One morning last fall in Los Angeles, the comic and actress Kate Micucci sat chewing over a pitch for a television series with her writing partner, Felicia Day. How conventional would the gender roles have to be, they wondered, before a studio would bite?
Their basic premise was “manic pixie dream girl grows up”: Suppose you took a quirky-but-adorable female character, a staple of small films like “Amélie” and “Garden State,” and showed what she and her best friend would be like pushing 40.
The role was not a stretch for either woman. Ms. Micucci has played her share of manic pixies on shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Scrubs.” Ms. Day built a following as the creator of the web series “The Guild,” and as the love interest in Joss Whedon’s antihero sendup, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
When they pitched the concept around town, though, they got a typical Hollywood response. Producers told the pair they loved the idea — but that they’d love it more with just a few changes.
The series that excited the producers would indeed feature two women in their late 30s. But there would be a younger man at the center of the show, who would be a source of inspiration and self-knowledge.
Ms. Micucci began to muse about this new version of the show, tentatively called “Hot Guy in the Basement.” They still hadn’t committed to the producers’ notes. “If we changed the title, we could get rid of the hot guy,” she said.
And yet the appeal of the younger man was undeniable. “The hot guy is more network salable,” Ms. Day countered. “A lot of people are keen on the idea of this young person invigorating a bored person’s life.” If a manic pixie lacked a man to behold her, was she still a manic pixie? A network executive might begin to wonder.
Their dilemma pointed to a paradox of the recent television renaissance. Clearly, the advent of prestige cable and streaming services has supported a proliferation of nonmale voices. Creators like Jill Soloway (“Transparent”), Jenji Kohan (“Orange Is the New Black”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) have achieved an iconic status that might not have been possible a decade earlier.
But for all the ways that the Netflix era has expanded opportunities for certain auteurs, the entertainment industry is still a forbidding place for many women show creators. That’s because the economics of streaming are starting to resemble traditional broadcast television more than most highbrow viewers realize.
According to industry reports, the two most-watched shows on Netflix last year were “The Office” and “Friends,” hardly graveyards for gender stereotypes. HBO, long the capital of small-screen taste-making, is under orders from its new corporate parent, AT&T, to add more shows that appeal to Middle America. Last year, Amazon revealed it was canceling three newer shows, including Jill Soloway’s self-consciously feminist “I Love Dick” and “One Mississippi,” by the comic Tig Notaro, because it reportedly sought “bigger, wider-audience series.”
“They are trying to have massive, breakout global hits,” Rich Greenfield, a media industry analyst formerly at BTIG Research, said of Amazon.
Publicly, the networks and streaming platforms stress their interest in attracting diverse talent. Some have even put money into grooming it. But privately, many executives are leery of shows that break new ground on gender. “Each one of the platforms is now under tremendous pressure to drive massive subscriber growth,” said a former senior executive at a large digital property.
He added that former colleagues who invested too heavily in outsider voices — at the perceived expense of finding the next blockbuster — sometimes found their jobs at risk. “You quickly end up having conversations like, ‘How is what you’re doing connected to our commercial goals?’” the former executive said.
Women created about 20 percent of the shows that have aired on HBO so far this year, or will return to the network before the end of 2019, according to a Times tally reviewed by the network. HBO said that nearly half of its directors are women, and it has said that its standards for shows haven’t changed since the acquisition. At Amazon, women created about 15 percent of current shows, but about 40 percent of the new programs the company has ordered since a leadership change last year.
When I spent time with Ms. Micucci and Ms. Day, the popular idea of a bonanza for women in television seemed at odds with what they and their peers experienced every day.
“Hollywood is perfect at taking what you’re enthusiastic about and just draining it till you’re not excited about it anymore,” Ms. Day said at one point. Eventually, she and Ms. Micucci resolved to stick with the hot guy in the basement, at least long enough for the next round of producers to weigh in.
The narcissism of the underachieving white male
Ms. Micucci has deep roots in the alternative comedy scene. A bit called “The Nap Song,” about sleeping platonically alongside a man she fancied, helped land her a spot at the Montreal comedy festival as a young performer. The indie work has propelled her career and helped define her aesthetic.
But she also has a richer, sometimes tragic, sensibility. “I was doing Fallon, a late-night appearance, and she had come to hang out with me,” said Ms. Notaro, a longtime friend. Ms. Micucci sat down at a piano in the green room and began crooning about a dog that had passed away. “I was devastated,” said Ms. Notaro. She later asked Ms. Micucci to perform a song for the credits of “Clown Service,” Ms. Notaro’s short film about a woman who hires a children’s performer to lift her out of a funk.
