No laughing matter

With megahits like 'Frasier,' 'Raymond,' and 'Friends' winding down, Americans are wondering: Where is the next culture-changing sitcom?

Howls of derision, pillows thrown at TV screens, even bashing of some big-ticket celebrities. The California recall election must be on, right?

Actually, the target of this angst is not Arnold and his recall election counterparts, but the thing that's supposed to bring us some relief: this season's new comedies. Unfortunately for millions of fans who've loved Ray, followed "Friends," and cheered "Frasier," new shows such as "Whoopi" and "Hope & Faith" are no replacements for Raymond, Rachel, or Niles.

Worse, this isn't the first season of the laughing drought. Call it the sitcom slump - it's been years since a breakout comedy like "Seinfeld" expanded the national vocabulary with phrases like "soup Nazi." With "Friends" in its last season and fading hits such as "Frasier" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" likely to follow, critics are asking, where are the new culture-changing sitcoms? Like "Seinfeld?" Or even, going back a few years, "Roseanne" and "Cosby?" Meanwhile, audiences are wondering: Why is a good comedy so hard to find, and why are so many bad ones on the air?

Good writing always has been difficult. What's different today is a particularly nasty stew of trends in the TV industry: a competitive, 300-plus channel universe causes networks to not take risks and push for fast hits - a standard even "I Love Lucy" might have found hard to meet. And over the past four years, reality shows have driven down the number of scripted sitcoms on the schedule, hitting a record low of 42 last season.

Furthermore, the elimination of rules barring networks from owning their own shows in the late '80s, combined with increased media consolidation, have caused the dozens of independent production studios that gave us hits like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Cosby Show" to virtually disappear.

All these factors add up to a "perfect storm," conspiring to keep that elusive water-cooler hit just out of reach, media pundits say.

"There is so much more demand than supply for new shows, especially good ones," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Networks end up with a lot of 'B'-level stuff - shows that are OK - and what schedulers try to do is maximize their 'A' quality stuff by balancing it with the other."

A strategy like that can sandwich a new show such as the critically drubbed "The Ortegas" (which Fox has already shuffled to midseason) between two hits, "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle," just to keep viewers in place.

"If the bread on each side is really sweet," says Mr. Thompson with a laugh, "networks figure they can be forgiven if the meat in between is not so great."

Small independent houses used to keep new ideas flowing into the networks. Now that the networks turn primarily to their own in-house production companies for new shows, the kind of healthy competition that used to produce new ideas is drying up.

"This kind of inbreeding, where all the ideas come from fewer and fewer places, limits new ideas," says Thompson.

"Often, the best new ideas don't come from established places," says Tom Werner, one of the few independent producers still working today. "I long for more showmanship on the part of the networks," says the producer of "The Cosby Show," "and I think the risk-taking [would] lead to greater rewards."

Network executives often give lip service and occasionally the green light to new material, only to make a dash for the familiar when viewers tune out.

This past season, Julia Louis-Dreyfus became the third "Seinfeld" alum to go solo - and to be canceled before completing a full season.

Her show, "Watching Ellie" was born amid great expectations as an edgy experiment in real-time, single-camera showmanship. It followed Ellie, a singer played by Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, for 22 minutes of actual time - no laugh track, no studio audience.

NBC pulled the show after a few episodes, then brought it back with the more conventional trappings of a studio audience and multiple cameras. The show was still canceled.

"It's hard to do anything well," says Louis-Dreyfus. "I think we all know this, whether it's in television or in film. Or if you're making a car, it's hard to make a good car. It's hard to do things well, period."

Star power no guarantee

Networks often fall back on tried-and-true strategies, such as hiring big-name stars or successful writer/producers, but neither is a guarantee.

Bette Midler and Geena Davis each had their own show two seasons ago. They were both panned by the press and neither lasted a season. Veteran show runner Bruce Helford gave us "Roseanne" and "Drew Carey," but he also produced the failed "Nikki," on The WB.

Every now and then, the creative juices are fresh, the show is original, and critically praised, but even that doesn't mean viewers will jump on board.

The list of critical hits that didn't survive is lengthy - "The Job," SportsNight," and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," to name just a few recently demised shows.

Writing itself poses its own challenges. Given the pervasiveness of modern TV, writers have to dig deeper in their creative psyche to bypass the familiar.

"In writing comedy, there's been plenty of times where I've written something and showed it to somebody and they say, 'Well this is just like that other thing," says comedian Andy Richter.

"You know, the rhythms of a sitcom and that kind of pattern of a joke are so ingrained in all of our brains that it comes out, without meaning to."

That familiarity is a double-edged sword. Executives want to give people what they know and like, but they also say it's harder to keep it fresh.

"An awful lot of people in the country can sit home and watch a sitcom and sort of know what joke's coming next," says Anne Flett-Giordano, creator and executive producer of "It's All Relative," a new ABC sitcom. Rerun channels such as TV Land and Nick at Night spin old sitcoms endlessly. "It's harder to sell sitcoms because people are so familiar with the form now."

Are we better off now?

But even a drought can have a bright side, says media maven Thompson. Aside from new comedies panned by critics, such as "Hope & Faith" or "Coupling," the state of today's sitcoms may not be as bad as it seems, he says. The whole field has been redefined, for the better, over the past few decades by such shows as "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," and even "Friends."

The bar has been raised, so today's viewers expect much more, he says.

"Remember when we made hits out of 'Give Me a Break,' 'Diff'rent Strokes,' and 'Facts of Life'?" he says. "By today's standards, these shows were dreadful. They were able to be such big hits because there wasn't too much to compare them with."

Those higher expectations couldn't come at a worse time for the networks. Proliferating cable channels have created more outlets for the writers who can produce high-quality comedies. HBO's "Sex and the City," for instance, has won several Emmys.

Cable channels also tend to be more patient with new shows, allowing time for audiences to build. (Lest we forget, "Seinfeld" took nearly a year to find its funnybone.)

But at least for this season, the next water-cooler sitcom may prove more elusive than ever.

"It's the hardest thing to do, a high-quality comedy series," says Chris Albrecht, chairman and CEO of HBO. "You've got to be smart and interesting and get people warm and fuzzy and funny at the same time. Most people can't even do one of those things."

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