Back in 2006, Disney released the movie Invincible, a sports movie based on the true story of Philadelphia Eagles player Vince Papale (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg). The legend of Papale, reinforced by the film, was that he showed up for an open tryout hosted by the team and was able to earn his way on to the roster. While the movie isn’t 100% accurate, the story that it is trying to tell is a familiar one – an average person is able to overcome all the odds stacked against him/her to become victorious and live their dream. It’s a story that everyone loves, no matter how many times it is told. Everyone loves an underdog.
So what, exactly, does this have to do with NBC and comedies? While Invincible tells a nice tale, the idea that an NFL team would hold an open tryout is a move that does not come from a position of power. Sure, it was mostly done as a publicity stunt to appease a fan base that had suffered through many a disappointing season, but it also reflected the sorry state of the Eagles in 1976. When you are winning and on top, you don’t have to participate in such shenanigans. Even if the open tryouts were supposed to be an empty gesture, that gesture was “we’re literally trying everything because we are out of ideas.” In football terms, this move was a hail Mary pass. The Eagles really didn’t have much to lose at that point.
This parallels nicely with the current state of NBC; their announcement yesterday that they were holding a contest to solicit pitches for network comedies from undiscovered talents. While the network calls their NBC Comedy Playground idea a “bold, alternative approach” to discovering “original comedy minds,” this is a desperation move. The network is basically throwing up their hands and admitting that they have nothing. When you are #1, you trust your instincts and continue on the same path. When you are a network that is struggling, you have to throw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Most of what NBC has thrown at the wall the last few seasons has been awful – very few of their comedies have succeeded and the only reason critical darlings such as Parks and Recreation and Community are still on the air despite their low ratings is because NBC has nothing else to replace them with. When you are NBC, asking your audience for help seems like a legitimate option. CBS, sitting high upon their ratings throne, does not need to participate in such grasping at straws.
Of course, the irony is that this is not really an original idea; NBC is basically turning their comedy development into an episode of The Voice, the one show that the network that is actually performing well. This is also the same model that Amazon has been using to develop their first forays into original programming; it is very telling that one of the major networks is co-opting the same process that is used by a new player in scripted shows.
I’ll give NBC credit for realizing that they have a problem; even if this is the equivalent of a huge publicity stunt, they are at least trying something new. I’ll be curious to see how this process unfolds; I’m skeptical that it will yield a successful show, but I guess you never know. In my opinion, part of NBC’s problem is that they don’t have a clear vision of what their niche is and tend to recycle ideas from the past. Must See TV was a long time ago and the network has failed to evolve much since that point. If the NBC Comedy Playground accomplishes nothing else than forcing the network to think outside the box and figure out what their voice is (no pun intended), this may be a success even if the pilots that come out of this process don’t become overnight successes. As much as I rag on NBC, I am rooting for them. They have the greatest potential of the major networks to have a slate of programming that will appeal to me; speaking in generalities, CBS comedies are far too broad and sitcommy, Fox comedies are too low brow and ABC comedies tend more toward family comedies. In a lot of ways, NBC is the underdog that I’m hoping will succeed.
This is also my big chance to put my money where my mouth is; I like to think I know what makes a good comedy and what does not and now I have the opportunity to find out. I’m not definitely going to submit an idea, but I am considering it. I have absolutely no illusions about the likelihood of my success if I did decide to enter, but as a former NBC comedy character appropriated, you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.
This contest could be my ticket to success – or, more likely, a fun anecdote to tell at parties. Unfortunately, the current network comedies that I scorn are also wildly popular so my instincts do not necessarily line up with that of the general public. But it might be a fun writing exercise nonetheless.
And seriously – what do I know? I thought Survivor was the dumbest idea that I had ever heard and that show is on its 28th season. So perhaps NBC is on to something and will recapture some of their former glory. Maybe the NBC Comedy Playground project will discover the comedic voice of a generation. I mean, the winners of The Voice and Last Comic Standing have gone on to all sorts of success and fame, right?