When Bob Odenkirk learned that Fox was going to produce a pilot of his sitcom idea -- "The Big Wide World of Carl Laemke," about a suburban father who refuses to grow up -- he was briefly elated. Then the dread set in.
"I thought, 'Years of stories? I don't know, man,' " said Odenkirk, whose past TV experience includes the satiric "Mr. Show" on HBO. "And somebody from the network said, 'Don't worry, most shows don't make it.' "
Odenkirk's ambivalence runs rampant through the world of network sitcoms. On one side is the remote possibility of monster salaries and syndication deals that come with a hit show. And there is always the chance for a "Seinfeld" or "Simpsons" that registers on the most massive of mass-media outlets.
Those possibilities seem heavily outweighed by the bleakness that pervades the current situation-comedy business. Sitcoms are being pummeled in the ratings by reality shows and ever-more-compelling dramas. The highest-rated sitcoms, like "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," have been around, in sitcom years, forever. Cutting-edge creativity has fled from the networks to cable. In short, a form of gallows humor, mixed with gritty resolve, has arisen within the sitcom community.
At least that was the mood expressed by several comedians who attended the recent U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., looking to raise their profiles as they launch network sitcoms. Joining Odenkirk at Olive's restaurant in the St. Regis Aspen hotel were Norm Macdonald, Phil Hendrie and Joe Rogan. Although none of their shows are guaranteed to make the fall lineup, their conversation points to some of the changes likely to be apparent when the new season launches. Their remarks offer a window into at least some of the people who are trying for the next great comedy.
Macdonald stars as a reporter who moves from New York to rural America in "A Minute With Stan Hooper," being made into a pilot by Fox. Radio talk-show host Hendrie, whose show is heard locally on KFI-AM (640), has an untitled pilot, about a city cop who becomes the head of security at a gated community, being produced by NBC. Rogan, the host of "Fear Factor" and soon-to-be co-host of Comedy Central's "The Man Show," appeared on the 1990s sitcom "NewsRadio."
Foremost on the landscape was the way that reality TV has shaken up the sitcom world. There was general agreement that the reality show craze would run its course; that view was tempered by the belief that future sitcoms will have to improve on the recent crop.
"What's going to happen is, we're eventually going to run out of ideas for reality shows," said Rogan. "When you've figured out the last possible way of marrying someone, having them eat hot lava -- when it's over, you'll see more sitcoms. And they'll have to be better. With the reality television market, and the great shows on HBO now -- where they're totally uncensored -- you have to be better. It's not that you can't get a good sitcom, it's that there are so many bad people doing it. The networks are going to have to realize that people can deal with adult issues, different language."
"I always look at it as a good thing when the situation is chaotic," Odenkirk said. "Whenever I see a channel that's lost its way, I'm so happy. I never want to compete in a place that knows exactly what it's doing and is fully confident."
One of the old rules that these TV aspirants would like to see broken is that sitcom stars need to be, above all, likable. Along with adult situations and "different" language may come darker characters.
"The only thing I try to dismiss is that characters should be likable. I hate that," said Macdonald, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member whose last sitcom, "Norm," ran for three seasons on ABC. "If a guy's funny, he's instantly likable.... If I don't laugh, I don't like them."
Sitcoms may even get a different look than the ubiquitous living room set that has survived for decades. "Because of the chaos that exists, everybody is looking for something different," said Hendrie, who is making his third sitcom pilot. "NBC would rather that anything new on their schedule not look like that slick 'Friends,' 'Frasier' thing. There's this slick look they've got, and they want to veer away from that ... they hired me, and I ain't pretty."
But ultimately, the conversation reverted to fatalistic realism. "I have a pilot that's going to get shot. And I have every expectation that it is not going to be on the schedule," said Hendrie. "In two months time, I'll be back on my radio gig going, 'That was really cool.' "
And no one at the table seemed to think there was anything wrong with that.
"I hope Phil fails," said Odenkirk, with a touch of irony. "Because I love what he does on the [radio]. And I don't know what they're going to do with him on TV."