Funny Looking

No longer solely home to gritty dramas, cable is luring new viewers with laughs

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If cable is now unquestionably the dominant force in original television drama, its status in original comedy has by contrast been defined by baby steps. To date, no cable network aside from HBO has managed to land so much as a top comedy series Emmy nomination, and HBO has won the biggest prize precisely once: in 2001 for "Sex and the City."

The odds of a cable-bred series winning a second time anytime soon remain long. But while no one was looking, a genuine, multinetwork original comedy culture has at last materialized, and the chances of Showtime garnering a nomination for one of its comedy trio have risen well above the pipedream level. Indeed, it's now possible to name 10 cable comedies eligible for Emmy consideration without having to dig too deeply into Internet research.

From HBO, there's the steady two-time category nominee "Entourage," the quirky second-year "Flight of the Conchords" and the expletive-laden freshman "Eastbound & Down." Showtime boasts "Weeds" (about to launch its fifth season), the sophomore "Californication" and the acclaimed rookie "United States of Tara" from the keyboard of Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning scribe of "Juno." The list also includes USA Network's long-running, Emmy-winning "Monk" (starting its eighth and final season in June).

Meanwhile, FX has the youth-skewing "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," while TBS has "My Boys" and "The Bill Engvall Show."

And that isn't even to mention HBO's long-running "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which lacks the qualifying number of episodes for Emmy consideration this year but returns for its seventh season in the fall with a story arc featuring the reunited cast of "Seinfeld."

These shows are mostly single-camera half-hours, and -- for HBO and Showtime in particular -- serve an important function beyond ratings considerations. They balance out the original offerings of networks that until recently found their schedules tilted overwhelmingly toward hourlong dramas and, in HBO's case, documentaries.

The comedies also go a long way in branding their respective networks. Showtime's half-hours illustrate the premium cabler's oft dark, envelope-pushing sensibility, with shows about a pot-dealing suburban mom and a mother with a multiple personality disorder. HBO's carry more of a hip edge in shining a comedic light on both hapless jerks ("Curb," "Eastbound & Down") and Hollywood hipsters ("Entourage").

"Entourage" creator-showrunner Doug Ellin doesn't believe that the bulk of cable half-hours in general, and his show in particular, should in fact be labled as straight comedy. "It's actually a dramedy hybrid," he says. "We're not a joke show, and neither are most of the comedies you see on cable. What we've tried to do from the beginning is make it real before making it funny, which isn't the agenda of your average network sitcom."

While it stands to reason that making a comedy for cable would be easier and less wearisome by virtue of producing 10-episode or 12-episode seasons rather than the 22-24 of broadcast, Ellin nonetheless finds the task something less than a snap.

"I wish I could churn them out quicker and easier, but having done it now for several years on 'Entourage' somehow doesn't make the process less demanding," he says.

For her part, Cody is just happy to be in the game. She had the mind-blowing experience of being approached for television work by none other than Steven Spielberg, who had read her "Juno" script (this was before the film entered production) and asked Cody if she might like to take a stab at writing a pilot script for a comedy series about a wife and mother with multiple personality issues.

"So I wrote it," Cody recalls, "creating this universe with Tara (played by Toni Collette). Then we found a home for it at Showtime. But I was totally new to the world of TV, and all everyone told me was, 'Pilots don't get picked up. Don't be too disappointed.' So I braced for the inevitable ... and we got picked up for 12. And now we're renewed for a second season of 12. So I'm feeling pretty lucky. It isn't every day you get to make a half-hour TV show about mental illness, you know?"

Indeed not. And Cody knows a comedy with this kind of protagonist would never see the light of primetime in the broadcast world.

"The greatest thing about writing for cable is the opportunity to take risks," she says. "I feel like the shows get time to breathe. You can relax a little more because there's no worry that the plug will get pulled after two weeks. You know that you'll be around the whole season. And that's the kind of atmosphere where creativity can really thrive. I think that's why the quality is so high now in cable. There's the opportunity to really develop something and potentially take it anywhere."

Yet the same rules apply to cable comedy as to those in the network world, maintains Charlie Day, executive producer/writer/star of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." He sums it up thusly: There are lots of different ways to get laughs. And if you're funny, they will come.

"It's still all about the right premise, the right writers and the right chemistry in your cast," Day notes, "and you can make that happen anywhere. Or you can suck anywhere, too."
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