Sitcom royalty: No heirs apparent
Hot new sitcoms are about as rare as George Costanza picking up the check.
LOS ANGELES — Comedienne extraordinaire Lucille Ball might love them, but she'd hardly recognize the new comedy shows coming to TV today.
Hot to hit the next big thing, networks are beginning to toss aside the three-camera, studio-audience format that launched "I Love Lucy" a half-century ago - and that still is used on today's winners such as "Friends," "Frasier," and "Everybody Loves Raymond."
These aging shows, which premièred from 1993 to 1996, still produce strong ratings. But hot new sitcoms are about as rare as "Seinfeld's" George Costanza picking up the check at Monk's diner. Desperate to retrieve audiences lost to cable channels and video, networks have begun experimenting with new kinds of comedies:
"Watching Ellie," which premières this Tuesday (Feb. 26, NBC) follows former "Seinfeld" actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus as she plays an aspiring singer. The show is shot by a single camera in real time, with an on-screen clock ticking down the 22 allotted minutes.
Stand-up comedian Andy Richter arrives on Fox March 19 with "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," a single-camera show that skips the laugh track and studio audience and features dream sequences and narration by its star.
"The Job," starring another stand-up comedian, Denis Leary on ABC, is a single camera, half-hour "dramedy," shot on the streets of New York City, combining dramatic and comedic elements.
"I think audiences have been abused too much by over-laughed shows and too many multi-camera shows that haven't worked," says "Ellie" executive producer Victor Fresco. "I think audiences have soured on them and probably rightfully so...."
There has probably never been a better time to come through the door with a new idea, say executives hit with a deadly combination of recession-driven losses in advertising revenues and aging comedy hits such as "Friends" and "Frasier." (Though the "Friends" cast has signed on for one more year, next season will be their last.)
"This is a time when no broadcaster can afford to do the expected," says Susan Lyne, the president of ABC entertainment. "We need to occasionally surprise people, to make noise, and we can do that in lots of different ways. We can do it with subject matter. We can do it by breaking format."
"Watching Ellie," a vehicle for "Seinfeld" alum Dreyfus, is produced by her husband, Brad Hall. He has high hopes for his new concept. "Somebody going from one place to another, or someone alone in a room - you rarely get to see that" on traditional shows, Mr. Hall says. "And you rarely get to get the camera right in there [close] on [studio] audience shows." With the "Ellie" format, he says, "there's going to be a lot of comedy and a lot of character stuff that we are going to get by virtue of being with her all the time."
The question no show has yet answered is whether new tricks will add up to the next big comedy trend.
"There's a lot of tinkering and gimmicks right now," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "But what we need now is a genuine mutation in the comedy gene pool."
This doesn't mean audiences or networks will know it when they see it. The last big trend, epitomized by "Seinfeld," was not recognizable immediately, the media maven says. "In the beginning, 'Seinfeld' felt gimmicky," he says. "But what it ultimately did was open up the idea instead of premise-driven material, where you could have great comedy that dealt with the minutiae of daily life."
New ideas need gestation, he adds. "Most of these new shows, like 'Watching Ellie,' we'll expect them not to work. But that doesn't matter. You need people messing around with ideas to come up with something, for instance, besides lots of attractive people in New York, which is what it's been for the past decade."
Some of Hollywood's most successful and prolific producers say that despite what networks claim, they are often their own worst enemies when it comes to finding new TV gold.
"Every show that we have done that we thought was special was a hard sell at the network," says Tom Werner, partner and executive producer at Carsey/Werner/Mandabach, a studio responsible for some of the big comedy hits of the past, including "Cosby," "Roseanne," and "Third Rock from the Sun."
Werner says his approach is to try something new rather than to tinker with the old. "I would say you're probably safer to do a show that is contrarian and that goes against the established ideas of the moment." Executives might decide, for example, "let's do westerns because of the return of family values. [But] you're safer to go in the other direction, because I think the audience, in the end ... just cares about the quality of the show and the execution."
Tired formats may not be the problem. "Haven't [new comedies] always not worked, mostly?" says Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond." "Think of all the great shows. They weren't on all at the same time. I think it's very hard to make a good show, and I don't think this time that we're living in is any different."
While the trendy shows may be experimenting with new techniques and formats, the TV landscape still sports a number of traditional shows filmed in front of studio audiences, such as "Raymond," "King of Queens," and "Becker," which continue to deliver solid ratings.
"There's really no rule that applies in this area," says Michael Weithorn, co-creator and executive producer of "King of Queens." "It's so much a function of whether a given show in a given little universe that is created within a show makes sense and has a pulse on its own terms."
Audiences may just be tired of these time-worn formats. "The sitcoms are pretty much all bad right now," says Alex Hunt of Boston, who describes himself as a newly converted PBS watcher. "You hear phony applause and phony laughter - they have to have a machine do that because no one would laugh at those jokes. 'Everybody Loves Raymond'? - I don't. Commercial, please! I like the old sitcoms, 'Cheers' ... 'In Living Color.' I even find myself watching re-runs of 'Seinfeld.' "
"After a few years ... the plot gets old, says Lesley Bausseau of Dedham, Mass. She used to plan her week around watching "Ally McBeal" and she'd regularly catch "Friends." No current comedy ranks as "must see" TV with her.
The traditional format still is viable, "but you do have to overcome the fact that people almost are conditioned at this point to assume that [when] they see a multi-camera show ... that it's going to be bad," Weithorn says. The single-camera form, he adds, "with the quick cuts and zooms and the sound effects, we're still learning what that's all about."
As NBC watches the ink dry on a contract that will pay the "Friends" cast $1 million each per episode, Thompson says the last time the TV industry was in a situation similar to today's - holding onto aging hits and wondering about the future of comedy - the word went out that the sitcom was dead. That was just in time for "The Cosby Show" (1984-1992) to reinvigorate the traditional family comedy filmed in front of a studio audience.
"The aesthetic model of TV isn't broken," he says. The '60s used the same model with successful rural comedies such as 'Green Acres.' In the '70s, 'Mary Tyler Moore' and 'All in the Family' reinvigorated the form."
Staff writer Stephanie Cook in Boston contributed to this report.
Most successful TV comedies have been on the air for many years. Below are the highest-rated comedies among the prime-time shows of 2001-2002, along with the year that each show premièred.
Friends (NBC) 1994
Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS) 1996
Becker (CBS) 1998
Will & Grace (NBC) 1998
Frasier (NBC) 1993
Inside Schwartz (NBC) 2001 (canceled)
Just Shoot Me (NBC) 1997