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Why don’t smart comedies draw big audiences?

Laffers can't find footing after golden decade of sitcoms

One of the first proclamations made by newly upped NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman was that he was going to “bring sexy back” to the Peacock.

Presumably, Silverman’s mandate will be applied to NBC’s comedy strategy. NBC has one of the most critically acclaimed comedy lineups on the air — a Thursday-night roster of single-camera shows that includes “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “My Name Is Earl” and “Scrubs.” It’s a competitive block, and offerings like “The Office” have been big sellers on iTunes and on DVD. Still, the lineup doesn’t produce huge ratings.

A need for sexier — or any kind of attention-grabbing — comedy is not just NBC’s challenge, though. Across the board, network comedy continues to suffer, never having found its footing after the golden decade of traditional sitcoms that included “Friends,” “Raymond” and “Seinfeld” left primetime.

Not long ago, desperate networks rallied around the single-camera laffer — a format conducive to edgy, irreverent humor.

Auds, it was surmised, were tired of laugh tracks and the trials and tribulations of conventional nuclear families. Build funny, innovative shows, and the mass audiences would return. But as Fox’s “Arrested Development” proved, edgy may find critics, but it often struggles to build an aud of significant size.

This past season, it was straight-down-the-middle sitcoms like “Two and Half Men” that found a big audiences. Meanwhile, new traditional multicamera series “Til Death” and “Rules of Engagement” managed to take root, while critically acclaimed single-cam shows “Kights of Prosperity” and “Andy Barker, P.I.” didn’t make it.

But wait — isn’t the traditional sitcom dead?

Indeed, confusion, or at least a variety of viewpoints, is evident in a series of conversations with TV execs and producers at the various nets. The only thing that seems clear is that the rules have been tossed out the window as everyone scrambles to define the version of what kind of TV comedy works these now.

NBC is probably the most stumped, having arguably perfected the art of edgy single-cam comedy but still not generating overwhelming ratings.

“We’re very proud of our comedies, which appeal to smart, upscale audiences, but it’s become a smaller audience than it used to be on Thursday night,” says Erin Gough Wehrenberger, exec VP of current series on NBC. “We have a lot of discussions about why that is. I think the landscape of TV has changed along with the amount of choices people have. Because comedy is such a subjective medium, when people have different tastes they can find whatever they want.”

Gough Wehrenberger says it’s too soon to tell in what direction Silverman (an exec producer on “The Office”) will take comedy at NBC. At its upfront presentation in May, the Peacock announced only one laffer, Brit import “The I.T. Crowd.”

At CBS, the focus is on staying true to its broad comedy roots but at the same time introducing less formulaic elements.

“The tone of our comedy has changed in the last five years,” says Wendi Trilling, exec VP of comedy development for the Eye. “We’ve gone from a more meat-and-potatoes, family-style comedy such as ‘Yes, Dear,’ to ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ ‘Old Christine’ and ‘Two and a Half Men,’ which are family comedies with a little bit of a different setup — especially, ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ which is hybridy in style.” (The show is multicamera but isn’t filmed in front of a live aud.)

Trilling predicts that single-cam is a trend that’s going to ebb this year. “When we put ‘Rules of Engagement’ on the air and it quickly became a success, I can’t tell you how many calls we got from studios and writers saying, ‘Thank God, a multicamera show that’s working! Now we can do multicamera!’ ”

“Comedy is about relatability and having something to say, more than it is about form,” adds Samie Falvey, senior VP of comedy development at ABC. “Multi-camera is very accessible and a clean way to tell a great story.”

With the broadcast webs focused on telling less formulaic stories in general, TBS officials think they see an opening in the comedy marketplace. This summer, the cable net will bow “The Bill Engvall Show,” an attempt to bring back sincere, nondysfunctional-family comedy.

“It’s a form that’s been declared dead,” says Michael Wright, senior VP of original programming for TBS and TNT. “I hope they’re wrong. I think they’re wrong.”

Of course, figuring out what gets a laugh is a subjective — and rather nuanced — art that goes way beyond not-very-granular discussions about “edgy vs. traditional” and “multi-cam vs. single-cam.”

“It may seem like a small thing in contrast to other single-camera comedies, but ‘The Office’ is notable for the awkwardness of its silences,” says Ken Kwapis, a director and producer on that series, pointing out one such nuance. “Among many things people like about the show are the reactions of all the ensemble players to any given thing that’s going on. It’s almost become a distinctive feature of the show.”

Finding that kind of je ne sais quoi is the collective challenge for the networks. As Falvey says: “It’s clearly a difficult climate for network comedy right now. Reality and dramas are generally easier to launch and market, as they tend to be more concept-driven. But we still really believe in the genre, and we see this as a challenge to just do better.”