The serious paradox of the successful teen comedy

Trying to reach teens with a comedy series is a bit like trying to be cool. If it looks like you're trying too hard, you'll never pull it off. But despite the difficulties, there are still producers out there grappling with...
January 1, 1999

Trying to reach teens with a comedy series is a bit like trying to be cool. If it looks like you’re trying too hard, you’ll never pull it off. But despite the difficulties, there are still producers out there grappling with what many feel is the most difficult demographic to reach with comedy; they’ve had their successes and failures, and they’re willing to share some of their hard-earned wisdom.

‘Probably the most important factor is not to talk down to them,’ says Josh Weinstein, half of the executive producer team that launched The Simpsons, ‘because teens today are really savvy and they’ll know if they’re being had.’ Weinstein is currently working with Bill Oakley, the other half of the original Simpsons executive producer team, on a new animated series aimed at an audience ages 14 to 30 called The Downtowners. Oakley says shows that underestimate the intelligence of their teen audience do so at their own peril. ‘Everyone knows what the morals of these stories are, and we can rely on the viewers being a little more sophisticated. We don’t have to say `the moral of the story is that you shouldn’t drink,’ because it’s implicit in the story, and coming out and saying it is both boring and trite.’

Robin Schwartz, VP of Saturday morning programs and prime-time series at NBC, has been wrestling with the teen demographic since she began working on the TNBC Saturday morning teen lineup in 1992. She agrees that underestimating your audience is dangerous. ‘If they see things that are fake, they tune out,’ she says. ‘They’re a very fickle audience. You can’t pull one over on teenagers-they want to discover what’s cool.’

Schwartz says that the key to avoiding the earnest pseudo-cool feel that can be the kiss of death for a series lies in the writing. For One World, a live-action comedy aimed at viewers ages 13 to 17, Schwartz says the writing is kept fresh by hiring young writers for whom the teenage years are still a very recent memory. Oakley and Weinstein, who based much of the teen content in The Downtowners on their own high school experiences, took a similar route. About half of their writers are in their mid or early 20s.

Young, gifted writers can produce authentic dialogue, but that’s only part of ensuring a series doesn’t ring false. Both One World and The Downtowners involved up-front research too, although each series handled it in very different ways. One World, which was created to help NBC affiliates fill three hours a week of government-mandated educational programming for children and teens, employs psychologists, teachers and other community members to give input to the series, and like most NBC co-productions, it uses focus groups and ratings feedback to refine the series to suit its audience.

Oakley and Weinstein take a more casual approach. ‘We’re in our early 30s, we’re already old men, and we don’t want to be fuddy-duddies saying `this is what teens are like today,’ so we actually visited some high schools and talked to some teenagers,’ says Weinstein. ‘We had our animators observe teenagers in action as well, because we don’t want it to be like a typical Hollywood-style high school production where every child is dressed in the latest fashions and none of them have any pimples or anything.’

For the two American comedies, looking to their audience for guidance during development is second nature, but Michael Rose, series producer for the surreal model animation production Rex the Runt, says that’s not the British way. ‘Americans do lots of audience testing, which we tend not to do so much over here,’ he says, explaining that Rex was the product of creator Richard Goleszowski’s vision, and wasn’t tailored to reach a particular audience. ‘I think that what a very sophisticated audience like teens will find less easy to take is something that is highly packaged, and tends to be formulaic,’ Rose adds. ‘They want originality, they want to see what’s new. They do in England, anyway.’

Rose takes the view that a series shouldn’t necessarily be developed to pander to a specific demographic. In the case of Rex the Runt, which Rose hopes will appeal to an audience ages 15 to 28, it was more a case of figuring out who would be likely to watch after the show was created. ‘You have to think about who the audience is, and what they like, of course,’ he says, ‘otherwise, it’s not likely you’ll get financing or commissioning. But equally, you must not lose that spark of originality that inspired you.’ Rose is partly pegging the success of Rex on the fact that the show wasn’t specifically created with teens in mind, and says that avoiding the temptation to build a series around its target audience is, in fact, part of reaching that very audience. ‘They enjoy parodies, they enjoy anti-establishment material, they enjoy the surreal. They enjoy material that’s not overworked, that’s a bit raw, it’s a bit cool, it’s not finished.’

This gets to the very heart of the maddening paradox of the teen demographic itself. If you want to be cool, it can’t look like you’re trying to be cool-and if you want to reach teens, it can’t look like you’re trying at all.



One World

Producers: Peter Engel Productions in association with NBC Enterprises

Format: live action, 13 x 30 minutes (may be renewed for 13 more episodes)

Target Audience: 13 to 17 years old

Budget: approximately US$400,000 per episode

Distribution: NBC Television (in the U.S.), NBC Enterprises (worldwide)

Broadcast: Currently airing on NBC Saturday mornings

The Downtowners

Producers: Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein Productions in association with Castle Rock Entertainment and Film Roman for The WB Television Network

Format: cel animation, 13 x 30 minutes

Target Audience: 14 to 30 years old

Budget: Too early to release (similar to the budget for King of the Hill)

Distribution: Warner Bros.

Broadcast: Will air on The WB in late 1999/early 2000

Rex the Runt

Producers: Aardman in association with EVA Entertainment and Egmont Imagination for the BBC

Format: plasticine model animation,

13 x 10 minutes

Target Audience: 15 to 28 years old

Budget: £100,000 (US$166,000) per episode

Distribution: EVA Entertainment (worldwide), Egmont Imagination (Scandinavia)

Broadcast: Will air as a strip on BBC 2 over Christmas

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