Why finding the next 'Seinfeld' isn't so easy

Jerry Seinfeld set the gold-standard for standups starring in TV comedies.
Jerry Seinfeld set the gold-standard for standups starring in TV comedies.

Somewhere in the world, a network executive has his feet up on his desk, wondering how he can get viewers to tune in. As he sits with his arms crossed behind his slicked-back hair, it hits him: Standup is funny. Therefore, sitcoms based on standup will be funny. Then he throws a fistful of cash in the air and cackles as it showers over him.

The logic behind the phenomenon of standup-based sitcoms is the direct result of uncreative people trying to make money in a creative business. Consequently, it seems like every comedian who gets more than one applause break is given a green light for a pilot. There's an unfortunate amount of success with this flawed logic.

"Roseanne," "Home Improvement" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" are a few examples of shows where the performers made the transition from the microphone to the soundstage without much error.

However, for every successful standup-based sitcom, there's a litany of other performers who have tried the model to no avail: Christopher Titus, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, Jeff Foxworthy, Rob Schneider, Margaret Cho, Norm Macdonald, Wanda Sykes.

Why is it that so many comics fail, while a handful succeed in a big way? What follows are what I would consider the five biggest misconceptions about standup-based sitcoms.

Content won't get lost in the move: Standup comedy is theater. The audience is there, usually under the umbrella of a two-drink minimum, because they paid to see some adult entertainment. Therefore, the performers not only have the freedom to be crass, brutally honest and speak with minimal consequence, but it's also their obligation.

The most successful comedians didn't get that way by not understanding this freedom; however, broadcast networks didn't become successful by allowing anything and everything to air. When comics are approached to translate their act into a network-friendly, usually multi-camera style TV show, the content needs to be significantly watered down.

To prove my point, I watched every episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and counted how many times the audience said "Aww" because something cute happened and then did the same with his standup act. The ratio between was a whole lot to none. (Side note: I'm conducting a similar experiment with "Whitney" and the amount of times a boyfriend's arms are crossed as he looks exacerbated.)

Although you might not realize it, your brain knows the difference between standup comedy and TV comedy. When the two are mashed together, you stare at your screen and try to process what you're seeing. Your brain is desperately trying to reconcile the kind of humor that's in front of you with the way that it's being presented. Eventually - usually around episode six - the brain gives up, shuts down and decides to watch "Grey's Anatomy" instead.

A stage personality equals an on-screen personality: Many of the most successful standup comics are less about the setup, punchline and tag structure as they are about creating a persona on stage. They establish a character that helps the audience understand and get behind an otherwise skewed sense of logic. Jeff Foxworthy isn't an untreatable Southern comic with jokes that only appeal to 20 percent of the country; he is a persona who sucks people of all backgrounds into his way of thinking. Bo Burnham, Mitch Hedberg and Denis Leary are other examples of performers who do the same. On stage, this is a great way to captivate an audience but, on TV, it's shockingly limited.

At the end of the day, comedians are normal people. Their lives aren't necessarily more interesting just because they're funny. Foxworthy's sitcom was about a Southern man with a wife and kids. If nothing about that premise seems new to you, that's only because it isn't.

Seinfeld can be copied: For as much of a titan as his sitcom may have been, the show was successful for one major reason. Jerry Seinfeld, for all of his brilliance, is the exception, not the rule. No other comic has found so much success with such family-friendly material.

In 2011 Seinfeld appeared on HBO's "Talking Funny," where he explained why he keeps his act so clean. When he was starting out, he would do a bit about Superman in which he used the "F word." One night, he decided to try the bit without the word, and it didn't do nearly as well. He was so upset that the joke relied on that one word that he cut it from his act, and he tried never to swear on stage again.

Seinfeld was driven by this philosophy that some laughs are better than others, and his career took off. He was a mainstream comedian with an act that was offensive to no one. It's almost as though Seinfeld was created in a lab somewhere to be the perfect standup-to-sitcom performer. Duplicating his TV achievements is insanely difficult, and only a handful of other comics have been able to follow the same path, none with as much success.

Unfortunately, networks keep looking at other performers to prove that this model works. That's why it seems like everyone is snatching up all the moderately successful comedians and giving them TV shows "based on their standup routine." They're all trying to find the next Seinfeld sleeper.

The audience will jump right on board: By giving a comedian with even a small fan base a sitcom, you set them up to have something to prove. The audience expects these shows to work right out of the box because the material has already been time-tested on stage. If you introduce a comedian as being "hilarious," he'll step on stage to an audience with a "we'll see about that" attitude. The same is true for a standup-based sitcom. There's nothing quite like being doomed before the opening credits even roll.

There will always be a blueprint for source material: There's simply an issue of longevity. No matter how much material a comedian has, the sitcom format sucks it all dry in a big hurry. Where a pilot might be dense with adapted stage jokes, after a while the comic in question becomes an entity of the show itself. Unless they're Louis C.K. and plan to personally control every aspect of the production, eventually they're going to run out of material, and the only thing left to extend the show's life will be the one-dimensional characters established early on for the sake of making the pilot's bits work. There will be no shred of the comedian who inspired the thing, other than his resemblance to the lead character, who now spouts catch phrases.

Sarah Silverman, left, and Chelsea Handler, right, didn't fare well with their sitcoms.
Sarah Silverman, left, and Chelsea Handler, right, didn't fare well with their sitcoms.
'Everybody Loves Raymond' took its cue from Ray Romano's standup material and turned into a long-running success. Pictured with Romano, right, are Brad Garrett and Monica Horan.
"Everybody Loves Raymond" took its cue from Ray Romano's standup material and turned into a long-running success. Pictured with Romano, right, are Brad Garrett and Monica Horan.


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