Cable is able amid network laffer lull

'Maher,' 'Chappelle' challenging 'Daily' supremacy

Attrition and poor recruiting have thinned the ranks from which Emmy will choose its outstanding comedy series this year.

In terms of TV laughs, perhaps the more interesting race will take place in the variety/music/comedy arena, where Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” has won the last two years.

This year, several edgy, topical cable laffers will be challenging “The Daily Show’s” reign, with HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “Da Ali G Show” and Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” in the mix.

So, why are comedies loads funnier and more inventive on cable these days?

“Because you can say caca,” Bill Maher says. “I think cable is always out front, not just in comedy. … You know, I always look to the network that’s doing the worst to put on the best stuff because they have nothing to lose.”

“For us in cable, I think it’s always important to yell a little louder, and do something a little more audacious, in order to get the attention you need to launch a successful show,” adds Lauren Corrao, exec VP of original programming and development at Comedy Central.

“Daily Show” head writer David Javerbaum says the freedom Comedy Central allows the writing staff is a definite strength. “We’re treated very well by our network, in that they leave us alone. At this point, they trust us to know what we’re doing, and when we do stuff that’s a little bit racier or controversial, it’s for a reason,” he says.

Why are subscribers in the mood to watch politically charged comedy? “I think the world in general has gotten so much more politically correct over the years, and to me (topic-driven shows) are an answer to that,” Corrao says. “It’s like, let’s call people on it, let’s put it out there — let people laugh again at stereotypes and inconsistencies and hypocritical points of view.”

“Politics is so off-kilter,” Maher says. “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen it as bad as it has been. George Bush is such a polarizing figure. … There is a hunger to see the people in power taken down because they are an arrogant bunch up there. The Republicans pretty much control everything: They have the White House and they have the courts, and they have the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, and they have what’s left of Zell Miller’s head. When people are bloated with pomposity and religiosity and arrogance and a thirst for power, that is the perfect time for comedy.”

Javerbaum, a big fan of Comedy Central’s animated series “South Park,” wonders why its buzz died down.

“Success is measured on our network much lower than success on another network,” Javerbaum says. “You keep hearing we’re the end all and be all. No one talks about ‘South Park’ anymore, but it’s funnier than ever. It’s more brilliant than ever, and more people watch it than our show.”

Then why do we hear so much more about “The Daily Show”? “People in the media like to mention ‘The Daily Show’ because they’re flattered that we would take the time to make fun of them, and they generally don’t realize that they probably shouldn’t be flattered because we really increasingly do it less and less out of good nature and more and more out of genuine anger,” Javerbaum says.

What will cable’s comedy trend look like later? “I don’t know what other people will try to do to imitate either us or other shows that are successful. … In general, I would ascribe to the theory that the really great shows are the ones that roll out of their own center,” Javerbaum says.

Could traditional sitcoms make it on cable? “I think cable’s certainly usurped a lot of the power out of network television,” says Maxine Lapiduss, exec producer of Bravo’s “Situation Comedy.” “But not in the sitcom. You can’t even get in the door to pitch (sitcoms at cable networks) unless it’s an interesting concept that’s also provocative.”

HBO has ordered 12 episodes of one traditional sitcom for the fall — a family show with cursing. “We’re superexcited about the multicamera comedy (‘American Dream’) with Louis C.K.,” HBO Entertainment prexy Carolyn Strauss.

Emmy winner C.K. has written for “SNL,” Conan O’Brien, David Letterman and Chris Rock. HBO also is producing “Extras,” Ricky Gervais’ follow-up to “The Office” in which he plays a background actor.

“You want your comedy to be unfettered,” Strauss says. “It’s not about profanity but having a point of view.”

As cable networks grow, will they rethink their “unfettered” agenda?

Corrao says no way. “It won’t ever change. … We are networks known for breaking out and being innovative, and doing things before anyone else.”

Others say anything could happen. According to Peabody Awards director Horace Newcomb, “The entire system of television is in transition. The fragmentation and segmentation of audiences and program content that began with cable in the late ’80s is now fully realized. Add to this the potential for Webcasting and streaming, and TV is almost in a state of confusion.”

If the Federal Communications Commission horns in on cable, could the freedom to say caca after 10 p.m. go away?

“There is a Congressman Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) who’s talking in very chilling tones about extending this warpath that the FCC has been on since Janet Jackson’s nipple fell out of her bra for one second,” Maher says. “I’m not going to push the panic button yet, but just the idea that somebody would bring that up and not be shouted down as a lunatic is frightening to me.”

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” says Robert Thompson, professor of popular TV professor at Syracuse U. “It would take a real legal sleight of hand to absorb all those rules that used to be based upon being the guardian of our public airwaves and have them take on cable.”

“People think I was very constricted (on ABC’s ‘Politically Incorrect’),” Maher adds. “They say, ‘Well now that you’re at HBO …’ but I always said what I wanted on ABC, too. The only difference is I got fired for it, and (at HBO) I haven’t gotten fired yet.”

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