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Serious about comedy

Nets honing machinery for laffers

Don’t tell the networks comedy is dead.

Despite all the hand-wringing over the genre’s decline, the nets still know how to create quality laffers. Several will be on display this midseason, as ABC launches the promising “Jake in Progress” and NBC unveils its smart version of the BBC hit “The Office.”

Even Fox’s upcoming “Life on a Stick” shows signs of promise.

The creative comedy boomlet extends to ongoing skeins such as Emmy winner “Arrested Development” and the perennially underrated “Scrubs.”

All these shows would seemingly counter the conventional wisdom that the sitcom genre slumped because the nets failed to come up with fresh, funny laffers.

Apparently they did — but coming up with a good show, of course, is just half the battle. Turning those creative champs into ratings winners is another matter entirely.

“There are an incredible amount of choices out there,” says former NBC Entertainment topper Warren Littlefield, now a producer who has several pilots in the pipeline. “The great ones like ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Cheers’ and ‘Friends’ are all still out there, on the air. That’s very hard to compete against.”

Granted, for every “Arrested Development,” the nets throw on five misses such as “Center of the Universe.” But there’s reason for hope this midseason.

For starters, the nets are looking to past success for guidance. ABC is pushing “Jake” with the same level of energy that made “Desperate Housewives” a hit. And NBC hopes to carefully launch “The Office” the same way it slowly nurtured “Seinfeld.”

While it doesn’t quite live up to the Ricky Gervais original — and really, that would be an impossible task — NBC’s version of “The Office” reps the best translation of any Brit import in at least a decade. (Sorry, “Coupling.”)

“The Daily Show” alum Steve Carell is sharp as office boss Michael Scott, while the show boasts a healthy dose of the same uncomfortable energy that made the U.K. “Office” a Golden Globe winner.

“(Like ‘Seinfeld’), they’re not expecting it to do well out of the gate,” says exec producer Greg Daniels. “I like the fact that they’re going into it knowing that. It’s positive that they’re taking the long-term viewpoint.”

“Jake in Progress,” meanwhile, succeeds where other shows have failed in creating a male version of “Sex and the City.” Star John Stamos is likable as a weary bachelor and semi-sleazy publicist, and he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast (Wendie Malick, Ian Gomez, Rick Hoffman).

“ABC does get behind their product,” Littlefield says. “As a viewer, their spots have me saying, ‘Yeah, I’m looking for a new comedy to hang out with.’ They’re aiming high and smart.”

“Life on a Stick,” meanwhile, pulls off a tough feat: It’s the first consistently funny teen-centric laffer since Fox’s “That ’70s Show.”

On the surface, none of the shows would appear to be destined for instahit status. “The Office” will be an acquired taste for the majority of U.S. TV viewers who have never seen the original. “Jake” airs in a tough Thursday night slot. And Fox has had more success with drama and reality than new laffers in recent years.

And it doesn’t help that viewers have stubbornly refused to make such critically acclaimed laffers as “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs” hits. NBC stands behind “Scrubs,” even if it hasn’t given it much help on Tuesday nights, while Fox is still hoping “Arrested” spontaneously explodes into a phenomenon, even as it cuts back this season’s order.

“You have to give kudos to Fox for taking their most coveted comedy time period (post-‘The Simpsons’) and devoting it to a show they believe in,” Littlefield says. “That’s a great commitment.”

Given the fair amount of lackluster laffers the nets started out the season with, the midseason entries should at the very least give sitcom fans hope that the nets haven’t turned their back on smart fare.

“I’m encouraged when they try to make (single-camera comedies) work,” Daniels says. “I always feel like when they go back to that fat guy/skinny wife format, that it seems so cynical, like the networks give up a little bit.”

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