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.

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:

1. The comedy club effect. Laughing is a social activity; people like to laugh in groups. There's a reason the saying doesn't go, "Quietly appreciate the aesthetic quality of the work, and the world quietly appreciates the aesthetic quality of the work with you." People who go to comedy clubs often don't go because of the specific comedian, or even because they think the material is going to be great. They go because they want to laugh, and the club gives them a forum to do that with their friends and significant others. Conversely – and maybe even paradoxically – we're pickier at home; if we don't find something funny, we're not going to watch it. We'll do something better with our time, like watch "CSI: Miami."

2. Broader is better. Let's face it: as fond as we all are of dry wit, droll wordplay, and postmodern absurdity, there's a part of all of us (well, a lot of us) who just want to see pratfalls. And with this kind of humor, scale – the kind of scale that a big, big cinematic budget affords – makes a difference. There's a sequence in "Blades of Glory" that involves an awards stand, a series of small accidents, and a mascot on fire; this would have been the climax of a sitcom episode, if they could have afforded it. In "Blades of Glory," it's a throwaway joke. That kind of thing makes a difference when you're measuring success commercially – that is to say, by the widest (not the lowest) common denominator.

3. It's not television, it's network television. The truth is that there's a lot of comedy that's flourishing on television – "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," "South Park," "Reno 911!," "Weeds," "Entourage," and the Adult Swim programming. It's just that it's not on the networks. Profit models are such on basic (and certainly pay) cable that shows can be considered runaway successes with a fraction of the audiences they would need to do well on the networks. As a result, they can cater more easily to the niche audiences that are the lifeblood of more daring, risk-taking comedy – since it's an article of faith that not everyone finds the same things funny.

4. The growth of niche television and the death of the family comedy. You probably have the same question I did. But what about all those sitcoms that drew such massive audiences? "Friends"? "Seinfeld"? "The Cosby Show"? you might ask. And good for you for asking. But almost all of those shows ran (or at least attracted their massive audiences) before the massive growth of cable programming, and before audiences were able to find shows tailored more closely to their comic sensibilities elsewhere. To take one prominent example: Think of young adolescents or the tween audience, who are now much more likely to watch comedies on Nickelodeon than on the networks. This never happened (certainly not in prime time) in the heyday of the great sitcoms of the 80's and 90's – "All That" and "The Amanda Show," for example, just weren't on. So everyone watched "Friends." But nowadays, the so-called "family hour" has largely disappeared on the networks – along with the possibility for general comedies.

The consultants had a couple of other reasons, but my notepad got all wet from their seltzer bottles so we had to stop there… but you get the idea. The fault, dear Andy Richter, is not in your show, but in your circumstance: and my hope is that sooner, rather than later, you and others like you find a home that's as perfectly suited for you as the multiplex is for Will Ferrell. I'm just not sure that it's going to be on network TV.

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