Sitcoms coming slow in Canada

'Corner Gas' succeeds, networks lack other hits

The runaway success of “Corner Gas” proved that Canada could produce a hit sitcom that would sell around the world. But it hasn’t exactly spawned a new wave of locally made comedies.

The gentle, slow-moving prairie-set laffer just ended its six-year run on commercial network CTV, setting a new record for a locally scripted series by pulling in 2.9 million viewers for its April 13 finale.

The huge aud made “Corner Gas” the No. 1 show of the week here, outperforming Hollywood heavy-hitters “House,” “CSI” and “American Idol.”

Given its popularity, you’d think Canuck producers and networks would’ve rushed to come up with ideas for other sitcoms. But that hasn’t been the case.

CTV doesn’t have another scripted comedy on its schedule; Canwest’s Global TV has one sitcom, “Da Kink in My Hair,” which is not a major hit, and one animated comedy series, “Bob and Doug,” based on the fictional brothers made famous in 1980s sketch show “SCTV.”

Pubcaster CBC, which is big on sketch comedy, has one sitcom, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” which pulls in around 800,000 viewers weekly, down from its debut season. CBC cancelled sitcom “Sophie” after anemic second season ratings.

“Sitcoms are an expensive proposition and the chance of getting revenue streams from other markets are small compared to one-hour dramas,” says Brent Butt, who created, co-wrote and starred in “Corner Gas.” “I think you’ll see some other Canadian sitcoms but I don’t think it’ll be a wave.”

“Corner Gas” is one of the few exceptions to the rule that comedy doesn’t travel due to cultural differences. It aired on WGN Stateside, and sold to 25 other territories stretching from Australia to Finland and Iraq.

Butt has shot a pilot for another sitcom, “Hiccups,” about a children’s author with anger issues, but CTV has yet to decide if it is going to greenlight the series.

CTV also commissioned a pilot for “Dan for Mayor,” a sitcom starring “Corner Gas” co-star Fred Ewanuick and created by “Corner Gas” writer-producers Mark Farrell, Paul Mather and Kevin White. Again, the web has not decided whether to pick it up.

“There’s very little out there,” says Bruce Hills, chief operating officer of the Montreal-based Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. “There’s a freeze (on spending) but there are three networks that need hits.”

That’s why Just for Laughs partnered with Montreal production company Muse Entertainment two years ago to form Just for Laughs Muse Comedy Prods. The company has several sitcoms in development, including one with former “Little Mosque on the Prairie” head writer Rob Sheridan.

Montreal’s Galafilm is also set to produce a sitcom “18 to Life” to run on CBC next season.

CanWest-owned cable channel Showcase has been big on edgier sitcoms. Its laffer “Trailer Park Boys,” about a bunch of foul-mouthed trailer park residents in Nova Scotia, was a breakout hit that aired on BBC America in the U.S. and on DirecTV’s T101 channel. But that series ended its Canuck run last year.

Showcase still has a number of sitcoms, including “Kenny vs. Spenny” (which aired on Comedy Central), “Testees” and “G-Spot,” plus an upcoming sitcom, “The Foundation,” from Mike Dowse, who wrote and directed the films “Fubar” and “It’s All Gone Pete Tong.”

CanWest VP Tara Ellis says hit sitcoms take years to develop, adding that “Bob & Doug” looks promising.

But whether any of these will survive long enough to capture the public’s attention in the same way that “Corner Gas” did is still an open question.

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