or ultimately that meaningful. Do we need to start saying, “Best Half-Hour Show?” Do we need to add categories? To me, if you’re going to call something “Best Comedy,” from an awards perspective, it should make people laugh.

I believe there was a speech in one of our episodes that Paul Reiser gave. “It’s God’s work to bring some joy into people’s lives and make them laugh,” not “I made them anxious this week! Well done!” It’s important that people laugh, and I’ve always felt that. I love hearing when people say what Modern Family meant to them when they were going through rough times. I don’t think it’s quite right to call something a comedy when it’s a half-hour drama. I don’t know how we fix it, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do because it’s easier. If you’re trying to do a compelling comedy, you have to exist on the dramatic level, then alongside it. You have to exist on this other level that doesn’t diminish the drama of it, and the drama doesn’t diminish the comedy of it, and it’s hard. It’s a tightrope. There are bigger problems in the world that we have to deal with right now, but I always hope the voters who vote for these things keep that in mind: “Great show! I loved it! But it’s not a comedy, so therefore I can’t vote for it for that.”

GY: I’m a stand-up, so I’m a comedy purist. It’s a comedy show — you’re supposed to laugh! Yeah, our show is educating people, but that’s what my comedy is. I’m feeding you medicine, but it’s coated in sugar, right? So you’re learning something, you’re taking something that’s good for you, but you’re laughing while you’re doing it and absorbing stuff without even realizing it. But you’ve got to laugh!

Our show’s a multi-cam, and there was a time when multi-cams were huge. Then you had single-camera — which is great‚ but there’s this snobbery where multi-cam gets overlooked for a lot of things, especially awards time. We’re getting overlooked, because we’re not part of whatever the Zeitgeist, the moment, whatever it is. A lot of shows get hype because their companies are willing to spend more on publicity. It’s not necessarily how good the show is. It’s how much hype they’re getting because of how much people are willing to spend on that. I feel like we’ve lost a lot of the essence of people actually watching a show because it’s really good or the word of mouth of it. If you want your show to stand out, you might have to spend a lot of money buying billboards on Sunset Strip or whatever, and not everybody has that luxury, so we’re struggling along. But having said that, comedy should make you fucking laugh.

SL: A good comedy is very rare. So often, I hear people say, “Oh my God, my kids watch this show every night. They’ll watch every episode of The Office five times,” or every episode of Friends, Modern Family, or whatever it is. Schitt’s Creek. They’re comfort food: “I just want to feel good before I go to sleep and not have that heavy thing over my head. I want to go to something comfortable.” There’s a real place for that in the world. But it’s a long-term game if you think about that. Dramas translate across the world much better than comedies do, because comedy is very specific to different cultures, and what’s funny here is not necessarily what’s funny in France or wherever. In the old days, a comedy that you made 100 episodes of became a very valuable asset, because it would run forever and ever and ever. Now we’re going to have fewer of those. We’re going to have shows that did five seasons of eight episodes, and there’ll be 40 episodes of them. People don’t get as invested in those.

“This idea of understanding what success is doesn’t actually exist.”

RB: When I was first starting out, I thought there was a certain point at which people were the gatekeepers, had the golden key to success, or knew everything. What I’ve learned recently is that no one really knows anything. So when they say, “We’re not looking for funny comedies right now,” that’s not a thought. That’s a reaction to something in an algorithm that we don’t know about or to a show they put up that was funny and didn’t happen to get views. Executives are primarily scared and reactive, so the idea of “What’s the key? Who wants what?”— I don’t think anybody knows until you put something out in the world and see how it goes. And if you have no marketing money, that greatly affects it.

But this idea of understanding what success is doesn’t actually exist. There are all these conspiracy theories about “Hollywood” and “who runs Hollywood” and “the Hollywood agenda.” Everyone’s scared! No one knows anything! There’s no agenda! They can’t agree with each other! Everyone’s just going, “I don’t know, what do you think?” “I don’t know, what do you think!? We just lost a lot of money! Aah, what’s the internet? Aaahhhh!” Everyone’s just “Aaahhhh!”

These interview excerpts have been edited and condensed.

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What It’s Like to Be a TV-Comedy Creator in 2023