×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More TV

  • Charmed -- "Let This Mother Out"

    'Charmed' Showrunner Exits, Craig Shapiro & Elizabeth Kruger Board Series

    The CW’s reboot of “Charmed” is changing showrunners. Variety has learned that Carter Covington has stepped down as showrunner on the series, which has already been renewed for a second season. Husband and wife team Craig Shapiro and Elizabeth Kruger have been brought on to helm the series going forward. Shapiro and Kruger are currently [...]

  • Apple TV Plus Reese Witherspoon Jennifer

    What We Know About 'Amazing Stories' And Other Shows Coming to Apple TV+

    Viewers got a sneak peek of upcoming shows coming to Apple TV+, Apple’s newly unveiled streaming service, during the company’s live-streamed event in Cupertino, Calif., on Monday. The stars and creators of the most highly anticipated projects like Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” and “The Morning Show” from Reese Witherspoon appeared on stage to reveal more [...]

  • WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01

    Richard Gere Series 'MotherFatherSon' Sold to Multiple Territories

    BBC Studios, the British public broadcaster’s commercial arm, has announced a raft of territory sales for Richard Gere starrer “MotherFatherSon,” a drama series written by Tom Rob Smith, Emmy-nominated for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” The show will screen Tuesday at Series Mania, France, in the International Panorama section. Buyers for the eight-part thriller include [...]

  • TV News Roundup: Netflix Releases Trailer

    TV News Roundup: Netflix Releases Trailer for 'Special'

    In today’s roundup, Netflix releases a trailer for “Special,” and Wrestlemania’s main event will be a women’s match, a first in WWE history. FIRST LOOKS Netflix has released the trailer for its upcoming 15-minute comedy show “Special.” Ryan O’Connell stars in the semi-autobiographical series about life as a gay man with cerebral palsy. The series is [...]

  • Apple Event: Everything We Learned From

    Everything We Learned From Today's Apple Event

    After revealing new services in news, finance, and gaming, Apple CEO Tim Cook kept the biggest, most anticipated announcement until last. Cook, along with heads of worldwide video programming Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, and a whole group of Apple’s creative talents, presented the company’s new Apple TV+ streaming service, which is slated to [...]

  • Lauren Whitney

    Miramax President of TV Lauren Whitney Exits to Join Spyglass Media Group

    Lauren Whitney, the president of television for Miramax, is leaving the company, Variety has learned. She will now become the president of television for Spyglass Media Group effective April 1. The news comes less than two years after Whitney first joined Miramax. There, she oversaw the studio’s television development, in addition to “Spy City,” produced by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content