Television comedy is caught in a cycle of recycling

Do TV viewers really want to see the likes of Roseanne and Will & Grace revived?

An old friend of mine was once hired to write jokes for the great comedian Jackie Gleason. This was in the late 1960s, when Gleason’s television career was waning but he was still top-lining nightclubs in Miami Beach.

So my friend takes the train from Manhattan to Miami Beach, and along the way he writes a stack of Jackie Gleason-sounding material. By the time he arrives at Gleason’s hotel, the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, he has a solid sheaf of jokes. He meets Gleason’s manager in the lobby, who scans the material as he escorts my friend up in the elevator.

‘These are pretty good,’ he says. ‘Fresh. I like it.’

They get to the penthouse, introductions are made and Gleason — in a silk dressing gown, with a highball — puts on his glasses and sits down to read the material.

He reads it all very carefully and without any reaction, and then sits quietly for a moment in silence. Then he begins to read it all again, very carefully and without reaction. My friend and the manager stand there, awkwardly. Finally, Gleason puts down the material, removes his glasses, and looks up.

‘What the fuck is this?’ he asks.

The manager nervously replies that this is some new material — ‘Remember, Jackie? You said you wanted some new stuff, some fresh stuff, for the road?’ — and that this was the young writer they had hired to deliver it. ‘He’s the best, Jackie, young and plugged into that scene, funny cock-eyed take on the world, Jackie, the best.’

Gleason looks utterly baffled. He taps the pages in his lap. ‘I don’t know this material,’ he says. ‘It’s new. It’s new material.’

He pronounces the word ‘new’ as one might pronounce the word ‘faecal’. ‘I don’t know this material,’ he says again. ‘What I need is new material that I already know. Do you understand me? Get me new material that I know already.’

‘Of course I understand you, Jackie,’ said the manager, who did not understand him. ‘One hundred per cent.’

And so my friend was put on a train for New York and ended up having one of the shortest careers writing for Jackie Gleason.

Get me new material that I already know. Get me new old material. Fresh, but stale. New, but I already heard it.

Insane, perhaps, but in a way it’s the identical thinking behind the current revival of two of the most successful — and long gone — television comedy series of the late 1980s and 1990s, Roseanne and Will & Grace. It is also the essential business model strategy behind the recent announcement that Murphy Brown — a long-running sitcom set in the world of politics and media — will be returning in the autumn. There have been rumours of a new version of the American edition of The Office, and revivals of The X-Files and Full House are already available at the click of a button.

These are not reboots or remakes. Whatever you think of the multiple versions of the old movie A Star is Born or the relaunches of Star Trek and Star Wars, these involve interesting variations and new casts. There is a different actor playing Batman or Spider-Man pretty much every year: once the essential cast members start getting old and fat they’re rotated out for a younger, fitter version.

What’s happening in the television industry is different. It’s as if the comedy development staffs of every major studio and network were sitting in the penthouse of the Fontainebleau in silk dressing gowns, terrified of anything new and untested. Facing withering competition from everywhere — Facebook (which is now developing new series), Apple (same), Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and everywhere else — the traditional American broadcast networks are fleeing back to a time when they competed only with each other.

It’s not as if they’ve run out of ideas. Each autumn, the big broadcast networks launch new programming with expensive promotional campaigns and ludicrous fanfare. New ideas they have. What they’re missing are new good ideas; this, despite more market research surveys and more executives wearing important eyewear and interesting shoes braying confidently about ‘what the viewer wants’.

Of course, it might work. Maybe it’s not just studio and television executives looking forlornly at a sheaf of new material and thinking: ‘Can’t I just have the old stuff back?’ Maybe the audience feels the same way, faced with hundreds of new television channels and nearly limitless streaming choices. Maybe we’re all in our dressing gowns, exhausted by newness, desperate for something we’ve already seen.


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