Dramedy makers need to choose sides

'Ed,' 'Sex,' 'Gilmore' tough to categorize

While dramedies have been around for decades, there’s no Emmy category specifically for them,even though there may be a signficant number of candidates this year.

Hourlong series such as the WB’s “Gilmore Girls,” NBC’s “Ed” and the USA’s “Monk” are submitted for Emmy consideration as comedy series, even though they really are dramedies.

“If people do want to attach that (dramedy) label, I could best describe our show as a dramedy that errs on the side of comedy,” says Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator and exec producer of “Gilmore Girls” as well as upcoming WB spinoff “Windward Circle.””We’re not like ‘Friends’ or ‘Frasier,’ where it’s joke-joke-joke, take a breath, then joke-joke-joke again,” adds Sherman-Palladino, who started her TV career as a comedy scribe on such hits as “Roseanne” and “Grace Under Fire.”

“It’s tough to be in the middle, but we’ve not seen Lorelai (played by Lauren Graham) pull a gun on a her mother yet — though she may be thinking about it.”

On USA’s “Monk,” each episode opens with a murder scene. But it’s the hypochondriac defective detective, Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub), that imbues the show with a heightened sense of comedy.

Funny soul

“On its surface, ‘Monk’ is a detective drama, but in its soul, it’s a comedy,” explains Jeff Wachtel, USA Network’s exec VP of scripted programming. He adds that “Monk’s” comedic qualities have already been validated in some measure by the Golden Globes, which recently honored Shalhoub as lead actor in a comedy series.

Wachtel credits Fox’s departed “Ally McBeal” for innovating such hybrid storytelling. ” ‘Ally McBeal’ was a good groundbreaker for these so-called dramedies, because it was a legal show, but its characters were grounded in comedy,” he says.

Crossing into the operating room, NBC’s “Scrubs,” a single-camera comedy from longtime “Spin City” scribe Bill Lawrence, intermingles the antics of doctors and interns with terminally ill or fatally wounded patients. In many ways, Lawrence tips his hat to CBS’ long-running “MASH” and “All in the Family” for blazing the trail — and ushering in what could be defined as the first true dramedies during the early 1970s.

“On ‘Scrubs,’ we still go for the laugh on every other line, but it’s like ‘MASH’ in that it’s a comedy with dramatic elements,” Lawrence says. “Despite the backdrop of ‘MASH’ being (the Korean War), it was arguably one of the most laugh-out-loud, funny comedies at its outset, but it would also sneak up and surprise you with its dramatic depth.

Comedy’s core

Lawrence adds that comedy is basically about conflict and obstacles, and that it freely uses dramatic elements when it comes to relationships and family. “This is at the core of the comedy genre and not some kind of hybrid form.”

This certainly holds true for HBO’s “Sex and the City,” which is hailed by critics for dealing with such serious issues as single motherhood and relationship problems. The same goes for FX’s freshman rags-to-riches-back-to-rags gambling serial “Lucky.”

“There’s nothing more dramatic and comedic than being on the top (of the) world for a moment and possibly losing at it all in another instant,” says Mark Cullen, who co-created “Lucky” with his brother, Robb.

Adds Robb: “We really came at ‘Lucky’ as a comedy because we saw (star John Corbett’s) character as a cool Steve McQueen type, but also a kind of flawed, totally dysfunctional gambler.

“There is some pain in the show, but we just come at this with a sort of totally twisted sense of humor.”

Conversely, many of today’s top dramas blend dark humor into their storytelling. For example, Joss Whedon’s departing UPN vampire fest, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; Alan Ball’s HBO cadaver skein, “Six Feet Under”; and David Chase’s dysfunctional made-guy hour, “The Sopranos,” are all lauded for their gallows humor.

“One of the best dramas on the air, ‘The Sopranos,’ has some very funny lines, but it’s still about murder, torture, beatings and Tony’s infidelities, so it’s not something they’d want to put up as a comedy,” Sherman-Palladino notes.

While some programs blur the ratio of laughs and tears to the point of categorical fuzziness, don’t look for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to establish a dramedy criteria any time soon.

‘Neither fish nor fowl’

For one, series producers as a whole don’t like the label.

“There must be a reason why creative people don’t like the dramedy label, because (producers) could think those shows are neither fish nor fowl,” Wachtel explains.

Indeed, none of the producers whose series fall under the critically perceived dramedy mutation feel there’s an urgent need to lobby the Academy and its 54-member board of governors to create a class of honorees. In fact, John Leverance, the Academy’s VP of awards, went so far as to say that none of the honchos at the Hollywood studios or networks have lobbied en masse to create such a category.

Leverance cited one of ATAS’ bylaws, the so-called Rule of 14, a guideline for the creative community to list a minimum of 14 scripted programs “that are so distinct and different to merit voting for a new category.”

“The real bottom line at this stage, looking at the current eligibility roster,” Leverance adds, “is I don’t think (the studios or networks) are getting anywhere near that critical mass. to reach the Rule of 14.”