Funny business no laughing matter


The mantra goes like this: Comedy is dead, long live comedy. Network executives, producers and writers might as well have it tattooed on their shoulders, as each season continues to demand more, creatively, for an ever-diminishing audience of picky viewers. It's not news that the audience for primetime comedies is fragmented and eroding -- the growing number of outlets, from Internet to cable, has made viewers fiercely selective about what they'll tune into and steadily support. But the good news is that when they do find a show they respond to, audiences are becoming more passionately loyal to their choices, in a way industry insiders say is unheralded. That leaves executives and creators trying harder than ever to strike a delicate and precarious balance: generating shows that are universal in their appeal, yet wholly original.

"The networks need to distinguish themselves, and shows need to have very strong points of view and distinct concepts, in a way that they didn't need to 10 years ago," Fox Broadcasting Co. executive vp programming Craig Erwich says. "People are going to the Internet, they're turning to cable and they're still watching reruns of the classic shows from the last 20 years.

"That comedy itch can be scratched in more ways than it used to," he continues, "and the comedy audience, more than any other audience, is fragmented. Network comedy has to really rise to the occasion to compete for that attention."

In order to be deemed worthy of eyeballs, those involved with programming and producing comedies contend, it has become crucial not to underestimate the sophistication of an audience that now hones its humor daily on the Internet.

"We're all competing for smaller pieces of the pie, and I think audiences are way smarter than Hollywood gives them credit for," says Marc Cherry, creator/executive producer of ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Cherry spent more than a year receiving passes on "Housewives" -- "people didn't think the show was funny," he says -- before ABC signed up; if Cherry's having the last laugh now, he believes it is partly because "the days of lowest-common denominator programming are over. We're seeing that if you do a really smart show for people with (high IQs) and you can get all those people to tune in, then you can have a hit."

Last season, shows such as ABC's "Ugly Betty" and NBC's "The Office" were successful in doing just that, reaching a niche audience of loyal viewers and earning kudos from critics. But while these two award-winning shows might offer something different from the traditional four-camera sitcom, they were hardly untested in appeal: "Betty" is based on the enormously popular Colombian telenovela "Yo Soy Betty, la fea," and "Office" had been a hit for creator Ricky Gervais in Britain.

Says Ben Silverman, the executive producer who developed both shows in the U.S., "I've always looked at what the easiest way is to create a package, and I've found that the international formats help build creative momentum and teams and cut through the clutter."

Prior to his late-May installation as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, Silverman had toiled to bring two more adaptations of imports to the small screen next season, including "I'm With Stupid" for NBC, based on the BBC series about the relationship between a homeless man and a young man in a wheelchair, and "Kath and Kim," a hit in Australia about the dysfunctional interactions of a mother and daughter. "Stupid" got picked up by NBC; "Kath" did not. But should "Stupid" find even a modest, "Office"-sized audience, that's fine by Silverman.

"The demographic for 'The Office' may not be (Fox's) 'American Idol' size," he says, "but they have more money, more education and a deeper loyalty to the show. If you tune into 'The Office,' that's your No. 1 show. There are a lot of people who are successful in making big traditional shows, but for us, I think there's a clear point of view expressed in everything we do, and that's something that audiences can feel a part of. It's less about being 'edgy' than being relevant. We're all trying to uncover the next thing. We're in a creative industry, and everyone wants to do something creative. That's why we're not investment bankers. As far as I'm concerned, that creativity lives in things that make noise and are different."

Even shows that might appear to be more traditional on paper are making it to next season's pilot stage by largely unconventional means, despite the resumes of creators that would seem to assure a fast track onto the air. Pedigrees aside, the odds are increasingly stacked against them: One executive estimates that the average network develops around 60 scripts a season, which result in 10 pilots, only two to three of which make it on the air. Those odds aren't very inspiring.

Steven Levitan and his partner, Christopher Lloyd, former co-executive producers of "Frasier," didn't receive a greenlight from Fox for their new four-camera pilot "Back to You" until they had packaged the show with star Kelsey Grammer already attached. "We decided to go about things a bit differently this time," Levitan says. "We knew the only way we could move forward was to get Kelsey to read a script and sign on officially, so we went and wrote one without telling the studio what we were doing."

Once Grammer committed to playing a struggling anchorman who returns to his smaller, hometown market, "Then we said, 'Good, we've got Kelsey, and networks will be really excited about that, but we might as well take a stab at Patricia Heaton to see if she'll co-star,'" Levitan explains. "Then, once we had the two of them, and only then, did we officially take it out. By the time we walked into the network, we handed them a script, two leads and casting ideas for several other characters. But if it hadn't had that star power about it, I don't think there would have been nearly the level of interest in the show that we got."

Levitan and Lloyd learned their lesson the hard way after several years of working on projects that never made it past development. "Networks would say they wanted a traditional, multicamera show, but then we'd pitch something that we thought was well-thought-out and had an emotional center and the potential for a lot of stories, and they wouldn't be as excited by that as with a high-concept, flashy idea that we felt would be more difficult to sustain," Levitan recalls. "It took people like Kelsey and Patty to garner excitement."

The quirkiness of the concept is a crucial part of its appeal, says NBC senior vp comedy series Shelley McCrory. "I definitely think there was a moment where we said, 'We can't keep doing the same thing because we won't get the audiences' attention,'" she says. "So, we decided to shake it up a bit and look for different ways to be in the medium, and that's where you see the resurgence of single-camera comedy. But when multicameras are done really well, they can be brilliant."

They're also important to have on the roster in order to balance out single-camera shows that don't pull in the number of viewers that a show like CBS' "Two and a Half Men" does. "Ultimately, you have to be in the ratings business," Erwich explains. "It's nice to have a loyal audience, but you still have to sustain a benchmark. For every network, with everything, it's a balance. If you have a very strong show on your schedule, then you can afford to nurture something that's a little more cult or niche. For us, it's the balance that's key."