In addition to Ms. Day, Ms. Micucci often collaborates with a comic and actress named Riki Lindhome. They met 13 years ago and formed a satirical music duo called Garfunkel and Oates, after the lesser-known members of two famous musical tandems. In 2007, they uploaded their first video to YouTube so that Ms. Lindhome’s family and friends could watch it, only to later discover that the site had promoted them to its home page. Tens of thousands of people were tuning in.
Over the years, they have recorded videos about the hypocritical sexual mores of conservatives (“The Loophole”) and the deadening rituals of social media (“Happy Birthday to My Loose Acquaintance”). They have mocked the oppressive odor of bro-culture, and the oppressive smugness of pregnant women. They have also become close friends and collaborators, sharing a bank account for their work together, an accumulation of audition traumas and even a part-time assistant.
On the day that I tagged along with Ms. Micucci, they borrowed a friend’s living room to shoot a music video about an office functionary named Chris, who is worried that the shifting gender zeitgeist will threaten his cushy desk job. It is ultimately a song about the narcissism of the underachieving white male, summed up by the refrain: “Before we worry about solving / centuries of oppression / we can’t forget to ask / the most important question: What’s gonna happen to you, Chris?”
‘You have to focus on making the men laugh’
The song seemed born of personal observation, as if Hollywood, too, has been set up to make ordinary guys comfortable and talented women schvitz. It was tempting to mine it for clues about the fate of Garfunkel and Oates.
In 2013, the television network IFC signed up Ms. Micucci and Ms. Lindhome to produce and star in a sitcom about two women in a comedy band who are trying to catch a break in show business and in romance — a series about themselves, in other words.
In their division of labor, Ms. Lindhome provides the feminist worldview, Ms. Micucci brings the weirdness and they meet somewhere in the middle. One early brainstorming document read, “Kate leaves her trombone at the airport, finds out she’s HPV positive.”
Fred Savage, the “Wonder Years” star, who directed the series, recalled an ad-libbed riff about the texture and volume of their periods. He warmed to the idea after initial doubts. “It opened my eyes up to what was acceptable, what was possible commercially,” Mr. Savage said.
But Ms. Micucci felt the network was stifling her and Ms. Lindhome. IFC executives scrapped the duo’s original pilot and discarded some of the elements the pair was most attached to, later instructing them to open the show’s “aperture.” The experience yielded a single, eight-episode season. “It was really hard, and it was unlike the norm for most shows,” said Ms. Micucci, who nonetheless remains proud of the final product.
That comics have chafed at meddling executives for as long as comedy has been on television makes it hard to assign blame — all the more so given that Ms. Micucci and Ms. Lindhome had little experience writing a scripted series.
But the numbers argue that in the era of Peak TV, women comics still face serious obstacles. For all the success of a set of critical darlings — like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Insecure” and “Russian Doll,” to name a few — there is just one late-night-style show featuring a well-known female comic: “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” on TBS. Netflix canceled Michelle Wolf’s offering after a single season, and Hulu canceled Sarah Silverman’s after two. And while the comedian Lilly Singh will take over a show on NBC this year, the odds get even longer for women of color.
“When I first started comedy, my male comic friends would say, ‘You have to focus on making the men laugh,’” Ms. Silverman told GQ last year, before the ax fell. “‘The women only laugh if their date laughs.’”
Dan Pasternack, the IFC executive who oversaw the Garfunkel and Oates show, said the pressure from the network partly reflected a change in leadership during production, which made IFC more risk averse. (An IFC representative declined to comment.) But he added, “There’s always that struggle you have with corporate people about, ‘Oh, so this is a show with two women at the center of it.’” He said he found such concerns misguided.
‘You always hope for that magical phone call’
One challenge of hanging out with actors from a sitcom inspired by their comedy duo: You’re never entirely sure if you’re observing their actual friendship, or them “doing” their friendship. Or, for that matter, an impression of an impression of their friendship.
After a recording session in Hollywood, Ms. Micucci and Ms. Lindhome grabbed dinner and then retreated to Ms. Lindhome’s place, a cavernous loft with a swing dangling from the ceiling. They needed to rehearse for a live performance that evening, but first wanted to toy with writing a parody of a tragic song, like “Desperado.” “What would be the funniest topic?” Ms. Lindhome asked, playing the languid melody.
“A song about all the different milk options,” Ms. Micucci said. “There are so many. Whole milk, 2 percent, 1 percent, skim. Then you’ve got almond, then you’ve got oat.”
“What is oat milk?” Ms. Lindhome began to sing, then paused to wonder, “Why are people doing that now?”
“Actually, I really like oat milk,” Ms. Micucci confessed.
They seemed pleased at the chance to banter. In recent years, their work schedules had overlapped less and less. Ms. Lindhome was busy co-creating and starring in a Comedy Central series called “Another Period,” a farcical (well, more farcical) “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” revolving around a pair of wealthy and ludicrously shallow sisters in early 20th-century Rhode Island. (Sample plot summary: “The Bellacourt sisters turn to Harriet Tubman for help revitalizing their fading profiles, and the Commodore struggles with his disastrous finances.”)
