Inside TV’s Top Comedy Incubators
The past five years have seen a major upturn in the number of comedies on television. With dozens of networks each developing their own stables of dependable comedy shows, there are a wide variety of options for the humor-hungry TV viewer. Never in the history of television have there been so many comedies on TV, nor has there been such a diverse assortment of programs. We’re in the middle of the Golden Era of TV Comedy. While the Internet, hundreds of cable channels, video games, and other technological advances have fragmented the viewing audience for all shows and no one comedy is as widely-viewed as Seinfeld, Friends, or The Cosby Show were in their heydays, TV comedy as a whole is getting more attention than ever.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this TV comedy renaissance is the number of networks — running the gamut from broadcast to basic cable to premium — emerging as hubs for trendy, innovative programming. Networks with a strong history with comedy are struggling to defend it, while newer comedy operations are scrambling to find their niche and establish their hits.
NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup (previously called “Must See TV”) boasted some of the highest-rated shows in all of television throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The debut of the hit CBS reality series Survivor on Thursday nights, as well as NBC losing ratings behemoths Friends, Frasier, and Will & Grace all within a few years of each other, caused a change in the network’s fortunes. NBC execs began looking for their next big comedy and found one in The Office. Following that show’s success, the network made a progressive choice to ditch the laugh track and the multi-cam look, going after shows that share The Office’s sensibility. NBC shows are more subtle than what you’d find on CBS (or any of the other big networks, for that matter). While many of NBC’s comedies are at the low end of the ratings spectrum, most are critically-acclaimed and big awards winners. NBC execs have exhibited patience with its shows, waiting for them to grow in popularity, perhaps having learned from Fox’s fumbling of Family Guy and Arrested Development, two shows that became extremely popular after they were canceled.
In late night, Saturday Night Live has been the country’s predominant sketch comedy series for decades. Throughout many different permutations and eras of the show’s history, there has always been and will always be a vocal group of critics crying “Saturday Night Dead,” but the show is still earning high ratings, making headlines, and churning out talent left and right. Jimmy Fallon is also making waves with his good-natured, fun riff on the talk show. The less said about the rest of the network’s late night lineup, the better.
Specialty: Fast-paced single-camera workplace comedies with large ensemble casts and no laughtracks. Critically-acclaimed, ratings-challenged awards-winners.
Best shows: 30 Rock, Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation, SNL, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Fate of the current lineup: 30 Rock has already been renewed. In recent assessments on which shows are close to cancellation, TV by the Numbers and TVLine both wrote that The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Community are more than likely to be renewed for next year. Both sites were unsure as to the fate of Outsourced and Perfect Couples, but Perfect Couples is the network’s comedy in most danger of cancellation.
What’s next: New series The Paul Reiser Show and Friends With Benefits were picked up for midseason, but it now looks possible that they may never make it to air.
After that: It’s currently pilot season for NBC and the rest of the major networks. So, NBC has a few dozen projects in the works for next season and won’t reveal until the upfronts in May which ones have been chosen for fall. They’ve already ordered pilots from Chelsea Handler, Peter Tolan, and Lorne Michaels’s and Jack Black’s production companies, as well as scripts written by Steve Carell, Larry Wilmore, and Adam Scott.
With a proud tradition dating back to The Larry Sanders Show and Mr. Show in the ‘90s, HBO has long been a trendsetter in groundbreaking comedy. This continued into the millennium, with the network reaching out to established international talent to produce Da Ali G Show, Extras, and Flight of the Conchords. Eastbound & Down and Bored to Death started their runs a few development cycles ago and have been keeping fans more-than-satisfied during Curb Your Enthusiasm’s excruciatingly-long off-season.
Specialty: Critically-acclaimed, writer-driven shows that do away with conventions. HBO has an eclectic array of shows, none of which really seem like they fit together; however, like the network itself, it’s current crop of comedies seem to center on individuals who stand out from the crowd.
Best shows: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eastbound & Down, Bored to Death, The Life & Times of Tim, Funny or Die Presents
Fate of the current lineup: None of HBO’s comedies are in serious danger of cancellation, as ratings aren’t as huge a factor in programming decisions in pay cable.
What’s next: HBO has two new comedies premiering this summer, Enlightened and Angry Boys. Enlightened, created by Mike White, stars Laura Dern as a woman who has a spiritual awakening. Luke Wilson and Undeclared’s Timm Sharp are also in the cast. Angry Boys, a mockumentary about 21st century men, is the latest from Summer Heights High creator Chris Lilley.
After that: Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), follows a group of girls in their early 20s. It’s executive produced by Judd Apatow, and this marks the first TV show he’s produced since Undeclared. No premiere date has been set, but Girls is expected to start airing either late this year or early next.
