Cover Story: Laughing Matters


After years of focusing on original dramas, cable networks are launching a slate of several half-hour, live-action, adult-targeted sitcoms — a genre the broadcast networks had curtailed in recent seasons.

Nearly a dozen networks have launched or are planning to introduce original comedy series over the next year, while comedy staples such as HBO’s Entourage, Showtime’s Weeds, and FX’s It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia continue to draw big ratings numbers for their respective networks.

Unlike the broadly targeted, feel-good, values-driven comedy sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s, this new generation of comedy shows is more irreverent, skews younger and is aimed squarely at niche audiences.

MCN Cover story November 9, 2009

The troubled economy and discouraging developments in world affairs — coupled with reality-show and drama-laden broadcast-network schedules — have spawned a renaissance of comedy on cable, programming-network executives said. And given the genre’s typically cheaper production costs and superior off-network syndication prospects, compared to hour-long dramas, programming executives said sitcoms represent a potential revenue bonanza that will continue to deliver returns well past a show’s original network run.

“Reality shows are cheap and have almost replaced comedies on the networks, so now the comedies are finding homes on basic and premium cable — you can do more focused and more niche comedies on basic and pay and, hopefully, they’ll provide a return on investment for the networks,” said Starz executive vice president of programming Stephan Shelanski.

While cable networks are starting to more aggressively mine the situation-comedy space — 2009 Emmy Awards nominations in the Outstanding Comedy Series category went to Showtime’s Weeds, as well as HBO’s Hollywood insider series Entourage and music-themed Flight of the Conchords — the sitcom has been a staple of big networks since TV’s early days.

Such shows as I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show dominated broadcast network schedules in the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1970s and ’80s, comedies such as Happy Days, All In the Family, Family Ties and The Cosby Show consistently topped the television ratings.

But in the late 1990s and 2000s, reality shows such as American Idol and Survivor and procedural dramas like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, 24 and NCIS gained popularity among both viewers and network executives.

For the most part, broadcast networks have favored cheaper reality fare and more durable drama series over comedy. The 2009-10 broadcast-television season featured fewer than 20 traditional, live-action half-hour sitcoms — less than half the nearly 40 comedy shows that were on the air just 15 years ago.

No sitcom has ended the broadcast year as the top-rated show since NBC’s Friends in 2001. None have even finished in the top 10 since 2004-05, when CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond finished at No. 9, per Nielsen.

“[Broadcast comedies] started to become predictable and very formatted, and, as a result, there were fewer and fewer successes among them,” said TV historian and former research executive Tim Brooks. “Broadcast networks have a very short trigger and they have to get a big audience very fast. Otherwise, it’s off the air very fast.”

Not that original live-action comedy series were a big draw for cable networks during that time. With the exception of HBO, which successfully tapped the genre with The Larry Sanders Show and Arli$$ in the late 1990s and early 2000s, cable’s original-programming lineups mirrored those of the broadcast networks in the development of realty and drama series.

“It’s really amazing how long its taken cable to pick up on this, because the broadcasters have been moving away from comedy for the past 10 years,” Brooks said.

That trend began to shift in recent years as HBO launched Entourage in 2004, a comedic look at four friends trying to navigate their way through the world of entertainment.

The pay network has followed up this year with the launch of Eastbound and Down, about an obnoxious, washed-up pro baseball pitcher who reluctantly returns to his hometown to teach a high school physical education class; Hung, in which a down-on-his luck former athlete transforms into a gigolo to make ends meet; and Bored to Death, which follows the misadventures of a young Brooklyn writer who emulates heroes from classic private detective novels in an effort to solve real life mysteries.

All three series have been picked up for 2010, according to HBO Entertainment president Sue Naegle.  

In 2007, TBS — which rebranded itself as the “very funny” network — partnered with movie producer and playwright Tyler Perry to develop House of Payne, a series about a multigenerational African-American family living under one roof.

TBS’s Payne has since averaged a cable comedy-series record 3 million viewers over its two-year run. A second Perry-produced comedy series, Meet the Browns, has matched Payne in drawing 3 million viewers since its launch this past January.

With so few comedy shows coming into syndication from the broadcast networks, said TBS, TNT and TCM executive vice president and head of programming Michael Wright, it was imperative that the network look to produce its own originals to support the brand message.

“We’re always going to look to our friends at the broadcast networks for comedies we can acquire and put on our network, but we can’t rely on them,” Wright said. “So, we had to start building on them, and thus far we’ve been successful.”

One theory for comedy’s absence is that the industry went though a “funk,” said FX president John Landgraf.

