Why standups are sitting out primetime

Comics choose gameshows instead of sitcoms

Showtime has recently been running “When Stand Up Stood Out,” a 2003 documentary tribute to the wild Boston comedy scene that improbably flourished in the late 1970s before eventually fizzling.

These days, it feels more like “When Stand Up Sat Down.”

At its peak, standup flowed into primetime sitcoms in the 1980s and ’90s, making multimillionaires out of such talent as Bill Cosby, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne and Brett Butler.As it is, Ray Romano and Kevin James might go down as the last sit-comics standing.

The comedy biz’s bedraggled state can be tacitly seen in two programs that premiered in March — “Lewis Black’s The Root of All Evil,” on Comedy Central; and DirecTV’s “Supreme Court of Comedy,” hatched by the Laugh Factory’s Jamie Masada.

Both series employ a mock courtroom setting where comics function as advocates — in Black’s show, for a particular argument, and in “Supreme Court” handling small-claims cases. In my “Root of All Evil” review, I likened the net effect to a “full employment act for second-tier comedians,” which predictably did not endear me to the second-tier comedian community. (“Keep up the good mean-spirited work,” one wrote in an email.)

To be fair, the troubles besetting the sitcom can’t merely be explained by the deficiencies of comedians. Yet watching those programs demonstrates just how many veterans of canceled series standup’s glory years produced, from Tom Arnold to Sinbad, Greg Giraldo to Paul Rodriguez. It’s a veritable “who’s-who” of “Who’s that?”

Many of the guys (and it’s mostly guys) had their shot at sitcoms before scurrying back to the clubs. Ditto for the cast featured in “When Stand Up Stood Out,” which included Lenny Clarke, Kevin Meaney and Paula Poundstone, among others, who headlined short-lived series during the period when Seinfeld and Allen’s success seemingly prompted networks to chase development deals with anybody who ever told a joke in a bar.

As for today, one-time comedians populate latenight TV, but the sitcoms enjoying any kind of success are driven by writer-producers, not standup material, from CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” to NBC’s “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl.” Those comics found in primetime on a regular basis — Howie Mandel, Bob Saget, Dennis Miller, Drew Carey — have been relegated to hosting gameshows, a bit of a letdown from “The Aristocrats.”

Although the rules of primetime have shifted, the networks bear some blame for exhausting the golden goose. Back when comedies were hugely profitable, the nets kept dipping deeper into that well, as if it was bottomless. At one point in the 1990s, NBC — pushed by its sales department — presented a lineup with 18 sitcoms on it, more than are currently aired by the four networks combined.

Everyone eventually learned that building concepts around standups is trickier than it looks, especially because most acts don’t lend themselves to becoming the template for a weekly series. Many comics were given shows despite slim resumes, and lacked the necessary foundation to survive the transplantation process, chewing through all their best material in a matter of weeks. Hell, it even took multiple tries to capture Cosby’s rumination about the vagaries of parenting, which yielded a payday sizable enough to keep a good-sized country up to its eyeballs in Jell-O pudding.

Ultimately, the lure of TV proved too intoxicating, and the talent pool wasn’t equal to the demand.

“When everybody became a standup comic, or it seemed that way … they were all copying each other, and there were no fresh voices,” former “The Tonight Show” producer Peter Lassally, now shepherding “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” observes during “When Stand Up Stood Out.”

Granted, there are blips on the horizon like Dane Cook, a favorite on the college circuit who plays to sold-out arenas due more to his looks and high-energy style than his wit or routines. As his HBO specials and reality show demonstrated, Cook makes himself look better by touring with other comics that are at best ordinary.

Given the potential payoff, there remains a strong incentive to get standup back on its feet as a feeding tube to TV. What these recent series remind us, though, is that for many, the curtain has already come down.

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