×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”

More TV

  • Pete Davidson photographed by Peggy Sirota

    Pete Davidson Posts Unsettling Message, Deletes Instagram

    “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson posted a disturbing message Saturday morning stating he doesn’t “want to be on this earth anymore,” then deleted his Instagram account. In the post, Davidson wrote, “I’m doing my best to stay here for you but i actually don’t know how much longer i can last. all i’ve [...]

  • Disney Channel Fires 'Andi Mack' Actor

    Disney Channel Fires 'Andi Mack' Actor Arrested for Plotting Sex With Minor

    Disney Channel has severed ties with “Andi Mack” actor Stoney Westmoreland following his arrest for allegedly trying to arrange a sexual encounter with a 13-year-old. “Stoney Westmoreland, an actor working on the series ‘Andi Mack,’ was arrested in Salt Lake City today,” a Disney Channel spokesperson said in a statement Friday. “Given the nature of [...]

  • Russian Doll

    TV News Roundup: Natasha Lyonne's 'Russian Doll' Sets Netflix Premiere Date

    On Friday’s roundup, Netflix announces the premiere date for “Russian Doll” and Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Brexit” film has a premiere date on HBO FIRST LOOKS Showtime has released a new teaser for the upcoming comedy series, “Black Monday,” which will premiere Sunday, Jan. 20 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. The series stars and is executive produced by Don [...]

  • Vanity Fair Review

    TV Review: 'Vanity Fair'

    There’s something comforting about the predictability of a period piece novel adaptation in the Masterpiece Theater tradition. Knowing the story, or even just the rhythms of the genre, there are rarely many surprises. The women will toss off witticisms and cry careful, pretty tears; the men will steel their jaws and declare their love, ideally [...]

  • FILE - In this April 5,

    CBS Claims Commitment to Ending Harassment. Its Actions Say Otherwise (Column)

    At this point, a new breaking sexual harassment case at CBS isn’t exactly a surprise. Over and over again, powerful CBS company men from producers to executives to the ex-CEO himself have made headlines for propagating decades of harassment and abuse, with dozens of witnesses affirming that the pattern was business as usual. But as [...]

  • Willow ShieldsVariety Portrait Studio, Beautycon Festival

    'Hunger Games' Alum Willow Shields Joins Netflix Drama Series 'Spinning Out'

    Willow Shields has been cast in a series regular role in “Spinning Out,” the upcoming ice skating drama series at Netflix. She joins a cast that also includes Kaya Scodelario, who was announced as the series lead on Thursday, taking over the role originally held by Emma Roberts. Shields will star as Serena, Kat Baker’s (Scodelario) [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content