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Can the laughs get back on track?

July 22, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

If it were the mid-1990s, Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd would be a couple of months away from launching the closest thing to a sure hit on television. As if their award-winning comic chops, developed on a string of previous hits such as "Wings," "Just Shoot Me" and "Frasier," weren't enough, their new show on Fox, "Back to You," also marks the highly anticipated return of two certified TV stars -- Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer.

But a lot has changed on the small screen in the last decade. Sitcoms are no longer the lingua franca of prime-time television. New comedies are becoming more scarce thanks in no small part to the proliferation of reality programming. TV audiences too are steadily shrinking overall, and the networks, like many traditional media outlets, seem bewildered by the tectonic shifts shaking beneath them.

"We really do feel like underdogs," said Levitan over lunch with his partner on the Fox lot. "I know that sounds crazy because we both have some successes under our belts, but the world is very different now."

How this different audience-fragmented world receives "Back to You" when it premieres in mid-September could easily influence comedy development for the next season, perhaps even longer. Early reports from bloggers and TV critics about the sitcom set in a Pittsburgh local TV newsroom have been almost uniformly warm.

Pre-premiere chatter helps, but if that doesn't eventually translate into sizable ratings, the future of television comedy may be grimmer than even pessimists believe and the traditional multi-camera manner in which the show is shot could drop in demand to the level of a cord phone. And with the demise of the multi-cam, with its theater-like feel, popular culture would lose a form that carried some of the most beloved comedies -- ranging from "I Love Lucy" to "All in the Family" to "Seinfeld."

"There are going to be a lot of eyes on this show, particularly with its two big comedy stars," said Steve Sternberg, executive vice president of audience analysis for Magna Global, a New York-based media buying firm. "If it doesn't work, it's going to be a lot harder to get a multi-camera show on the air any time soon."

For decades, multi-cam comedies have been a prime-time staple as much for their hit-making potential as for the relatively cheap production costs, but the shows, filmed before live studio audiences, have fallen out of fashion. Rising to take the few remaining network comedy spots has been the single-camera style, whose movie-like freedom and ease can be seen in such critically acclaimed programs as "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Arrested Development." With a welcome change in pacing and no laugh-track-sweetened live audience, single-camera exudes a sophisticated cool that executives believe appeals to the prized and more tech-savvy 18-to-49 demographic.

Actually, few young viewers today probably realize that single-camera comedies are older than they are. The form used in such shows as "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie" in the mid-'60s was once the prevailing force of prime-time comedies. While not near those heights today, single-camera is again gaining ground. Of the eight new half-hour comedies greenlighted for this fall, five are single-camera -- the first time in decades singles have outnumbered the multi-cams.

"The problem with multi-camera shows is that over the years there has been a glut of them and there have been so many bad ones with the same rhythm that the form itself got stale," said Ken Levine, a veteran comedy writer for shows such as "MASH," "Cheers" and "Frasier," who blogs about pop culture. "Comedy itself is really at the lowest point it has ever been."

Even in Hollywood, where blame gets passed around like a viral video, there's little disagreement about the generally punchless condition of most prime-time sitcoms over the last decade. "Most of them haven't been funny," said Grammer, who plays an egocentric news anchor on his way down the ladder of success. "It's just that simple."

This isn't the first era in which the media has been churning out stories about the alleged death of television comedy, multi-cam or otherwise. In 1983, when just one of Nielsen's top 10 shows was a comedy, the media was filled with stories about its demise at the hands of prime-time soaps. However, the following year, NBC launched "The Cosby Show" -- a multi-camera sitcom that single-handedly rejuvenated the genre and transformed the then-sick network into a ratings giant.

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