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“TV Comedy Writing Isn’t A Backup Plan.” Comedy Chameleon Tim Doyle Discusses ‘The Kids Are Alright’

“TV Comedy Writing Isn’t A Backup Plan.” Comedy Chameleon Tim Doyle Discusses ‘The Kids Are Alright’
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TV Comedy writer Tim Doyle grew up in Southern California in the 1970s and his story has now been formed into the new series, The Kids Are Alright. Doyle is also known for writing episodes of shows like Last Man Standing, Rules of Engagement, The Big Bang Theory, Grace Under Fire, Roseanne, and countless others. Not a bad resume for a TV writer who describes himself as ‘middling.’ Creative Screenwriting Magazine set him straight and spoke to him about writing comedy for network TV.

I never suspected anyone would be interested in the origin story of an obscure TV writer, joked Doyle. But, the gang over at ABC studios fell in love with Doyle’s description of his childhood. Like his real life, the series focuses on a family of eight boys in an Irish-Catholic family.

As a writer, Doyle has written over twenty-five pilots over the years. Around half of them were shot, (presumably, the other half got shot down,) but this is the first creation to make it to series. Perhaps it’s the personal aspects of the story or the timing, but Doyle is happy to no longer feel like the perpetual bridesmaid who finally gets to wear the big white dress.” Doyle also acts as the Emcee of his TV wedding, by also being the narrator on  The Kids Are Alright.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Tim Doyle

The Nostalgic Contrast

It’s hard for me to speak sociologically about [the nostalgic throwback], but I think there’s probably an appeal to two generations, from a business point-of-view. If you have a show with young people in it, young people may want to watch it. If you have a show that references a prior era, then those people may be attracted to it.

Speculations aside, there appears to be a built-in audience for the nostalgia of childhood, the look, and the clothing of the past. We have a lot of fun on this show with dial telephones, soda pop cans where you pull the top off, and super-sugary sweetened cereals, and all the things that no longer exist today.

Another thing is that the show allows for us to comment on the morals of today in an indirect way, without being so much on the nose,said Doyle. “If you want to talk about parenting today and how people are overprotective of their children, then some of the comedy is about how massively unsupervised 70s kids were.” Yet they still turned out all right.

The screenwriter added, “Or, we can make some comment about politics on this show that may indirectly comment on current politics.

Poetic License In Comedy

It’s not a documentary about my childhood. No one would be interested in that, joked the screenwriter. I’m not showing the boring parts. That was the quote from Alfred Hitchcock: Cinema is life with the boring parts cut out. In the stories we’ve done on The Kids Are Alright—the first thirteen episodes—start with a real event and get kicked around with the other writers and we manipulate it into a nice 21-minute story.

During the writing process, there’s a great deal of distortion between real life and entertainment, but everything starts with a nugget of truth. “The process of turning something into a TV show changes the nature of it,he added.It has to go through so many other people’s opinions.

It’s got to run through my bosses’ expectations of what runs on Tuesday nights on ABC, said Doyle. Within all of these parameters, the show still has to be funny. The screenwriter would describe himself as a comedy writer, which was his intention after watching The Dick Van Dyke Show as a kid.

You saw this room where these three funny people hung out all day trying to make each other laugh, coming up with bits, and it looked like the greatest job in the world. Being a comedy writer was something that was in my head ever since I was 8-or-9-years-old. I owe Carl Reiner and his folks a debt of gratitude.

Many writers of comedy understand the difference between comedy writers and writers who do comedy. Doyle believes he gravitates towards doing comedy, but he’s also written work that isn’t meant to be comedic in nature. “I think I would be very bored writing a police procedural show, he mused.

Defining A Comedic Style

Doyle describes himself a “journeyman TV writer.” Most of the time, I come onto a project that is already in progress so the story world and characters are already set, he said. 

As a consultant, the screenwriter and producer has spent most of his life adapting to shows that were already successful. “You become a comedy chameleon where you figure out the voice of the show and the voice of the showrunner or creator. You then try to adapt. This is one of the few instances where I’ve defined my own style.”

Specifically, he likes stories that have a funny idea at their core, and then he likes to build on that foundation to write layers of comedy for a better chance of success. Success is defined by mass appeal, unfortunately. There are lots of shows that I found funny that an audience didn’t really embrace.” And mass appeal is what broadcast TV relies on.

There are three types of success: creative success, critical, and audience success. They’re very different things. On a basic level, a successful comedy show is something I find fresh and surprising and I don’t know where the story is going in the first two minutes—or something that gives me a new point-of-view.”

