4 Easy Steps to Pitching Your Own TV Sitcom
So, you want to pitch a TV show -- a sitcom no less! Or maybe you're just an armchair TV enthusiast, a mental writer playing out episodes of the ideal sitcom in your head. Whether your concept is ideal or idyllic, if you want to get it off the ground, you need to get your head out of the clouds and start viewing your human reality in terms of numbers -- good numbers. Take a tip from Seth MacFarlane: Be sure to include an African American, a disabled character, and an Asian reporter if you want to stand a chance in TV land.
In other words, start counting your minorities.
It's all in the spirit of being fair that we view people based on their color, class, gender, or physical ability. Not only is it fair, it is super easy to follow the 4-step program for crafting your perfectly pitch-able TV sitcom.
So, get out your calculators and get ready for a math lesson in how to write a situation comedy for television!
Step 1: Study the Demographics and Stock Your Writer's Room Accordingly
Minority is a numeric term. Call me a sensitive Jew, but when I start hearing people referred to in numeric terms, I get a little nervous chill of disgust running down my spine. After all, it wasn't that long ago that I was being counted and numbered by two graduate students eyeing me up in their rear-view mirror and asking, "Why are there so many of you in the media?"
Oddly enough, the same people who are so quick to decide that Hitler's IBM-precision math was a bad thing have absolutely no problem counting and grouping heads when it comes to who appears on a television screen.
The Writers Guild of America-West recently released a series of statistics on "minorities" in television writing rooms:
...fewer than 2 of every 10 writers is African American, Latino or Asian (or Native American). And most TV writers are based in L.A., a county where one out of every two of us is Latino. ...female representation in writers' rooms has only gone up 5 percent, to 30.5. ...Among the ranks of executive producers, women are underrepresented at a rate of 2-1, with minorities at nearly 5-1, the Guild says. ...One in 10 shows during that latest season had zero -- count 'em, zero -- women on their writing staffs, says the group: Nearly one-third (!!!) had not one minority writer on staff.
Responding to these numbers, "the Guild has developed a Writer Access Project to get minority and women writers gigs in Hollywood."
Their answer to numbers is, of course, more numbers. Not the kind of numbers that give hard evidence of discrimination against these "minorities" when it comes to hiring writing staff; after all, how do you know that more latinos, blacks, women, and gays wouldn't prefer to be doctors, lawyers, or teachers rather than TV writers? No, an absence of appropriate quotas must mean prejudice, therefore, we need to encourage those kids who want to be doctors but can't afford medical school to take that free program in screenwriting instead. As for the kids who want to be writers, if they're white Jews, they'll have to pay their own way ...after all, there's "so many of you" in the media already.
Step 2: X + Y = Stereotype Du Jour
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In case you've never pitched a TV show before, the process goes something like this: Take Show A, combine with Show B, and you have a new show. In other words, you aren't developing creative genius as much as you are rehashing what's already been done. For example: Saturday Night Live = Your Show of Shows + Laugh In. Two and a Half Men = One Day at a Time + The Odd Couple. Family Guy = The Simpsons + MAD TV. In other words, nothing is new; TV execs aren't adventurous with their money. If you want to pitch a show, you'd better find one just like it to compare it to. The same goes for characters.
Obviously, many more ethnic characters have cropped up on TV since Cosby. The problem is that they've grown increasingly stereotypical in nature. These characters aren't so much reflections of real life as they are imitations of assumptions -- often negative ones. In "Where Are The Realistic Black Characters on TV?" Allison Samuels writes:
Not since the The Cosby Show has prime time successfully delivered a show featuring African-Americans leading normal, regular, everyday lives. That show was groundbreaking because it featured us as mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons. Can you name another show like that on the air right now? Not unless you count Tyler Perry’s TBS comedies—but it’s never been an issue for mainstream audiences to laugh at us. The same thing is true of the Chris Rock series Everyone Loves Chris, which enjoyed some success but is no longer on the air, or the cartoon The Cleveland Show. The brilliance of The Cosby Show was that while funny, it also changed the cultural landscape. It presented African-Americans in an entirely different and new context. It moved beyond the stereotypes of the inner city, jail cells, and basketball courts to present a more well-rounded look at who we are.
Blacks aren't the only group being stereotyped on TV. Over at Being Latino, Adriana Villavicencio writes:
Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, for example, though absolutely lovely, serves as merely a caricature of the loud, crazy Latina with the thick accent and tight clothing (Vergara has subsequently become her character full-time. Case in point: check out the way her accent seems to have evolved into a thicker one) Sometimes, Gloria Pritchett’s character works because the show itself is so well written and performed…and sometimes it’s just plain disappointing that that’s the only mainstream depiction of a Latina on TV.
Similar arguments can be made for practically every people group we've been taught to define by race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Bottom line: Stereotypes sell. Tried and tested, they're a safe investment.
The sad part is that many critics have grown to accept stereotypes as the fact of television fiction. In fact, some critics, like Zack Rosen, are willing to accept the stereotyping as an accurate (if not holistic) reflection of reality:
Community traffics in stereotypes -- judgemental black Christian, over-achieving neurotic Jew, disaffected metrosexual -- and it would be narcissistic of us homos to complain when we get the same treatment. That is, if the treatment is done right. There are a million stereotypes of what a queer guy can be. To call the one show last week offensive just does a disservice to all the great guys out there who happen to fit the mold. Would you like it if the kind of person you were was offensive to others?
