NBC has seemingly found a successful half-hour sitcom.
"My Name is Earl" helped the network run away in winning the second night of the season with an eye-opening 6.6 rating/16 share in the adult 18-49 demo, giving NBC its strongest comedy episode in that time slot -- Tuesday at 9 p.m. -- in three years.
"Earl" did so well it slowed Fox's suddenly hotshot medical drama, "House," to a 4.9 adult 18-49 rating, down from its near-6.0 number the week before.
For the last several years, all networks have been looking for that elusive big comedy hit. But the standard three-camera, on-set, studio audience, sitcom hasn't seemed to work.
The newest trend features comedy shows with no studio audience laughter. In this category is the ABC hit "Desperate Housewives," which comes wrapped as a drama, but actually gifts us with plenty of comedy. "Earl" is similar in that its single-camera, location perspective makes it feel like a drama, when in fact there are a lot of laughs. UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" -- soon to debut -- is also a one-camera effort.
"Earl" features a small-time crook who, in an effort to create good "karma" for himself, tries to undo the wrongs he's done.
NBC's big marketing efforts have scored for the show -- bringing in lots of viewer sampling. Next week comes the real test, when the show tries to make it solely on its own merits. In this scenario, there is a typical drop-off in ratings. Network executives would accept a 20% to 25% downward trend and still consider "Earl" a success.
If "Earl" is a winner, it may be able to help NBC's other niche struggling new comedy, "The Office," which follows "Earl" at 9:30. Debuting late last season, "The Office" is another single-camera, no studio-audience-laughter effort. It posted a 4.3/10 in 18-49 at 9:30 p.m. following "Earl," its best numbers to date. For the night NBC won in 18-49 with a 4.8 rating.
There's more new comedy to come. The well-regarded "Everybody Hates Chris" is another show that doesn't provide laughter via a studio audience. If that show comes in as expected, then you could say what everybody really hates is sitcom comedy laughter.