Gone are the domination days of 'Cheers,' 'Mary'

O laughter, where art thou?

That’s the question Emmy voters may be asking themselves this summer when lists are made, tapes are viewed and votes are cast for this year’s comedy winners.

Gone are the domination days of “Frasier” (five consecutive comedy wins). Gone are the easy selections like “Cheers” (four wins), “All in the Family” (four wins) and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (two wins).

There’s no sure bet this year, because there’s no definite “best,” and, depending on the voter, that translates into an exciting year … or a bad one.

It’s not that quality comedies are AWOL — CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” and Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” are viewer and critical faves — but take a trip back in time and one magazine cover says it all.

The Sept. 30 cover of TV Guide was graced with four famous faces: John Goodman, Geena Davis, Bette Midler and Michael Richards. “It’s going to be a big year for laughter,” the photo seemed to be telling readers.

Hardly.

Right now, Goodman, Davis, Midler and Richards are nowhere near a sitcom, their expensive and much hyped shows having been dumped by their respective networks. Execs that bought into the notion that big names equal big ratings were brought back to reality when all four shows were axed after only one year. Or less.

“Television programs make stars. Stars do not make television programs,” says Josh Goldsmith, who, as showrunner for CBS’ “King of Queens,” is acutely aware of networks’ strategies to build awareness of a show before the season begins, but he knows that approach is not a slam dunk.

“Networks think a commodity will bring them instant success, but it’s been proven over and over again that many shows need time to build an audience, and it has nothing to do with a being a big name,” he says.

Goldsmith’s assertion has been confirmed several times, with “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” the most famous examples of slow-cooked triumphs. And in today’s demo-hungry world, it’s truer than ever.

“People fall in love harder with sitcoms, but it’s harder to fall in love,” he says.

Sitcoms are at a crux, and viewers are starting to get antsy. Not everything can be as trailblazing as “Seinfeld,” but that still doesn’t explain the umpteen laffers churned out by the Big Four and the netlets that have gone nowhere.

“Television is about elements first,” says William Morris agent Conan Smith, who represents Ray Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Kevin James (“King of Queens”), among other comedians. “But executives don’t have a lot of time to wait for the elements. Timeslots, lead-ins, scheduling and network promotion have always been keys to success in this business, but they seem to have become the only benchmark of accomplishment.”

This year’s model

For the 2000-01 season, HBO’s “Sex and the City,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and, to a lesser degree, HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” have been critical faves, but they haven’t reached critical mass. “Raymond” has paid its dues (it just ended its fifth season) and “Will & Grace” is the edgy defending champ with an established helmer (James Burrows) and likely noms in all four acting categories. As for old standby “Frasier,” it’s still sharp and smart.

Also-rans include “Friends,” which was finally knocked from its Nielsen perch, and less popular shows like Fox’s “Futurama” and Comedy Central’s “TV Funhouse,” which have strong followings but little else going for them when it comes to Emmy hype. And then there are dramas.

Dramas?

“Hourlong programming has changed in a big way,” says Smith. “It’s no longer cut-and-dry what should be up for the comedy award and what should be up for the drama award.”

As “Ally McBeal” has proved (nominated for outstanding comedy in 1998 and winner in 1999), Emmy voters have become burned out on traditional laffers.

“When you can marry the two genres, there’s more of a chance for a hit today because audiences are tired of formulas,” says Smith.

Emmy voters will have to define that for themselves again when faced with pushes for shows this year like NBC’s “Ed” and WB’s “Gilmore Girls,” programs that have Emmy support behind them but definitely fall into the mixed-bag mold. They’re dramedies … and there’s no outstanding dramedy category.

That blurred line is clouding the mix, and it’s definitely affecting future schedules.

“The networks didn’t bring out more new comedies this year because it has become understood that audiences figure out that a comedy stinks a lot faster than a drama,” says Los Angeles Daily News TV critic David Kronke. “As for the ones that worked, the people who created these shows spent a lot of energy at the very beginning, creating entertaining characters who interact in genuinely funny ways.”

Of course, there might be a more tangible reason for the drought.

” ‘Survivor’ mania took away from general sitcom interest,” Smith says. “Reality programming is the latest thing to steal attention from TV’s norm.”

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