Once upon a time, things were so simple. There were 3 major television networks and dozens of new shows premiering with great fanfare every fall. Some would be crowned successful (renewed!) some would not (canceled!), we’d get a summer of reruns … and then the whole circle of life would begin again.
Over the last few years, the industry has changed so drastically that observers have talked themselves hoarse over streaming channels, limited-run series and binge habits. But as Amy Schumer quietly reminded us in the past 24 hours, another revolution is gaining momentum: The rapid antiquation of the term “cancellation.”
As headlines focused on a controversy surrounding “Inside Amy Schumer” writer Kurt Metzger that prompted calls to fire him, Schumer at first attempted a dodge by tweeting: “we aren’t making the show anymore.” Which must have been quite a shock to Comedy Central, since they had already renewed the show for a fifth season. A number of hours later, she added “[‘Inside’] is not cancelled. Comedy Central has provided us with a wonderful home.”
Clearly, the ground is shifting. Formidable talents like Schumer, Larry David, and Louis CK have hit shows on standby, waiting like a puppy at the door, hoping its master will walk through at any moment, eager to play again. So, is the cancellation of the word “cancellation” a good thing? And, did it really all get started with a supposed mental breakdown?
The Chappelle Factor
In the old days, a once-in-a-generation talent like Rod Serling, Sid Caesar or Lucille Ball would be “discovered” and immediately placed on the Hollywood treadmill, working exhausting hours to feed the beast week after week; eventually, their product would get watered down, they would sometimes have a public or private breakdown (Caesar was famously driven to substance abuse after ten relentless years of live TV broadcasts) and the industry would move on to the next talent.
Then, in late 2004/early 2005, Dave Chappelle stumbled upon a different formula. The hottest comedy talent in the world, his “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central was an unequivocal success. The comedian had signed a well-publicized $50 million contract, was scheduled to begin production on Season 3 — and one night onstage, was attempting a stand-up performance while fans repeatedly interrupted him by screaming, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” Chappelle complained about working “20 hours a day,” insisted that “the show is ruining my life” and walked off stage.
Chappelle escaped to South Africa for some soul-searching, flirted with walking away from his contract (eventually, he would) and went on Oprah Winfrey’s show to address rumors of mental health issues. But although Chappelle and Comedy Central both sometimes seemed confused by one another’s actions, the comedian did say he wanted to return to “finish what we started.” Eventually, the network released what were called “The Lost Episodes.”
There was never a Suzanne Somers-like standoff, and the message seemed to be clear: We’ll be here for you, Dave — if you ever want to come back.
Fast-forward to 2012, when HBO CEO Richard Plepler was asked why there were no immediate plans for his network’s hit show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to return. “He essentially has carte blanche with us,” Plepler said of Larry David. “And when he wants to come back and do ‘Curb,” we’d be thrilled.”
Four years later, Larry David finally seems to be ready. In June, HBO announced that the series was planning to film new episodes that would be the first ones aired since 2011.
The floodgates are opening
In August 2009, Louis CK created “Louie,” a show on FX that turned him into a comedic sensation. In 2015, he released a bleak season consisting of only 8 episodes and said in January 2016 that he “just doesn’t know” whether the show will return.
Schumer expanded on her comments about not making “Inside Amy Schumer” anymore Thursday (August 18), tweeting “[I am] doing stand-up and focusing on writing more for the next year at least. We are slated for a Season 5, but not in the foreseeable future.” Later, she added: “I’m grateful Comedy Central is giving me this time to work on other projects.”
Increasingly, such doors are being left open.
Why the shift?
Let’s be brutally honest: There’s no doubt that Comedy Central, FX and HBO wouldn’t prefer to be airing season after season of these hit shows, taking in the revenue that comes with them. However, unless they want another Chappelle on their hands, the current thinking seems to be that great comedic minds should be given room to breathe, renew and only make things when they have something worth making. Somewhere, Sid Caesar may be quietly applauding.
When Schumer heads back to her stand-up roots, Larry David does Broadway or Louis CK experiments with quirky Internet distribution, networks are increasingly willing to extend that “carte blanche” status to them.
Neither the show nor the talent are using that old-fashioned “cancellation” phrase, providing a safety net for any career stumble with the hope that, although “Curb” won’t make 16 seasons following its 2000 debut, just one season more would be better than simply having labelled it “canceled” in 2011.
With the way television consumption is evolving, it’s easy to imagine a time when Seasons — as we know them — will no longer exist. Major stars with so-called “vehicles” could simply have the series in their back pocket, starting up production for weeks or months at a time.
When fans binge multiple seasons of an old show, whether the series took 12, 24 or 48 months between seasons is irrelevant. As far as the current audience is concerned, Netflix and other streaming channels have so radically altered release plans that people seem just as likely to watch “Master of None” if Aziz Ansari films the show in a traditional timeframe as they would be if he takes a couple years off to tour.
It’s also easy to imagine the trend crossing over to drama, particularly with shows like “Gilmore Girls,” “Twin Peaks” and “Parenthood” essentially saying: If you want to label us “cancelled,” we’ll just go somewhere else.
Think about the recent cinematic breakthrough “Boyhood,” and ask yourself what a show would be like that followed a top star for multiple decades, filmed whenever he or she felt inspired.
Once upon a time, Lucille Ball — who could easily be considered the Schumer of her time — had to play a character named “Lucy” (with a variety of last names) in twelve different TV shows and movies in a 35 year span. Getting canceled and tirelessly attempting to reinvent her persona was the name of the game.
If she was becoming a household name today, she could thank Dave Chappelle while conceivably playing one character for as long as she likes, whenever she feels inspired, in a show that would stretch from her youth to old age.