Learning About Laughter, at the TCA Tour

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After recently spending four days hunkered down in Pasadena, Calif.’s renovated Ritz Carlton Hotel and Spa, sampling the best new programming cable has to offer, I actually learned a few things from the various show offerings:

  • My beloved New York City will literally drown in the aftermath of direct hit from a category 5 hurricane, according to The Weather Channel.
  • The swimwear portion of the Miss America pageant (coming to CMT: Country Music Television) isn’t about how sexy a contestant looks half naked — it’s really about how she exhibits her health and fitness, says the pageant’s CEO, Art McMaster.
  • The Sopranos will sleep with the fishes when its final 20-episode run on Home Box Office ends sometime in 2007, says series creator David Chase.

What I also learned during cable’s portion of the annual Television Critics Association tour is that some cable programmers and writers actually have a sense of humor that will be reflected in several original scripted shows set to launch later this year.

For years, cable has thrilled, scared and even nauseated viewers with a slew of successful hour-long dramas, but for a few exceptions has had trouble tickling audiences’ funny bone.

It’s hard to get your laugh on while wincing at The Carver’s bloody killing spree (FX’s Nip/Tuck) or listening to Vic Mackey’s very liberal use of the King’s English as he pops off a couple of rounds in the backside of some sociopath (FX’s The Shield).

It’s unclear why cable hasn’t mastered the scripted comedy genre; maybe cable viewers aren’t in the mood to laugh. FX has experienced haughty ratings performances from the controversial dramatic skeins cited above, but failed to generate decent ratings for its freshman comedy series Starved.

Maybe viewers get enough chuckles watching reruns of Seinfeld and Friends, or viewing B-list celebrities like Flavor Flav and Tara Reid flaunting their “talents” on any one of the exhaustingly high number of cable reality shows.

Whatever the case, cable programmers such as USA Network, Oxygen, Lifetime Television, Showtime, VH1 and even FX will seek to amuse viewers through originally scripted comedy and “dramedy” programming that up to this point has primarily been the purview of the broadcast networks.

Whether it’s 40-something housewives looking for some excitement on a college campus in Oxygen’s Campus Ladies or the day-to-day machinations of pampered celebrity Tori Spelling in VH1’s So NoTORIous, cable networks are betting that it’s as easy for them to make viewers laugh as it is to spook them.

USA Network president Bonnie Hammer says viewers are growing tired of watching endless, intensity driven scenes of murder, mayhem and destruction and are ready to just sit back in their recliners and smile at their big screen TVs.

Of course, that’s easy for Hammer to say: she oversees the industry’s most popular comedy in Monk and is developing two other hour-long comedy series in the same mold as the Emmy-award nominated, quirky detective series.

More importantly, lighter-fare programming could help cool the heated debate over indecency on cable. Now I know I’m going out on a limb here, especially since not all present and future comedy shows are suitable for little Bobby and Susie. The often mean-spirited characters of FX’s Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia will never be confused with the Cleavers.

But a few laughs here and there might help cable stave off the march toward a la carte network sales, especially if lawmakers see more comedic, obsessive-compulsive detectives on the air and fewer violent, middle-aged, overweight mob bosses.

Maybe if cable can get FCC chairman Kevin Martin to laugh a little, he won’t be such a sourpuss over cable’s more adult-oriented fare.

Only time will tell whether cable’s comedies will finally make viewers laugh out, like such offerings from broadcasters as Will & Grace and My Name Is Earl.

Personally, I’ll watch the perfectly written humor of Monk over any comedy sitcom the broadcasters have to offer.

Of course, I’ll also have my TV’s picture-in-picture frame locked on The Weather Channel to catch the latest news on any major hurricanes heading up the Atlantic Coast.