Unsteady lies the comedy crown

While the shows change a bit from year to year, a recipe for the comedy series category seems to be settling in: Mix one part rookie hourlong ABC sudser with a dash of traditionally popular CBS laffer and a splash of edgy HBO comedy; stir in several smart, single-cam network skeins.

Two years ago, CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” won in a category that also featured freshman Alphabet dramedy “Desperate Housewives,” as well as single-cam series “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs.”

And last year, NBC’s rookie single-cam “The Office” won out against HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the traditionally filmed — and top-rated — “Two and a Half Men,” with “Scrubs” and “Arrested Development” once again filling out the ranks.

This time around, “Office” and “Men” return to the arena, competing against HBO’s “Entourage,” NBC’s “30 Rock” and rookie ABC hourlong “Ugly Betty.”

With three new entries, the category seems as wide open as any, particularly because no comedy has repeated as champ since “Frasier’s” 1994-98 dynasty. Producers of “Betty” and “30 Rock” can derive hope from the fact that the TV Academy has nothing against new nominees, with “The Office” taking home the trophy last year in its first opportunity.

Network: HBO
Executive producers: Mark Wahlberg, Doug Ellin, Stephen Levinson, Rob Weiss
Viewers (weekly average) 2.7 million
Season highlights: A notable — and nominated — guest appearance by Martin Landau, playing the role of an aging Sanka-drinking producer, as well as super-agent Ari Gold’s (Jeremy Piven) last-minute rescue of assistant Lloyd (Rex Lee) from the hands of a lecherous potential client.
Why it may win: It’s a biz-centered skein to which TV Academy members can easily relate.
Maybe not: “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” also flirted with the entertainment biz, but the laffer series trophy seems to be the big one that HBO can’t get.

The Office
Network: NBC
Executive producers: Ben Silverman, Greg Daniels, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Howard Klein
Viewers (weekly average) 7.8 million
Season highlights: Michael’s (Steve Carell) not-so-deft handling of an employee’s de-closeting, Jan’s (Melora Hardin) career- and bustline-altering descent, and Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer) finally making a date.
Why it may win: The category incumbent is still hailed by many crix as the smartest laffer on television.
Maybe not: Folks are always looking for something new. Is “30 Rock” stealing the show’s Thursday night buzz?

30 Rock
Network: NBC
Executive producers: Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, JoAnn Alfano, Marci Klein, David Miner, Robert Carlock
Viewers (weekly average) 5.4 million
Season highlight: An overall tour-de-force comic perf by Alec Baldwin, who’s up for the comedy actor trophy this year (he’s already won a Golden Globe for the role).
Why it may win: Smart single-cams have won the race in recent years, with “Arrested Development” and “The Office” both taking series honors.
Maybe not: The smart single-cam vote might be a bit splintered this year with “The Office” and “Entourage” also in the mix.

Two and a Half Men
Network: CBS
Executive producers: Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronsohn, Eric Tannenbaum, Kim Tannenbaum, Mark Burg, Oren Koules
Viewers (weekly average) 14.1 million
Season highlight: The “Apologies to Frivolity” episode, when Charlie (Charlie Sheen) is the last to realize he’s dating a younger version of his mother.
Why it may win: As with “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which had to wait years for series honors, the Academy may find that it can only ignore TV’s most popular comedy for so long.
Maybe not: The CBS laffer already came up short against four single-cam series in this category last year.

Ugly Betty
Network: ABC
Executive producers: Salma Hayek, Silvio Horta, Ben Silverman, Jose Tamez, James Hayman, Marco Pennette
Viewers (weekly average) 11 million
Season highlights: It was all about transformations: star America Ferrera into one of TV’s top leading ladies, Vanessa Williams into love-to-hate villain … and, of course, publishing heir Alex Meade into Alexis Meade (Rebecca Romijn).
Why it may win: It already won the Globes’ musical-comedy kudos.
Maybe not: Like “Desperate Housewives” before it, the ensemble-driven “Betty” might be confined to talent category success.

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