TV comedy’s ratings renaissance

Post-strike sitcoms attract laugh-hungry auds

The writers strike didn’t give Hollywood much to laugh about, but once scribes went back to work, auds were ready for a few good chuckles.

Although the nets experienced ratings meltdowns this spring, half-hour comedies posted some of the few Nielsen bright spots. Not only were sitcoms quickest to get back on the air, thanks to a faster turnaround, but the genre also recovered the best from this winter’s lengthy hiatus of original segs.

“Our audiences were more thirsty for comedies, and it was easier to get half-hours back on the air than the dramas on their feet,” NBC Entertainment exec VP Teri Weinberg says.

That bodes well for the half-hour competish in the Emmy comedy series category, which lately has been feeling an encroachment from hourlong skeins with a comedic bent.

Shows that performed strongly this season include ratings champ “Two and a Half Men,” buzz leader “The Office” and critic faves “Scrubs” and “How I Met Your Mother” — both of which still showed some strong ratings life despite questions swirling this spring over their survival.

Frosh “Samantha Who?” led the pack among new half-hours, with “The Big Bang Theory” also showing promise.

Then there’s reigning Emmy champ “30 Rock,” which continues to score heaps of critical praise and media adoration, even though the ratings haven’t caught up with the attention.

Fox’s animation block also remains solid, and has become such a part of the mainstream that “Family Guy” is once again submitting itself in the comedy category, rather than the animation competish.

Not only did comedy recover because of the genre’s fast return, but execs credit current events: With the economy souring and headlines pretty bleak, half-hours are offering some escape.

“Maybe it’s the mood of the country,” CBS comedy chief Wendi Trilling says. “People want to be entertained.”

Nets are bullish enough on laffers that they’re attempting to spread out their wares this fall. CBS is opening up a Wednesday night block, led by the resilient

“New Adventures of Old Christine,” while ABC will utilize its acquisition of “Scrubs” to expand its sitcom domain. Fox, too, is looking to rebuild a live-action comedy franchise.

“I would cautiously say yes, it does seem like (comedy is on the road to recovery),” says “How I Met Your Mother” exec producer Greg Malins. “I certainly hope so. We all knew it would come at some point, but I didn’t know if it would be before my career was over or not.

“Things are getting better,” he adds. “Comedies on the networks, not just cable, are getting good critical press. Look at ‘The Office,’ ’30 Rock’ and us. And now these new shows, too — I saw the pilot for ‘Worst Week’ and thought it was really funny.”

Malins was on “Friends” in the 1990s when comedy hit its peak in primetime, with 18 shows on NBC alone (this year, in comparison, the Peacock has four).

“It was higher than high; it was crazy,” Malins says of that laffer-soaked era. “I hope it does come back. I think it will.”

Both CBS and NBC found themselves having to rebuild their signature comedy nights in recent years. The Eye had to fill the void left by heavyweight skeins like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The King of Queens,” while the Peacock had even downsized its once mighty Thursday lineup after “Friends” and “Will & Grace” departed.

Now that hits like “Two and a Half Men” and “The Office” have filled those voids, the nets are finally back to expanding their laff lineups.

With six series spread over two nights, CBS, at the moment, remains king of primetime comedy. Trilling says she never bought into the conventional wisdom that comedy was dying — and is relieved that she doesn’t feel the need to defend the genre anymore.

“It was difficult to read all the bad press all the time and feel that there was that sense in the air,” Trilling says. “We’ve been very consistent here. We haven’t had that many holes to fill — we make our batch of pilots and we put on our best one.”

Over at NBC, Weinberg says the Peacock still hopes to get back to multiple nights of comedy.

“I definitely think there’s an opportunity,” she says. “But we first want to put our focus on keeping Thursday night going. As we move forward with development, we’re always looking to open up another comedy block.”

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