HBO also recently ordered a pilot called Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a Senator-turned-Vice President. The pilot was written by Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell of The Thick of It and In The Loop fame. It also stars Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh, and Tony Hale. HBO has ordered pilot scripts for projects involving musical comedy act Garfunkel & Oates, Molly Shannon, and one written by Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill. Also promising is I Don’t Care About Your Band, based on Julie Klausner’s book, starring Lizzy Caplan, and produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.
IFC is the newest cable channel to make a major push in the comedy direction. Although the network has had a few original comedies in the past, IFC threw its hat into the comedy ring in a major way last year. As if picking up new shows from David Cross, Fred Armisen, and The Onion wasn’t enough, IFC grabbed the rights to reruns of a half-dozen of the most beloved cult classic comedies of the past twenty years (or of all time, for that matter). The lineup is so perfectly tailored for comedy nerds that it seems like comedy nerds must be running the network.
Specialty: Reruns of quirky offbeat shows that were canceled on bigger networks and original series that keep the same style as those shows.
Best shows: Portlandia, Onion News Network, Todd Margaret, Comedy Death-Ray. Reruns of The Larry Sanders Show, The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show, Arrested Development, The IT Crowd, and Monty Python.
Fate of the current lineup: Todd Margaret and Portlandia have each been renewed for a second season, to be aired in October and next January, respectively. Onion News Network’s fate is yet to be determined.
What’s next: Reruns of the acclaimed-but-cancelled Fox sitcom Action, starring Jay Mohr, will begin airing late this year. The network has ordered scripts for several original series, including projects from David Wain (Stella, Role Models), Alan Spencer (Sledge Hammer!), and musical comedy act Hard ‘n Phirm (Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman).
Up until John Landgraf took the reins in 2005, FX had never had a long-running original comedy series. Landgraf turned things around, slowly building a comedy lineup beginning with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Specialty: Quirky writer-driven shows with small budgets that receive little creative interference from the network.
Best shows: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, Archer, Louie
Fate of the current lineup: Archer is currently airing its second season, awaiting renewal for a third. Always Sunny, The League, and Louie will return with their newest seasons later this year.
What’s next: Wilfred, the American adaptation of the hit Australian sitcom, debuts this summer. It stars Elijah Wood as a man and focuses on his friendship with a pot-smoking talking dog who thinks he’s human.
After that: FX has two projects in development: Ambulance Chasers, written by Jason Mantzoukas (The League), and 13th Grade, written by Derek Waters, Michael Cera, and Paige Gullivan.
Currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, Adult Swim has long been embraced as the home of stoner comedy, but the network has always had more to offer than that label suggests. Adult Swim has been making efforts to cater to a more mainstream audience in recent years, with a slew of live action shows that retain the same outlandish style as the network’s established fare.
Specialty: Over-the-top, profane, absurd comedies that parody existing genres and are mostly fifteen minutes in length. Like FX, these shows have little network interference.
Best shows: Childrens Hospital, Delocated, Eagleheart, The Venture Bros., Metalocalypse
Fate of the current lineup: Childrens Hospital returns for season three this summer. Although Delocated’s third season pickup isn’t 100% official, it will likely be back then as well. Metalocalypse is awaiting renewal, as is Eagleheart, which is airing its first season now. Venture Bros. has been renewed but a premiere date is not known.
What’s next: NTSF:SD:SUV, Paul Scheer’s crime procedural parody, premieres a twelve episode run this summer. It’s a spinoff from fake promos aired during Childrens Hospital and also stars Scheer, Rob Riggle, Brandon Johnson, and June Diane Raphael.
After that: Adult Swim has ordered a pilot for Shredd: The Jon Johnsonsen Story, created by and starring Jason Lee. Shredd is produced through Jack Black’s Electric Dynamite Productions and revolves around a 17 year old skateboard who goes into a coma in the ‘80s and wakes up 25 years later.
Comedy Central: Once the premiere destination for the kinds of quirky, offbeat offerings these emerging comedy networks have been airing, Comedy Central is facing a lot of competition these days. The network is still the best place to find stand-up on TV, and The Daily Show and Colbert Report are as entertaining as ever. However, the network’s original sitcom and sketch department leaves a little to be desired as new shows rarely last beyond their inaugural seasons. It’s just a matter of Comedy Central execs finding the next Reno911! or Chappelle’s Show.
TBS: TBS is another network that’s making a major comedy push. Rebranding the network with the phrase “Very funny,” TBS began filling out its schedule with syndicated comedies and original programs. Conan’s new show was a major get, but the network’s Tyler Perry and Ice Cube-produced original shows leave a little something to be desired. Reruns of The Office and Seinfeld are always nice, but who can’t find those on fifty other stations?
Bradford Evans is L.A.’s most diabetic comedy writer.