In an era when the multicamera sitcom has deteriorated on the broadcast networks, Disney Channel has capitalized on its absence. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the executive producers of Wizards of Waverly Place (which opens season four on Nov. 12), Vince Cheung and Ben Montanio, who share their own production company, Rice & Beans Productions.
The two worked together at ITC Productions, where Cheung was a development exec and Montanio worked in production. After doing script rewrites, the pair began writing as a team in the late ’80s, earning a spot in the 10-week Warner Bros. writing program and honing their skills on scripts for sitcoms like Growing Pains, Night Court, Empty Next, Roc and Married With Children.
For years, the demise of the traditional sitcom has been predicted by many, yet it remains a solid presence on Disney Channel. Why is that?
Vince Cheung: The good news, of course, is a recent entry like Modern Family and the ongoing success of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, which prove there is still room for funny, well-written half-hour sitcoms. Comedies have always been a magnet for kids, and Disney Channel has taken a page from ABC’s old TGIF brand. It never forgot how kids and teens would gravitate to sitcoms like Full House and Family Matters.
Do you worry about staying employed given the shortage of comedies on the broadcast nets?
Ben Montanio: I think one of the prerequisites of working in this business is to worry about something. So, yes, this has been a concern to all of us. But spending time pondering about something is debilitating. It does no good when your job is to think about “the funny” every day.
VC: We have seen the sitcom die and come back to life more times than once. So, we have had to learn to adjust to this changing business.
Can you talk about some of the changes in the business?
BM: Once upon a time, there were at least two comedy nights on most of the broadcast networks, meaning there was a need for writers. But the rise in nonscripted programming has taken its toll. Normally when you come off a show—and that happens frequently—there are other offers pending. But it is a lot tougher out there now.
VC: Another change is the studios and the networks now falling under one banner. Way back when, if a problem ever arose, the studios would often step up and fight your battles. Now that protective lining is gone. The studios and the networks are one and the same.
Given the shortage of comedies on the networks, did you make a conscious decision to go to Disney Channel?
VC: We never actually sat down and said let’s do a show for Disney Channel. But we helped out as a favor in the pilot episode of Wizards of Waverly Place and ended up staying with the series. It’s the relationships that we’ve built over the years that have kept us employed.
How is writing for a comedy of Disney Channel different than a more adult-themed comedy on one of the broadcast nets?
BM: What’s different about Wizards of Waverly Place is the postproduction. Much of the special effects are already done before the show shoots in front of a live audience.
Do you find the whole experience on cable less stressful than network?
BM: There are advantages and disadvantages for both, of course. Working with a broadcast network tends to have a greater reach, but an often faster trigger finger.
As for cable, you’re dealing with a more specific niche, but there is a great benefit to knowing exactly who your audience is. That alone is a gift for any writer.