Disruptions plaguing TV comedies, including "Suddenly Susan" and "Cybill", are no laughing mattter

Spring is still a few weeks away, but in the ever-clamorous world of network TV, things have already begun thawing out — or, rather, melting down.

Over the last several months, a flurry of executive shuffles and cast spats has rattled the sets of some of TV’s highest-profile sitcoms. Early season disruptions plagued Cybill, Ink, and Suddenly Susan, and just two weeks ago Michael J. Fox and executive producer Gary Goldberg reportedly walked off the set of Spin City after a script disagreement. (”Michael did not storm off,” insists a spokesman for DreamWorks, City‘s production company. ”Everybody was sent home because of technical problems.”)

The noisiest scufflings, however, have come from two freshman comedies: NBC’s Men Behaving Badly, and ABC’s Arsenio, which premieres March 5. On Men, season-long tensions between the stars — Ron Eldard, Rob Schneider, and Justine Bateman — and executive producer Matthew Carlson have centered on the direction of the humor. ”I wanted it to be less Mad About You,” says Schneider, ”and more Men Behaving Badly [the zany British sitcom on which the show is based].” According to sources, the situation came to a head in December when Eldard and Bateman, in protest, purposely tanked their performances during one episode, which had to be reshot. Producers Carsey-Werner then threatened to recast Eldard and Bateman’s parts. ”It was a weird standoff,” says a source. (Eldard, Bateman, Carsey-Werner, and NBC decline to comment.)

By all accounts, the on-set atmosphere has improved considerably since the network hired Steven Levitan (who also exec-produces NBC’s new Just Shoot Me) in January to oversee Men and repair relationships. Says Schneider, who insists the reports of infighting are exaggerated: ”With Steve, we’re moving [back in our original] direction.” But there’s still reason to believe that all is not well in Bachelorville. According to a source, the producers are unhappy with Bateman’s acting and may replace her if the show returns next year. And they are also considering recasting Eldard’s role. Says the source: ”Everyone’s wondering if Ron is getting replaced. He’s a little antagonistic about giving his feedback on scripts.”

The situation has been equally combustible on Arsenio. The DreamWorks show (for which ABC is paying $900,000 an episode) was thrust into the tabloid glare after star-executive producer Arsenio Hall reportedly had a spectacular head-butting incident with executive producer David Rosenthal last month. According to sources, an on-set argument between the two ended when Hall directed an obscenity-laced tirade at Rosenthal, prompting Rosenthal to abruptly quit. ”They just found themselves at the point where they were seeing different shows,” says DreamWorks TV chief Dan McDermott. Notes Rosenthal, who says he has since made up with Hall: ”On any new show where a lot of people care passionately about what they’re doing, there’s bound to be creative tensions.” (Hall’s spokesman says, ”It was an amicable split.”)

Last week, in a showy move that signaled DreamWorks’ commitment to right the production, the company signed former ABC entertainment chairman Ted Harbert as an executive producer. ”Ted had to deal with the very finest in egos [when he was network chief], and he managed to make them feel happy,” says an ABC source. ”So things should run about as smoothly as they can on a new show.”

So why this barrage of trouble? For one thing, networks, increasingly anxious to make a splash with new shows, are being forced to rely on top-drawer talent. But such marquee value often comes with more than a hefty price tag. Says one high-level industry exec, ”Each one is the center of his or her own cosmic bubble, and working with them can be a descent into madness on a daily basis.” McDermott adds, ”Sometimes [executive shuffles] cost a little more and sometimes it’s painful. But in the end, it’s going to be a better show.”

And as that notable power diva Roseanne proved, none of the shenanigans will matter if the public tunes in. ”The only thing on our minds is ‘Will this be a hit?”’ notes one programming exec. ”It doesn’t matter if it’s run by Attila the Hun and stars Hitler Jr. If it has the potential to catch on, you just let it loose and cross your fingers.”

(Additional reporting by A.J. Jacobs and Jessica Shaw)