Gone are the days when standups ruled the sitcom world. No longer are places such as the Montreal Comedy Festival, Catch a Rising Star and the Laugh Factory among the primary platforms to catapult comedians cutting their teeth on self-effacing punchlines and razor-sharp zingers — think Cosby, Seinfeld and Shandling — to move from the smoky stage to the smallscreen.
Today’s crop of comic actors in Emmy contention, both in the lead and supporting categories, claim a collectively different pedigree, with roots in theater, film and TV dramas.
Current nominees — including Rainn Wilson (“The Office”), Neil Patrick Harris (“How I Met Your Mother”), Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men”) and Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) — are making names for themselves in half-hour scripted comedies not because of any particularly prodigious joke-telling ability, but because of their genuine all-around talent as actors.
“The nature of television comedy has shifted,” proffers Wilson, who honed his craft on both Broadway and Off Broadway and in the dark HBO mortuary series “Six Feet Under.” “Over the past five or 10 years, the phenomenon of standup actors getting development deals, centered on his brightly lit comic personality, is not happening as much.
“Today you have more interesting setups for comedy, so you need actors to fill that. What you have in sitcoms right now are very funny character actors. Even Alec Baldwin, for example, is just a funny character actor who for years was trapped in a leading man’s body. Steve Carell can do it all, from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to really broad stuff.
“For me, who I am as an actor is about transforming and playing characters. What people like about Dwight seems to be the absurdity of his character, not the jokes that he tells.”
Chuck Lorre, exec producer of “Two and a Half Men,” attributes the success of a sitcom to a specific point of view first created by the show’s writers and later interpreted by the actors inhabiting their parts.
“The really successful standups that made the transition into TV comedy had a very specific point of view — from the self-obsession of Seinfeld or Roseanne’s very simple declaration that she now understood why animals eat their young,” Lorre comments. “The focus was on a sort of parental anger, and you could build from that. It was priceless and pivotal. They changed television, but there’s another way to have a point of view of comedy and that’s through the writers.
“You need an actor who can then embody that point of view and make it a living, breathing thing. That’s the alchemy of this business, these two elements coming together. A writer with a quality point of view is going to fail if he miscasts the show. Charlie and Jon have from the pilot captured the voices of their characters and brought them to life. They’re both very intelligent men and are very thoughtful about what they do. The end result looks pretty effortless, but there’s a great deal of craft and experience behind it.”
Sheen, who made a name for himself as Oliver Stone’s go-to boy in such heady dramas as “Platoon” and “Wall Street” before turning to broader fare such as “Major League” and “Hot Shots!,” credits the collaborative nature of television for his personal triumphs as a comic thesp.
“For standup comedians, it’s about being that one person onstage all alone and commanding attention from the audience,” Sheen offers as a distinction between the two disciplines and how the sitcom format plays to both. “In TV, it’s about the interaction between the actors, how well we work together, how we inspire one another. My joke-telling ability is only as good as the setup. It doesn’t happen alone.”
A generational swing in audience demographics might also account for today’s evolving sitcom milieu.
“When I talk to younger fans of ‘The Office’ about what they like, they view shows like ‘Cheers’ and ‘Seinfeld’ as their parents’ type of comedy,” Wilson notes. “They view ‘The Office,’ ‘Family Guy’ and even ’30 Rock’ as more their kind of humor, with more animation, darker and more off-color. They embrace that almost as a general shift.”
“Doogie Howser” alum Neil Patrick Harris consents that “the entire landscape of TV comedy has changed radically, encouraging better actors to commit to better roles.” Nevertheless, he steadfastly believes in the everlasting brilliance of standup.
“Don’t underestimate good shtick,” he says pointedly. “A subtle, nuanced closeup has nothing on a proper spit take.”