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The sitcom elders have the floor

Four of the masterminds behind classic series appraise modern comedies and find most, but not all, wanting. 'South Park,' anyone?

March 02, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Visit the right charity events or swankest Westside restaurants and you'll hear the nervous murmurs -- or in some cases thinly veiled panic -- about the declining state of TV comedy.

Heavyweights like "Friends," "Frasier" and "Sex and the City" are each nearing the end of storied runs without the networks having groomed clear successors capable of replacing them. Meanwhile, an outbreak of "reality shows" has sitcom writers wondering if their employment prospects are limited to contestant-hood on "Fear Factor" or "The Bachelor."

Sitcoms have been written off before -- perhaps most famously in the early 1980s, before "The Cosby Show" exploded on the scene. It was followed by a string of ratings-topping powerhouses -- think "Roseanne," "Home Improvement," "Seinfeld" -- that carried through the 1990s. Yet with too many "Friends" clones having yielded too few hits, the forecasts of doom and gloom have resurfaced, with a greater sense of urgency as "reality" takes root.

So what's wrong with comedies, and how can the form be fixed? The Times sought a diagnostic appraisal from four writer-producers who, each in his own way, helped define and shape the TV sitcom: Norman Lear ("All in the Family"), Carl Reiner ("The Dick Van Dyke Show"), Sherwood Schwartz ("The Brady Bunch") and Leonard Stern ("Get Smart"), who recently convened at Lear's Beverly Hills offices to offer their perspective on comedy and why it's ailing.

As members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed "the greatest generation" (Schwartz is 86 years old, while Lear, Reiner and Stern are each 80), this collected wisdom might fall on deaf ears among those charged with reaching the prototypical "American Idol" viewer.

Still, their programs continue to resonate and entertain. The reruns play across the cable dial and are being embraced by new generations thanks to Nickelodeon and sister network TV Land, which launches its inaugural TV Land Awards, a tribute to "classic TV," on March 12. Somehow, it's hard to imagine cultural curators awarding similar plaudits to "Good Morning, Miami" or "According to Jim" decades from now, much less "Joe Millionaire."

"I doubt many of these comedies will have the lasting power that the work we did has had," said Schwartz, who unabashedly makes the case that another of his enduring productions, "Gilligan's Island," actually provides a timely lesson for the world in its emphasis on a disparate group of people trying to get along. If nothing else, the show became its own sort of template for the ensemble comedy.

"We're talking about shows that aired 40, 50 years ago," Schwartz said. "I don't know how many current comedy shows will be returning for 40 or 50 years. I doubt it, really."

The session, however, was far from a tired rant about the good old days, as these men in their 80s talked about their TiVo digital recorders (a Lear favorite), DVD players and "South Park" -- while expressing admiration for such programs as Larry David's improvised HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond."

In addition, they seemed to agree that there will be an inevitable popular resurgence for comedy -- if only as a much-needed respite from the drumbeat of "terror alerts" and war.

"Comedy will always be there, because people need to laugh," Reiner said. "What's going on in the world today is so terrible, so chaotic, that people have to find a way to laugh. They have to be able to turn off Bush telling us that we're going to war."

"The wheel spins," said Lear. "What year was it that [TV executive] Fred Silverman said, 'Situation comedy's gone,' and within a year, a year and a half, there was a lot of stuff flourishing....

" 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' reflects this moment better than anything all of us did, and it's great. I feel the same way about 'South Park,' " Lear continued, wearing his trademark porkpie hat and talking about his shared affinity for the risque animated show with his 14-year-old son. "If you have the energy, and the time, and the desire to search everything that's there -- all the drama, all the cable channels, all the odd shows -- this could be the Golden Age of television. The problem is it isn't collected the way it used to be."

The perception nevertheless lingers that comedy is mired in the Zirconia Age, at a time when dramas are perceived to be at or near their creative apex. "The dramatic shows today are better than the comedy shows, no question," Schwartz said.

To Reiner, part of the problem is structural: Time -- or more precisely, the lack of it -- isn't on the side of modern sitcoms, which at 22 minutes minus promotion and commercials run at least four minutes shorter than early comedies -- interruptions, incidentally, that clearly annoy him to no end.

"Character and story seem to have diminished along with the loss of time," agreed Stern, who also wrote for "The Honeymooners."

"Because of the loss of time," added Schwartz.

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