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Laugh Off-Track

The networks have reached an all-time humor low, says Bruce Fretts

Welcome to the worst season of sitcoms ever

Last spring, EW declared the death of the sitcom. The format was creatively exhausted, our article argued, and audiences had grown weary of predictable punchlines and phony laugh tracks. We had no idea how right we were until we saw this season's sitcoms, unquestionably the worst crop of crap in television history.

Suffice it to say that the People's Choice Award nominees for best new comedy series include CBS' blander-than-bland ''Ladies Man,'' UPN's unwatchable rap spoof ''Shasta McNasty'' (soon to be retitled ''Shasta,'' like that'll make it funnier), and NBC's post-''Frasier'' fiasco ''Stark Raving Bad'' -- er, ''Mad.'' Fox's ''Futurama'' also got a nod, but it's a cartoon that debuted last season, so it doesn't count.

Okay, now let's look at the new comedy series that weren't nominated. Oops, it's kinda hard to do that, because so many of them have already been canceled. Remember NBC's ''The Mike O'Malley Show''? CBS' ''Work with Me''? ABC's ''Then Came You''? Caught you -- that last stinker still hasn't made it onto the air yet.

The few freshman survivors are barely hanging onto ratings life. ABC's ''Odd Man Out'' is a TGI Flop, while the net's ''Oh Grow Up'' will soon go on a well-deserved hiatus to make room for the return of ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.'' The only two new sitcoms that could be considered even remotely successful are ''The Parkers'' and ''Grown Ups,'' and that's only by UPN's ultra-low standards.

Granted, there are two veteran comedies that still produce big laughs on a regular basis: CBS' ''Everybody Loves Raymond'' and NBC's ''Friends.'' (Sorry, Kelsey Grammer, but after playing Dr. Crane for 15 years on ''Cheers'' and ''Frasier,'' your appeal is shrinking fast.) And two sophomore sitcoms could blossom into classics: NBC's ''Will & Grace'' and CBS' ''The King of Queens.'' No, they're not the same show.

But let's look back to the real Golden Age of Sitcoms -- the mid-'70s. CBS had four great sitcoms on one night with its Saturday block of ''All in the Family,'' ''M*A*S*H,'' ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' and ''The Bob Newhart Show.'' Elsewhere in prime time were such gut-busters as ''The Odd Couple,'' ''Barney Miller,'' ''Sanford and Son,'' ''Maude,'' ''Happy Days,'' ''Good Times,'' ''Welcome Back, Kotter,'' ''Chico and the Man,'' and ''The Jeffersons.''

The cable network that airs some of these series, TV Land, has just issued a list of the 2000 best things about television. Topping the list is ''the situation comedy.'' Easy for them to say: Their shows are still funny, even decades later. Sure, we might still love ''Raymond'' and ''Friends,'' but do you think anyone will remember ''Ladies Man,'' ''Shasta McNasty,'' or ''Stark Raving Mad'' in the year 2025?

Originally posted Dec 16, 1999
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