Universal Television Comedy Execs Say Their World Feels “Oddly Normal” Post Strikes: “People Love The Comfort Of Comedy” – SXSW

Universal Television’s top comedy development executives said business is thriving with EVP Jim Donnelly calling the moment “oddly busy.”

“The world is crazy right now and people love the comfort of comedy. And post-strike, everybody really wants to work … We have five new series in development that we’re excited about. We have a pilot for NBC,” he told a panel at SXSW, where NBCU’s Hacks will premiere Episode 3 here tomorrow ahead of its debut on Max in May.

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“I feel like we need comedy more than ever.”

He was joined by colleagues Megan Macmillan and Beth Miyares, both SVPs for Comedy Development. The team is behind successful and anticipated television comedies Never Have I Ever, Girls5eva, Harlem, Bupkis, A Clasic Spy, St. Denis Medical and The Four Seasons.

Of course challenges there are. The explosion of streamers changed some of television’s fundamentals and that’s been followed by a contraction in spending and green lighting that’s causing grief to many in the industry. The execs cited a years-long dip in series episodes from 24 to 10 or less, and said high production costs that are forcing projects out of LA to Canada and Europe including one ti Montreal and one to Prague.

“We miss those days of 24 episodes year, and it’s a real challenge for everyone right now. How do you train people where there are so few episodes? We don’t know the answer,” said Donnelly. The group said Universal Television has a stable of top show runners committed to fostering talent.

A more existential question lately is around categories — what defines a comedy or drama.

“Honestly,” said Miyars, “The Bear is a half hour. Succession was an hour. We all think Succession was funnier than The Bear.” Not that they didn’t love The Bear. But “it’s different these days. So, it’s, it’s a really complicated answer.”

“It’s very difficult to define. But a couple of very, very smart people have said, Shakespeare being one of them, that if there’s a wedding in it, it’s a comedy, if there’s a funeral in it, it’s a drama,” she added.

“In a drama, you want to keep the audience guessing for as long as possible. You want a big reveal at the end. With a comedy, you want the audience in on the jokes as early as possible. You want to get them to know the characters. You want to get them to know the situation, so they can be in on the joke when you make the joke,” she said (crediting a show runner she works with for the concept).

Another way to look at it – if you remove the last line of every scene in a comedy, it becomes a drama. “Because in a comedy, the very last line of the scene is the joke. So, if you get rid of the joke, it just, it’s informational.”

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