A tale of two comedians
Why are there so few successful comedies on the small screen – and so many on the big one?
Consider, if you would, the cases of Will Ferrell and Andy Richter. Both funny guys; both hardly matinee idols; both in recent offerings from the entertainment industry. Ferrell's, the ice skating comedy "Blades of Glory", is, as of this writing, No. 2 at the box office and, in its third week of release, has grossed over $90 million. Richter's, the NBC detective/accountant sitcom "Andy Barker, P.I.," was removed from its slot on Thursday night after four episodes and has been exiled to that undiscovered country from which no show returns - Saturday nights - for its final airings.Skip to next paragraph
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Is there a way to explain Ferrell's commercial success (here and in movies like "Talladega Nights," "Anchorman," and "Elf," among others) and Richter's commercial failure (here and in Fox's "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and in "Quintuplets," among others)? Is it simply a matter of quality? Certainly no one who knows anything about the entertainment business blithely assumes quality will win out. Even if you think that "Blades of Glory" is a vastly better comedic product than anything that Richter fellow has ever managed to produce, I ask you to consider the case of "Wild Hogs" which, in its seventh week of release, is the No. 7 film in the country with grosses of $152 million and counting. I think it may be fair to say that Academy Award nominee William H. Macy will not be placing this unquestionable box office smash at the top of his résumé any time soon.
Attempting an alternative explanation, then (within the limits of a short Web column, and without the use of footnotes, charts, or linear algebra), we might first focus on the "box office" in "box office smash." It can't be entirely a coincidence that comedies are flourishing at the movies and perishing on television. Four of the top-ten box office grossers this week are comedies, and many of them could hardly be called classics: "Blades of Glory," "Wild Hogs," "Meet the Robinsons," and "Are We Done Yet?" Of the top twenty television shows this week, by contrast, only two are comedies, Fox's "'Til Death" at No. 8 and CBS's "Two and a Half Men" at No. 19 – and I suspect even "Death's" Brad Garrett knows that his entrance into the lists might have a little something to do with airing immediately after "American Idol." Arguably the best comedy on television this year, "30 Rock," has been renewed for a second season – but not based on its (extremely low) ratings, but on NBC executives' hopes that audiences will catch on to it in reruns or next year. TV land is littered with the graves of shows of comic genius – "Arrested Development", "The Tick," and yes, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" – all on Fox – that never found an audience.
So why are the movies such a comfortable home for comedy these days, and why is television so inhospitable? After speaking with a team of extremely high-paid consultants who specialize in comedy (I could tell from the fright wigs and the extremely large shoes), three answers emerged: