“You should be a TV writer,” a Brown playwriting professor wrote on one of Austin Winsberg’s student scripts. It was not a compliment. “My work was pretty mainstream,” Winsberg recalled in a recent phone interview from his native Los Angeles.
The pejorative comment proved prophetic. At twenty-eight, Winsberg is the creator and executive producer of the new ABC sitcom Jake in Progress.
The show stars John Stamos as Jake Phillips, a rakishly handsome PR man who wants to change his womanizing ways. Shot on film with no laugh track, Jake has been promoted as the male Sex and the City. It has a slick, contemporary feel, with fast pacing and split-screen editing, but below the surface it’s standard sitcom fare. Jake has a portly best friend (Ian Gomez), a sarcastic boss (Wendie Malick reprising her Just Shoot Me shtick), and a quirky hanger-on (Rick Hoffman, who provides some of the show’s funnier moments as a David Blaine wannabe). Critics have praised the cast’s comedy but have knocked Jake’s date-of-the-week story lines and derivative entertainment industry spoofs.
If only ABC had allowed Winsberg to carry out his original vision. “I never wanted it to be a male Sex and the City,” Winsberg says. Instead, he pitched it as a real-time romantic comedy in the style of the wildly popular Fox drama 24, with each season chronicling one big day in the life of a couple, starting with their disastrous first date. “Everything in 24 is so life-and-death,” Winsberg explains. “I thought it would be funny to take those high stakes and apply them to romance.” It might have been. Unfortunately, ABC switched presidents shortly after the Jake pilot was shot, and the new leadership called for a reworking of the premise. All that remains of Winsberg’s original concept are those snazzy split screens and Jake’s constantly ringing cell phone.
But Winsberg’s not complaining. “I went from being a staff writer (on CBS’s Still Standing), where I couldn’t even get a joke into the script, to creating my own show.” Jake’s progress may have been stunted by network politics, but Winsberg’s seems well worth watching.
Michelle Walson is completing her master’s in television production at Boston University.