Nets bust out laughing

Look for more of primetime's hottest genre

The networks have rediscovered their funny bones.

With new and returning laffers now largely working better than dramas on the broadcast skeds — and most frosh half-hours picked up for the rest of this season — execs are mapping out a long-awaited comedy expansion in primetime.

First, however, they will have to carve out additional shelf space for yuks. Having dropped many of their comedy blocks over the past decade in favor of dramas and reality skeins, the networks may find it hard to find spots for new laffers — or at least slots where they won’t face other comedy competition.

As a result, don’t rule out the possibility of comedies airing in downtrodden timeslots, such as Friday nights or the 10 p.m. hour, where ABC, CBS and NBC have struggled this fall.

Such shifts may even include a reintroduction of ABC’s once-storied family-friendly “TGIF” Friday-night franchise. Asked last week at a Hollywood Radio and TV Society luncheon whether “TGIF” was on its way back, new Alphabet entertainment prexy Paul Lee didn’t dismiss the idea. “I think Friday night is a huge opportunity,” Lee said.

It’s no surprise the networks are itching to expand their laffer domain. In success, comedies generally still provide more backend riches for the networks’ studio siblings than hourlongs and repeat better than most dramas.

“Even mediocre comedies are looking better than some of these dramas,” says one exec. “We’re now at a point where we’re asking ourselves, ‘How bad can these comedies do?’?”

In a season where no show has broken out as a bona fide smash (despite network promos to the contrary), rookie comedies are holding up decently. The same can’t be said for many of the frosh dramas.

While several hourlongs have already been canceled or are on their last legs, every new comedy except one (Fox’s “Running Wilde”) has been picked up for the full season. Fox gave “Raising Hope” the first back-nine order of the season, while solid performers “Outsourced” on NBC, “Bleep My Dad Says” and “Mike and Molly” on CBS and “Better With You” on ABC have all gotten full-season orders as well.

Viewers also appear to be hungry for the light-hearted tone that comedies provide — witness the success of “Glee” and “Modern Family,” whose sophomore surges have overshadowed what’s been a fairly disappointing fall for newbies.

Recent syndie deals for “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family” also served as a reminder that there’s nothing more profitable or longlasting than a hit comedy franchise.

Maybe that’s why even cable networks like USA are racing to get into the sitcom game. Over at FX, the network that built itself up on the strength of gritty hours like “The Shield” has bolstered its comedy lineup, with four new series already securing sophomore renewals.

But for broadcasters, the decision to give full-season orders to all those new shows creates a dilemma: Where will the midseason comedies land?

NBC, for example, is already committed to its four Thursday comedies, yet also has “The Paul Reiser Show” and relationship comedies “Friends With Benefits” and “Perfect Couples” waiting in the wings — plus the return of “Parks and Recreation.”

That’s led some to speculate that NBC might sked two comedies on Wednesday at 8 p.m., where the underperforming “Undercovers” currently airs. Of course, the net may also look at how poorly it’s been doing with “The Apprentice” on Thursday at 10, and opt to extend its comedy block until 11 that night.

ABC also has two comedies on deck: The Matthew Perry starrer “Mr. Sunshine” and the relationship sitcom “Happy Endings.” The net could either rest Wednesday night entries “Cougar Town” and/or “Better With You” to give those shows a test run or try to establish a beachhead elsewhere.

At CBS, midseason comedy “Mad Love” could air on Mondays while “Rules of Engagement” takes a break. And Fox’s “Mixed Signals,” yet another relationship comedy, could ease into “Running Wilde’s” spot.

With so many relationship comedies in the pipeline, the midseason laffers may have trouble differentiating themselves — which is why the nets may want to get some of those shows on sooner rather than later.

Looking ahead to next year, besides the possibility of ABC’s “TGIF” return, CBS may look long and hard at turning Thursday’s one-hour comedy sked into a two-hour, four-laffer block. And NBC, which is struggling with drama and reality on every weeknight, may want to roll the dice on a second night of comedy.

Fox, given the sheer number of animated projects in the pipeline, may eventually try to once again open up a second night of toons — perhaps on Friday, where it continues to struggle with scripted hourlongs.

For the most part, the networks have done a good job cultivating a unique comedy identity — so much so that their half-hour entries are a much better network branding gauge than their hourlong counterparts.

NBC boasts the upscale, urban-centric single-camera comedies such as “The Office” and “30 Rock.” CBS is the home of traditional, four-camera/studio audience series including “The Big Bang Theory.” Fox is mostly animation (or quirky, almost animated-like single-cam half-hours like “Raising Hope”). And ABC has returned to its family-centric roots (“Modern Family” and “The Middle”).

When the nets attempt to move outside of that comfort zone, the results have been predictably bad. Among the more recent examples: CBS’ “Worst Week,” ABC’s “Better Off Ted” and Fox’s “‘Til Death,” all of which were clearly on the wrong network.

Looking ahead to pilot season, the networks appear to be embracing who they are.

At ABC, family-centric laffers in the pipeline include an adaptation of Web and book franchise “Awkward Family Photos,” from scribes David Guarascio and Moses Port. Generate’s “Good Guys, Bad Husbands,” from writer Stephen Leff, is about inept dads.

The network also has a comedy from Kourteney Kang and Joe Kelly about a couple’s life post-parenthood, while Damon Wayans is working on a project about an actor who’s a better on-screen dad than in real life.

CBS, meanwhile, is sticking mostly with multi-cam comedies in development, including a workplace laffer from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison shingle and scribe Peter Knight, and another comedy from Tad Quill about a widowed father.

At NBC, the Peacock’s young-adult comedy development includes an office comedy from Peter Tolan set in the world of a Pilgrim museum, as well as a take on temps from Dan Etheridge, John Enbom and Rob Thomas.

And Fox’s new crop of animated projects include two already picked up: A toon take on “Napoleon Dynamite,” as well as one from Peter Chernin’s company, with Jonah Hill, Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul writing.

Expect to see a healthy number of half-hour pilots greenlit this year as the networks look to satisfy their comedy pangs.

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