News about the death of broadcast sitcoms has been greatly exaggerated, certainly if the Golden Globe nominations are any indication.
After two years watching their cable counterparts collect the majority of nods for top laffers-musicals, broadcast is leading the way, per the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.
“For a time, there was a fear they were going to be out of the comedy business,” says HFPA member Jenny Cooney Carrillo, an L.A.-based journalist who writes for newspapers and magazines back home in Australia, “but this was a really good year for broadcast comedy.”
ABC freshman entry “Modern Family” received a bid along with two previous winners, “30 Rock” and “The Office,” both from NBC. “Glee,” Fox’s take on the high school musical, also earned a nomination. The lone cable contender is HBO’s “Entourage.”
Other network sitcoms that could have been nominated but missed the cut include CBS entries “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.”
“It actually was nice because a few years back we were all struggling (to find five worthy nominees),” she explains. “There’s a lot of good comedy out there now.”
That apparently wasn’t so in the mid-’00s. About the time of the departures of “Friends” and “Frasier” in 2004 and “Everybody Loves Raymond” the following year, many scribes who cover TV were lamenting the lack of quality network sitcoms, which were being squeezed out by a surge in reality programming. NBC, for example, had 16 half-hour comedies on its schedule in the late 1990s when “Seinfeld” ruled, and only three at the start of the 2004-05 season.
But highly regarded laffers didn’t disappear off the map. Auds simply needed to go to different addresses to locate a growing number of them.
The HFPA went that direction early, tapping HBO’s “Sex and the City” as the top comedy three straight years starting in 2000. The org then went for HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2003.
Emmy voters also have looked pay TV’s way, giving “Sex and the City” the statuette in 2001, and last year nominating three cable offerings for best comedy series. (But “30 Rock” was the winner for the third straight year.)
Of course, the broadcasters never actually turned off the laugh track. The most buzzworthy comedies were coming from the likes of HBO and Showtime, and that word of mouth translated into kudos.
“Over the past five years on the comedy side, if you were a fly on the wall in any network or studio development meeting, a lot of what the executives in those rooms were watching was on cable,” says Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox TV. “At a certain point, we all woke up and said, ‘If that’s what we want to watch, why are we underestimating the power of something incredibly bold and distinctive for a network television audience?’ ”
The studio answered with “Glee,” a musical-comedy hybrid developed by Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck”), and “Modern Family,” a mockumentary-style comedy.
Both are decidedly network shows but often display “a little twisted” and a politically incorrect sense of humor, says Matthew Gilbert, a veteran TV critic with the Boston Globe. That characteristic, he adds, is a hallmark of cable skeins, which often delve even deeper into dark comedy than their network brethren.
Adopting another trait popular with cable comedies, many of the new broadcast laffers are single-camera productions.
For decades, traditional sitcoms were multicam shoots in front of a studio audience. But that method has been spotted less and less on network skeds — with the highly rated “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” among the notable exceptions — and don’t seem to fall in favor with HFPA voters. Although “Will & Grace” in 2005 was the last comedy of that type nommed, it’s not a knock on the format, says Cooney Carrillo.
“That’s more a reflection of taste than how a show is filmed or whether it’s on cable or not,” she says.
Regardless of how the comedies are shot or what form they take, Gilbert also likes what has been coming recently from the Big Four.
“Maybe it was because of the competition with cable, or the changing tastes in audiences and the growth of ‘cringe’ comedy, but the majority of network shows are fairly sophisticated,” he says. “A good comedy is really hard to create, and the fact that there are five or six of them on now, it shows that network comedy is definitely in a pretty good place.”