I suspected my sitcom wasn't going to be chosen for the fall schedule even before the president of ABC called two Fridays ago. The main reason for my suspicion? My show wasn't very good.
Because everyone is always telling you how great your work is, this fact didn't hit me when I stood behind a one-way mirror staring at a focus group watching my sitcom. In the cruelest step of the pilot process -- exceeding even the night a producer forced us to order expense-account food from an inferior restaurant -- the studio makes you watch as strangers evaluate your show so you can reedit it before handing it in to the network. If people had to do this with their sex lives, the human race would end.
A testing company in Burbank paid $70 each to 48 people who demographically represented the ABC audience, which meant there was one black person. And I'm pretty sure she was stopping by on her way to a UPN focus group.
They were given dials and instructed to twist them in a positive direction when they were enjoying the show, and the other way when they weren't. We got to watch their graphs live on a giant screen behind the mirror. The most interesting thing about the graphs was that, with incredible precision, they corresponded inversely to my heart rate.
When there wasn't a naked middle-aged man on the screen, the audience was universally tepid. This gave me my idea for my next pilot, "Naked Middle-Aged Man." I was starting to think that I was in the exact room where "America's Funniest Home Videos" was dreamed up.
Then they split the men and women into different rooms and had some kind of hourlong grad-school seminar about my family sitcom. Until then, I had honestly thought I made an edgy, far-too-personally-revealing show about divorce and living at home as an adult and that period of life after college when you find out the world hasn't been waiting for 21 years to give you stuff.
So I got nervous when a woman compared it to the WB sitcom "Reba." Then, in rapid succession, people mentioned "Who's the Boss," "Growing Pains" and, eventually, "Full House." The main character, named Joel, was described as "a dork." Then one of the women said something that I'm pretty sure is exactly what my college girlfriend said to me: "I think I liked what I wanted him to be more than what he was."
The one positive comment about Joel came from a nice man named Robert, who simply said, "I like the guy a lot. He's polite." I actually grew hopeful for a second. Dick Van Dyke was totally polite. Oprah is the politest. I pictured the Thanksgiving episode in which Joel can't leave his mom's dinner to visit his lonely father because she keeps shoving food in his mouth and Joel can't chew with his mouth full.
When the group leader asked the audience what network the show would probably be on, they all said ABC. I thought this was a huge positive because I indeed was making the show for ABC.
Then they explained why. ABC, they said, was the network of mediocre family sitcoms, such as "8 Simple Rules" and "According to Jim." I longed for the comparisons to "Full House."
This would have all felt a lot worse had I not gone through the process last year, when a focus group analyzed my main character, who was also named Joel, with a lot less love. One man said that if Joel were a real person he would not want to meet him because "he'd be too obnoxious for me." Another said that my jokes bothered her. And a very bright man said, "It's hard to root for someone who's lucking into great opportunities with no skills or personality." I think of that man every time I read about myself in this section's letters to the editor.
Most writers dismiss focus groups as philistines who love sappy, unrealistically righteous characters and cheap jokes. They also think executives are nervous idiots who pick the safely mediocre. And most people outside the industry think that's indeed why television is so bad.
I think it's because making something good is so hard. Most books, movies, plays, albums, product design and restaurants are awful. You just see more bad TV because the medium makes it so easy to browse. My show was bad because I didn't figure out how to write a good one.
Then again, I'm sticking to politeness. It's all I've got going for me.
What About This Guy?
Do you stomp on the Opinion section each Sunday for running a column by Joel Stein? Or are you upset that the focus group Stein writes about this week killed your chance to know more about his adventures in entertainment?
On June 5, you can join the Opinion Manufacturing Division's equivalent of a focus group. The blog's topic will be "Education: Can a Kid With Lousy Parents Succeed in School?" But there will also be an opportunity to discuss the genius of Joel Stein -- or to suggest his expulsion from these pages. www.latimes.com/opinionblog.