Comfy sitcom format faces a retooling

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A feeling of subversion is in the air, giving the cast and crew on the sizable set of Fox's "Arrested Development" a shared sense of friendly conspiracy. Their aim: to reinvent that stalwart of prime-time television: the sitcom.

The traditional situation comedy is "a dead format whose time has come and gone," says Portia de Rossi, star of the quirky comedy, which just racked up a Golden Globe to add to its Emmy from this past year. "We're making comedy fresh," she pronounces as she plumps a pillow on one of the set's beds.

Evidence of the form-tinkering abounds on the 18,000-foot soundstage of "Arrested Development" crammed with different sets, all of which have four walls. Where the traditional three-camera sitcom uses no more than 12,000 square feet and opens up one wall of each room for a studio audience to watch, the stage here resembles a film set. The show doesn't have a studio audience, doesn't use a laugh track, and is filmed with a single hand-held camera.

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Fox is not the only network trying new things. As CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond," the last big tent-pole sitcom of the past decade, gets ready to end on May 16, there are fewer sitcoms on the air than ever. Networks, who need the half-hour comedies both to anchor their prime-time schedule and make money in syndication, are scrambling to find the next big hit. Everyone from producers to actors is talking about the need to try something new.

"The sitcom was in kind of dire need of a makeover," says actor John Stamos, talking about his coming show, "Jake in Progress," a single-camera sitcom that forgoes a studio audience. "I wanted to do something fresh and different," he says.

But while de Rossi and others suggest that the form itself is the problem, some say the reasons for the current comedy drought are more complex and the answers are more elusive than ever. Some say the problem is no more complicated than poor writing.

Nonetheless, there is a strong national appetite for the old-fashioned sitcom, says media maven Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "It is still the basic grammatical unit of American TV. It may be in a fallow period, but it's going to be back," he says.

Recent trends have conspired to reduce the number of high-profile comedy successes, he says. As networks have filled their prime-time slots with reality shows, they have fallen behind in comedy development. "Five years ago a network might put on 12 new sitcoms and two would be good," says Mr. Thompson.

Today, there are fewer than half that number. "The odds are simply less you're going to get a hit out of that bunch," he adds.

At the same time, well-written and innovative shows such as "Frasier," "Friends," and "Seinfeld" have raised audience expectations.

Shows needn't be innovative to work, notes CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler, pointing to the network's "Two and a Half Men," a sophomore sitcom well on its way to being a ratings heavyweight despite its traditional format. But when Ms. Tassler hears pitches for new sitcoms, she cares about only one thing: Will they make her laugh?

"I don't think you can start with the form. It's all about the concept of the show," she says. "We're always looking for a fresh voice."

But new voices are harder than ever to find, says comedy veteran Tom Poston. The "Newhart" veteran, who stars as a dying clown who stays in a closet on the new NBC comedy "Committed," says the medium itself is corrupting the next generation of writers.

"It used to be that good writers wrote about what they knew; they wrote from their lives, so the comedy was based in something real. These days," he says with a heavy sigh, "young writers are raised on TV and movies, so that's what they write about. And it's fake. It's recycled material."

He applauds the newcomers in charge of his show, pointing out, for instance, that his character is not the cheap gimmick that it might appear at first blush.

"The clown is a true story," says Eileen Heisler, creator and executive producer. Ms. Heisler and cocreator De Ann Heline, friends since college, once visited a friend who had sublet an apartment that came complete with a resident clown.

"One day, an old guy in a bathrobe walked out of the closet," says Heisler. "We said, 'Who's that? And they said, 'Oh, he's just a dying clown ... ignore him."

The bizarre incident stuck in their minds when they wrote the show. "We said, 'You know what? We can't do the same old sitcom you've seen a million times. We have to push the limits,' " says Heline.

Unscripted shows have had an impact on audience expectations as well. "Reality programming has made sitcoms seem more false," says Victor Fresco, creator and executive producer of Fox's new comedy, "Life On A Stick." "You see sitcoms with people saying things they would never say in life."

NBC may just address that problem in March with "The Office," a remake of the hit British show of the same name. The comedy, which stars Steve Carell of "The Daily Show," is shot to look like a documentary set in a workplace.

An additional challenge for sitcoms is the vast array of cable programming including The Comedy Channel and hour-long dramedies ("Desperate Housewives" recently won a Golden Globe in the comedy category) that have made it easier to find laughs outside the traditional network sitcom. Mr. Fresco says this competition couldn't have come at a worse time. As the networks have consolidated, there are fewer suppliers for new material and the networks have become more risk averse - no matter what they claim, he says.

A desire to break away from safe choices is what drives the folks on the "Arrested Development" set, says associate producer David Shafer as he demonstrates the way the hand-held camera swoops around the actors, delivering a spontaneity not possible with fixed cameras.

But, as many who've thrown out the studio audience have learned, a good sitcom is as much about tone as technique.

"Shows like 'Arrested,' that tend to be the darlings of critics but never get great ratings, do something new, but they will never be monster hits because you have to sit down and really watch them," says Thompson. "The thing about a sitcom when it's done well, is that it can be enjoyed when you're half asleep, doing homework, making pot roast. They are not confusing or challenging," he adds, "They are completely user-friendly."

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