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Inside Story: The comic appeal of Rich Appel

Nov 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Rich Appel is not TV funny–he’s smart TV funny.
There’s a difference.
TV funny is “Less Than Perfect.” Smart TV funny is “Friends.”
TV funny is “Reba” and “King of Queens.” Smart TV funny is “The Bernie Mac Show” and “The Simpsons.”
There’s also nasty TV funny (“Becker” and “Off Centre”) and dumb TV funny (“Bob Patterson” and “Three Sisters”), but really, the hip place to be is in the smart TV funny category.
How smart is Appel? Smart enough to say, “In coming up with a bit on a sitcom, the line between something being really stupid and really funny is very fine. What you have to be willing to do in the collaborative process that is the writing of most TV shows is risk coming up with the stupid and sharing that.”
Further evidence of Appel’s smarts: He hooked up with NBC, home of mostly smart TV funny comedies, to create “A.U.S.A.,” which the network is counting on to become a midseason hit.
And clearly what intrigued NBC about Appel was his pedigree of having worked on other smart TV funny shows.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The first thing one needs to know about Appel is that he was destined to become a lawyer. And as Appel discovered, while that could be a funny thing, it wasn’t a good thing.
“My grandfathers wanted me to be a lawyer,” says Appel, a 39-year-old New York City native. And with his parents both being professors, so it seemed written. He attended Harvard College and then Harvard Law, and began his career as a lawyer.
But something else also seemed to be written: Appel’s connection to pop culture. The day he was born, May 21, 1963, the Beatles were on the popular BBC radio show “Saturday Club” performing two of their newest songs, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret.”
During Appel’s formative years, television seemed enamored of dumb TV funny shows such as “Webster” and “Mr. Belvedere.” But syndication proved to be a saving grace for Appel, since it allowed him to become a fan of a show that’s a member of the most transcendent of TV sitcom categories, the ones that are, simply and forever, just plain funny as all get-out.
The lawless years
“I became hooked on reruns of `The Dick Van Dyke Show,”’ he says. “It’s when I knew I wanted to become a TV writer.”
But there was a slight problem: his destiny to become a lawyer.
After graduating from Harvard Law and passing the bar, he wound up in 1990 as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Criminal Division, Southern District of New York. Rudy Giuliani had recently left the office when Appel started his three-year tenure.
“Some of the smartest, funniest people I’ve met in my life were in that office,” Appel says.
When he was approaching the end of his contract with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it was becoming much clearer to Appel that the lawyer’s life wasn’t for him. Returning to his childhood dream, he started writing spec TV material. “I’d write sketches that I thought would fit on `Saturday Night Live.’ Material for Letterman. And I wrote some spec scripts for `Larry Sanders,’ which was just starting on HBO.”
Armed with all of his spec material, Appel was able to find an agent. And the agent was able to get some of the material to David Merkin, then head writer on “The Simpsons.”
“David’s background is actually engineering,” says Appel, “so fortunately for me, [his] getting this material from a lawyer didn’t intimidate him.”
L.A. story
Things started to snowball almost immediately. Appel and his wife were expecting their first child within weeks. Merkin wanted him out in Hollywood like yesterday. “Finally, David says, `How long after your wife gives birth can you guys fly out here?’ I had no idea. We checked with the doctor, got the date, and came out to L.A.”
Appel stayed with “The Simpsons” for four years.
Next up: “King of the Hill,” where Appel worked from 1997 until 2001.
All along, though, in the back of his head he knew, at some point, that he wanted to use his experiences as an assistant U.S. attorney on a comic TV show. A comedy?
“Oh yeah,” Appel says. “I knew almost the moment I got there that it had lots of comedy potential. Some ATF [Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] guys came by and asked us if we wanted to go over to Jersey and shoot weapons with them. And I’m a lawyer in my suit thinking, `Now this is cool. Absurd to a certain extent, of course, but cool.”’
Thus was born “A.U.S.A” (which stands for assistant U.S. attorney), starring Scott Foley (“Felicity”) and Amanda Detmer (“The Majestic”), and Appel’s chance at creating and becoming the showrunner of his own series.
Appel started writing “A.U.S.A.” as a single-camera comedy–meant to star real people, not cartoon characters–on Oct. 1 last year. A little more than a month later he sold it to NBC, to be developed under the auspices of 20th Century Fox Television and NBC Studios. Almost three months later, at the end of January of this year, Appel got the pilot order from NBC.
