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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.”

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