Just when you thought the spinoff concept for a comedy was going to have a renaissance, it all falls down. While I wrote a piece recently about the problems of comedy spinoffs in recent years, “How I Met Your Dad (or Father)” seemed to have the best chance of breaking the chain. And while the problems of CBS dropping it so far are due to complex casting and business decisions, CBS seems to have an overall general problem with finding good sitcoms. When the best you hear about next season is a remake of “The Odd Couple”, you know that original sitcom ideas seem to be waning.
With indications that “How I Met Your Dad” may be shopped elsewhere, is there any chance of spinoffs happening again in network sitcoms? Or is the spinoff now doomed to being relegated to crime drama franchises?
CBS doesn’t want you to laugh when they tell you that there’s going to be yet another “CSI” spinoff this coming season. Called “CSI: Cyber”, they finally managed a “CSI” spinoff that isn’t the name of a city and instead more internal about cyber crimes. Plus, with NBC’s “Law & Order” franchise far from done, don’t be surprised to see a new spinoff there eventually. The comedy spinoff, though, seems too hard of a sell now when many sitcom concepts just aren’t expansive enough to warrant such a thing. You can argue it was already that way many years ago, and the only thing selling them then was the star power or the initial TV show’s longevity.
Is there a way that comedy spinoffs can ever be done again? It might happen through the emerging trend of networks thinking in smaller terms rather than expansive runs and seasons.
Why Comedy Spinoffs Worked Well in the Past
There seemed to be an exclusive family of spinoffs back in the older eras of TV. Much of this started in the 1970s when Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” kicked off the idea that characters who cross through one topical universe could easily be spun off into their own. Thus began “Good Times”, “The Jeffersons”, and “Maude” as just some of the excellent spinoffs from the “All in the Family” line. Following that, Garry Marshall took the same token and spun off a series of shows from his “Happy Days” throughout the 1970s. The most bizarre of these was “Mork & Mindy”, which still gets quoted now as much as the Fonz from “Happy Days.”
These were all so wildly successful that every producer thought spinoffs from comedies were an easy franchise opportunity. The first massive thud in this department was the spinoff from “Three’s Company”, called “Three’s a Crowd.” Despite John Ritter still at the helm, the original show worked based on the single guy living with two single girls in an apartment. Having him now married put the show in a creative corner.
Later, some spinoffs seemed to be happy accidents like the show “Valerie”, starring Valerie Harper. If you remember this show in the mid 1980s, Valerie Harper starred as the mother of the Hogan Family. The show was a success, though Harper left the show due to creative differences, thus precipitating the death of her character. After this happened, and two title changes, it shifted to the spinoff “The Hogan Family” (with star Sandy Duncan) and became even more successful for four more years.
Those kinds of roundabout and oddball spinoffs became rare later on. With dramas dominating network TV by the 1990s and 2000s, the spinoff has been focused strictly on dramas ever since. This also leaves the sitcom in a dilemma if they ever want to become major franchises again. Regardless, what would a limited-run concept do in reigniting interest?
Do Shorter Runs Breed More Success?
I’ve written considerably about limited-run shows being the likely new way to interest viewers above standard seasons. A sitcom running only 12 episodes per season would allow more creative space for writers to find truly funny situations and characters rather than trying to fill time. It’s a creative challenge networks should consider seriously as a way to find more substantive sitcom ideas that could easily be spun off into franchises once seen 40 years ago.
There shouldn’t be a temptation to regurgitate old concepts either like “The Odd Couple.” With several generations still having a certain vision in mind for that original series, thin concepts aren’t going to bring an expansive universe for writers.
Large ensembles in sitcoms may be eliminated to save money, so spinoffs in comedy might be completely wiped out. Even with “How I Met Your Dad” not having any connection to “How I Met Your Mother” other than concept, the spinoff may have more of a different meaning eventually as in concept retread rather than developing sideline characters.