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COMEDY : fall television preview

Laughs? They're not just found in sitcoms anymore

September 16, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Many hands have been wrung of late over the state of comedy in general and of the sitcom in particular. The level of buzz surrounding "Back to You" -- can Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton save the sitcom and possibly the world? -- would seem more appropriate for a foreign policy breakthrough (although CW's "Aliens in America" seems more likely to provide that). Many industry watchers have glumly noted that of the 28 new shows premiering this fall on network TV, only six are half-hour comedies. (And one of them is "Cavemen," which is so bad it really shouldn't count.)

You'd think a generation raised on After School Specials would realize the danger of applying labels. Because there's plenty of perfectly hilarious writing and acting on television, it just isn't marked "comedy."

For instance, two young men walk to work, one trying to persuade the other to go ahead and ask the girl out.

"She's smart, she's hot, she goes to college, she works at this crap shack with losers like me and you. What does that tell you?" he says.

"She's got low standards?"

"Exactly. Use that to your advantage before she figures that out. Because she will."

That laugh was brought to you by "Reaper" (the CW) -- about a young slacker whose parents sold his soul to the devil and who must now work as Satan's bounty hunter. It's a supernatural hero journey that is, fortunately, also very funny. "Ghostbusters" with a younger, better-looking lead. Alongside network sibling "Chuck" (NBC) -- young slacker suddenly endowed with computer-like knowledge of all state secrets -- "Reaper" is the latest version of the new humor hybrid rising from the ashes of the sitcom.

Comedy isn't dead, it's just been outsourced -- to shows more like "Weeds" than "Everybody Loves Raymond." Shows that are not so much sitcoms as sitcom-ish, single-camera conceits that are slick and dramatic (but not quite so dramatic to be considered dramadies), but also consistently funny. Like "30 Rock" or "The Office." Shows that do not pause for three seconds after the joke, shows that don't acknowledge there's been a joke at all. Shows that on paper may not be funny at all.

Consider, if you will, "Dexter," Showtime's freak hit about a crime-fightin' serial killer. With his deadpan, barely there humanity, Michael C. Hall's Dexter gives new meaning to the term "gallows humor." "I have to admit I'm a little conflicted," he says as he prepares to kill a murderous therapist he has been stalking. "You've helped me make a major self-discovery: The fact that I'm a killer is something I can't control."

This fall ushers in the year of the man-child, with HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" paving the way for a network coterie of freaks and geeks. "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS is a self-proclaimed comedy about socially retarded savants, but it isn't nearly as funny as "Chuck" or "Reaper" (on which former Laura Palmer dad Ray Wise is the best Satan since Al Pacino in "Devil's Advocate").

"Pushing Daisies" on ABC pulls as much humor as pathos out of its strange premise -- young man can bring the dead back to life with a touch, though another touch kills them again -- and also manages a "Twin Peaks-ian" resurrection of pie as plot point. Even NBC's "Life" -- in which a cop, sprung after serving years of a wrongful lifetime conviction, solves cases with the odd, almost autistic powers he has learned in the slammer -- uses humor to underscore tragedy.

Better break out the laugh track

CERTAINLY these promise to have more genuinely funny moments than some of the actual comedies. "Carpoolers" (ABC) is about male bonding (sort of) and "Cavemen," also ABC, is about, well, the less said about "Cavemen" the better. Neither seems to understand that the purpose of comedy is to make audiences laugh -- they can cringe too, but they must be laughing as they do it. "Aliens in America" has a much better shot at success; while perhaps technically a sitcom (situation: dysfunctional American family unwittingly gets a Muslim foreign exchange student), it is far too single-cam deadpan to truly qualify, and its skewering of our very modern bout of xenophobia elevates it to political satire.

So who really cares if the sitcom is extinct? So is the TV western and we seem to be surviving just fine. Will we really miss the irritating bray of the studio audience? Maybe it's time we stopped thinking in such prosaic terms as comedy and drama. Today's most successful shows, "The Sopranos" and "Weeds," "House" and "Grey's Anatomy" among them, use humor as it occurs in nature, as much a part of the human condition as love or depression or violence, favoring one character while eluding another. The sitcom is comedy in a box and it's time to recycle the box.

Though maybe we should wait until after Kelsey Grammer is done with it.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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