At the height of the network sitcom boom back in 1997, there were 62 comedies on the fall schedule. This year, there are only 20. The reason so few make it to air these days would seem to be painfully obvious — they’re just not funny! — but the answer isn’t that simple. In exchange for their anonymity, four prominent members of the TV industry (a high-level network executive, a hugely successful writer, and two Emmy-winning veteran actors) spoke candidly with EW, and tried to answer a question that’s vexing Hollywood: How did the once-powerhouse genre devolve into a bad punchline? What they have to say may surprise you.
The Network Executive
I think the orgy of success that happened in the ’80s and early ’90s ruined comedy. As comedies like Seinfeld and Friends dominated the airwaves, it led to this spending spree on TV writers. Low-level writers on any comedy staff were getting multimillion-dollar deals. And if you made a list of all those deals, almost none of them amounted to anything. As comedy became more important, more executives got involved [in the creative process], which has been incredibly unhealthy. I also have seen a real lack of creativity on the writers’ part. If you go back, comedy was truly born on the streets, with a real kind of immigrant sensibility. Sitcom writers were the least educated of the bunch, which led to comedy that had guts. Now you have lots of overeducated young guys, who don’t have a lot of life experience, making lots of money. They go from the dorm room to the comedy room. I also feel the talent agencies are filtering what the networks hear. If you want to sell a show to CBS, then you need a fat guy with a pretty wife, set in the middle class. For NBC, it better be young and hot and set in New York. And your ABC show should have a bunch of precocious kids in it. The networks are complicit in all of this, not really pushing any of the writers for fresh stuff. And it just has reached a tipping point where the audience has said, ”We’ve had enough.”
Look back at The Honeymooners. You really don’t need more than a room with four people who are related in ways that bind them together. I’ve seen sitcoms in their first seasons rely on very empty jokes that were not character-related or plot-related in terms of telling a story about something real. Even if you have the most charismatic, fabulous star, if the writing doesn’t spring from a true consideration of how people relate to one another, it’s not going to fly. Our attention is so limited these days…. I don’t care how jazzy [the show] looks, how much it goes on location, I don’t care about stunt casting! If writers don’t put in a fun mix of characters, I ain’t gonna watch.
I think networks and producers think the one-camera sitcom is the solution to their problems. [EW 101: Popular single-camera comedies include My Name Is Earl and The Office; multi-camera comedies are more traditionally filmed and have a laugh track, like Two and a Half Men.] One producer actually told me you don’t have to be as funny if you do an hour-long, single-camera comedy. So I’m thinking, That’s great. Not funny for twice as long! The networks think the audience won’t laugh if there’s no laugh track. But we still do! The funniest movies we go to have no laugh track and somehow we find them funny. Single-camera comedies are not edited properly. They think a fast pace is all that’s necessary and it’s not. The production schedule on a single-camera show is so grueling because they’re making little movies every week, so there’s no time to worry about the content or the jokes. There are exceptions like The Office, but I would say that’s about it right now. As for multi-camera comedies, the networks seem to care less about story, character, and content and more about style. They think the look of the show is more important. And everything seems to be pitched at a younger audience. Take that CBS sitcom The Class: There was a bidding war for that show because it came from a Friends writer and everybody in it was 28. Shows that deal with really old people — like anyone over 40 — are not wanted. Twenty Good Years is an exception; I hope it’s good. I’m rooting for it.
Doing a sitcom is tough; you only have one strike and you’re out! I’ve witnessed firsthand how networks’ owning their own shows has changed everything. The networks could suddenly promote what they were producing, whether it was any good [or not]. Quality was no longer at a premium. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain quality when junk is being promoted. The other problem is the tendency for the industry to imitate itself, therefore something like CSI spawns so many copycats. That’s why there were 60 comedies 10 years ago. Everybody was desperate to be another Seinfeld or another Friends. Nowadays everybody is desperate to be CSI, so all these dark, hour-long dramas are spread across the schedule. This is also a dark age. We’re still reeling from 9/11, and network entertainment has been deeply affected by that. And that has sort of crowded out comedy exactly at the moment we need it badly. But you know, there have been significant moments in TV. The Cosby Show was put on at a moment when everybody said sitcoms were dead. Not dying, but dead. So everything goes in cycles. It’s just the nature of the industry.