In advance of submissions opening for the truTV Comedy Breakout Initiative, the NYTVF Staff sat down with NYTVF Executive Director Terence Gray to discuss the ever-popular TV genre of “Comedy Formats.”
NYTVF: We’ve been talking about Comedy Formats at the NYTVF for over four years. Networks want them, Independent Artists can create them. But, before that exchange of ideas can take place, it’d be good to know what exactly these artists are working on. So, what is a Comedy Format?
Terence: A Comedy Format is a show (typically a half hour in length) that features a repeatable premise. Every episode has the same, simple formula that is consistent and closed-ended. For example: with Billy on the Street, each episode finds comedian Billy Eichner taking to the streets of New York and, to borrow a phrase, quizzing people in the face. There’s room to play around within the construct, but there’s a core format to every ep.
How is a format different from a reality show?
Typically, when we think about reality shows, we’re referring to docs where the heart of the show lies in the journey of the characters rather than any sort of repeatable action (for example, The Real Housewives franchise or Jersey Shore). Those shows tend to be more character-focused, whereas a format is more focused on, well, the format of the show. Formats can still have strong characters, but they have a strong, repeatable action at their core.
Hosts are often a central component of a Comedy Format, but they’re first and foremost a conduit for the format. You’re not watching Billy Eichner’s life journey. You’re watching Billy Eichner host an engaging format that he infuses with his personality.
So we’re not following character arcs over a season?
Networks will often broadcast episodes of Comedy Formats several times, so it’s important that the content is somewhat evergreen. Meaning, there isn't necessarily a narrative thru-line for a season, so you could sit down and watch Episode 3 and not be missing a chunk of narrative information that might hinder your ability to enjoy.
You also need to have segments that are snackable enough to be broken up and put on the internet for the world to enjoy in smaller pieces.
We’re going to ignore that you used the term “snackable” and move on. So, what are different types of Comedy Formats?
A comedy format can be anything from a prank show (Impractical Jokers, Punk’d) to a news or info-tainment program (The Daily Show, Adam Ruins Everything), a panel show (Chelsea Lately) to a game show (@midnight), or even a half-hour dating format (Singled Out).
What are some format examples from truTV?
truTV is leading the Comedy Format game, and, in addition to the shows I’ve already talked about, some of their current hits include: Comedy Knockout, The Carbonaro Effect, Jon Glaser Loves Gear, Hack My Life, and Fameless.
One of the submission options for the truTV Comedy Breakout Initiative is a “Paper-Developed Format.” Can you talk about what exactly that is?
A Paper-Developed Format is basically a more in-depth version of a Series Overview. It should include a series logline, a summary of the show concept, and an overview of the show structure. Creators should demonstrate that they’ve given thought to the structure of their series and the repeatable elements that viewers can expect from week to week. Producers/creators should also put real thought into how they’re trying to encourage people to tune-in at the top of the show. What’s the hook that happens in the first act? Along the same lines, at the end of each act break, what will they do to give the audience a reason to come back to the show?
Just as important, and often overlooked, is how each episode ends or resolves. Are the segments building to a larger conclusion? Is the ending to each episode something that feels new and fresh? When describing the show concept, try to answer the following questions:
Creators should be able to explain their series concept in three paragraphs at most; anything more than that is too complicated.
It can be a good idea to include some examples of the gameplay or recurring bits as well.
Many of the people submitting are up-and-comers in the TV and comedy worlds who may not have access to top-line talent for their Format. Is attached talent required?
Creators do not need to have any talent attached to their show concepts for the truTV Comedy Breakout Initiative. If they do, that’s great, but it’s not a requirement!
If they don’t have talent attached to the show already, it doesn’t hurt to provide examples of talent for both the host and for any recurring correspondents, sidekicks, or panelists that might appear on the show. When giving examples of potential talent, creators should keep in mind that they don’t necessarily want to give examples of their “dream” host, but someone they think would be a good fit for the tone and style of their show. When looking at examples of hosts, look at the level and expertise of the hosts currently on truTV. truTV is looking for talent, passion, and humor.
So, say we’re creators putting together a pitch packet for this initiative. How much thought should be given to visual/style elements of a series in the Paper-Developed Format?
Giving some thought to the visual and style elements of a paper pitch will help people respond to a format and get excited about your idea, but, first, you want to get the information on the page. Once you convey the important details about the structure of the show, then start to consider the aesthetic elements to the show that set it apart from existing series (for example, the spinning chairs on The Voice). If these elements are instrumental to the way your show operates, speak to that.
Any last advice for creators looking to submit to the truTV competition?
Use your talents and your understanding of formats to create something that feels true to you. Networks and studios are constantly looking for what’s fresh and different, but they’re also looking to tell stories with a passionate creator or creative team at the core. Your talent and enthusiasm can sell a format – just be sure that enthusiasm makes it onto the page or into your video submission.
Thank you, Terence, for your time and advice.
No problem. Now back to work – I’m not paying you to sit around taking dictation.