Comedy: Is TV humor just prepping for its next evolution?

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No, television comedy isn't an oxymoron. Comedy via the boob tube is still very much alive -- but if you listen closely, you can hear the genre wheezing a bit. And it's not about quality so much as quantity, as this season, broadcasters have scaled back their commitment to primetime scripted comedy series to just six new shows for the fall 2007-08 season -- and NBC ordered precisely zero.

How has it come to this? Certainly, the rise of reality programming has taken its toll, but of greater concern is that the traditional four-camera sitcom has been the victim of "too many copycats, too much predictability, too few fresh ideas," suggests Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's executive vp original programming and development.

Critics have been touting the rise of the single-camera comedy, but thus far creativity has not translated into ratings numbers. The most-watched sitcom of the 2006-07 season was CBS's "Two and a Half Men" (continuing a trend from the previous season), the kind of multicamera comedy that is purportedly on the way out. Second in the Nielsen rankings, both in total households and in the prime adult demographic aged 18-49, was another multicamera effort, the midseason hit "Rules of Engagement," also on CBS. (The Nielsen Co. is the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.)

The highest-rated single-camera comedy in the 18-49 demo was NBC's "The Office," tied for 29th place with a 4.1 rating/11 share season average. That said, the only comedies to crack the seasonal top 30 were "Two and a Half Men" (9.2/13, 15th place) and "Engagement" (8.0/12, 25th place). Dramas and reality shows continue to dominate, while comedies duke it out for table scraps.

Yet, it can't be as bad as all that -- can it?

"Actually, it is," asserts Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator/executive producer of the WB hit "Gilmore Girls" (she departed the show prior to its final season on the CW) and creator/executive producer of the forthcoming Fox comedy "The Return of Jezebel James" that's pegged for a midseason launch.

"Comedy in general is just kind of laboring around," she continues. "It's been tired for a long time, which is why I'd worked so hard to come at the genre from a different angle in 'Gilmore.' But here I am pushing a multicamera show with 'Jezebel,' though it's really a hybrid with some single-camera elements attached."

Robin Schwartz, president of Regency Television -- producer of "Jezebel James" and, prior to that, "Malcolm in the Middle" -- acknowledges that, while this remains a challenging time for original TV comedy series, the problem more surrounds the fact that sitcoms, perhaps more than any other form, require time to evolve and inspire audience loyalty. But that particular luxury clashes with the culture of impatience in today's primetime.

"The idea of telling a story in 21 minutes and having viewers connect with a character is very difficult," Schwartz stresses, "which I think is one reason why hours like (ABC's) 'Ugly Betty' did better than most half-hours. You have time to tell the story. But those hours are really dramas with comedic elements. I still think a half-hour can work if you build it entirely on character like we're doing with 'Jezebel.' I mean, shows like (NBC's) 'Friends' and 'Will & Grace' did pretty well, you know?"

So did "Rules of Engagement," which enters its first full season this fall. "Rules" co-star David Spade remains decidedly bullish on the TV comedy's future.

"People don't hate sitcoms," Spade says. "They still do awfully well in off-network reruns. Our show was four cameras, which is supposed to be dead and buried, and we surprised a lot of people by pulling in some numbers. We got lucky with a good time slot and good promotion. And I think we also had to be pretty good or we would have gotten tuned out. We're not hip and cool like (NBC's) 'The Office,' but I think we're funny. I'd like to think that it comes down to that."

Truth is, recent history tells us that funny alone isn't nearly enough for a network comedy series to draw sufficient numbers to survive, much less thrive. The series widely regarded as last season's funniest new half-hour, NBC's "30 Rock," attracted a scant 2.7 rating/7 share average in the prime 18-49 demographic, tying it for 81st place among all shows. It was renewed for a second season despite numbers that hardly seemed to merit it, primarily because of its critical buzz.

At the same time, there is a consensus that the comedies on the air are consistently high quality, specifically NBC's "The Office," "Scrubs," "My Name Is Earl" and "30 Rock," CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine," ABC's "Men in Trees" and the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris." None are setting any ratings sheets afire.

Melanie Truhett, a manager of comedians for Messina Baker Entertainment, points out that when she first started in her business, stand-ups were hauling in multiyear development deals right and left. No longer.

"It isn't that comics stopped being funny," Truhett reasons. "The writing of the shows grew stale. The shows all became about unattractive men with hot wives. So the audience tuned out. The thing is, there are a lot of really good shows now, so I have to believe the viewing cycle will bring people back to comedy again."

Bruce Hills, COO of the Just For Laughs Festival that's currently being staged in Montreal, confirms that network executives no longer descend on the festival with six-figure deals in hand as they did in the 1990s. "The TV people still come," he says. "They simply aren't coming up here representing a sitcom point of view. Yet they're still looking to tie up talent. It isn't as if they have no interest in working with funny people who have that fresh voice. It's just that they've had to adapt their priorities."

Ah yes, there are those priorities. Bear in mind that half of the six new comedies picked up are coming from ABC, one of which ("Cavemen") is based on characters from a Geico Insurance ad campaign. Yet surprisingly, media buyers are said to see promise in "Cavemen" as an 8:00 pm Tuesday-night kickoff. And the handful of other shows debuting in fall feature several proven TV comedy heavyweights (see sidebar for more).

"You always hear how these things work in cycles because it's true," emphasizes Barry Katz, executive producer of the NBC comedy-reality series "Last Comic Standing" and the new celebrity impersonator offering for ABC, "The Next Best Thing," through his company, New Wave Entertainment.

"Shows like what we do have definitely cut into the scripted-comedy audience," he says. "But it's their own fault. Everything got too cookie-cutter, so a shakeout had to happen. The stuff that's of a higher quality will survive. That's the one thing you can hopefully, usually, count on, even now."   


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Is TV humor just prepping for its next evolution?


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