Comedy Tonight... Well, Maybe Not Tonight, But Some Night

More on this later, but Michael Schneider of Variety has a detailed look at how the networks are responding to the increased demand for comedy.

Here’s the conundrum for every network that isn’t CBS: Audiences want light comedy, as evidenced by the success of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the Disney Channel tween hits, and much more; but audiences don’t seem to want single-camera comedies without laugh tracks (as the article notes, there is no “broad, smash hit” in that format); but most networks and production companies don’t have a lot of traditional comedies in the pipeline yet. That’s why a lot of the network people quoted in the article are talking more about how they would like to have more comedies, or need more comedies, as opposed to being confident that they have more comedies on the way.

Three years ago it looked like the single-camera show might finally break through to something resembling genuine popularity; My Name Is Earl looked like a breakout hit back then, and it was a show that signified NBC’s new commitment to “modern” comedy, as well as the way showrunners were leaning toward the newer, more expensively shot, densely-plotted format: the creator, Greg Garcia, had previously created the long-running but little-known CBS multi-camera comedy Yes, Dear, and his success with Earl demonstrated the greater freedom and acclaim a showrunner could get by making the move to single-camera. Now Earl has become symbolic of all the reasons this format never really caught on: it’s too expensive, depends too heavily on in-joke references to previous episodes, and most importantly of all, tends to burn out really, really quick. The networks are probably looking longingly at Yes, Dear at this point, but having placed a lot of faith and investment in the idea that the single-camera comedy was the future of TV comedy, they are still adjusting to the very difficult situation they face: the traditional comedy isn’t back, exactly, it’s just that they haven’t found anything to take its place.

Another point from the article that I found interesting is that the network “brand” can sometimes outlive all the shows associated with that brand. So ABC used to be the network of broad, videotaped comedies about families, like Roseanne and Home Improvement (both created by Matt Williams) and Full House, but they haven’t had a show like that in a decade. But the network discovered, when deciding whether to pick up Bob Saget’s previously-mentioned comedy Surviving Suburbia, that people still think of them as the network that does shows like that, even though they’re not:

“We were all skeptical when we went to look at it, but it does feel like a traditional ABC show,” says ABC Entertainment exec VP Jeff Bader. “Our research shows that’s what people expect from ABC, even though we haven’t had a show like that in years.”

This may explain some of NBC’s problems (I said some, not the ones that are explained by luck or Silvermanian ineptitude); people still think of them as the Seinfeld/Friends network even though they’ve tried to get away from that kind of show. And CBS’s relative success may have something to do with the fact that, for better or for worse, that network is still doing pretty much the same kinds of shows it was doing ten years ago.