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Emmy commemorative: Reason for optimism

New voices are giving comedy a fresh start

When approached to throw together 500 or so words on the state of television comedy today, I was apprehensive; persons who are foolhardy enough to prognosticate on such things often come off sounding like pompous, all-knowing jerks (as do people who use words like “foolhardy” and “prognosticate”). Happily, pompous and all-knowing are pretty much my middle names, so I have no compunction about having my two cents printed up nice and glossy.

Television is a cyclical business, and once again we’re hearing that television comedy — the sitcom in particular — is dead.

No need getting your knickers in a knot, gentle reader; the sitcom, for better or worse, is not dead. It’s just resting. And if you’ve spent any considerable time watching sitcoms recently, I’m sure you’ll agree that the old girl most certainly deserves a nap.

Once while staying in a hotel, I was delighted to discover that the walls, while appearing to be made of plaster, were in fact constructed of a moderately thick rice paper.

As a result, I was treated to a combination of the sounds of troubled respiration and a sitcom coming from the room of a fellow traveler next door. While I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) make out the dialogue, I could hear the rhythm of the thing clearly, as well as the tidal, caffeinated roar of the laugh track.

But what disturbed me more than anything was that within a matter of minutes, I was able to predict with unerring accuracy where the next laugh would explode. That’s how predictable the form has become.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with predictability — television audiences find an odd comfort in it, truth be told — but disingenuous producers faced with limp punchlines and tepid studio audience response as well as dunderheaded network executives who demand one or two big laughs on every script page, have done the sitcom a bad turn with their slavish dependence on the laugh track.

To these people, a laugh is looked at in pretty much the same light as the Nazis looked at human life in Casablanca: It’s cheap.

But there’s good news for television comedy. An eroding network audience has finally begun turning its collective nose up at sitcoms that have nothing new to offer. The days of the wacky neighbor and the storyline where a character has to pretend to be the boss because his/her parents are coming to town are drawing to a welcomed close.

Television executives, alarmed by shrinking viewership and rising costs for their daily psychiatric care, are being forced to stick their toes into uncharted comedy waters.

Change in television programming is notoriously glacial, but change is indeed happening. New voices are being heard and new approaches tested — wonderful news for quick-witted writers, producers and audiences alike.

Not that it’s going to be easy, mind you. When the networks were swallowed whole by gigantic companies in the not-too-distant past, programming executives were suddenly faced with a two-pronged evil: Corporate logic and the bottom line.

Business sense says the more people watching means the better the show is. So you’re a funny, cutting-edge playwright with an idea about a show set in a monastery. There’s the idea we’ve been looking for!

However, you’ll have to shoehorn a young female character in there so women will watch … and she’ll have to disrobe from time to time to keep the guys who aren’t into monks tuning in … and she’ll have to be black to pull in an ethnic audience (and to keep the NAACP off the phone sheet) … and she should be in a wheelchair … and on and on it goes until you’re doing yet another show about young people in Manhattan just trying to make it in this crazy world.

Comedy is a vital, unstoppable force, but it cannot be all things to all men … and shouldn’t try to be. If the creative forces have their way, we’ll be treated to another golden age of comedy soon enough.

Two-time Emmy winner Peter Tolan has written for “Murphy Brown,” “Style and Substance” and “The Larry Sanders Show.” He is currently writing and executive producing “The Job” and “The Web,” a midseason series about the comedy development department of a fictional television network.

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