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‘Monk’ mixes humor with pain

Series defies labeling to find appreciative auds

Even though its quirky blend of mystery and humor all but define “Monk” as a quintessential dramedy, the people who make the series flinch at the term.

“We never use the word ‘dramedy,'” says USA Network senior veep of series development Jackie de Crinis. She’s the one who brought Andy Breckman’s pilot script to the attention of USA more than seven years ago in an era when the term tended to describe half-hour single-camera series.

“There was a sense that anything that was one hour was a drama or a lighter drama,” de Crinis says. “Certainly ‘Moonlighting’ had a lot of comedy in it, but it was still in the dramatic category.”

Debates about semantics aside, “Monk” followed the genre-spanning path of “Moonlighting,” “Northern Exposure” and “Ally McBeal” to success. It took time to strike the right balance of comedy and drama, but the “Monk” creative team found the right tone by the second season.

“Maybe you’d call it ‘dramedy,’ but I like to say we have ‘heart and humor,’ ” says showrunner Randy Zisk.

With hundreds of guest stars and dozens of directors leading up to the program’s 100th episode tonight, Zisk says the optimum balance of comedy and drama occurs when everyone other than series star Tony Shalhoub plays it straight.

“If you ask me what the series is about, I have a one-word answer: loss,” says exec producer Breckman. “The loss of his wife, Trudy, informs every scene of every episode. It’s the engine driving the series.

“So even at our lightest, funniest, broadest moments, that sense of sadness weighs heavily on the show. We’re doing a comedy with a hero who doesn’t laugh, hardly ever smiles and doesn’t feel joy. Yet it’s a comedy. Sometimes I feel like we’re writing Charlie Brown.”

Rooted in reality

While Monk’s obsessive-compulsive disorder leads him to crime-solving clues, he also battles phobias while pursuing the bad guys. Most viewers don’t realize Monk’s disorders are often inspired by co-creator and exec producer David Hoberman’s own.

“What I do is weird, but I hurt inside,” Hoberman says. “Even Monk has a sense of humor, and he acknowledges it. But you never forget that he’s in pain. Tony is brilliant at playing (the character) because even in (the comedic) moments, the internal pain is apparent.”

Those bittersweet beats keep the series from going over the top with comedy. A fan of mysteries and comedy, Breckman blends the genres in every episode. “We often shift gears not just midepisode, but midscene,” he says.

Adds Zisk: “We’re never afraid of going to laughs in the middle of high drama.”

An example came in the season-five episode “Mr. Monk and the Actor,” in which Stanley Tucci played a thesp so caught up in his portrayal of Monk that he thought he was Monk. In the climax, as the actor targets a man he thinks killed Trudy, and Monk sees how others see him and his desperation to find Trudy’s killer, Monk gains control by distracting the actor with imperfections and crooked signs, allowing Monk to recover (then lose and re-recover) the actor’s gun.

These kinds of nuances helped make “Monk” the first successful original scripted series for USA.

“Where we’ve been wise is that — while ‘Monk’ may have been a risk at the beginning — we’ve built its success and built on its success,” says Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC U Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Prods. “We looked at what was working and why it was working.”

Concludes de Crinis: “Now it’s our crown jewel, our flagship show.”

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