If dying is easy and comedy is hard, then writing comedy for Disney Channel must be harder still.
Take the biology joke originally considered for the network’s new sitcom “Good Luck Charlie,” which is slated to premiere in the spring. A teenage girl and her “hot” classmate are snuggled on the couch during a study date. When he reaches to turn off the light, she was to say: “Now I’m in the mood for some biology.”
The line received a hearty laugh at a table reading but also raised the eyebrows of Adam Bonnett, Disney Channel’s senior vice president of original series, who jokingly asked the show’s creative team if they could convey the same information without being “so . . . biological.” The dialogue was eventually replaced by a chaste glance. “There was sensitivity that she was being a little too forward,” Bonnett said.
At most other networks, where many sitcoms swim in the muck of lowbrow humor, the joke in question might well have been thrown out too, but for an entirely different reason -- namely, that it wasn’t “biological” enough. And even with most other programs on Disney Channel, which courts and still has a dominant hold on the tween audience, the line probably wouldn’t have made it to the table read stage.
But Disney is trying something different with “Good Luck Charlie,” a show it hopes will reach across generations in the same way that NBC’s “The Cosby Show” and ABC’s “The Wonder Years” once did. In seeking out this older demographic, however, the network faces a dilemma: Can it craft a comedy sophisticated enough -- and realistic enough -- to appeal to adults without alienating its core viewers, who, after all, come to Disney to avoid racier programming?
“What ‘Good Luck Charlie’ represents is an evolutionary step to really put the family into our kid-driven family brand,” said Gary Marsh, Disney Channel’s entertainment president. “Do I think this will be a first choice for 35- to 40-year-old moms? Not necessarily . . . . But if we do our jobs properly and we create the authenticity we’re talking about, it will allow us to tackle stories in a more grounded way that will be more appealing to parents than other shows we’ve done before.”
Disney Channel’s attempt to capitalize on the timeless appeal of the family sitcom in hopes of luring children and adults reflects a larger industrywide return to more inclusive comedies -- such as ABC’s “Modern Family,” CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and Fox’s high school-centered musical comedy “Glee.”
For now, Disney Channel maintains a prime-time ratings edge over its principal cable rival, Nickelodeon, among tweens on the strength of shows such as “Sonny With a Chance,” “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “The Suite Life on Deck.” The shows, which appeal to adolescents ages 9 to 14, revolve around the exploits of teen stars Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and Dylan and Cole Sprouse. But Nick is gaining momentum at night, airing reruns of such sitcoms as “Malcolm in the Middle” and " George Lopez.”
Like those programs, “Good Luck Charlie” seeks to mine the mirth of the everyday. But unlike the traditional, adult-centric family sitcoms, the series is told principally through the eyes -- and video diary entries -- of the show’s 17-year-old protagonist, Teddy, played by Bridgit Mendler. Together with teenage brother P.J. (Jason Dolley) and 10-year-old brother Gabe (Bradley Steven Perry), Teddy pitches in to help their working parents care for their new baby sister, Charlotte (a.k.a. Charlie).
“I like the realness of it. I like the more authentic tone,” said Dolley, who has been in the Disney Channel films “Hatching Pete” and “Minutemen.” “I like the family sitcom. That’s something different for Disney, which also appealed to me.”
The new comedy makes a calculated departure from the cruise ship and rock star fantasies of the channel’s other shows, which can seem off-puttingly opulent in today’s anxious financial times. Instead, its creators -- Phil Baker and Drew Vaupen, the forces behind “Suddenly Susan” and “What I Like About You” -- opted for the living room.
“What we want to do is acknowledge the reality of the times in which we live, where two parents work, where kids are expected to help out around the house in meaningful ways. Real-life issues happen,” Marsh said. “Everyone isn’t living ‘The Life of Riley’ all the time.”
The higher ambitions for the show, however, remain grounded in the ultra-safe Disney brand. The writers are constrained by that sensibility, which make sexual double-entendres and bawdy wordplay out of the question.
“We will try to do something that’s made to appeal on an adult level, but we don’t want to exclude the kids,” said Vaupen. “If it is something that plays to the adults and not to the kids, our rule is: Will this elicit a conversation between parents and child that might be uncomfortable? So, if the answer to that is yes, then we probably won’t do it.”
Take, for example, the Darwinian outcome of one joke based on the evolution chart.
"[Disney] wanted us to go away from that for fear of [upsetting] people who don’t believe in evolution,” Vaupen said. “We’re going to shoot that line but have an alternate just in case down the road we can’t go that way.”
Something the show did not turn away from during a recent shoot was physical comedy -- specifically, projectile vomit. Baby Charlie splatters Teddy’s jacket as her big sister leans in to coo over her. And then there was a suggestion to up the stakes. “Can we take this a little bit further and have the baby spit up on her face?” Bonnett asked. “I would love to just see it right in her face.”
Dan Staley, a veteran television writer and one of the show’s executive producers, wondered whether that would be excessive. “Not for our audience,” Bonnett replied. “You’ve got to give them that punch.”
The show also didn’t flinch when it came to an airborne baby. One scene called for the baby-toting father to trip down the stairs, momentarily launching the little one (who is safely caught moments later). Like anything else in the carefully controlled world of Disney, the comic idea was focus-tested to assure that it drew the desired response: laughter.
“There was a lot of talk about it. There were a lot of meetings about it,” said Bonnett. “The way it’s done. It works in execution. It scared a lot of people on the page, but it works in execution.”
Even more unusual is the exchange it elicits between the husband and wife, in which she confesses to feeling overwhelmed by the conflicting demands of career and parenthood. That conversation wouldn’t happen on most Disney Channel series, where the parents play an unfailingly supporting role to the tween stars.
“The mom confesses that she’s overwhelmed; she’s not sure she can pull this off,” Bonnett said. “And just playing that scene the way we did, a very real scene between husband and wife, kind of makes this show different.”