You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Emmy commemorative: End of the line for laugh tracks?

Failed sitcoms force execs to reinvent genre

A not-so-funny thing happened to the sitcom at the turn of the millennium.

Viewer erosion, the reality TV explosion and a bloated economic model, among other factors, threatened to cripple a genre that had been riding high just a few years before.

But the biggest culprit may have been the glut of sitcoms — some good, most not so-good — that dominated primetime in the late 1990s. NBC, for example, scheduled an unheard of 18 laffers in the fall of 1997, including forgettable offerings such as “Built to Last” and “Union Square.”

That parade of failed sitcoms may have oversaturated the marketplace and burned viewers on the form. As a result, NBC Studios prexy Ted Harbert believes that “comedy ennui” has gripped the nation.

“That’s what happened in the late ’90s. There was an audience ambivalence — and that’s being generous — toward most sitcoms,” Harbert says. “And the networks have realized that the country is just plain bored with the same sitcoms.”

NBC’s 2001 fall lineup boasts just eight comedies, for example. That’s the fewest yuks slots on a Peacock fall sked since the early ’80s pre- “Cosby” era. Further proof there’s something awry: Only two of last fall’s frosh network laffers will be back next season.

“Things are looking pretty stale right now (in comedy),” says “Drew Carey” exec producer Bruce Helford. “There are not too many shows I would enjoy watching.”

Part of the decline is the direct effect of a talent pool that was stretched way too thin in the late 1990s.

“There were too many shows and not enough good writers,” Helford says. “There’s about 16 really good comedy writers in TV. There are how many sitcoms?”

Nonetheless, a few gems that were launched in the late ’90s have managed to attain hit status, including Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” which really took off at the start of the decade, and NBC’s “Will & Grace.”

Then there’s what has become TV’s great sitcom hope, Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle.” The single-camera, family (yes, that’s right, family) comedy is frequently held up as an example of how sitcoms will have to innovate in order to survive.

As a result, the nets are more willing than ever to try single camera comedies or employ quirky elements. And a number of nets are trying hard to revive the family laffer, with series such as ABC’s “My Wife and Kids.”

“It really comes back to the same thing,” says former “Frasier” exec producer Chris Lloyd. “You’ve got to have interesting characters and interesting stories, and lay off the gimmicks.”

“Friends” exec producer David Crane points out that the networks may ask for edgy, but when it comes time to pick their lineups, webheads are still playing it safe.

“Look at what they’ve bought. How edgy are they really?” he asks. “They’re testing (the unconventional shows) and they don’t test well, which isn’t surprising.”

Despite the gloom and doom, no one’s ready to write off comedy just yet. After all, as net execs love to remind anyone listening, it’s a cyclical business.

“I don’t think anyone’s really saying that comedy is dead,” Lloyd says. “The networks are still mad to get a great new comedy to launch an hour or launch a night.”

More TV

  • Us Television Writers and Producers Maria

    Mad Men’s’ Andre, Maria Jacquemetton Set for Series Mania’s UGC Writers Campus

    MADRID — André and Maria Jacquemetton, the Emmy and WGA Award-winning writer-producers of AMC’s “Mad Men” and consulting producers on Amazon Studios’ “The Romanoffs,” will serve as Guests of Honor at Series Mania’s UGC Writers Campus, a workshop whose participants include Denmark’s Christina Miller-Harris and Israel’s Noy Carmel. The Jacquemettons will deliver a masterclass and [...]

  • China Plans Remake of BBC Time-Travel

    China Plans Remake of BBC Time-Travel Cop Show ‘Life on Mars’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    A Chinese “Life on Mars” is in the works after BBC Studios and Phoenix Entertainment inked a deal to create a Mandarin-language version of the time-travel cop series. BBC Studios will officially unveil the format deal at Showcase, its annual programming market for international buyers, which is now underway in Liverpool, England. “Life on Mars” [...]

  • DF-10193 – L-R: Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor),

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Leads MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Sound Editing

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” followed up love from Cinema Audio Society sound mixers with a pair of honors at the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ 66th annual Golden Reel Awards Sunday night. The musical biopic scored wins for dialogue and ADR as well as sound editing in a musical. The film is nominated for sound editing at the Oscars [...]

  • Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" and

    WGA Awards 2019: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?,' 'Eighth Grade' Win Screenplay Awards

    In a pair of upsets, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has won the Writers Guild of America’s adapted screenplay award for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and Bo Burnham has won the original screenplay award for “Eighth Grade.” The major television trophies went to “The Americans,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Homeland” and “Barry” for the [...]

  • 50 Cent Power

    NYPD Officer Under Investigation for Allegedly Telling Police to Shoot 50 Cent 'on Sight'

    A New York City precinct commander is under investigation for allegedly telling officers to shoot rapper 50 Cent on sight, a police rep confirmed to Variety on Sunday. “The matter is under internal review,” an NYPD rep said, declining to answer further questions. Deputy Inspector Emanuel Gonzalez is accused of telling officers during a June 7 roll [...]

  • Bohemian Rhapsody

    'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Among Cinema Audio Society Winners

    Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the Cinema Audio Society’s top prize for sound mixing at Saturday night’s 55th annual CAS Awards. The film is Oscar-nominated for sound mixing this year along with “Black Panther,” “First Man,” “Roma” and “A Star Is Born.” In a surprise over heavy-hitters “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Wes [...]

  • Marvelous Mrs Maisel Vice

    'Vice,' 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Lead Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Winners

    Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” starring Oscar nominees Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, won two awards at the sixth annual Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Saturday night. The film won for best period and/or character makeup as well as special makeup effects. “Mary Queen of Scots” received the prize for period [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content