Sorely needed: More comic relief

Several forces conspire to stifle fresh comedic voices both in movies and TV as more people wonder, “Is there such a thing as corporate comedy?”

It’s no laughing matter.

That’s the only conclusion you can draw from a glimpse at the present state of comedy in film and TV. The business of creating laughs is in a curious state of torpor.

There hasn’t been a major sitcom hit on TV in five years.

Though “Hope & Faith” had an auspicious debut and “Whoopi” seems OK, TV gurus are skeptical that any other comedy will catch the brass ring this season. Remember, some 18 new sitcoms were tossed into the mix.

In movies, “Bruce Almighty” may approach $500 million worldwide, which is downright amazing. A key reason for its success is that it had the field virtually to itself. Only a smattering of other comedies was released, and most promptly self-destructed, like Danny DeVito’s “Duplex” last weekend.

John Ritter’s show “8 Eight Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter” serves as a grim metaphor for the present dilemma. It showed some promise last season, but its long-term fate, of course, is now in question long-term.

So where have all our laugh-meisters gone?

After 9/11 we were told there would be a mass appetite for comedy. Well it hasn’t turned out that way.

Theories abound as to why. Let me review some of them:

  • Big corporations don’t produce big laughs. The game plans of the studios focus on tentpoles and franchises, which aren’t funny. Studio committees with their development notes stifle the few laffers making their way through the pipeline.

  • With the networks producing the bulk of their own shows, there’s intense pressure to manufacture product that will score in syndication. Fresh comedy ideas for comedy don’t seem to survive that game plan.

  • The structure for developing comedy writers has been corrupted. When the WB and UPN started overdosing on comedy, neophyte jokesmiths were suddenly awarded their own shows. The craft of comedy buckled on the assembly line.

  • The big bucks have attracted the wrong types to the comedy trade. The ethnic gagmeisters who learned their craft on the Borsht Belt have been supplanted by Harvard MBAs who read the Wall St. Journal and pine for Brentwood, not Brooklyn. Their jokes reflect it.

  • Jerry Bruckheimer has never been seen laughing, and he seems to produce most of the new shows on TV.

There’s probably an element of truth in all these theories, but I still believe people want to laugh.

Indeed, they need to laugh. Try listening to the sour, dour natterings of Hard Right gurus like Limbaugh, Hannity or O’Reilly and you quickly understand the urgency of this need. Their fleeting stabs at levity are about as funny as a Donald Rumsfeld press briefing.

There’s a body of thought that says tough times produce great comedy. People start laughing when they feel disoriented. The comedy of nihilism has always been a rich vein.

The most satisfying comedy I’ve ever had anything to do with was called “Being There,” which reflected this school. I was lucky enough to be president of a modestly-sized company that financed the film, which starred Peter Sellers and was directed by Hal Ashby.

Sellers played a priceless character named Chance Gardener, who was something of a precursor to today’s talk radio hosts. He truly had nothing to say, and nothing on which to base it. His every platitude, however, was seized on as gospel and everyone pressed him to run for high office. In today’s environment, he surely could have won the California’s recall election.

I can testify there were no development notes on “Being There.” No one ever contemplated a sequel. There was no hope for a franchise. No network coveted it as a potential syndication hit. It didn’t open on 5,000 screens with a massive TV campaign.

Maybe that’s why it was very funny.

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