With Friends finally coming to an end next week, where does the New York sitcom go next? Is it dead? Ned Martel talked to three writer-producers—Phil Rosenthal of Everybody Loves Raymond, David Kohan of Will & Grace, and Michael Patrick King of Sex and the City—about the genre.
Are New Yorkers good sitcom characters—even if they turn some viewers off?
Rosenthal: I think there’s a certain way of thinking that New Yorkers have, a kind of shorthand to get to the point—
Kohan:—fast. And in Will & Grace, there’s a specifically urban kind of neurotic quality. New York feels like the center of the universe to the people who are there.
King: It is.
Kohan: The characters care about each other, to be sure, but there’s a kind of self-absorption that seems specifically urban.
King: I would say a sense of entitlement.
Kohan: On Will & Grace, they’re entitled to hate a restaurant, they’re entitled to hate another show, they’re entitled to hate another character. And, you know, they’re entitled to hate themselves, which is actually part of it.
Rosenthal: The other thing about New York is, it creates conflict. It’s not the easiest place to live, and I don’t say that disparagingly.
King: Yeah, and it’s also incredibly fertile for story ideas—just walking to work.
What story lines have you picked up from the street?
King: I was on the way to the subway and I passed the gay-lesbian-bi-transgender center on 13th Street and they had a big poster for their prom, and I went, “That’s ridiculous.” A prom! And then I started to think, Well, what you do on every sitcom is a high-school prom; it’s a flash point for anybody who’s never had a date. So by the time I got to work, I thought, What if Stanford had to go to his prom and Carrie had to go with him? I mean, literally, if I hadn’t seen that poster … which, by the way, had a drag queen named Lady Bunny on it, and we used her in the scene.
Kohan: We had her on the show, too.
King: But there’s tons of stuff like that. I mean, I almost fell in a hole walking down the street, you know, one of those where they load groceries, and we were talking about that at work and somebody said, “I fell in one once.” And then we got Samantha falling in the hole.
Is The Apprentice the new, ultimate New York sitcom?
Kohan: I have to confess: I’ve never seen it.
Rosenthal: I like that The Apprentice is Survivor in New York. All those shots of the city look terrific, and when you see them on the street, you remember when you were out on the streets trying to get a job. If you look at Survivor, [Mark Burnett] does the same thing there with the shots of the island.
King: It’s another island.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether Friends can be duplicated—and about the death of the sitcom. Will there be another show like it set in the city?
King: New York is always going to be an exciting backdrop. I mean, when you think about groups of people who are not married living in a place where they can sort of bump into each other, it’s always going to be New York.
Rosenthal: But there’s also something that feels kind of exclusive, or exclusionary about that—like the entire universe takes place in New York, you know what I mean? Ray Romano’s family actually lived in Queens, and eight years ago, we were told, “Don’t set it in Queens ’cause it’s too New York.” So we set it in Long Island, which is attached to Queens. But that made it okay. And then, of course, within the next couple of years, there was King of Queens!
Did going outside the city bring in more viewers?
Rosenthal: I always thought it made no difference whatsoever.
What New York sitcom would you love to make now?
King: Quite frankly, why would we tell you that?
Kohan: I’ll tell you what I would love: to be able to use actual New York locations and do a sitcom set in the forties or fifties—with the look of movies from that period. Sweet Smell of Success, On the Town, even later, like Barefoot in the Park. I love retro New York.
Rosenthal: Yeah, and the networks don’t want retro anything.
Phil, if you did a show on Ray Romano’s twins, where would they have to live next?
Rosenthal: Everybody’s kids from Long Island, they move into the city. Or they want to. At 15, I was getting on the bus to go into the city from Rockland County. I’d stand on line at the TKTS booth. In 1976, you could see Broadway shows for $9.
King: Now that’s a big part of New York that has never, ever, been attempted on a sitcom—Broadway! It’s never been touched. And it’s a huge part of New York and tourism and everything. No one has ever gone near it.
Rosenthal: That would also have been a good reality show—The Making and Unmaking of Taboo.