Broadcast sitcoms are in the dark ages. Viewers want comedy with an edge. Welcome to cable's comic renaissance
By Allison Romano and Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/27/2004 8:00:00 PM
Are the networks killing comedy? Ask Doug Ellin. He's the creator of HBO's upcoming Entourage, a romp with a Hollywood star and his buddies from Queens. Ellin refused to pitch broadcast. A year ago, he was writing for ABC's Life With Bonnie. It got canceled, and Ellin got wise. "Entourage was HBO," he says, "or it was dead."
He's not alone. Creative insiders complain that broadcast networks stifle innovation. The reasons: banal shows, high costs, the success of reality. By contrast, cable suits are more hands-off, and creative freedom is legendary. Cable may be comedy's salvation.
Why? Not enough broadcast hits. In the past 14 years, broadcast networks launched 458 sitcoms; 56 shows lasted four years, and 46 of those went into syndication. After scheduling 50 comedies last fall—a record number—the networks are paring down to 36 this fall. NBC is replacing two comedy hours with reality. UPN, ABC, Fox and The WB will each replace one hour. ABC has eight comedies on its slate, the smallest since 2001. NBC has just four, and one, Father of the Pride, is animated.
If you're looking for laughs, look to cable. From Comedy Central to TBS, comedy is king. Hits like the red-hot Chappelle's Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Daily Show and Reno 911! testify to cable's edgy appeal. And networks like HBO and FX see comedy as an important part of their future.
Cable, with its specialized audiences, can tailor programming to specific tastes. Oxygen angles for hip, young women. TBS craves comedy for the upscale 18-34 demo. Comedy Central caters to men. "They get behind something on cable," says Steve Levitan, creator and executive producer of sitcom hits Just Shoot Me and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. "And they promote it. They give it a chance. They let it ride. Cable just needs to make a noise. It's a very different mentality from 'we need to hang on to our audience.' One side is aggressive; the other acts out of fear."
Cable programmers are tinkering with sketch and standup shows and trying new formats and hybrids blending scripted stories with improv. Bravo's Significant Others scored with critics and audiences. VH1 is plotting a remake of The Partridge Family.
Cable networks are also crafting new forms of reality, like A&E's upcoming Intervention, which marries shock value to the confessional format. Cable is TV's development lab, charting trends long before the broadcast networks. Outrageous is its battle cry, and victory is in the ratings.
In early June, the top-rated shows across broadcast and cable among adults 18-34 included MTV's The Real World and Punk'd and Cartoon Network repeats of The Family Guy. Such success inspired Good Girls Don't, Oxygen's down-market Sex and the City comedy. Says Oxygen President of Programming Debby Beece of her female leads, "They are fabulously flawed."
FX has two comedy pilots lined up: Human Animals, a mockumentary, and Recovering My Life. Spike TV's reality spoof The Joe Schmo Show is back, this time duping an unsuspecting couple. TBS's Outback Jack pokes fun at city girls living in the Australian wilds. On Comedy Central, British entertainer Graham Norton headlines a new weekly variety show. Variety may be a conventional platform, but Graham, a raucous personality, is unknown to most Americans.
Sassy and risky are what's hard to find on broadcast TV.
"The networks are either not allowing themselves to hear, buy or develop the right shows, or they aren't getting in business with the right people," says David Janollari, The WB's new entertainment president. In his former life, Janollari was a non-writing executive producer of UPN's One on One and The Hughleys and once vice president of comedy at Warner Bros. Television. Will he welcome comedy to The WB? "I wouldn't run from comedy," he says, "I would embrace it."
Of course, a big factor is cost.
A new broadcast-network sitcom costs about $1 million to $1.5 million an episode. (Cable spends an estimated $400,000 to $600,000 per half-hour.) "It's a bottom-line business," says Dave Hackel, creator and executive producer of Becker, which CBS canceled last year. "People want to see things work in a hurry, or they go away. They don't have time to nurture." For all their financial outlay, network sitcoms, with the notable exceptions of Still Standing and Two and a Half Men, are tanking at an alarming rate.
Comedy writers, for their part, are getting a wake-up call: Write better shows.
"Writers need to come up with stuff that's relatable and funny," says Mike Sikowitz, an executive producer and co-writer with Jeff Astrof on Carsey-Werner-Mandabach's Grounded for Life, which once aired on Fox but went to The WB when Fox didn't pick up its option. Sikowitz and Astrof have been creating and writing comedies for years. Among them: Duckman, Friends and Veronica's Closet. (Levitan recently tried—and failed—to sell an animated show to Fox.)
Ironically, there is one creative problem the networks did not anticipate: Success can breed failure.
"Friends was the worst thing to happen to network-TV comedy," says Jeff Garlin, executive producer and co-star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. "Everyone tried to copy it." But what they got was "good-looking characters and shows that weren't funny." Yet networks were desperate to clone proven hits. "As a friend of mine once said, 'Hollywood is where people are running to places where lightning has recently struck,'" says Bob Daly, a writer on Frasier. True, Cheers spawned Frasier, but cloning is an iffy proposition.
Critics lambasted NBC's Coupling, the hyped singles comedy pitched as the next Friends. The characters were grating, the dialogue forced. This season, The Peacock is counting on Friends spinoff Joey. Other comedy casualties last season: ABC's Life With Bonnie and Fox's Wanda at Large, featuring comedian Wanda Sykes, and Hispanic-family sitcom Luis.
But Levitan isn't deterred. "The smart move is to zig where everyone else is zagging," he says. "This is probably the exact time to do a smart, sophisticated comedy."
Sure, the money is better on broadcast, especially once the word "syndication" is uttered, but writers are realistic. The networks order 35 pilots a year; cable, only a precious few. And writers are happy to work on any network if the show is right. "What you can say and do on cable is bigger," says Tracy Katsky, the new head of HBO's in-house production unit and a former Fox comedy exec. "You can delve into issues and personalities. Situations don't have to be immediately relatable."
Grounded for Life's Astrof agrees: "They take a month to break a story on The Sopranos, and it shows on the screen. In cable, you only do 13 episodes a year. It gives you time to go out and live and explore stories."
With the number of jobs shrinking, out-of-work comedy writers are exploring every viable option. Some are working on their next potential pitch. Others take posts on dramas or accept jobs with less stature and pay. Says Daly, "I haven't heard people complaining about the quality of shows they got, just complaining about the fact that there are so few of them."
Their panic may be premature; public taste is cyclical. A few years ago, pundits predicted the death of dramas. By the 2005 season, sitcoms could be all the rage—again. After all, reality shows, like contests, don't repeat well. That could make reality less appealing on cable, which relies heavily on reruns to feed its round-the-clock programming.
"Comedy isn't dead," says Becker's Hackel. "It's resting. America is going to grow tired of watching people eat bugs. Right?"
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