New hits defibrillate flatlining network comedy biz, but it's not out of the woods

After years of spiraling toward what seemed to be certain death, network comedy showed the faintest pulse last season.

Of course, nobody’s declaring TV’s comedy drought over.

Here’s the good news: 2005-06 brought some genuinely funny shows that seemed to click with auds and crix alike. NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” for instance, premiered to huge numbers and spent a good chunk of its first season as TV’s No. 1 comedy among young adults.

Over at CBS, “How I Met Your Mother” could be the Eye’s first long-term comedy player since “Two and a Half Men,” while the net also renewed late-season entry “The New Adventures of Old Christine” for a second season.

Fox, meanwhile, got some good critical nods for “The Loop,” which — along with the less critically praised “The War at Home” — has been picked up for a sophomore year.

And while UPN is going away, newcomer “Everybody Hates Chris” allowed the netlet to die with dignity, and showed enough ratings spunk to survive the transition to the CW.

Perhaps the most encouraging development of the past nine months: NBC’s “The Office,” which many wrote off as dead after a low-rated first season, demonstrated double-digit ratings growth in season two.

“There were a few creatively adventurous new shows that didn’t feel derivative of past successes, and as such they immediately caught the attention of the audience,” explains Dana Waldon, prexy of 20th Century Fox Television.

So it’s time to declare a moratorium on all those “the sitcom is dead” stories, right?

Not quite yet.

While last year’s frosh laffer class was the finest to emerge in some time, none of the newcomers is anywhere close to a ratings juggernaut (though “Earl” came close in its early weeks, before NBC moved it to Thursdays). More distressingly, the modest success of last season was far outweighed by the many comic failures.

ABC isn’t bringing back any of its half-dozen new laffers, not even the critically praised “Sons and Daughters.” In fact, the Alphabet will begin the fall without a single returning comedy (“According to Jim” and “George Lopez” are set to return midseason).

And all of the young comedies remain vulnerable. “Earl,” “Mother” and “Christine” each ended their seasons with lower ratings than when the year began.

With “Everybody Loves Raymond” out of the picture, not a single comedy finished in Nielsen’s top 10 most-watched shows. In fact, only one laffer, “Two and a Half Men,” made it into the top 20.

“Comedy is still a challenged genre,” says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman. “I don’t think any of the shows that came on last season made me feel like it’s the year of the turnaround.”

Despite a handful of successful newcomers, some comedy insiders say the sitcom situation remains the same: The basic format no longer works.

“I think it’s that the genre is old and tired, and I don’t mean comedy in general. I mean the traditional multicamera sitcom,” says former “Friends” scribe Greg Malins, who’s set to join Craig Thomas and Carter Bays as showrunner of “How I Met Your Mother” next season.

“Dramas have really evolved,” he adds. “They’re almost like movies now. Gameshows have evolved a lot, too.  Sitcoms haven’t.”

Malins doesn’t include “How I Met Your Mother” in that mix. Indeed, one reason he joined the show was because he thought the creators had done a good job freshening up the comedy formula.

For his part, “Earl” creator Greg Garcia doesn’t think there’s any comedy code that needs to be cracked.

“There’s no secret to what makes a good show,” he says. “Have a relatable, universal theme, set it in a fun place with good characters being played by great actors, and get yourself a director who makes it look fresh and interesting every week. It’s being lucky enough to bring all those pieces together that’s the hard part.”

“Chris” creator Ali LeRoi believes the season’s successful new comedies have one thing in common: strong points of view.

“You don’t find an audience and then try to figure out what they think is funny,” he says. “You come up with something you think is funny, then try to find an audience.”

It’s the latter part — getting viewers — that’s proven to be the tough part for nets, even now that they once again seem to be making some decent comedies. The fact that network patience is thinner than ever doesn’t help matters.

CBS’ “Out of Practice,” for example, got good reviews and decent ratings when it aired on the Eye’s Monday lineup. But with the net’s crime dramas going like gangbusters, there simply wasn’t room on the sked for the show.

NBC has also had a hard time letting “Earl” stay in one place for long. After premiering on Tuesdays, it moved to Thursdays in January and will get a third timeslot come fall. “Mother,” “Chris” and “The Office” are also all on the move.

So what comedic lessons can be learned by analyzing last season?

Says Malins: “When people say, ‘The traditional sitcom will come back, it’s just in a down cycle right now’ … I always imagine around 1970, there were a bunch of guys who wrote TV Westerns sitting around saying, ‘Sure, the Western’s in a downturn right now, but it’ll come back.’ I think there’s a real chance that the traditional sitcom, laugh track and all, will just go away.”

Others note the still so-so ratings for last year’s frosh crop means auds are hungry for meat-and-potatoes laughs, hold the voiceovers and single-camera theatrics, please. After all, the very unhip “Two and a Half Men” is TV’s most-watched comedy.

“We still have to remember that network programming does need to appeal to the largest possible audience,” Walden says. “Networks are looking for big, broad comedies which have points of entry for people of all ages. And coming up with the next big, broad comedy series is still the goal.”

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