Nets, cablers fuel sitcom boom
Dramas are hardly in danger of extinction, but the cyclical tide of primetime finally seems to be shifting to comedy.
“Everyone is trying it because it’s working,” says WME TV lit honcho Richard Weitz. “Everyone wants to get in the game because more money is to be made in the half-hour world.”
Broadcast boasts more hit half-hours than anytime in years, syndication has produced some big recent paydays and even cable nets — including ones that primarily focus on dramas — seem determined to tap into the trend.
ABC alone will add five new sitcoms next season and, for the first time in six years, all four major nets will have two comedy blocks to start the season.
ABC will entrust Tim Allen with anchoring its Tuesday night comedy block with “Last Man Standing,” followed by “Man Up” and, later in the season, “Cougar Town” and the new “Apartment 23.” “Modern Family” and “The Middle” will return on Wednesdays, to be joined by “Happy Endings” and the new sitcom, “Suburgatory.”
Other new sitcoms this fall include ABC’s “Work It,” Fox’s “New Girl,” CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” and NBC’s “Up All Night.”
“My guess is that programmers see the success of a show like ‘Modern Family’ and it gives them the impetus, the appetite to program more comedies,” says the show’s creator, Steven Levitan. “It does feel like more and more comedy writers are back to work right now, which is a wonderful thing for our side of the business.”
Meanwhile, feature producers, directors and actors like Ashton Kutcher, Adam Sandler and Zooey Deschanel are increasingly building their brand by putting their hand in the comedy pot.
While acknowledging the cyclical nature of TV, UTA agent Jay Sures says the reason behind comedy’s current crest is simple: The success of shows like top 10 smashes “Two and a Half Men,” “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” show there’s money to be made.
Still, Sures points to the difference between the number of sitcoms on the airwaves currently and in the past.
“Twelve years ago we used to have 10 to 12 comedies scheduled on some of the networks and we’re not even close to that yet,” he says.
“Modern Family” producer Christopher Lloyd says the expansion of sitcoms to cable has been a boon to comedy writers.
“It’s not as though every cable network has several big comedies. I’m not even sure that the ratings are all that great,” Lloyd says. “But there’s more opportunity for shows like ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ and for some (of the planned) shows on USA (for instance) than there was no place for before.”
NBC’s “Parks & Rec” co-creator Michael Schur wonders if comedy’s current popularity is as much about trends as it is about having so many channels with so much programming. For example, FX may be known more for dramas like “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified,” but it also airs the cult-comedy faves “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Louie,” and continues to develop new half-hours.
“I do think that the mockumentary style of ‘The Office’ was groundbreaking and led to a wave of innovation, and that any time that happens, it’s ‘Oh wow, this is possible now,’ and that tends to spread like wildfire,” Schur says. “But while I think there are a lot of really great comedies on TV right now, it’s also really about there being so many networks doing so much programming.”
Weitz says the vastness of cable outlets and networks — and the prevalence of their content across a plethora of digital devices — has given writers more opportunity.
“People need to stay with shows where there are other platforms for them to succeed,” Weitz says, “and that’s what’s happening.”
“Friends” alum Marta Kauffman, who’s got several projects in development, including a pilot for Showtime, says well-written characters are the key to comedies audiences care about. She attributes the rise in half hours not solely to trends or the cyclical nature of TV but rather a combination of factors.
“We saturate the audience with a genre and then that feels tired and it’s time to move on to the next thing, but the industry is also changing so much due to cable and Internet forces,” Kauffman says. “So it’s not just the audience or the industry. Technology has forced change as well.”
Lloyd says networks used to think their shows had to be cutting edge and shocking, but they’ve learned that was off-putting to auds and that comedy needs more heart and more dimension. In the end, audiences just want to laugh. “I can’t imagine that laughter ever went out of favor,” he says.
Levitan agrees. “People always want to laugh,” he says. “No matter what’s going on in the world, if you put a really good comedy on the air, people will watch it.”