“The broadcast networks are trying to make shows that aggregate a lot of people and family audiences, but that’s hard — it’s been a long, long time since a comedy was No. 1,” he said. “I think it grew to a point where there were too many comedies different in quality, the genre got overexposed and a lot of broadcast networks basically gave up on it. Then it got so sparse that [cable] programmers recognized an opportunity.”

ABC Family executive vice president of original series programming and development Kate Juergens said that the country’s more downcast mood makes the climate ripe for a comedy renaissance on television through cable. People are turning to comedy shows to relieve the stress of the day and laugh, she said.

“We thought it was time to try comedy partly because of the economic climate and world climate — you just want something that makes you laugh when all the news around you that you’re hearing is bad,” said Juergens, who launched two ratings strong series this summer in the music and family-themed Ruby & the Rockits and the teen high school laugher 10 Things I Hate About You.

The network, which is mostly known for its millennial-targeted dramas like The Secret Life of the American Teenager, has also picked up two half-hour comedy pilots — one untitled series starring Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence, and one written by Michael Jacobs (Boy Meets World) about a family dealing with its patriarch’s recent job loss.

Even indie-film purveyor IFC is taking a stab at comedy-series development, with several yet-to-be-disclosed comedy pilots lined up for 2010. The new shows follow up on the summer’s limited-run series, Bollywood Hero, according to IFC vice president and general manager Jennifer Caserta.

Referring to its comedy shows as “alt-coms” — alternative comedy series — Caserta said IFC’s idea is to move beyond traditional sitcoms into an area that suits the network’s specific audience. In IFC’s case, she said, that’s young male viewers.

For networks like FX, comedies represent a cheaper counterbalance to heavy drama offerings like Damages, Nip/Tuck and Sons of Anarchy. Last month, the network launched The League — tracing the exploits of a group of fantasy football players — and it will bow an animated sitcom in 2010.

While hour-long dramas cost in the neighborhood of $1.5 million per episode, an installment of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia — produced in-house at FX Productions — can cost a little more than half of that figure.

Comedies like Sunny, which stars Danny DeVito as one of four self-centered owners of an Irish bar, also provide the network the ability to reach younger viewers. It’s currently ranked third among all basic-cable scripted series in reaching 18-to-34 and 18-to-49-year-old adults, according to FX.

Comedies — with their different styles ranging from traditional high-brow humor to raunchy, adult-targeted content — allow cable networks to tailor shows to their target audiences’ tastes.

“Comedy can be so disparate for whoever the audience is … it really is different for different demographics,” said Starz’s Shelanski.

Showtime has found success targeting adults with darker comedies such as Weeds; The United States of Tara, starring Emmy award winner Toni Collette as a schizophrenic wife and mother; and Nurse Jackie, with The Sopranos star Edie Falco as a conflicted nurse. It hopes to continue its run of successful comedies with the 2010 launch of Episodes, a series about a British couple whose hit U.K. show is turned into a dumbed-down American sitcom.

Lifetime is targeting its core female viewers with family-based sitcom Rita Rocks, and Sheri, starring The View’s Sherri Shepherd as a newly single mom.

Starz will offer at least two comedy shows in 2010 targeted to its core 30-to-45-year-olds — sophomore series Party Down, which follows a group of aspiring actors working temporarily at a catering company, and a new series dubbed Gravity, about a group of suicide survivors.

“Comedy is becoming a lot more niche, which feeds into basic cable because you can afford to have more niche comedies that maybe have a stronger audience within a certain demographic,” Shelanski said.

Stand-up and sketch-comedy heavy Comedy Central will delve deeply into scripted fare in 2010, in an effort to remain relevant to its young male viewers, president of original programming Lauren Corrao said.

On the successful heels of Emmy-nominated series The Sarah Silverman Program, Corrao — who’ll leave Comedy Central at the end of the year to become a program producer — said the network has some 20 original comedy series scripts in the pipeline that it will sort through.

The network has already launched two scripted series this year: Michael and Michael Have Issues, focusing on the behind the scenes antics of two sketch-comedy series producers; and Secret Girlfriend, an irreverent look at the lives of single guys in their 20s.

As comedies keep entering the picture, more networks are exploiting them as a way to differentiate themselves.

And as advocates of the genre might say, good sitcoms won’t ever go away — they’ll live on forever in reruns.

“Comedy never died and never will die — people are never not going to want to laugh,” FX’s Landgraf said. “It’s just morphing into a business that can thrive through all these various niches within the fragmented universe of television.”