On April 20 a rough cut of the pilot was screened for a test audience. Early response data indicated a 64 percent favorable score.
On May 9 the final pilot was delivered to NBC.
And then Appel’s life really turned topsy-turvy.
First, Appel got the bad news.
After several screenings and focus group testing from May 9 to11, the prevailing sentiment among NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker and other development executives at the network was that “A.U.S.A.” was not ready to go out in its single-camera form for the fall 2002-03 prime-time schedule.
Then Appel got the good news: At NBC’s prime-time upfront presentation in New York May 13, Zucker formally confirmed that “A.U.S.A.” was going back into development as a multicamera sitcom–expressing his support for Appel’s pet project’s being considered as a midseason backup series.
“We were all in New York and had screened the pilot, and everybody here just loved what it could be, but it–frankly–did not feel funny enough,” says Karey Burke, NBC’s executive VP of prime-time development. “I’m not saying it is necessarily a byproduct of the single-camera form in every instance, but the pacing needed to be a little quicker and sometimes the voice-overs, flashbacks and other gimmicks common in single-camera shows can slow things down.”
For development executives at NBC, a network that has branded itself as a home for smart TV funny shows such as “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “Friends” over the past three decades, speculation heated up among talent agency executives that Zucker and company placed a renewed emphasis on the development of “broad” multicamera, live-audience comedies. Indeed, while single-camera, nonlaugh-track sitcoms “Scrubs” and “Hidden Hills” have been received reasonably well by TV critics, NBC has still found it difficult to replicate the mass-appeal ratings success of “Friends” or “Will & Grace”–both of which are multicamera sitcoms filmed in front of live audiences.
“Whether a comedy is shot in either the single-camera or multicamera format, it really just comes down to the form fitting the show’s conceptual vision, generally being funny and having great execution,” Burke says. “It has to be laugh-out-loud funny, that’s it. To Rich’s credit, he was always very receptive to our ideas and [creative] notes, and I think he was really receptive and excited about the kind of energy you get from doing an ensemble comedy like this in front of a studio audience.”
Says Appel, “Do single-camera shows have a tougher time on TV? I don’t really know. I would have a hard time trying to imagine `Curb Your Enthusiasm’ as a multiple-camera show. Some shows, I think, would work with either setup. Very few, I think, probably wouldn’t. But I think `A.U.S.A.’ works either way.”
Audience as arbiter
Brad Johnson, 20th Century Fox Television’s senior VP of comedy, says that while studio presidents Gary Newman and Dana Walden were high on the original single-camera pilot, they got the call from NBC on “holding the second pilot order
contingent” upon agreeing to reshoot the pilot in the multicamera format. “I was a real fan of the single-camera show, but there is no better tool than using the audience as a third-party arbiter of how the comedy and characters play out in the multicamera format.”
Appel was gratified by NBC’s unflagging support, but he quickly came to realize that in his “odyssey” to develop “A.U.S.A.”–already stretching out over almost a full year–he now faced a unique challenge in network TV: completely reshaping a comedy from a single-camera to a multicamera form. The marathon extended well into the summer months.
“Sure, the effect of the conversations I had with Gary [Newman], Dana [Walden], Brad [Johnson] and the network about rethinking this was like letting helium out of the balloon,” Appel says. “But it was also on the level of being constructive suggestions. If they had all come back to me and said, `Hey, we’re going to be pulling back and taking a look at this for a while,’ it could have been a lot worse. What the studio and network folks were saying to me, though, is we want you to re-approach this from another angle and to do it again. To me, that was very encouraging support.”
Film costs on single-camera shows, factoring in frequent week-long shooting schedules and multiple takes, can end up being significantly higher than those on a multicamera comedy, which is generally shot in chronological scene order in one or two tapings.
“Even when a single-camera show is in the script process, you could usually estimate that it could cost up to $2.4 million in single-camera these days, which is somewhat cost-prohibitive for newer shows,” Jim Sharp, 20th Century Fox Television’s co-production chief, says.
This is the first time Sharp and his production partner, Joel Hornstock, can recall ever having to shift production on a pilot from a single-camera to a multicamera format.
“For a pilot to get a shot in two different formats appears highly unusual, something I can’t ever remember being involved in personally,” Hornstock says.
