There’s no laugh track loud enough to drown out the humorless state of TV comedy today. With Sex and the City, Frasier, and Friends calling it quits and not an heir in sight (we defy you to tell us the difference between According to Jim and Still Standing), are the end credits rolling on the genre? Networks have faced comedy crises before – notably the pre – Cosby Show and post-Cheers eras – but attracting viewers has never been so difficult. So what can be done? One option: Cross your fingers and hope Joey is funny. Other choices: Ask six preeminent TV writers how they’d resuscitate their craft; get behind Arrested Development, which is reinventing the sitcom (and has the pathetic ratings to show for it); and learn from comedian Kathy Griffin’s maddening near-sitcom experience. Let’s start with the Q&A.
EW Three award-winning comedies are ending this season, and as of today we don’t know the future of Everybody Loves Raymond. What does it say about the state of the genre?
PHIL ROSENTHAL (Everybody Loves Raymond) It says nothing. There are still good shows. People always think because a few go away, it’s over. But it’s not. There’ll be another show that comes along that everybody enjoys.
CHUCK LORRE (Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men) The genre continued after All in the Family was over, after Cheers, Taxi, Cosby, and Mary Tyler Moore. It’s interesting they’re all ending at the same time, but I don’t think it’s of any consequence.
IRA UNGERLEIDER (Friends) I think we’re all here because everybody’s asking whether comedy is in a lull. We probably wouldn’t be here if there were 50 great network sitcoms.
EW Is the theory true that viewers want something new, or does mediocrity succeed for a reason?
LORRE That’s a [ridiculous] question.
EW But I think we can all agree that there are far too many comedies on TV that…
WARREN HUTCHERSON (Bernie Mac) …are saying nothing.
LORRE But there are feature films that are going to come out this weekend that’ll do the same thing.
ROSENTHAL Look at the plays on Broadway. How many pieces of art in the museum really speak to you?
CINDY CHUPACK (Sex and the City) Nobody sets out to make a mediocre show. You’re trying to make the best of what the show is.
ROSENTHAL But mediocrity is insidious. It gets in even if you think you’re doing something good, and you can lose your focus and suddenly you’re on one of those shows that you didn’t want to be on.
LORRE It’s the nature of turning out that many shows in a short amount of time. You’re constantly battling against the burnout.
DIANE ENGLISH (Murphy Brown) But there are executives who do value mediocrity because it feels safe, middle-of-the-road…
LORRE Let’s name names!
ENGLISH I’ve learned not to do that. They value that sort of broad sweep of ”We’re not going to offend too much.” They eliminate the highs, the lows. The risk takers suffer and have to fight to keep their unique voice. I found it very interesting that [Significant Others]…premiered on Bravo rather than on NBC. It’s almost like the network was testing it on the smaller venue… because it’s different.