High jumpers must plant one foot just right to gain the leverage required to spring up and over the bar.As nets and producers wonder how to launch their next comedy hit, the nagging question is how they can get airborne without such a foundation. The top-rated unscripted programs have been ratings self-starters, and ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” have been the same. Since “The Cosby Show” launched two decades ago, however, the mechanics of introducing sitcoms has relied upon passing the torch — using “Cheers” to get people hooked on “Seinfeld,” or “Mad About You” to lure viewers into “Friends.” Indeed, in NBC’s Thanksgiving-night “Seinfeld” retrospective, Jason Alexander recalled series co-creator Larry David resenting the importance of that lead-in, saying, “I don’t want to be ‘Cheers’ ‘ little brother.” So what happens when the torch starts to flicker out? In the good old days, nets possessed enough hit comedies to create hammocks — that is, half-hours that in the pre-TiVo age almost defied the viewer to find something else to do. If you’re going to watch “Seinfeld” and “ER” anyway, why not leave the set on for the schlock between them? That’s a far cry from where the nets find themselves today. Having neutered “Father of the Pride” and expanded weight-loss content “The Biggest Loser” to 90 minutes during sweeps, NBC suddenly has just three sitcoms on the air, offering virtually no base for new comedies. ABC has more sitcoms in its quiver but few are making much noise, and Fox’s Sunday lineup appears as winded as Homer Simpson after a brief jog. The only upside is that mediocre ratings for Emmy winner “Arrested Development” don’t look quite as bad because tune-in for “The Simpsons” is softer leading into it. With so few hit comedies in play, reinvigorating the form becomes ever harder. Small wonder that the recent Museum of Television & Radio event honoring “Everybody Loves Raymond” felt as much like a wake as a celebration. CBS has nurtured a worthy successor to “Raymond,” but that still augurs a Monday comedy block next season that could easily be called ” ‘Two and a Half Men’ and the Three Dwarfs.’ ” Even HBO finds itself at a crossroads post-“Sex and the City,” as shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Entourage” skew toward a much narrower base. Taken together, this not-so-encouraging scenario suggests that for comedy to bounce back, new series are going to have to break out on their own in much the way “Cosby” and “All in the Family” once did. “They’ve got to swing for the fences and really take some chances,” says producer and veteran network exec Fred Silverman, adding it will take a personality or “unusual idea” to break through and “really strike the public’s fancy.” The problem is that the traditional comedy has hinged on sharp execution more than the kind of eye-catching premise that entices viewers sight unseen. Reducing “Raymond,” “Friends” or “Cosby” to logline descriptions does little to separate them from the dozens of also-rans that came and went during their tenures. If anything, the gimmickry that can garner attention often undermines the essence that made the best comedies so enduring — which explains why “The Honeymooners” is a classic and “ALF” a cultural artifact. Moreover, other factors impede the goal of being truly distinctive, including political correctness and content-skittishness — especially among network affiliates — thanks to the fine-happy FCC. Granted, being funny is always nice (and rare), but it’s questionable whether that alone will be enough when few programmers enjoy the luxury of waiting for word of mouth to work its magic. Besides, in such a splintered environment, it’s difficult to get enough mouths working to effectively spread the word. As someone who loves to laugh, I’d welcome a sitcom resurgence, but with the old scheduling formula in disrepair it’s going to require bold thinking to jumpstart the process. In this respect, the networks have created their own Catch-22 scenario — can’t intro hit sitcoms without hit sitcoms to beget them — that wasn’t given enough consideration as they hastily filled their lineups with reality shows. If there’s an upside to the malaise it’s that the bar has been systematically lowered, making it easier to clear. Without enough springboards, though, it’s going to require more than luck to complete this leap of faith — perhaps beginning with a look backward in order to get moving forward. “Sometimes when you look at history,” Silverman says, “it gives you some clues as to what you should do in the future.”
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