Net's search for comedy is no laughing matter as writers get a slap in the face
“ARE YOU NOW or have you ever been a member of the Writers Guild of America?”So begins the latest indignity heaped upon practitioners of the screenwriting trade, spelled out in those McCarthy-esque terms on the application for “Situation: Comedy,” an unscripted series in the works at Bravo. “Where will television find its next great comedy hit? From you,” the network says on its Web site. “With beloved sitcoms departing from network schedules and few surefire hits waiting in the wings, we find ourselves on the brink of a potential comedy crisis. But we at Bravo are no longer content to sit on the sidelines while the art of the sitcom is left to languish. Instead, we are putting the power in your hands, as writers and viewers.” Well, sure, why not? Everybody has a script. The other day a notary heard what I do and began rattling off his idea, after making me pledge that I wouldn’t steal it. Somewhere, a bishop is probably saying mass, then hurrying back to the rectory to tinker on the second act of his sitcom, “That’s My Pontiff!” Moreover, the multi-camera comedy is at a nadir both creatively and commercially. NBC retrenched to four comedies this fall — halving its total — while CBS has six scheduled, though I’m hard-pressed to find the “com” that goes with the “sit” in a few of them. There’s nevertheless something irksome about the assumptions behind this latest twist on the “Show business: Anyone can do it” reality concept — a genre that has been little more than a bait-and-switch bushwhacking for the unsuspecting marks. FOR STARTERS, let’s get the irony out of the way. Yes, the sitcom is ailing, but much of that has to do with the ineptitude of Bravo parent NBC in launching comedies over the last decade, despite possessing TV’s most coveted springboard in the “Must-See TV” franchise. While the blame game is at best imprecise, the “Situation: Comedy” concept subtly proffers that “professional writers” — that is, the ones working without a contract since May — have been unable to deliver hits, which is true but overly simplistic. It’s easy enough to cite writers, producers and actors for their contribution to killing comedy, but last I checked, there are also well-dressed people at networks and studios who play a significant gate-keeping role in deciding what gets through the mesh nets. Sure, some of the problem is attributable to lame execution. Yet as the WGA’s magazine Written By highlighted in a recent issue on “unproduced TV,” networks also bear responsibility for ordering lame, deal-driven shows and passing on riskier fare. After all, nobody forced NBC to squander time and money on “Coupling” and “Whoopi,” betting on pre-sold concepts and stars rather than scintillating prose. STILL, DON’T LOOK to Bravo’s Darwinian exercise to shed light on how good ideas go bad. In fact, the program has all the makings of another Hollywood mugging, where novices expose themselves to “What a dope, this TV stuff is harder than it looks” ridicule. Beyond helpfully noting that “humor is important,” the producers save the key disclaimer for the second-to-last page of fine print, which states that they can’t be held responsible for an entrant being “defamed or portrayed in a false light.” In reality parlance, this is the equivalent of telling George of the Jungle to “Watch out for that tree!” which didn’t stop him from crashing into it, any more than this warning will dissuade wannabes from enlisting. Following in the footsteps of “Project Greenlight” and to a lesser degree IFC’s upcoming docu series “Film School” and Bravo’s “Showbiz Moms and Dads,” the show will award the survivor $25,000 and a year of representation by CAA. Sounds pretty good, until the realization sets in that “Greenlight” winners have invariably fallen, however entertainingly, on their respective faces. Such stunts are diverting enough, but they only obscure where the serious business of being funny might have broken down. And if “the art of the sitcom” is languishing, maybe the soul-searching should encompass not just the saps that pull pages out of the printer but the folks they submit them to as well. RECOMMENDED VIEWING: Speaking of great writing, the oversight of FX’s “Nip/Tuck” in key Emmy categories seems more conspicuous after this week’s hour, which might be as good as any on TV this year. In addition to an explosive personal storyline, the plastic surgeon partners join in a heartbreaking attempt to separate conjoined twins. The episode (which repeats three more times) provides a welcome reminder why there’s scant need for a “Situation: Drama” contest.