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Standups sit down on the job

With sitcom offers dwindling comics try other shows

Comedy Central’s annual roast is this weekend, providing several luminaries not widely known for their comedy stylings — including Pamela Anderson, Hulk Hogan and Jerry Springer — the opportunity to tee off on David Hasselhoff.

Despite a modest sitcom resurgence, the new TV season is similarly short on comics. Where primetime’s biggest hits were once constructed around Jerry Seinfeld or Bill Cosby, Tim Allen or Roseanne, most of today’s top network half-hours owe their voice to comedy writers, from “Modern Family” and “The Office” to Chuck Lorre’s fertile CBS factory.

Still, given the vast appetite for programming — especially of the inexpensive variety — comedians have value. And in the spirit of using every part of the chicken in lean times, some programmers are tapping into the benefits of funny people talking, even if that requires having stand-ups sit down on the job.

Beyond the ongoing spate of stand-up showcases, Showtime introduced “The Green Room With Paul Provenza” this summer, a roundtable that involves little more than comics sitting around bullshitting about, well, anything — from politics to the state of their craft. Edited down to half-hours, the exchanges were raw but also quite funny, capturing some of the fraternal spirit among comics displayed in “The Aristocrats.”

Along the same lines, the Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada continues producing “The Supreme Court of Comedy” for DirecTV, featuring comics as tongue-in-cheek advocates in small-claims cases; and another pilot for the satcaster, “Laugh Factory Open Mic,” will tape later this month.

To say these programs are produced on a shoestring is, perhaps, an insult to shoestrings, but they represent original programming for DirecTV’s 19 million U.S. subscribers. Such ventures capitalize on the availability of comics and their ability to conjure laughs against a minimal backdrop.

As for the comics, even if the returns associated with such programs aren’t the eye-popping syndication paydays of the past, it’s better than nothing. With fewer sitcoms employing them and latenight programs no longer regularly featuring stand-ups — and certainly lacking the power to launch careers the way “The Tonight Show” did during Johnny Carson’s heyday — any TV exposure is helpful in filling clubs and showrooms when comics head out on the road.

“It’s a very, very dry season” for comics, Masada says, citing the number of sitcom slots lost to reality TV and other alternatives in recent years.

Obviously, it’s a far cry from the 1990s, when everybody with a reasonably polished five-minute set was seemingly being signed to sitcom deals, as the networks — high on fumes from “Friends” and the aforementioned sitcoms — scheduled more than 60 half-hours in primetime at the genre’s dizzying peak.

This fall — five years removed from “Everybody Loves Raymond’s” final episode — the big deal is CBS opened a second comedy beachhead Thursdays, lifting the tally among the four major networks in September (excluding Fox’s animation block) to 16.

New sitcoms are sprouting up on cable, a la TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” and ABC Family’s “Melissa and Joey,” but at present few of those are comic-driven. An exception would be “Louie,” the understated FX series mixing Louie C.K.’s stand-up act with related vignettes.

Networks deserve much of the blame for overfishing the stand-up pool during the 1990s. There’s also an argument to be made that the next generation of comedians didn’t hone the craft in clubs as diligently as predecessors, leaving them ill-equipped to mine their routines for much beyond a pilot. (When I proposed this theory a few years ago, it unleashed hate-mail from moderately employed comics, armed with apparent surpluses of both time and pent-up anger.)

Comedians nevertheless remain useful raw material in a media environment understandably preoccupied with costs in the face of audience fragmentation. And in TV terms, nothing is cheaper than a handful of people in chairs talking.

As with all cycles, the odds are some comic will eventually break through in a sitcom, inevitably triggering a renewed stampede of studio and network execs to haunt open-mic nights.

Until then, stand-ups with an eye on TV will have to embrace the new era of sit-down comedy.

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