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Science of sitcom success being rewritten

For many, the formula is on the Internet.

If one follows the buzz coming out of the network programming departments these days, outstanding comedy series is a Primetime Emmy category that should not, in fact, exist. We've been assured repeatedly over the past several months in particular that TV comedy is officially, unequivocally deceased. Don't bother inquiring about the genre's welfare; just pay one's respects, leave a tasteful arrangement of flowers and move on. Yet, it seems reasonably certain that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will have little trouble filling the category with five nominees come July for the 59th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, exaggerated rumors of its demise notwithstanding.

The truth is far more complex than the doomsayers would have us believe, however. It's true that there are a mere smattering of traditional multicamera, laughtrack-driven sitcoms these days on ABC, CBS, the CW, Fox and NBC. They are indeed an endangered species with the disappearance of such stalwarts as "Everybody Loves Raymond, " "Frasier," "Friends," "The King of Queens" and "Will & Grace." And in May, the networks ordered few new half-hour comedies for their schedules.

But challenged though the form might be, there remains a healthy collection of single-camera comedies and hourlong hybrids across the broadcast and cable landscape that leave the impression that comedy hasn't fallen into a coma so much as altered its DNA. NBC's "The Office," the Emmy winner in the comedy series category a year ago, is one single-camera entry that continues to thrive, as does its peacock stablemate "My Name Is Earl" and the freshman "30 Rock." There also is the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris," HBO's "Entourage" and Showtime's "Weeds." Moreover, a couple of multicamera sitcoms continue to fare just fine over at CBS: "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Two and a Half Men."

"The truth is that it really isn't a great time for TV comedy," "Entourage" creator/executive producer Doug Ellin believes, "mostly because a lot of the comedy audience has been siphoned off by reality shows. The quantity is obviously way down. But quality-wise, there's still plenty of great stuff in primetime. I mean, 'The Office' is as good as any show that's been on the air in the past 20 years."

The other part of the comedy equation surrounds the evolution of the series hybrid. Hours such as ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Ugly Betty," as well as USA Network's "Monk," have expanded the Emmy comedy pool even as some question their credentials to compete against more traditional half-hours. One of those, the CW's "Gilmore Girls," threw in the towel this year and opted to enter as a drama series after six years of being shut out entirely in comedy.

"My thinking is that it would be more fair to have half-hours competing solely against half-hours and hours against hours," "Chris" executive producer Ali LeRoi offers, "and I think there should be a better delineation between light drama and comedy. I mean, I'm sorry, but 'Desperate Housewives' isn't a comedy. It's not funny. To my mind, that should be the necessary ingredient to label oneself a comedy."

The only hourlong series ever to win a comedy series Emmy remains "Ally McBeal" in 1999; this year, "Betty" could become the second. It already took home the Golden Globe statuette for top comedy in January, though some of its early buzz faded as the season moved along. Were "Betty" or (less likely) "Housewives" to be nominated and win, it would be the first time an ABC comedy managed to take the category since "The Wonder Years" in 1988 -- a rather hefty 19-year gap, and counting.

A more likely battle for the gold pits "Office" vs. "30 Rock," a scenario that surely would thrill NBC. And to be sure, a second consecutive trophy for "Office" might almost be expected given the show's propensity for pushing the creative envelope in its third season.

"Office" creator/executive producer Greg Daniels maintains that his and his staff's goal this past season was to complicate the story line and fight any impulse toward repetition.

"We were determined this past year not to be predictable in whatever we did," Daniels says. "When I say we wanted to be complicated, I mean that in the sense of rushing toward something and then moving farther apart. It's about avoiding complacency. At the same time, it all felt effortless because this show is so much fun to do. We never hear anymore about how badly we've screwed things up when compared to the British version."

Surfin' Safari

Another way that "Office" has proved a trailblazer is in using the Internet to help cultivate an audience, plotting that synergy more effectively than perhaps any show on television. As a way to engage the young-adult demographic that has embraced the series from the start, the show's NBC Web site (see page S-15 for URL addresses) is chock-full of online-exclusive Webisodes, blogs penned by various "Office" characters (most notably Dwight Schrute, played by Rainn Wilson), deleted scenes, cast interviews and scads more. In fact, it has to be the most multipronged and jampacked network series site on the Web.

The May 17 "Office" season finale was bolstered by a live blogging event hosted by Daniels and producer/writer/co-star B.J. Novak. Indeed, the live "Office" blog never goes down. Site visitors can play "Office" solitaire, "Office" basketball (toss that crumpled paper into the trash can) and the "Office Quote Game," where they can try to complete quotes provided from the show. Fans can even share real-life work-related nightmare stories by uploading video of themselves relating their experiences to "Office" human resources chief Toby (Paul Lieberstein).

