Comedy Is Hot Again. Will It Cool Down?

The "big news" about the opening weeks of the 2011-12 television season is that comedy is hot again. It certainly is a good time for broadcast sitcoms, but how could it not be, with media magnet Ashton Kutcher stepping into CBS' "Two and Half Men" and ABC's "Modern Family" making its season-three debut four days after winning five Emmys -- not to mention all the well-deserved fuss surrounding that surprise Emmy win for Melissa McCarthy, star of "Mike & Molly," the comedy that follows "Men"?

It helps that Fox is enjoying the glow surrounding "New Girl," the network's most successful fall sitcom debut in 10 years, and that CBS has an apparent winner in "2 Broke Girls," currently the season's highest rated new series. And then there's "Suburgatory," which is proving to be a splendid bridge between ABC's "The Middle" and "Modern Family."

Pundits are explaining all of this success by declaring that viewers "want to laugh in these difficult times," or words to that effect. What a lot of hot air. When have viewers ever not wanted to laugh? It's worth keeping in mind that sometimes the biggest laughs are found on cable. From where I sit, the funniest thing I have come across in any scripted comedy series this year is the car seat orgasm sequence with Susie Essman and Larry David in a recent episode of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." This is probably the right place to admit that, with "Curb" and FX's "Louie" currently between seasons, the only shows I find reliably hilarious these days are "Tosh.0" on Comedy Central, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" on FX and "The Soup" on E!



Scripted, unscripted or improvised, what viewers really want are genuinely funny shows -- so let's reconsider the highlights above. "Two and a Half Men" is indeed funny, but Kutcher himself isn't all that amusing. He's still just the appealing goofball that he was in "That '70s Show" and little more. That's all well and good for him - and very lucrative, too. But I think that without a cast of terrifically talented actors around him, Kutcher would have trouble finding the funny. Will he wear out his welcome? Meantime, "Modern Family" is consistently entertaining and deserves all of its accolades, but I think it often rolls off the rails when the focus shifts to gay couple Mitchell and Cam. I hope it doesn't roll too far.

As for the three freshmen, "New Girl" still looks like the most solid new series of the season. It has held up well in its second and third episodes, breezily maintaining the humor and heart of its pilot, even with a major casting change. (Lamorne Morris doesn't have the instant appeal of Damon Wayans Jr., the poor fellow who had to leave "New Girl" when ABC bizarrely renewed the dreadful "Happy Endings," but he's growing on me.) "2 Broke Girls," on the other hand, seems less entertaining by the week, though no less energetic. If I had to identify a problem here, I would suggest that the horse the two financially depleted working girls of the title are keeping in the yard behind their cruddy Brooklyn apartment seems totally out of place. The horse poop humor and related messy pratfalls simply aren't welcome; are the writers already straining to fill each script? It's a concern worth noting, but that said, I'm still enjoying the kinetic comic performances of series leads Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs.

"Suburgatory," meantime, strikes me as a success that is time-period dependent, even if it is doing better than its lead-in. If anyone who chooses to watch "The Middle" is also planning to watch "Modern Family," where else are they going to go between the two? Further, if someone is just settling down in front of the TV at 8:30 or later, preparing to enjoy "Modern Family" at 9, are they going to get involved ahead of time in the second half of CBS' "Survivor" or one segment of Fox's "The X Factor"? That's not likely, even in this era of time shifting and multiplatform viewing.

Elsewhere in the sitcom spectrum, "Free Agents" -- NBC's latest attempt at programming to a fraction of the available audience -- is the first comedy casualty of the season. (NBC also has the first dead drama in "The Playboy Club.") I would argue that the consistently annoying "Whitney" should have been the second, but NBC made the crazy decision to reward its disappointing early performance with a full-season pickup. Similarly, the laugh-free "Up All Night" has also been granted an entire season to become something that it isn't. Overall, NBC's Thursday night lineup is looking more anemic than ever, filled as it is with series that media insiders seem to enjoy more than the viewing public. Though small but upscale has recently proven to work well for NBC in terms of its approach to comedy; small but unremarkable just isn't cutting it. It's time for NBC to think big.

1 comment about "Comedy Is Hot Again. Will It Cool Down? ".
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  1. Mark Walker from aka Media Mark, October 7, 2011 at 11:30 a.m.

    Isn't comedy ALWAYS hot? Especially once it hits syndication...

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