TV plays it safe–just for laughs

If there are any safe bets in the risky business of television, comedy is it. Halfway into the traditional 30-week TV season, seven of the top 10-rated network shows are situation comedies.

Syndicators may not be scoring colossal paydays like those in the 1980s from shows such as “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show,” but programs that deliver laughs are still the consistent performers in the re-run market.

“Comedy at any given moment will appeal to a broader audience than drama,” said Chuck Slocum, director of industry analysis at the Writers Guild of America. And besides, comedies are less expensive to produce.

That’s why at least four-out-of-seven nights a week exex from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox Broadcasting and the cable networks gather at comedy clubs, such as the Improv in West Hollywood, to check out the latest would-be Jerry Seinfelds or Tim Allens.

Budd Friedman, co-owner and founder of the Improv, said his phone rings off the hook with Hollywood types soliciting his advice on up-and-comers in the field.

“They (the entertainment networks) are all looking for performers with an attitude, someone they can develop a show around,” said Friedman.

If there is a certifiable trend in TV right now it’s the networks’ use of proven comedy performers–most who received their training in stand-up–as centerpieces for half-hour shows.

Roseanne Arnold cultivated her blue-collar housewife routine in clubs, then jumped to TV stardom. Seinfeld, Allen, Paul Reiser, Richard Lewis, Martin Lawrence and others followed. It’s a return to programming trends of the 1950s, when comedy shows were built around performers such as Jack Benny, Danny Thomas and Jackie Gleason.

Cable networks are relying on comedy more than ever to grab their share of attention as they strive to forge identities in the multichannel universe.

Without the restrictions imposed on traditional TV networks, cablers can, and frequently do, let ‘er rip with humorous takes on adult situations. And with more modest financial resources than the networks, cablers have demonstrated ingenuity in coming up with fresh concepts.

But whether it’s the traditional TV networks or the cable webs, programmers speak of the need for breakthrough thinking and original ideas in the competitive world of comedy programming.

Figuring out what makes a comedy hit is an inexact science, to say the least. What works is what’s funny. And what makes something funny? It’s like asking why people fall in love.

Chris Albrecht, senior VP of original programming at HBO and president of HBO Independent Prods., believes “the networks are banking on personalities more and more,” and that “90 percent of TV is casting.” This, he believes, is why so much of the comedy on TV is so hum-drum.

Dean Valentine, executive VP of network television for Walt Disney Television and Touchstone Television, said the TV networks “don’t feel comfortable with just a concept anymore. (By putting a star on the air) the aim is to minimize the risks.”

But Valentine, and others, believe the current formula can’t last indefinitely. The current trend means “there are a lot of terrific shows on TV with memorable characters,” but there are also some ill effects from it, too.

“In the end, TV is about writing and scripts, and new ideas are hard to get,” said Valentine. “When that kind of a sensibility sets in, it undercuts the contribution of writers.”

Stu Smiley, senior VP of Fox Square Prods., believes the trend–what he describes as “the hyped pursuit of the stand-up”–will eventually run its course because there’s not enough talented performers to go around.

Shows such as “Home Improvement” and “Seinfeld” score well with viewers and bring what he describes as “an original point of view” to TV. But, he asks, “How many people are able to carry a show, be it on Broadway, or on television? Not that many.”

But the quest goes on. Network programmers report they are widening their search for talent and reviving old programming forms.

Tom Nunan, VP of comedy development at Fox Broadcasting, believes “the networks need to find alternative ways to capture the public’s imagination with humor, if we’re going to survive.”

The fourth TV network now regularly scouts talent outside the entertainment centers of Los Angeles and New York. It’s also perusing proven writers from other disciplines to make the switch as comedy scribes.

“We are trying to draft people that aren’t limited to standard sitcom writing , with experience in screenplay writing and in theater,” said Nunan. Finding new talent is a constant challenge. Once found, TV networks face the task of allowing a show to find its audience, tough in the harsh, bottom-line-driven universe of TV.

NBC has structured a unique developement deal with a comedy duo known as The Mommies to try to nurture an act it believes has potential. The comediennes–Petaluma, Calif., housewives who speak about suburban womanhood with discourses on PMS, maternity clothes and housework–will appear in one-minute advice vignettes, dubbed “Mommie Moments,” on that network, probably in the spring.

