With 'Girl Code' and 'Guy Code,' MTV deciphers a franchise

NEW YORK -- Marriage can be a tricky subject. Just ask comedian Andrew Schulz. If the question was put to him whether to ask permission from the father of a prospective fiancee, he said, he wouldn't necessarily see eye-to-eye with some of his friends.
 
"I'd have one opinion, and Dan Soder might have another. Then you ask Charlamagne and he'd say, 'Why are you getting married, dude?'"

The characters at hand are neither Dr. Ruth impersonators nor, for that matter, spelling-challenged French emperors. Instead, they're some of the comedians who appear with Schulz on MTV2's “Guy Code,” which wrapped its third season earlier this month.

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A straightforwardly conceived show about men giving advice to other men on the vagaries of dudeishness, "Guy Code," has become an unlikely success for the network. The latest season cemented "Code's" status as the most-watched original series ever on MTV2 (with a season premiere that garnered 440,000 total viewers on its initial airing, that superlative is relative, but still). 

Now the show has spun off "Girl Code," a female version that premiered Tuesday night on flagship network MTV. With a coveted debut-night slot behind hit teen drama "Awkward," "Girl Code" features its own raft of comic personalities, including  tart-tongued comedians Nicole Byer, Jamie Lee and Melanie Iglesias, along with "Guy Code" fixtures such as Schulz. As with “Guy Code,” dating, grooming and bodily functions are all covered. (Early ratings showed total viewership of 1.4 million, with the series strongest in the coveted demo of women aged 12-24.)

And don’t expect the “Code” to break anytime soon. On Thursday at the network's upfront in Manhattan, MTV is expected to announce two new series with “Code” roots and personalities: "The Hook-Up," a dating show to be hosted by Schulz, and "Guy Court," a faux courtroom hearing in which personalities will judge cases of "code violations." (Schulz describes it as "'The People's Court’ meets ‘Law & Order’ meets a hip-hop video.") Both series are to premiere later this year.

“There are so many sources of information out there that it can be overwhelming for both men and women,” said Paul Ricci, senior v-p of programming for MTV2 and an executive producer on “Guy Code” and "Girl Code.” “We can provide guidance while also making light of the information.”

Indeed, "Code' practices a kind of advice-based reality that one rarely sees on the screen, offering one gender advice and the other a kind of opposition research. It also has become a franchise that, to the delight of fans and possibly the concern of gender watchdogs, isn't afraid to dive into perennially sensitive notions about the gender gap. Personalities might knock some of the stereotypes that each gender has been known for, but each show is ultimately there to reassure its target audience, in its own biting way, that they’re doing OK despite their cluelessness.

"You know what's more embarrassing than buying condoms at 3 a.m. from a deli? Buying Haagen Dazs at 3 a.m. from a deli," said comedian Julian McCullough on one episode of "Guy Code," before moving on to a joke involving ice cream that cannot be published on a family website.

If it’s not exactly "Reading Rainbow," those behind the “Code” franchise say they see in it a larger social value.

“There are very few lanes for masculinity on television,” Schulz said. “You never see a macho guy say something intelligent or even self-aware. But with this show, the macho guy is not an idiot.” (Schultz said he was inspired to think about creative ways that guys could act, particularly in the dating sphere, by watching “Swingers” as a teenager in the 1990s. “Before Vince Vaughn, I didn’t know you could convince girls to like you. I thought you could just hope they already did.”)

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The "Code" series have humble roots. A young television writer named Ryan Ling had a displaced friend sleeping on his couch for way too long, and after a debate with said buddy, wondered if there might be a TV show that addressed these issues.

MTV2 then commissioned a "Guy Code" pilot for $15,000. When the results worked, the show was greenlighted, then entered a ramped-up production schedule. MTV has now produced 39 episodes of "Guy Code" in just about two years. The show’s budget has grown somewhat, and in the third season there are a larger number of sketches and other bits that require more money and production value. Ling continues to serve as an executive producer, corralling writers, comedians and topics for each episode.

“We think of the show as a kind of a cool older cousin," Ling said. "There's a been-there, done-that feeling we’re trying to get across."

MTV President Stephen Friedman said in an interview that he felt the series fit naturally with both the current slate and the history of the network, particularly when it came to its talent-breakout potential. "The best comedians have long been on MTV," he said. "People forget that Jon Stewart was on MTV early in his career. We really see this as a platform for some great emerging talent." (The show also offers some logical cross-promotional opportunities, such as when the women of “Girl Code” offered their thoughts on code violations on “Awkward.”)

Though "Girl Code" and “Guy Code” don’t practice the kind of narrative nonscripted television, a la "Real World" or "Jersey Shore," that tends to blow up big, the shows have provided a toehold of sorts for the network, which under new president of programming Susanne Daniels has been looking for the next post-“Shore” thing.

The other “Code” series will aim to build off the first show’s success. “The Hook-Up” will feature a contestant choosing between several prospective dates, whose social media profiles will be revealed on-air. Schulz will comb through the social media, poking fun and raising red flags. Then the contestant will choose their preferred object of affection. (Think "Catfish" meets "The Dating Game.")

“Guy Court,” meanwhile, will feature a range of “Code” personalities as prosecutors and defense attorneys, with “Guy Code” fixture Donnell Rawlings serving as the judge in the pilot. In the series, young men will haul their real-life buddies to the titular venue for violating the code, then arguments will be presented and judgments rendered.

The "Code" franchise is in a sense a throwback to the nostalgia programs VH1 made famous in the mid-2000s, when a raft of known and, more often, unknown comedians lined up to offer their thoughts on a variety of pop-culture topics. Friedman said that MTV hopes many of the "Code" people can spawn their own series, with the network developing two more as-yet-unannounced shows with "Code" personalities."

In a way, the "Code" surge, with its many varieties of bro talk and girl talk, also continues a tradition that “Jersey Shore” has helped make famous. The phrase "guy code," according to MTV executives, even appears to have originated when Ronnie and The Situation got in to a heated argument on that show.

And although viewers here don’t so much follow the exploits of outlandish characters so much as they do reflect on their own more prosaic ones, there’s a common undercurrent to the two series. “They both," Ricci said, "have this idea of authenticity."

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