Fox stands out amid sitcom drought

'Bernie,' 'Wanda,' 'Malcolm' pick up network laff slack

There’s something funny going on at Fox — but you won’t hear Rupert Murdoch complaining.

The network that five years ago seemed incapable of successfully launching a hit comedy starring flesh-and-blood actors has quietly transformed itself into a yukster’s paradise. This fall, the web will boast a dozen comedies on its schedule, easily serving up more laughs than any other broadcaster.

Fox’s comedy growth has come amid a well-publicized sitcom drought that has seen other nets cutting back the share of their skeds devoted to comedy. One-time laugh leader NBC, which not too long ago aired a whopping 18 laffers every week, is down to just eight half-hours.

So what makes Fox so funny? Entertainment prexy Gail Berman says it all boils down to one word: risk.

“Even when we’re being traditional at Fox, we try to do it with quality,” she says. “We have to hit for the fences. It’s part of Fox’s comedic legacy.”

That means taking a gamble on shows that veer off the well-worn comedic path.

Yuppie comedy

While other nets tried to ape NBC’s success with yuppie comedies like “Friends” and “Frasier,” Fox focused on family and scored with “Malcolm in the Middle” and “That ’70s Show.” Instead of avoiding controversial voices, Fox made deals with Bernie Mac and Wanda Sykes, resulting in successful sitcoms.

Perhaps those programmers who say viewers aren’t interested in a good chuckle simply aren’t trying hard enough.

“Audiences are anxious to laugh, but they’re looking for comedy to be funny,” Berman says. “And if it’s not funny, they’re not satisfied.”

Even Fox’s failures have been noble: “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” and “Undeclared” both snagged near-universal critical acclaim, as well as Emmy noms. Net also got good notices for “Greg the Bunny,” a half-hour set in the world of kiddie puppets.

“We don’t get caught up in what we’re supposed to be,” says Fox comedy development chief Tracy Katsky. “A lot of people think they have to either copy what’s working or they believe in the myth that there are rules. My bosses don’t tie me down as much, which is why we don’t do the expected or the conventional. We just do what’s funny.”

Breathing room

Fox also tries to give its creators breathing room so they can try to bring their vision to the screen. Even when the net disagrees with that vision — as it did with “Bernie Mac” creator Larry Wilmore, who was ultimately fired — the net at least gives them time to make the show they want.

“Wanda at Large” exec producer Bruce Helford says he and Fox execs didn’t see eye to eye during the early stages of that show’s development. Net wanted to bring kids into the show; Helford and Sykes strongly resisted.

The two sides eventually worked out a compromise, and then, Helford says, Fox left them alone.

“Gail Berman comes at you from a position of experience,” Helford says. “She’s been in that creative position before, so she’s very succinct about what she wants and needs. And after they feel you’ve found your way, they become much more hands-off.”

Fox also has learned from experience the importance of developing more than one type of comedy.

A year ago, the net produced a number of single-camera laffer pilots with similar family themes, something Katsky admits “made the scheduling process a little tougher.”

This year, the philosophy at Fox was to develop a wide array of comedies.

“People don’t want to see the same show twice,” Katsky says. “People are attracted to unique characters and situations. They don’t want to watch the same thing over and over again.”

Katsky also believes in trusting and helping creators to produce funny material rather than trying to impose the networks’ vision of what’s funny on a creator.

“We try to treat everybody like adults,” she says. “When you’re working with producers, it doesn’t have to be combat; it can be a conversation. If the show works, it’s not going to be because of my genius notes. It’s going to work because the writer wrote a fantastic script.”