The networks have a couple of promising new comedies for fall like Tina Fey's variety-show sitcom 30 Rock at NBC and ABC's Let's Rob..., about a lout looking to burglarize Mick Jagger's apartment but what's happening behind the scenes is far from funny. Scores of sitcom writers are out of work because the five networks are airing only 19 live-action comedies next season, almost half as many as last year and barely more than one-third of what the nets ran in 1996. How bad is it? One talent agent estimates that 400 comedy writing jobs have been lost in the last decade. ''The development process has choked the life out of sitcoms,'' says the agent, who places the blame on overconservative, under-creative network suits. ''Execs blame writers for becoming too complacent and overpaid but that's not it. I'm tired of hearing about characters needing to be warm and likable. Lou Grant wasn't!'' To avoid the unemployment line, comedy writers have been urged to either produce scripts that are independent of both studios and paychecks (that's how My Name Is Earl began) or try screenwriting.
Meanwhile, exec producers like Two and a Half Men's Lee Aronsohn are finding themselves in the bittersweet position of having to turn away qualified applicants for a limited number of jobs. ''It's like the Titanic: too few lifeboats while all around people are drowning,'' he says. ''The only difference is that in this case the sharks are taking bites out of the survivors.''