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Award-worthy well of laffers running dry?

Media conglom invasion may mean less innovative fare

With the imminent departure of “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Sex and the City,” are we in for a long dry spell without smart, funny, Emmy-worthy sitcoms?

Could be, according to several longtime observers of the form.

“It’s a pretty grim time for TV comedy,” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “We’re losing ‘Frasier,’ which won five Emmys in a row (for outstanding comedy series). ‘Friends’ finally won — it’s been a reliable nominee. And ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ may be going into its last season, or last couple of seasons.”

CBS’ “Raymond” hasn’t yet won the big best comedy prize, but ought to have, and maybe will win this year, adds Roush. “It’s the one long-running show that’s doing great work. But when all those shows disappear, we’re going to be in a period where there are no true breakthrough signature comedies.”

Empty nest

Television historian Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse U., likens the situation to that of a family with a bunch of really precocious kids all going to college and moving out of the house at the same time.

“We’ve just come off this pretty solid decade or so of things like ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ and the rest,” Thompson explains. “But the older siblings are gone, and the last ones are about to leave. There’s only one little rascal left in the house, and that’s ‘The Simpsons.’ We are ready for some pretty fallow times in situation comedy.”

Thompson recalls the early 1980s, when the widely accepted sentiment was that the sitcom was dead. Then, in the fall of 1984, “The Cosby Show” debuted, ushering in NBC’s dominance of Thursday nights and reviving the family comedy.

Thompson notes that the “Cosby” half-hour reconfigured NBC Thursday nights, and the sitcom proceeded to not be dead for the next 20 years.

But the renaissance that started in the ’80s will be pretty much completed with the departure of “Friends.”

“That’s really the last of the red-hot Thursday night shows,” Thompson says.

Allan Burns, a six-time Emmy winner for writing and producing such sitcom classics as “Mary Tyler Moore,” has good things to say about “Raymond” and Fox’s “Bernie Mac Show.” But he is pessimistic about the broader prospects for fresh, innovative comedy on the modern broadcast networks.

Burns cites the amazing run of comedies in the ’70s and ’80s, including “All in the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Barney Miller” and his own “Mary” — and points out that all were made by independent production companies. He’s worried about the increasing network ownership of programs, and the growing dominance of their multinational-conglomerate owners in today’s media environment.

Risk-opposed

“It’s not a coincidence that television comedy has gotten sort of homogenized,” Burns says. “It’s safe, and there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it. I’d hate to see Norman Lear try to get ‘All in the Family’ on today.”

The old theory that everything in TV is cyclical may not apply anymore, Burns says.

“That was a different time,” he notes. “I’m not so sure with the kind of controls that are put on producers of these shows not to make waves that we’re getting anything original.”

Not everyone is glum about the prospects for future quality laffers. Karey Burke, NBC’s exec VP for primetime series development, remembers when “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” were about to depart the schedule in 1993 and ’98, respectively. She says this time is not dissimilar and that there was never a clear successor when any of those giant shows went off the air.

“Each time there was a show on our schedule that we adored and was doing well,” Burke says. “But we didn’t know if it could be a phenomenon. We crossed our fingers and said, ‘OK, let’s bet on this.’ And they grew into a phenomenon.”

Burke cites “Will & Grace,” going into its sixth season, and “Scrubs,” entering its third, as NBC stalwarts ready to take up the slack. She also points to the much-talked-about “Coupling,” a new Thursday night half-hour, as a strong contender.

Mediocre times

Roush, however, thinks the immediate future may be bleak.

“If ABC’s anchor show on Tuesday night is ‘According to Jim’ — which it is — I just think that says volumes about the general mediocrity of TV comedy right now. Some people really like that show. But it’s not award-worthy comedy.”

Roush thinks that the quality sitcom has become a casualty of the explosion of TV choices. “It’s harder and harder for a comedy to feel, look and sound fresh,” he says, citing Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” as among the more creative comedies on TV right now.

And while he also likes HBO’s Larry David series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he admits that it’s something of an acquired taste for most viewers.

Adds historian Thompson:

” ‘Almost Perfect,’ ‘According to Jim’ — neither of these seem to say this is going to be the next ‘Seinfeld.’ Neither of these is even going to be the next ‘Suddenly Susan.’ “

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