Sitcoms aren’t dead but they’re ailing

BEFORE ANY MORE floral arrangements go out, let the record show that the obituaries were premature: Television comedy isn’t dead. As a business, though — the gravy train that furnished real estate from Beverly Hills to Malibu — it’s perilously close to flat-lining.

The good news is there are several promising network comedies this fall, as well as FX’s consistently funny “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” HBO’s new Ricky Gervais vehicle “Extras” plus a new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which opens near the apex of its bent wit.

What’s sorely lacking, however, are the kind of mass-appeal hits that have sustained the networks and syndication for decades, as well as the machinery necessary to propel such programs into the Nielsen stratosphere.

This Sunday’s Emmys underscore the transformation that has taken place, with the hour-long “Desperate Housewives” propping up a category that had to pull in hoary old “Will & Grace” and the previously overlooked “Scrubs” to flesh out its ranks. And while “Housewives” and ABC’s other freshman titan “Lost” were largely self-starters, sitcoms traditionally lack the big concept and flashy promos that can produce such out-of-the-box sensations.

No, the nurturing of comedy has always required planting a “Friends” between “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld,” then affording the audience time to get acquainted with the characters. Even that series didn’t take off until the latter half and summer of its first year, just as “Seinfeld” took years to become an acquired taste.

THE PROBLEM NOW is that few hammocks of any magnitude exist, meaning that series like NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” Fox’s “Kitchen Confidential” and UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris” will receive scant help from the programs that precede them, making the barriers to instant success almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. And while there’s nothing wrong with brilliant niche hits from a viewer’s perspective, as a business TV needs more “Two and a Half Men,” thank you, not another “Arrested Development.”

As it stands, only CBS has the right framework, with “King of Queens,” the aforementioned “Men” and “CSI: Miami” creating the tentpoles Monday that give its new comedies “How I Met Your Mother” and “Out of Practice” a better than fighting chance.

With all due respect to this gilded age of drama, moreover, nothing throws off cash quite like comedy. “Raymond,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends” represent the kind of billion-dollar franchises that keep the Los Angeles Times’ “Hot Property” section replete with aggravating “He bought what?” items. It’s enough to make you wonder why Larry David always seems so miserable.

The dried-out comedy pipeline is evident in scanning local early-evening lineups, a major revenue source for TV stations. In Los Angeles, for example, KTLA, KTTV and KCOP have been compelled to double-run repeats of “My Wife and Kids,” “King of the Hill” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” respectively, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Let’s face it, it doesn’t say much for sitcoms when network-owned outlets are stripping programs throughout the week that the audience has exhibited at best a marginal appetite for in their initial network showcase.

THIS ISN’T TO SAY that the networks don’t deserve a small hand for this year’s improved development. As Bravo’s anybody-can-make-a-sitcom exercise “Situation: Comedy” demonstrated, this stuff is harder than it looks. Indeed, that competition sifted through thousands of scripts to yield two highly mediocre presentations, “The Sperm Donor” and “Stephen’s Life” — albeit in part, perhaps, because of the intense homogenization process that show’s cameras revealed. (Memo to Sean Hayes: If you really think those were among the best pilots you’ve seen, avoid TV criticism and stick to acting.)

The good news is that more narrowly skewed comedies can now be commercially viable, as highlighted by the Lazarus-like rise of Fox’s “Family Guy,” which rode DVD sales and Cartoon Network reruns to stage its return from the dead. Still, without big, splashy hits that generate huge paydays to offset the myriad failures, the whole apparatus risks grinding to a halt, churning out pseudo-comedy like “Tommy Lee Goes to College” in its place.

All this could look differently a few weeks from now if some of these sitcoms confound history and bolt out of the starting gate. Of course, the smart money would say not to bet on it, but that advice comes a bit too late for those who already have.

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