A series developed around the act may find a place on NBC’s fall schedule. Former “Golden Girls” producers Terry Grossman and Kathy Spear and former MTM honcho Arthur Price will be exec producers of the planned “Mommies” show.

Unlike the current TV network pack, The Mommies is a comedy team. Some in TV comedy believe the time is ripe for a wave of acts in the tradition of Elaine May/Mike Nichols or Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis, if for no other reason than there aren’t many on TV right now.

For in the world of TV programming, everything old is new again. Fox Square Prods. is in the process of developing what Smiley describes as “a throwback to the personality-driven comic variety shows of the past,” around performer/director Robert Town-send.

Fox Broadcasting will run “The Robert Townsend Variety Show” as a special in April. Smiley said Fox has made a commitment to put additional shows on the web at a later date.

At present, stand-up is a staple of the airwaves. The trend started a few years ago because such shows are cheap to produce, according to “Roseanne” writer Betsy Borns, author of a book on stand-up, “Comic Lives.” These shows led the networks to realize “how charismatic these performers could be,” and the current run of celebrity-driven sitcoms.

But many think it’s over-saturated. “Seinfeld” writer Peter Mehlman, a stand-up devotee, thinks so. “It should be an incredible thing to be on TV,” he said. “Right now, it’s not.”

Cable TV has a long tradition of breaking boundaries and comedy programming has played a large part in that.

“Talent loves it (cable),” said Jimmy Miller, partner of Messina Baker Miller Entertainment, which represents Tim Allen and other comics. “There are opportunities to say and do things on cable that you can’t do on network TV.” Unrestrained by network restrictions, HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show starring Garry Shandling” has emerged as a creative stand-out with its ribald behind-the-scenes look at a “Tonight Show”-like TV talk show.

But while the Shandling-starrer may be the darling of critics, many say its entertainment industry insider viewpoint will keep Heartlanders from responding to it wholeheartedly. And that will stop it from having much effect on the content of network TV programming.

Comedy Central, which delivered some of 1992’s TV programming highlights with its slightly askew “Indecision ’92” political coverage last year, has more politics in mind in the year ahead.

The two-year-old comedy network hasn’t decided on timeslot, length or the anchor(s) of what it will call “Comedy Central News.”

Senior vice president of programming Mitch Semel believes it will help establish Comedy Central’s attitude, and in turn, its identity. The network is also planning humorous spot news coverage of major events in 1993.

Comedy Central’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000” offers up cinematic turkeys punctuated by rapid-fire one-liners from an at-the-side-of-the-frame bumbling lab janitor and two robot pals. It may be inexpensive to produce, but there’s nothing cheesy about MST3K’s legions of dedicated fans–known as “Mistees”–who blitz the network with letters.

The Family Channel’s “Maniac Mansion” has a computer game-inspired zany premise–scientist Fred Edison is trying to figure out how to harness the energy of a meteorite under his house. “Mansion,” in its third season on that cable channel, has a sure-fire formula that appeals to kids, and adults are responding to its lively humor as well.

MTV’s programming mix is still 85% musicvideos, but the rock ‘n’ roll channel is leaning oncomedy in its future. On Feb. 13, MTV started a new weekly comedy series inspired by the experience of MTV viewers. VP of series development Lauren Corrao described “You Wrote It, You Watch It” as a hybrid between reality-based, re-enactment shows and viewer-participation programs, such as “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Kiddie cable network Nickelodeon has learned from market research that its audience hankers for comedy programming. Thus the sitcom, “Clarissa Explains It All,” and “Roundhouse,” a variety show that parodies TV, have taken their places on its schedule. Nickelodeon VP of production Brown Johnson said the cable network is trying to develop another sketch comedy about school and kids’ lives and is considering developing a sports show, possibly with a comic sensibility.

Pay cabler Showtime hasn’t had a regularly scheduled comedy series in three years (with the exception of “Super Dave”), but this year it will produce a series of comedy specials. First of the “Virtual Realities” parodies–a smorgasbord of comic sketches, film bits and improvisations–will be “Family Values: Hollywood versus Main Street,” airing in the fourth quarter.

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