Television Comedies: Is the Genre Dead, or is it Barely Breathing?

Nobody in television expected situation comedies to make up such an insignificant portion of the TV landscape in 2006.

A lot of big television comedies have wrapped up their seasons in the past few years, but the quality and quantity of their replacements have been paltry at best.

Look at all of the major sitcoms that have gone off the air: Seinfeld (1998), Friends and Frasier (2004), Everybody Loves Raymond (2005) and Will & Grace (2006).

Look at the hit television comedies that have replaced them: My Name Is Earl and The Office.

Viewers just aren’t into sitcoms anymore. Scrubs struggles to stay on the NBC schedule. The King of Queens couldn’t take over the top spot from Raymond and is now waiting in the wings as a midseason replacement. Arrested Development couldn’t get arrested, despite critics literally begging fans to tune in and help keep it on the air.

Other current sitcoms have been good enough to hang around, like George Lopez, According to Jim and Yes, Dear, but they aren’t exactly groundbreaking.

Looking at the 2006 Emmy Awards, The Office won for best show, Megan Mullally of Will & Grace won best supporting actress and Julia Louis-Dreyfus won best actress for her work in The New Adventures of Old Christine. That’s only three of five awards for traditional network comedies.

The other awards went to Tony Shalhoub for best actor on Monk (an hour-long comedy on USA) and Jeremy Piven for best supporting actor on Entourage (a comedy on HBO).

Why are sitcoms no longer a big thing? NBC used to string four of them together with great success, dating back to the killer 80s lineup of Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court.

Here are some reasons:

1. Family and workplace comedies are just played out. Family comedies have been around since the days of Ozzie & Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. We’ve seen just about every possible situation, sometimes all on one program (Roseanne had to resort to a lottery win near the end of its run). The characters are often the same: fat, stupid husband; skinny, exasperated wife; smart-mouthed kids. Workplace comedies have similarly been run into the ground, going back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Do you have a gang of zany co-workers at your job?

2. The old shows haven’t gone away. They’ve just moved to cable. Instead of investing the time to learn who everyone is on a new show, viewers are likely to tune in to their favorite older show on cable. From recent shows like Seinfeld and Will & Grace to black-and-white classics like The Andy Griffith Show and I Love Lucy, you can watch virtually any classic sitcom without wondering, “Will I like this show?”

3. Comedies and dramas are now disposable. The CSI and Law & Order shows are very easy to follow, because you can jump in on any episode, watch it, and it’s over. You don’t need to know a lot of backstory of the criminals, victims, or even the crime fighters. Comedies are different because a lot of jokes play off the established characters. If you just saw a late episode of The Nanny, you would wonder why C.C. was hanging around and why she was arguing/flirting with the butler. You can get easy, one-shot doses of comedy from Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien or The Daily Show.

4. Comedies haven’t gone away, they’ve just changed. The most enduring sitcom on the air is The Simpsons, which spun off from The Tracey Ullman Show in 1989. Other cartoon sitcoms have had long runs as well, such as King of the Hill (1996) and South Park (1997). Some of the funniest shows on TV are disguised as hour-long dramas. Monk, Desperate Housewives and Boston Legal are often funnier than their half-hour counterparts. They don’t even need a laugh track.

Television comedies could be a big thing again, but it will take a big idea (like Seinfeld, the show about nothing) to break out the decades-old patterns that viewers now find boring.

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