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Comfy sitcom format faces a retooling

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2005


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.

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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.

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."