Indeed, while single-camera shows might be garnering the most buzz, it remains true that the successful multicamera staple has the surest shot of delivering a mass audience. "I feel like everyone is trying to chase after the hot, hip, superedgy, new single-camera show, but there is still that audience who wants to see a very well-written, very well-acted multicamera sitcom," Levitan says. "The problem is that it's so difficult to do, and when it doesn't work, with obvious setups and unnatural moments, the form comes jumping up in your face. No one has gotten it really, really right for a while."

One person who has is Chuck Lorre, creator/executive producer of "Men," which has been television's top comedy for the past two of its four seasons. Lorre credits the show's success to the chemistry between stars Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, as well as to an old-fashioned premise: "You care about the characters," he says. "And that's when their character flaws become something you can laugh with and when you have a rooted interest in their lives."

Equally important is the "relatability" factor. "The guys on 'Two and a Half Men' are archetypes for what it is to be a man in the world and fail at it," Lorre says. "When you're watching people you love who you can relate to, that's the most important thing and always has been, no matter what. Look back at 'All in the Family,'" he posits. "You cared about Archie and Edith because you knew that no matter what, Archie loved his family and would fall in front of a bus for them. You loved Rosie and Dan in 'Roseanne,' and 'Cheers' was a surrogate family we all wish we had."

Not that the formula is simple. "It's about craft, certainly," Lorre chuckles. "And then it's about waiting for lightning to strike."

Lorre's new four-camera pilot called"The Big Bang Theory" just got picked up by CBS. The project, which revolves around a group of quantum physicists, was developed by Lorre and Bill Prady, who worked together on "Dharma & Greg" and "Men." Lorre hopes the alchemy of combining lovable archetypes with the kind of original concept necessary to compete in today's marketplace will give this situation comedy a chance. "The characters are these guys who can calculate Pi to the 80th degree but can't figure out how to leave a tip at a restaurant," Lorre says. "I just love the idea. What if the four smartest guys in the world sucked at human relationships?"

Character relationships with each other and viewers are what today's top creators call the nonnegotiables of a hit show, regardless of how many cameras are rolling. "If you look at 'The Office' or CBS' 'How I Met Your Mother,' they're all relationship-driven shows," Erwich says. "People can watch them for the soap and drama as much as for the jokes."

Says Lloyd: "People want to come and laugh when they watch a show, but they also want to feel something. It's not about making people laugh at wacky situations but about really giving the audience something to identify with, which doesn't mean you can be derivative. I think when you see another show that's about young 21-year-olds in the city whining about their problems, people don't care. It might be right down the network's demographics of what the 'perfect' show should be, but in the end, what we wind up with is shows that seem like each other, and people don't want to watch them."

So, how does one make a show feel both cutting edge and marketable to the masses? Says McCrory: "I don't think that any show that feels like people have seen it before on every level will work anymore. But there are certain genres that people will always be drawn to, like family or workplace comedies. But you can't have seen that exact presentation before or that exact character before."

When "Friends" appeared, she points out, "No one had ever seen anything like it. A multicamera show about six people in their 20s? It was considered revolutionary, and a lot of people said it would never work for that very reason."

But when the upfront announcements were made last month, it became clear that the one eternal truth in comedy is that it is entirely subjective, and even a solid resume of success is no guarantee of future network love. David Israel and Jim O'Doherty, former producers of

"3rd Rock From the Sun," got a pass on their comedy "Wildlife," which had been four years in the making. Despite early encouragment from NBC, which, according to O'Doherty, had told them that "animal vehicles would be great for us right now," the single-camera pilot about a zookeeper didn't sustain the network's enthusiasm.

Ultimately, what executives and the creative community hope will happen is that the natural selection process will win out, with all segments of the audience being served by equally smart, if different, shows.

"The highest-rated comedy is a multicamera show," says "Office" showrunner/executive producer Greg Daniels, "so it's possible people there aren't lamenting the state of comedy, but for the kind of person like me who likes the single-camera comedy because it's a little more subtle and jokes aren't being pointed to with laugh tracks, it may be a little more difficult. That said, I liked 'Cheers,' and I loved 'Seinfeld.' The one thing that's important is that the show is doing something different from the pack."

Happily, there are many seasoned creators who are more than up for the challenge of continuing to search for what will draw in and delight viewers. "I'd love to say we've hit on the formula that will bring back the droves of audiences we had in the '80s and '90s," Lloyd says, "but the audience erosion is the natural thing in this environment. After all, when I was a kid, there were only three channels, so you would watch something that wasn't that captivating. Now, there are 300 choices. You can't correct that. But you can put better shows on."

Or at least try. Even when the creators fail in their attempts, they're ready to turn around and give it another shot. "You spend 5-7 months working on your baby, and you can't help but get very passionate about it," acknowledges Israel. "If you get to 6 or 12 more episodes after the pilot, you're very lucky. If not, it can be very painful, but if you start making a science out of comedy, it becomes very unfunny. More to the point, we're businessmen. So we give ourselves two days to be sad, and by the end of the week we're back and pitching something else."

It's exactly that determination that is keeping television's top creative forces going back to the drawing board next season, even in the case of someone like Lorre, who could easily rest on his laurels.

"The glib answer is that I'm out of my mind," Lorre says about continuing to work on "Men" while also starting from scratch with "Bang." "But the more truthful answer is that if I have the opportunity to do what I love, how could I not? It's such a rare relationship to have with an audience, and it's not something to be taken lightly. If you don't cherish it, you're an idiot. There are so many reasons this stuff doesn't work, so when it does, drop to your knees and thank whatever it is you thank. Just make sure to thank something."