Going from single-camera to multiple-camera also led to a switch in directors, from Michael Lehmann to Andrew Weyman. Having written all nine revisions of the multicamera script for “A.U.S.A.” down to the day of shooting on July 25, Appel turned to frequent collaborator Greg Daniels, co-creator and executive producer of “King of the Hill,” to help punch up some dialogue. Joining them on the set were Burke and JoAnn Alfano, NBC’s senior VP of comedy development, along with Zucker and all of the key 20th Century Fox and NBC Studios executives, in the studio audience.
“A.U.S.A.’s” two co-stars, Foley and Detmer, fed off the “electricity” of performing in front of a studio audience, says Appel. “The changes [in the second pilot’s script] gave Scott a funnier set piece to work off of, but we also found the multicamera shoot gave the audience the chance to see Amanda’s softer side, and they really warmed to her.”
“It literally moved faster” than the single-camera pilot, Burke says. “What’s amazing to me is that Rich has only worked in the animated sitcom arena, but he really took everyone’s input to heart and made it all gel together in a live studio environment.”
“Actors naturally feed off the audience, and the energy feeds off a laughing crowd,” Johnson says. “When you do a multicamera show, it is like doing a play, and you have the audience there giving you this immediate third-party feedback on what works and what doesn’t–something you can’t get from single-camera sitcom. In single-camera, you really have to trust your gut, because if things flatten out, you don’t have the audience feedback to tell you if something flopped.”
What also was a “telling sign” to Johnson was Zucker sitting through the entire “A.U.S.A.” shooting. “It was a very positive sign to see Jeff stick around after the show, because network executives like to head for the door before the cameras can unspool,” Johnson says. “We all did our assemblage to exchange notes and ideas, but I got a very good vibe from Jeff’s strong belief in the show.”
In fact, before 20th and NBC Studios could take a rough cut of “A.U.S.A.” for focus group testing at ASI in Los Angeles on Aug. 5, Burke says the network had already made up its mind internally to make a larger-than-expected 13-episode order. She added that the second focus group score, which hit a very favorable 72 percent (compared with a 64 percent score for the first pilot), had little or no bearing when NBC officially confirmed “A.U.S.A.” as a midseason pickup Aug. 15.
“Testing had little to do with it because we knew what we were getting on shooting day–it was just a lot more laugh-out-loud funny,” she says.
“I really have to give NBC credit, because they picked up the 13 episodes even before we saw the testing on it,” Johnson recalls. “This kind of thing really goes back to the days of [the late NBC programming chief] Brandon Tartikoff, when he went by his gut instincts and stuck behind shows–either in the development process or after they were already on the air. I think we’re really seeing that Jeff Zucker and the other NBC programmers had good instincts on `A.U.S.A.’ and really stuck by their guns on this one.”
Where to put it?
Still, Zucker, Burke and NBC scheduling head Mitch Metcalf will ultimately have to hash out where “A.U.S.A.” will be inserted into NBC’s prime-time schedule. In keeping with the past three seasons, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. (ET) Tuesday continues to be NBC’s Achilles’ heel, with long-in-the-tooth “Just Shoot Me” and freshman entry “In-Laws” barely averaging 3 ratings in adults 18 to 49–and weakening the lead-out ratings of longtime 9 p.m.-to-9:30 p.m. anchor “Frasier.” NBC’s powerhouse Thursday lineup, which may be facing the exit of “Friends” after this season, is seeing 8:30 p.m. lead-out “Scrubs” holding around 70 percent retention from its lofty lead-in.
For now, Burke says it is premature to speculate on “A.U.S.A.’s” potential scheduling in early 2003. However, she did elaborate that it has been NBC’s long-stated “mandate to develop sitcoms with the same sort of [adult] sensibility that fits in with our Tuesday and Thursday comedies.”
In the meantime, Appel is busily penning future episodes and assembling a writing staff, in advance of the first table read for episode two, starting Dec. 2.
“It is not like you get a bottle of champagne when a pilot is picked up, but NBC gave me more than that when they enlarged the order to 13 episodes–it was more like a birthday gift,” says Appel, who notes a lot of midseason shows typically end up with six-episode orders.
“This kind of commitment gives me the chance to hire a deeper bench of writers and producers and a whole lot more help to put up the bricks and mortar. When I worked on `The Simpsons,’ that’s a $2 billion show [in total network and syndication revenue] and they could afford any writer/showrunner they wanted; but [“A.U.S.A.”] hasn’t even made $2 yet–so the vote of confidence is greatly appreciated. Now we just have to execute on the promise.”