The creator likes to see innovation in comedy. The most obvious example would be the early seasons of Seinfeld, which were creatively successful, but not necessarily audience-approved in the beginning. “They were doing something different. It was more cynical and they were not trying to make you love the characters.”

Even though they weren’t likeable, they were relatable,” added Doyle. “It’s been a while since a comedy on television has had that effect on me because 99 percent of the time you’re seeing something you’ve already seen before. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of network television—it’s hostile to innovation.”

With a network, there’s a great deal of money on the line, so there’s less room for risk and companies don’t want to roll the dice on something unusual. “Once in a while, something odd will get through the cracks and I really enjoy that.”

The Formula For Success

Doyle would describe the comedies off of network television as a “free-for-all” but he’s worked exclusively in the network business. I do have friends who work on these kinds of shows and I do have envy for their freedom of movement. But, I think the rewards aren’t as great and things come and go on cable and streaming.

With network television, there is more of a launch. There’s an opportunity to be seen and the network supports the series with advertising and lead-in shows. “You get access to 7 or 8 million eyeballs right off the bat. Whether those people stick around or not depends on whether your shows push the right buttons.”

There are certainly two very different sides of the coin. If you bring in services like YouTube, then it’s the Wild West. You can basically find every level of sophistication in terms of comedy, but what I do is commercial television and that’s a strict format with its own limitations.

Despite Doyle’s many years of experience, he knows there’s no exact formula, or recipe, for a successful television sitcom. I think time and time again, the formula proves wrong. Something unexpected happens when an audience connects with something the bosses at the network didn’t realize they had.”

But, if there was a successful formula, they wouldn’t have any failures,” quipped the screenwriter. Most things are slightly different versions of other shows and that’s one of the things I resent about how people are characterizing this show. They’ll say this is The Wonder Years meets That 70s Show or Malcolm in the Middle plus The Goldbergs. That’s fine, but there’s a lot more thought put in it than that.”

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

I certainly didn’t approach it with that kind of cynicism. I didn’t rub my hands together and say, ‘How can I make a million dollars?’ My process is not to ride The Goldbergs’ coattails. There are very specific decisions being made that have nothing to do with how this show borrows or reflects other shows.

In addition to avoiding these stereotypes, whenever a plot does feel too similar to another show, Doyle and company run from mimicking the idea.

Creating A Unique Series

Over the years, Doyle has worked with a ton of great TV comedy bosses and showrunners, where he has consciously and subconsciously taken notes to step into the role. “I’ve worked with Chuck Lorre, Aaron Sorkin, Michael Jacobs… they’ve taught me so much as a writer coming up in this business.”

You learn from what they do well and you learn from what they do badly,” said Doyle. You watch how people make mistakes—with actors, with notes, with storytelling—and you learn from that. You may even develop bad habits, but I like to think I’ve sampled these techniques and found my own way to pick from their good and bad ideas to make my own identity.”

For thirty years, Doyle has been shaping his writing techniques. I could point to almost anyone I’ve worked with and say this person taught me something. Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) is an extremely strong figure and he has a defiant attitude towards the people that pay him, but he has the success to back him up. I can’t be Chuck Lorre, but there’s something to be said for the power of fighting for your vision on a show and not being too influenced by the business.

The screenwriter also discussed his friendship with writer Victor Fresco, who is currently working on the Santa Clarita Diet for Netflix. The duo worked on shows like Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Better Off Ted, and Dinosaurs together, where he taught Doyle to be “both silly and smart at the same time. Learning this process taught Doyle a great deal about writing comedy.

There are other guys like Danny Zuker (Modern Family, Just Shoot Me!) who taught me how to write better jokes through osmosis. You learn how to write jokes in their style and you broaden your abilities.” Through these various outlets and connections, Doyle was able to find his own voice for The Kids Are Alright.

I’m hoping we end up with a show that is funny, fast-paced, vivid, and tells stories that feel heartfelt and comedic at the same time. There’s a range of ambition to what we’ve been doing, but I’ve been trying to keep the world of the show as big as I can make it…but I want it to feel more like a movie than a conventional TV show.

It’s more about execution than anything, said Doyle. “When Modern Family came out, everyone had written a pilot about adult siblings and their children and their interactions, but that show as executed at a superior level. They did it better than other people had done it and that’s what set that show apart. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to execute at a higher level and strike a personal nerve.”

In terms of advice for up-and-coming writers, Doyle is hesitant to give specifics because everyone has a different origin story. However, he does recommend for writers to take comedy writing seriously.” He added, “Everybody in film school wants to be Martin Scorsese, but comedy writing isn’t Plan B. Take comedy writing seriously. It’s a vocation I urge you not to treat like second-tier work.”

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