In other words, rejecting the stereotype can even be considered an offensive act because we are taught to presume that somewhere out there someone must fit that mold. Far out as it may sound, the thinking that normalizes stereotypes stems from the thought process that defines prejudice as an inherent aspect of human thinking. If you're born prejudiced, you must view the world through stereotypes, thus the vicious cycle of social engineering continues.
Step 3: Craft Your Model Minority
Drunk, screw-up Asian. Hindi artist who hates computers. Jew who fixes cars because his dad fixes cars. And all of them have supportive parents. Please, if you ever find any of these types on TV, please let me know.
With stereotypes come deranged notions that allow us to either glorify or vilify the group being portrayed. In 2002, Princeton University Professor Susan Fiske developed a model of stereotype content that theorizes how we define good versus bad people groups based on the way they are stereotyped. The two deciding factors are warmth and competence. How these two factors are combined determines the kind of reaction a stereotyped people group are likely to receive. If a group is perceived as having low competence and high warmth, they're bound to receive a pat on the head. If, however, they're highly competent and low on warmth, they're going to get the cold shoulder.
In other words, while we may mock them, certain psychologists believe that we often use stereotypes to define worth. Hence, Asians are a "model minority" consisting of brilliant professionals who come from stable home lives and make valuable contributions to American culture. Latinas are busty and brash, and Jews are pseudo-WASPs. Homosexual stereotypes even feed into the "model minority" portrayal, often being crafted to be more appealing to straights of the opposite sex:
Who are these homosexual characters for? Not the LGBT community, that’s for sure. Numerous heterosexual women are drawn to the idea of boys who can give them fashion advice and go shopping with them, whilst occasionally entertaining them with a spontaneous dancing session. Straight men love the idea of a conventionally beautiful bisexual woman.
Instead of rejecting stereotypes outright, the "model minority" creates a safe middle ground. For purveyors of stereotypes, the boundary has been drawn for how far their prejudicial thinking can extend, while the stereotyped groups are presented with a definition -- a model, if you will -- within which they feel they can be accepted into mainstream society.
Step 4: Make 'Em Laugh!
If they aren't hard-bitten cops, most "minority" characters on television are in comedy shows. In fact, stereotypes are generally a hot comedic topic. And when you start getting too critical of them, you're the one who's uptight. After all, Han Lee, the Korean diner owner on 2 Broke Girls, the Changs on Glee, and Gloria on Modern Family are funny, right? They also happen to be listed among the top 7 most racially stereotyped characters on television. In fact, the character of Han on 2 Broke Girls is so blatantly stereotypical that Cracked.com listed him as #1 on their Most Bafflingly Racist Shows on TV Right Now:
The actor is from San Francisco and speaks perfectly clear English except on the show, where he's Asian reporter Tricia Takanawa. His character has been designed specifically as an Asian stereotype -- he's a workaholic nerdlinger with an iPad who speaks like he just rolled out of the fortune cookie factory and is surprised to find a lack of bamboo in our crazy, Western world.
According to show creator Matthew Moy, "But the comedy on 2 Broke Girls always comes from a place of love it's never mean. We're a comedy, and we often go right to the edge. It doesn't bother me. I've encountered this all my life. I've been made fun of all my life." Or, as Ian Fortey over at Cracked.com explains, "...it's all OK because everyone gets made fun of and he himself is gay, so how could what he does be offensive? How could a gay man be racist? Go on, get your abacus, try to explain it. You can't."
In minority numerics, one people group downing another is the mathematical equivalent of the zero times table. In Moy's crude portrayal of Asians as minorities, albeit from completely different spheres, they can bond in their minority-ness and make fun of each other "from a place of love." Moreover, accusing Moy of racism is, in itself, a hate crime because he, too, is a member of a minority group. It's like a one for one -- I'll trade you my gay writer for your Asian joke and we'll call it even. Oh, so that's why the Writers Guild wants to offer incentives to minority writers ...it'll save them all the bad press when they promulgate stereotypes on TV!
See? If you're good with numbers and even better with stereotypical humor, you too can create your own TV sitcom!
But, what does any of this matter to you, the viewer? As one reader remarked on a previous article in this series, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Yet, when that cigar is in the mouth of a White House intern, it takes on a whole new meaning. The problem with stereotyping isn't the stereotype itself; it's what people choose to do with it. According to the National Communication Association, "Media messages subtly legitimize existing status quo by providing causal explanations for why subordinating groups deserve to be in their assigned positions." The Writers Guild of America-West couldn't agree more:
It all begins with the writing. From concept to characters, from plot to narrative, writers play a fundamental role in the fashioning of stories a society circulates about itself. But in the Hollywood entertainment industry, unfortunately, there has all too often existed a disconnect between the writers hired to tell the stories and an America that's increasingly diverse with each passing day.
Yes, some audience members are smart enough to laugh it off or change the channel. Yet there are an increasing number of viewers and critics out there who have succumbed to the TV style of social engineering. Like Zack Rosen, they are beginning to view the stereotypes as the way television functions and, consequently, a fact of life. In other words, we are no longer people, we are numbers and the numbers are here to stay.
What loss, television? Perhaps Adriana Villavicencio put it best:
The one show with Latino characters that strikes me as having achieved that balance was the George Lopez show. The fairly sterile sitcom didn’t make Latino-ness inconsequential and used it to set up plenty of punch lines, but the characters were also kind of just regular – funny and flawed and multidimensional – in other words, human.
Come to think of it, her idea sounds somewhat familiar. I recall somewhere along the line a guy who pitched an idea about characters...oh yeah: valuing people for their character, instead of the color of their skin. I wonder if he was in television.
Geez, I bet he stunk at math.