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TV Comedies Go to the Auteurs

Variety logo Variety 6/12/2017 Bob Verini
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Auteur sitcoms are getting awfully quirky and dark in the peak TV age.

Buoyed by the successes of Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and Louis C.K. (“Louie”), professional funny people are creating shows based on their own distinctive comedic vision. Donald Glover (“Atlanta”), Issa Rae (“Insecure”), Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) are among the comedians following in Dunham and C.K.’s footsteps on cable and streaming services.

Like Dunham and C.K., they wear a lot of hats. These comedy auteurs co-create, produce, write and sometimes direct their quirky, risk-taking sitcoms, and it shows on screen.

As HBO programming exec VP Amy Gravitt says, “The more jobs one person is doing, the lesser the chance of something getting lost in translation.”

Edgy comics doing sitcoms are nothing new, but this darker strain is. “There were always subversive comics out there,” says FX Networks programming president Nick Grad, “but now you have a breed of standup taking it further into a more specific, darker place. And they’re getting their own shows now.”

According to Jonathan Krisel, co-creator (with C.K. and Zach Galifianakis) of FX’s “Baskets,” “Louie” changed the playbook. “In the comedy community, it was like, whoa, this is a really cool thing that’s half-drama, half-comedy; half-sketch show, half-movie; half-who-knew-what the format was. … It could explore plots that were comedic and melancholy, and that opened up a lot.”

That seed took root in today’s fertile media soil. Explains Gravitt: “The comedy world has blossomed in the era of too much TV. More shows mean more opportunities for new voices to be heard, which helps comedians who want to share their individual experience and be experimental when doing so.”

At the same time, there’s less need to appeal to huge audiences. “You’re making a show for someone specific,” says Joe Lewis, head of half-hour and drama series development for Amazon, which streams auteur sitcoms “Fleabag,” Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” and “Catastrophe,” the latter a melding of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s comedic visions. “You’re not trying to make the same broad jokes you might have before, that might appeal to all people.”

To shape a fused sitcom persona, showrunners carefully cherry-pick from among the star’s traits. Ansari and his “Master of None” alter ego Dev are both actors on the Netflix show, but “Dev isn’t selling out Madison Square Garden,” notes “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang. “They like food…and they’re very curious about the world,” but they differ in “their level of career direction and focus. Aziz has a great work ethic and knows what he wants, and Dev is kind of the opposite of that.”

Rae concedes there’s a large overlap between her and Issa Dee, the character she plays on HBO’s “Insecure,” admitting that “the middle circle in that Venn diagram is definitely huge.” But she conceived the character as “younger … more unrealized … less confident. I’ve definitely taken stories from my own personal friendships, but for the most part we’ve made very different decisions.”

Perhaps as a result of a format in flux — “There’s no standardization anymore,” Krisel says — studios are proceeding cautiously with auteur sitcoms.

“We’re not fishing with a giant net,” FX’s Grad says of the search for breakout stars. “It’s very targeted [since] it’s a rare breed of person who can pull this sort of thing off.”

Among necessary conditions, experts cite an ability to play well with others. Besides “a degree of self-awareness,” Rae recommends “a deep insecurity. There has to be something that you recognize in yourself that you’re horrified other people may recognize, too.”

Above all, there must be what Yang calls “a specificity and a very distinct point of view. The more individual and specific the voice gets, oftentimes that’s an original voice, because there’s that granular, very personal vision.”

Execs and creatives agree that today’s fragmented TV climate has helped foster auteur sitcoms. Without huge pressure for giant ratings on Thursday night, such as the huge numbers Jerry Seinfeld’s eponymous sitcom once garnered for NBC, there’s more room for experimentation.

As Lewis puts it, “television today is not about filling something, it’s about building something,” and what’s being built around the auteur sitcom is a following — if not a cult — for one performer’s particular worldview.

“The way I look at it, the audience is signing up for a brand of somebody’s comedy,” Krisel says. “If you like Aziz or you like Donald, well, they’re curating the moment, whatever it is. I’m strapping myself in, and you [the auteur], you do whatever you want!”

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