The TV comedy drought forces funny writers to become serious

By Lynette Rice
Updated July 06, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Short of standing at a freeway on-ramp and holding cardboard signs that read ”Will work for my kid’s private-school tuition,” unemployed sitcom writers have discovered a novel way to help pay the bills this fall: They’re writing for dramas.

Heading into another laugh-lacking TV season — only 21 network sitcoms are on the fall slate, down from the 62 that aired during the height of the comedy boom in 1997 — veteran comedy scribes are migrating: Bruce Rasmussen (The Drew Carey Show, Roseanne) will join NBC’s Brooke Shields dramedy Lipstick Jungle; Bryan Behar (8 Simple Rules, The New Adventures of Old Christine) will write for ABC’s stud-centric Big Shots, while the Emmy-winning Frasier duo Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano are hooking up with Desperate Housewives. And let’s not forget Ugly Betty, which is executive-produced by veteran sitcom scribe Marco Pennette (Caroline in the City) and owes many of its signature zingers to the onetime Will & Grace employees who populate the writers’ room. Even darker shows are recruiting job-seeking jokesters: Heroes just hired former SNL and O.C. writer JJ Philbin.

”The sitcom genre has been challenged,” explains Eileen Heisler (Murphy Brown), who executive-produces Jungle with longtime Murphy cohort DeAnn Heline. ”We haven’t left our comedy roots behind. We just yearn to break free.” Adds Matt Rice, a literary agent who reps writers for United Talent Agency, ”Sitcoms are now 22 minutes long with five commercial breaks. That means breaking down stories into four-minute snippets that have to have a cliff-hanger so viewers will come back. That’s hard.” Heisler, who believes the public’s interest in watching sitcoms is at an all-time low, welcomes the respite: ”[With dramas], you don’t take scripts and go over every punchline. You have the freedom to be as funny as you choose.”