Characters keep new sitcoms alive

Winning roles help until show finds funny footing

With comedies taking their time to find an audience in TV’s fragmented landscape, what helps keep a show alive during the incubation period?

Creating characters that click, even when a show’s sense of humor is still seeking the right alchemy, is key. Whether it’s Rainn Wilson’s officious pencil-pusher on “The Office” or Jim Parsons’ lovable geek on “The Big Bang Theory,” it’s important to “quickly develop comedy characters whom the audience can identify with and immediately take to,” says Jeff Ingold, NBC’s executive vice president of comedy programming.

“That’s because it can take a new show a while to find its legs, whether it’s where the emotion should live or what the stories should be every week,” Ingold adds.

In today’s remote-control universe, networks often lack the luxury of time to support slow-starters. “Making the characters’ relationships with one another resonate is my priority,” says Chuck Lorre, the comedy kingpin behind “Big Bang” and “Two and a Half Men” on CBS. “If you care about them, there’s a chance you might laugh. If you don’t care, so what?”

“Big Bang” did benefit from an early show of network faith precisely because of its relatable characters. The series’ first pilot “didn’t work,” Lorre says. “But we were fortunate enough to have Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons, which CBS recognized were a great comedy team.” The network agreed to shoot a second pilot, “and we got it right this time.”

Lorre attributes some of that success to performing the show before a live audience, which he calls “a very condensed version of taking a play out of town to work out the kinks a little. You get immediate feedback.”

Without that direct cast/audience connection, single-camera shows have often “gone too far into blandness and too far into wackiness,” believes Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan, “when what you need is the middle ground” to let characters breathe.

“With so many shows, I keep thinking, Where’s the Jim and Pam? That’s what kept me watching the American remake of ‘The Office,'” Ryan says. “There was something emotionally tying me to those characters.”

They’re also a way to grab viewers’ attention in the first place. Ryan points to “How I Met Your Mother” supporting player Neil Patrick Harris: “Even if people are not into that show, they know who Barney is.”

NBC’s Ingold takes another tack. “Nowadays with the clutter, it really helps when you have characters that can be easily shared, and clips can be sent around quickly” to build buzz, he says.

Ingold notes that in the ensemble of midseason’s “Parks and Recreation,” NBC had Aziz Ansari, who “came into the show with a fanbase from his previous work,” including standup, “Human Giant” and memorable guest shots on cult faves “Flight of the Conchords” and “Scrubs.”

“Even though he’s not carrying the bulk of the storyline, he’s a go-to guy,” Ingold says.

But just having a familiar face with a following isn’t enough, as all those star-laden sitcom bombs attest. Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton couldn’t keep Fox’s “Back to You” on the air, though both return this fall in separate projects. The star/character/show fit is crucial.

Ingold thinks “30 Rock” co-star Alec Baldwin initially helped viewers get a bead on that NBC project. Because “he’d been so funny on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ everyone knew what sort of comedy he would bring,” Ingold says.

Ryan says even a fringe series like Starz’s Hollywood-set “Party Down” can find an audience for its offbeat ensemble of cater-waiters.

“Each character feels individual and defined,” Ryan says. “They have heart. They’re so well-sketched, you care about them.”

Which doesn’t mean characters have to be “lovable.” Many single-camera comedies in particular steer away from sentiment with ensembles of idiosyncratic oddballs.

Ryan believes “you can go for an arch tone, but have a character whom the audience can identify with.” That can be Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in “30 Rock” or Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth in single-camera trendsetter “Arrested Development” — a sane soul among the loons whom, Ryan says, “you can feel good about rooting for.”

“Characters don’t have to be lovable to be cared for,” says Lorre. “You can care about the most disreputable character if it’s written and cast appropriately. How lovable was Archie Bunker? And that’s the gold standard of writing and casting.”