"We take the online component seriously as an added bonus for the fans," Daniels says. "It's not necessarily about driving viewership as evolving the lore of the story line. It's also a great way to connect with the audience as something of a creative endeavor in itself."

While the "Office" Internet component isn't necessarily used to bring new viewers to the show, it is the kind of attention-getter the times seem to demand given the difficulty comedies are having in reeling in an audience. Some shows put more effort into cybersynergy than others, clearly, but every comedy has at least more than a token presence.

Take the "Weeds" site, which includes videos that feature the show's characters helping fans figure out their pot dealer name, or guiding them through the "Top signs your neighbor is dealing." One sign: "White smoke is coming from your chimney. Either he's a dealer, or a new Pope has been elected." Fans also can take a video tour of the fictitious town of Agrestic with Doug Wilson (played by Kevin Nealon) and check out other short creations from the show's cast members.

The "Entourage" site offers both podcasts and a "Hollywood Lexicography" glossary of industry-speak ("Double Wide: The minimum acceptable trailer for A-listers, contractually required") and a Rooftop Golf Game that allows fans to play against, and with, the series' characters. On the "Old Christine" site, surfers can peruse favorite clips and leaked scenes, as well as watch full episodes from Season 2. The downside: enduring advertisements prior to seeing the content.

All of NBC's comedies appear to be particularly Internet-savvy in their tie-ins. For example, "30 Rock" features not only full episodes to stream but "Ask Tina" snippets in which executive producer/writer/star Tina Fey answers show questions on video, in addition to abundant message boards, a map guide to the city of Cleveland and an opportunity to play the "Marry, Boff or Kill" game. In "Marry," the faces of celebrities drop down, and players need to quickly move arrow keys to place them in the proper column as to whether one desires to kill, betroth or, uh, have sexual congress with them. (Fans of the show understand.)

"Betty's" colorful site is as elaborate and interactive as any comedy-themed TV tie-in this side of "Office," replete with video diaries, Telenovela dance montages, podcasts and three-minute snippets of Betty's (America Ferrera) favorite in-show soap "Vidas de Fuego" (Lives of Fire), complete with horrible English dubbing. Fans also can visit Betty's own cyber area and find her resume and career advice ("Dress for success!"), as well as a self-acceptance component.

Location, Location, Location

While having a snazzy Internet presence might help a show develop viewer and brand loyalty, it won't sell a boring or unengaging story. Internet presence aside, says "Office" executive producer/contributing director Ken Kwapis, what distinguishes "Office" from even its single-camera brethren is its refusal to pander to mainstream tastes, a quality shared with a former series Kwapis worked on for HBO: "The Larry Sanders Show."

"People don't even think about the fact that 'The Office' features no music at all other than the opening theme, which is something it shares with 'Larry Sanders' and pretty much no other show," Kwapis notes. "It's all part of our mandate to work without a net and use awkward silences to distinguish the humor. I'll tell you, winning that Emmy last year was an amazing validation after having been dismissed as such a suicide mission. We've superseded all expectations, which is enormously gratifying."

If "Office" is considered a shoo-in for a nomination once again, so, too, is "30 Rock" in its first qualifying year. It premiered last fall to critical acclaim and found its star on the rise throughout the season, leading to Golden Globe and SAG Award wins for lead Alec Baldwin earlier this year and a second-year pickup for the series in April.

Like "Office," it was forced to overcome misconceptions that it was somehow connected to "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the Aaron Sorkin drama that similarly dealt in peering behind the scenes of a fictitious late-night sketch comedy.

"Studio 60" survived only a single season; "30 Rock" continues forth. That in itself is obviously reward enough. Nevertheless, admits "30 Rock" executive producer/showrunner Robert Carlock, "Any kind of Emmy attention would be amazing icing on the cake of a great year. To be part of a night of comedy on NBC that I'd watch every week even if I weren't involved in it is pretty exciting, let me tell you. And besides that, it's good to still be standing upright, which we all see as pretty validating."

If there is a third series that's seen as a leading contender in the comedy category, it's probably "Men," which landed its first nom here a year ago and consistently ranks as the highest-rated sitcom on network television. But a sure thing it is not. Voters are historically reluctant to pay homage to comedies that feature kids -- even one kid. ("The Cosby Show" was a notable exception.) "Men's" chances are bolstered by the fact that two of the 2006 nomination slots are up for grabs: those of Fox's "Arrested Development" (canceled) and HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (a lack of qualifying episodes).

Assuming "Office," "30 Rock" and "Men" snare three of the available spots, that leaves two slots open to any of a handful of worthy candidates. Those would include "Betty" (a heavy favorite to crack the list), "Entourage," "Old Christine," "Earl," NBC's "Scrubs" and "Weeds" -- with "Chris," HBO's "Extras," "Housewives," CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" and "Monk" also in the running.