The network canceled the show in 2018, the same year that Ms. Lindhome began writing a new series about a 30-something woman struggling to satisfy her high expectations for work and romance. Fox had ordered a script for the show, which counted Amy Poehler as an executive producer, but later decided not to pursue it. There are no guarantees, even with Ms. Poehler’s blessing.
For her part, Ms. Micucci has acted in a series of independent films, including roles alongside such comics as Fred Armisen, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Mike Birbiglia and Keegan-Michael Key. The projects pay roughly $10,000 for about a month’s work every year or so, and often give Ms. Micucci the chance to extend her range after years of being typecast as the quirky sidekick.
She subsidizes these roles with a variety of steady voice gigs that together pay her about $75,000 to $100,000 in a typical year — like playing Velma on “Scooby Doo” and Daisy the rabbit on “Nature Cat,” an animated PBS series. It is not lost on Ms. Micucci that, even in cartoons, she often plays a type: the slightly nerdy female who explains the world to her less-evolved guy friends.
And she is trying to sell multiple shows, including a children’s program for which she is writing a script. “You always hope for that magical phone call,” Ms. Micucci said, when I asked about her ambitions. “I hope that can happen — to be a lead in a TV comedy.”
“Right now,” she added, “I don’t know what my next big thing is.”
The future belongs to the women
That night, Ms. Micucci and Ms. Lindhome went to Bar Lubitsch, where they were scheduled to perform. The early headliner was Bob Odenkirk, the star of the “Breaking Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul.” He labored through a riff about being old and cranky, squeezing laughs from uneven material through the force of his delivery. “I’m trying to do a good show for you, but I will stop this show if my Ring video doorbell goes off,” he warned the audience.
Mr. Odenkirk seemed on the verge of escaping with a B-plus performance when a voice called out from the back. “I’ve been here all night, and you’re killing it,” said the voice. “Kiiiiiiiilllllling it.” It was Andy Dick, the comic who became an outcast in Hollywood after being accused of harassing, groping and exposing himself to people. For a moment, the air drained out of the room.
When Ms. Micucci and Ms. Lindhome took the stage, the audience seemed ready to move on from the 50-something white guys. Some of the night’s loudest laughter came during an edgy riff in their new song about the relentlessly mediocre office worker “Chris”: “If this was a marriage, he’d be the wife,” “If this was the apocalypse, he’d be a butter knife.” Jazz Ponce, a teacher who doubles as one of the show’s talent bookers, cackled uncontrollably.
The evening seemed to suggest something larger. Comedy can be a particular slog for the voicey feminist. Beyond the risk-averse executives and monochromatic writers’ rooms is the problem of the comics themselves: Any job that involves making crowds of strangers laugh will hold a special allure for damaged men.
And yet there are moments when you suspect the future belongs to the women.
“We haven’t performed in like a month; it felt so good to get back out there,” Ms. Lindhome said afterward.
“Maybe in the new year,” Ms. Micucci said, “we can book a couple more dates.”
Follow Noam Scheiber Twitter: @noamscheiber.
- 60 reasons why Blue Peter still rules the TV seas to mark its 60th birthday
- Peep Show to politics: meet a TV writing powerhouse
- TV Quickfire: Sally Phillips talks about comedy clip show My Favourite Sketch
- Every new movie and TV show coming to Netflix in October
- Gail Walker: The golden age of TV broke new ground ... what a shame we’re unlikely to see a repeat
- TV preview: Doctor Who (BBC1), This Country – the Aftermath (BBC3) and Wanderlust (BBC1)
- Glasgow comic opens up on everyday struggles with mental health
- ASA rubbishes public's TV ad complaints in brutal best-of list
- New Timelord and new TV schedule slot for Doctor Who
- Taking On Iran's TV Taboos For Women: Cucumbers, Earlobes, And The Chuckle
- Theresa May reveals thoughts on Bodyguard TV show
- JK Rowling’s Strike to return to TV with adaptation of new novel
- Margot Robbie returning as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey in 2020
- Ruby Rose set to play Batwoman in new Arrowverse crossover and possible series
- Kristen Wiig fights off attacker during a scene from Wonder Woman 1984
- Chuckle Brothers fans desperate to get comedy duo's song to No.1
- Strictly Come Dancing 2018 line-up confirmed celeb contestants and the rumours
- 15 questions that were answered on the return of Made In Chelsea
- Strictly Come Dancing 2018 line-up
- Strictly Come Dancing 2018: The confirmed and rumoured contestants revealed
For Female Comics, Peak TV Has Its Troughs have 3048 words, post on www.nytimes.com at July 25, 2019. This is cached page on Health Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.