Laugh track

With the number of traditional sitcoms dwindling, are hourlong comedies the format of the future?

One might have noticed while watching television over the past few years that it's getting increasingly difficult to tell the comedies from the dramas, what with the seriocomic edge that now defines many hour shows, the soaring popularity of the more cinematic single-camera format and the virtual disappearance of the once-ubiquitous laugh track. It turns out that the Golden Globe Awards has its finger directly on the pulse of this particular phenomenon, and it could mean that -- for the first time ever -- hourlong comedies have a chance to outnumber the nominated half-hours in the best TV series -- musical or comedy category this year.

With the ABC comedy/soap "Desperate Housewives" having taken the crown at the Globes for the past two years running, hours have won in comedy four of the past nine years -- "Ally McBeal" took the statuette in 1998 and '99. "Housewives" is back to try for a three-peat and could well be joined on the list by the freshman ABC hit "Ugly Betty." Also, USA Network's "Monk" is a past nominee in the category and certainly has a shot, as does that perpetual bridesmaid from the CW, "Gilmore Girls."


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When did comedy become a legitimate hourlong proposition? What ever happened to the traditional four-camera, live-audience sitcom that ruled primetime for so long and so profitably? Some say the advent of the reality/unscripted genre has led to far more realism in our primetime comedy, spelling the virtual death of the set-up/punchline half-hour as we had come to know it -- at least for the time being.

"We're seeing the comedy fallout of a television audience that's growing up on reality TV and won't accept the old style that's now seen as antiquated, which mandates comedy that's perhaps grounded in that reality," says Ben Silverman, executive producer on "Betty" and NBC's comedy series Emmy winner "The Office."

"There are an awful lot of shows that really defy conventional classification as comedy or drama," Silverman continues. "We decided to submit 'Betty' to the Golden Globes for comedy consideration because we see it as one of the lightest, peppiest and funniest hours on TV. The irony is that to me at least, 'The Office' is one of the most dramatic shows on TV, with heavy emotion, lots of heart and a thoughtful story line -- and tears."

While the so-called "dramedy" series is nothing new -- anyone remember "The Wonder Years"? -- the latest TV comedy revolution is unprecedented. Several traditional sitcoms remain proudly out of step, including CBS' Emmy-nominated and still highly rated "Two and a Half Men." But with the departure of NBC's "Will & Grace" this year and CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" the year before, the few half-hours on the schedule might appear to some as holdovers from what feels like a bygone era.

"I'm not sure I would say that any kind of comedy is dead," Silverman says. "But what we once thought of as situation comedy has clearly morphed into something else. The audience now demands more in terms of characters and storytelling, and, in part, due to that, we're seeing the proliferation of a kind of hybrid format."

That hybrid trend has inspired a few shows to submit for Globes consideration as comedies when prevailing wisdom says they are dramas. Arguably, this is the case with "Housewives" and no doubt with "Gilmore" as well. The logic appears to be that if one is hopefully trapped between two genres, go with the side where there's far less competition -- and that certainly isn't drama, which continues to see a quality boom.

"It's hard to have a conversation about comedy with so few comedies on the air," says Steve Franks, executive producer of USA's rookie hour "Psych" that, like its sister series "Monk," is submitting to the Globes as a comedy. "I think the sitcom has needed to reinvent itself."

But what does all this mean in terms of possible nominations? Bet on a comedy category packed with the new and nearly new: "Ugly Betty," NBC's Tina Fey starrer "30 Rock," CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine," featuring Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and one tantalizing dark horse in the mold of Britain's original "Office" -- the acclaimed British political farce "The Thick of It," which ran this year on BBC America.

"When a show is starting out, the critical response is very, very important," "Monk" executive producer Andy Breckman says. "When you're getting your sea legs in your first and second seasons, it separates you from the pack, and it draws attention to you."

While critics widely slammed "Housewives'" second season, the series still figures to land a nomination for its third campaign based on the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s affection for the show. NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and Showtime's "Weeds" could well repeat as nominees, while HBO's "Entourage," the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Men" also might receive nominations.

But the one comedy that's considered a shoo-in to receive a best comedy mention from the HFPA for the first time is "Office," what with its Emmy win in August and the lead comedy actor victory of Steve Carell at the Globes one year ago. The show has to be seen, in fact, as the prohibitive front-runner, with Carell in a prime position for a second consecutive victory.

"That would be pretty amazing," Silverman says of a nomination for "Office." "On the other hand, if 'Betty' also gets nominated in that category, I could be competing with myself, which would be really weird, if also amazing."

Jenny Cooney Carrillo, co-chair of the HFPA's TV committee, gives "Betty" an excellent shot at a nomination, calling it "the perfect foreign crossover show, one that started out in a non-English-speaking form and (is) proving its merit with an American adaptation that's become an instant hit.

"Our comedy choices tend to differ from the Emmys even more significantly than our drama picks, and I think that's partly because of our foreign sensibility and the variance of opinion in what's considered funny," Carrillo adds. "We have never really gone in for what you would consider the classic American sitcom."

Which might go a long way toward explaining why NBC's recently departed "Will," which is facing its final year of eligibility, earned 27 Golden Globe nominations and exactly no trophies. Still, "Will's" Debra Messing could be nominated in the lead actress category, as might "Betty's" America Ferrera, "Christine's" Louis-Dreyfus and "Weeds'" Mary-Louise Parker, who walked away with the statuette at the most recent Globes ceremony, beating out the four "Housewife" leads, Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman and Eva Longoria.

In the lead actor category, Carell is likely to face-off against "Earl's" Jason Lee, "30 Rock's" Alec Baldwin, "Men's" Sheen and "Monk's" Tony Shalhoub. Breckman says he's ready to go to great lengths to shore up his star's chances. "In a couple of stories we have coming up, Monk teams up with the Hollywood Foreign Press, and they go out together to solve crimes," he says.

Raoul Mowatt contributed to this report.
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