Both "Entourage" and "Weeds" earned noms at this year's Golden Globes. But a similar tribute from the Television Academy would require an unprecedented breakthrough, at least for "Weeds." HBO remains the only cable network to have received top comedy nominations (earning them for "Larry Sanders," "Curb" and "Sex and the City"). "Weeds" also could be penalized for its subject matter, raising the question of whether the Television Academy is sufficiently open-minded to honor a series steeped in marijuana discussion.

"I'm not sure if marijuana is as wildly outside the mainstream as some people would have us believe," "Weeds" creator/executive producer Jenji Kohan says. "But if it's perceived as dangerous for the academy to nominate us, I say, come on academy -- be brave! Be bold! Nominate us! Please?"

Any similar attention for "Chris" also would represent a first. Neither the CW nor the pair of networks that merged to create it -- the WB Network and UPN -- have ever received a comedy or drama series nomination. Clearly, when it comes to the Emmys, location is least as important (and often more so) than how good a show is. It feels a bit frustrating to "Chris" showrunner LeRoi.

"I honestly believe that if we're considered solely on the strength of our writing, our acting performances and our overall execution, we're on par with the best comedies on television," LeRoi says. "But the playing field clearly isn't level, and you're seen as inferior if you air on a network that doesn't have the highest viewer level.

"At the end of the day, being on the air and having a chance to do a great show is its own reward, but I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't be nice to get some added recognition," LeRoi continues. "You just wonder why there seem to be barriers in the way and if that ever will change."

"Monk" executive producer Andy Breckman has an even more baffling dilemma that's been raised each of the past four years. His USA series has proved it can play with the big kids, in that star Tony Shalhoub has won the lead comedy actor trophy three times since 2003. Yet, the show itself has never landed a nomination for outstanding comedy.

"It's hard to figure why we haven't managed to get on that series list yet," Breckman notes. "Maybe it's because we're so different than the other entrants. It really is like comparing novels and short stories. But I have to believe we come out on the good end of that. The half-hours can be as emotionally complicated or build as many character arcs as we can in an hour. That's a simple fact.

"On the other hand, one of the reasons Tony shines as brightly as he does every week is the platform we give him with this show," Breckman continues. "We're intentionally retro and old school, and maybe that works against us. But if our format helps Tony, I'll take that trade-off."

Perhaps "Entourage" suffers a similar problem in its focus on co-star Jeremy Piven, who won the supporting comedy actor statue a year ago for his performance as unctuous agent Ari Gold. The series was expected to earn a comedy series nomination in 2006, then didn't. But its perceived quality and buzz made an exponential leap during the current season, which executive producer Ellin hopes will pay off in some Emmy series attention.

"We definitely feel this is our best season by a good margin," he says. "You never know how these nominations go, of course. And if you think about it too much, all you do is drive yourself nuts. So, I should probably just leave it at that."

Another show that had been expected to land a series mention but got passed over last year was "Earl," which also failed to garner an honor for lead Jason Lee. Yet, its creator/executive producer Gregory Thomas Garcia isn't inclined to complain. The show won four Emmys, including a writing statuette for Garcia's pilot script and a directing triumph for Marc Buckland.

"We didn't come away feeling shortchanged," Garcia says. "The Emmys invited me and gave me a trophy. We won in four of the five categories where we were nominated, and you've got to love having an .800 batting average. That was a pretty great validation all-around. I mean, Jason is fantastic, and I'd like to think the show itself is good, too. But you know, I shouldn't get greedy, and the truth is that all of the series nominees last year deserved it."

While "Earl" is shot using a single camera -- as are four of the five outstanding comedy series nominees from last year -- Garcia isn't as pessimistic about multicamera shows as many producers appear to be.

"'Two and a Half Men' and 'The King of Queens' are great shows that show four-camera can still work," Garcia maintains. "It isn't the format that works or doesn't work, it's whether your show is funny or not. Things that are done well will make it on the air and thrive no matter how many cameras you use. I look forward to doing another four-camera show myself at some point."

Carter Bays certainly makes no apologies for serving as executiveproducer/showrunner of the multicamera series "Mother," which is shot without a live audience in order to make room for several more sets on the soundstage and has a more cinematic look than any other four-camera effort. It does, however, feature a laugh track, which Bays believes isn't obtrusive because "we try to only use it in those places where the joke is actually funny."

It is Bays' opinion that not only isn't comedy dead, it isn't even badly wounded. And the multicamera form? "It's worked pretty well for the past 30 years, and we're supposed to believe it doesn't work anymore?" he asks. "I don't buy that. Funny is funny, period. In truth, we're looking at a pretty exciting time in TV history, where nearly all of the rules have been tossed out the window. This is a time where you can really experiment. The ones trying to do things differently are the kinds of shows the Emmys should really be paying attention to -- you know, like ours."