Will TV skits boost webs’ laughing stock?

Most nets have SNL wannabes in works for next season

NEW YORK — Primetime TV desperately wants to catch some of that “Saturday Night” fever.Those network execs who fear they’ve missed out on the reality-TV party now want to tap into the next phenom and they’re betting that sketch comedy will be it.

Yes, folks, “Saturday Night Live,” at age 26, has become a role model yet again.

Except Lorne Michaels, “SNL’s” creator, is dubious.

“The amount of talent at any given time is finite. There aren’t that many really good writers or people who are so compelling to watch,” he says.

If a show has a point of view and a fresh attitude, Michaels adds, it’s got a decent chance of succeeding. But, he cautions newcomers to the field, “it’s hard to make a hit.”

Nonetheless, ABC, UPN, Fox and the WB each have at least one “Saturday Night Live” wannabe in the works for next season, and many more pitches are making the rounds.

Though primetime seems a little late in catching the wave — “SNL” debuted 26 years ago in late-night — the newfound enthusiasm is not surprising.

Reality TV has proven audience-friendly and cost-efficient in the past year, but many fear the “Survivor”-“Big Brother” style of reality may be cresting.

And “SNL” has been on a roll, up 12% over last season in adults 18-49, with a 4.7/18. More important, it has scored in primetime. A 20-minute live version of the show scored good numbers on Thursdays with a “super-sized” version of “Friends” in a NBC bid to squelch “Survivor” during February sweeps.

Fox’s “Mad TV” also continues to perform in its Saturday night timeslot. Season-to-date in adults 18-49, “Mad TV” has posted a 2.7/9, up 4% from last year.

And strictly speaking, while it’s not a sketch series, ABC’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” is a solid performer, averaging more than 9 million viewers in a tough hour, where it’s up against “Friends” and now “Survivor.”

Also fueling interest in alternative formats is the fact that traditional sitcoms have failed to hit during the past couple of seasons.

Working on their shtick

But there is one dramatic downside to sketch: It’s notoriously difficult to develop and has a high failure rate.

From the 1950s until the late ’70s, sketch comedy series and variety shows were among the most popular items on TV. Sketch comedies thrived on TV, starting with Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason, and continuing with Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson and the Smothers Brothers.

Since that heyday — with the exception of breakouts like Fox’s “In Living Color” — the genre has failed to thrive in primetime.

“The Ben Stiller Show” and primetime showcases for Dana Carvey and Martin Short quickly fizzled in the early and mid-’90s.

The WB recently tried to revitalize the genre with “Hype,” which piqued advertiser interest at last year’s upfront presentation. But it never found an audience. The show averaged 2.65 million viewers and earned a 1.2 rating/3 share in adults 18-49, making it one of the lowest-rated shows in primetime.

Carvey the culprit?

Comedians naturally like to push the limits of acceptability, but there are certain creative restrictions that come with a primetime slot.

Carvey found that out when he launched his over-the-top sketch series “The Dana Carvey Show” on ABC in 1996. The idea was for each week’s sponsor to get title billing.

Carvey might have pushed the envelope a bit too far: The premiere opened with a chorus of dancing Taco Bell clerks who introduced Carvey by singing, “We paid him a fortune to use his name, ’cause he’s a shameless whore.”

Needless to say, after the first episode, the fast-food chain canceled all future advertising, as did other sponsors. The series was axed after only two months on the air.

Blame the bottom line on why many sketch shows have failed in the past. Since they’re so topical, sketch comedies rarely repeat as well as scripted shows, and therefore reruns have little value in the syndication or overseas markets.

So why are programming execs willing to take a risk on a genre with such a rocky track record and high financial risks?

Aside from the desire to find new program formats, execs cite numerous upsides to sketch comedy, including the fact that sketch is a great way to farm talent and develop ideas for series.

“There could be a bright, shining star on one of those pilot tapes,” says William Morris VP Jennifer Craig. “It’s a great way to find real, new, pure talent. Everyone is looking for the next Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey.”

Branding iron

It’s also a good way to brand an upstart netlet.

“Sketch comedies tend to have a rebel yell to them that are a good fit for an alternative network like UPN — if anyone should be doing them, we should,” says UPN entertainment prexy Tom Nunan. “We’re always looking at different forms of comedy that can help us stand apart from the competition.”

In addition to “Off Limits,” UPN is developing a multi-ethnic animated sketch comedy series with Urban Entertainment.

Among the other projects in development:

  • “Reno 911” — Described as “Monty Python” meets “Cops,” this sketch comedy series from 20th Century Fox TV/Jersey is in development at Fox. Sketch comedy veterans Tom Lennon, Ben Garant and Kerry Kenney (“The State,” “Viva Variety”) will topline.

  • “Off Limits” — Originally set to debut on UPN in January, this ATG-produced sketch comedy skein was postponed for retooling. Now UPN is planning to debut the Carmen Electra-hosted show in summer, or hold it for fall in the case of a writers and actors strike.

  • Untitled Wayne Brady show — ABC is developing a one-hour backdoor pilot special around Brady, a regular on the net’s improv comedy series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

  • Untitled Jamie Foxx show — the WB is developing a half-hour ensemble sketch/variety show for Foxx.

  • Untitled Drew Carey project — NBC has ordered a pilot of a live skein from Carey, Bruce Helford and Sam Simon that mixes elements of improv and sitcom.

TV veterans who have seen sketch go in and out of vogue are skeptical that the genre has got a shot at renewed primetime success.

And some talent would prefer to test out the waters in latenight or on cable before going to primetime, where content restrictions make it difficult to make waves.

“Tracey Takes On … ” and “Mr. Show” thrived on HBO and the “Upright Citizens Brigade” found a home at Comedy Central.

“Mad TV” exec producer Dick Blasucci doubts that sketch will flourish again in primetime.

“It’s been awhile since Carol Burnett was on the air. I don’t think audiences relate to sketch comedy in primetime anymore,” says Blasucci, whose credits include “SCTV,” “The Tracy Ullman Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”

“It’s a lost art form for that time of night. Maybe it will take a personality as strong as Carol Burnett’s to make it popular again.”

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