Dealing with Funny Business

Four years ago, television insiders were rocked by a fear that the half-hour comedy genre was on its final legs. The field that was once defined by “I Love Lucy,” “Three’s Company” and “Cheers” could not hold an audience. Take, for example, the case of NBC’s powerhouse block of “Must See TV” Thursday. This block defined sitcoms for the latter half of the ‘90s, thanks to hits such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Just Shoot Me,” “Frasier” and “Will and Grace.”  Once “Friends” and “Seinfeld” ended in 2004 and “Will and Grace” signed off in 2006, however, multi-camera comedies – those taped in front of a studio audience – were suddenly endangered. CBS had launched the moderately successful “Two and a Half Men” in 2003; for the next six years, this would be one of only two multi-camera comedies to make it past three seasons.

With the demise of the multi-camera comedy, luckily, came the rise of the single-camera bracket. Single-camera comedies usually don’t use laugh tracks. The humor is portrayed more subtly and the cameramen have a longer creative rope to zoom in and out and experiment with angles. Popular examples of multi-camera comedies are “The Office,” “Arrested Development” and “Malcolm in the Middle.” While critics love this genre, the broader audience historically does not, hence the cancellation of “Arrested Development” despite its strong cult following. It used to be that networks needed more patience with multi-camera comedies. Whereas single-camera sitcoms either found audiences quickly or not at all, multi-cameras’ greatest strength was word of mouth, and this required time. This fall season, however, is changing all the rules.

2008 entry “The Big Bang Theory” regenerated America’s love of comedy, and this season ABC has miraculously managed to launch a successful two-hour comedy block. While The CW eliminated comedy from its primetime schedule altogether, it’s undoubtedly a strong field for the other networks. So, which honeys bring the funny and which has-beens are wearing thin?

“She doesn’t even know I exist.”

If you’ve never heard of a TV show, it’s understandable. But if Doc Sonya has barely heard about it, you know it’s bad.

  • Brothers
    It’s a new comedy on Fox. Comes on during what TV insiders so fondly refer to as “the Friday night death slot.” The network obviously doesn’t want it to succeed, so why should you?
  • ‘Til Death
    This show is still on? Really??


Time to Break Up With…

  • Two and a Half Men
    Why do I feel so revolted by “Two and a Half Men”? It’s not the fact that it’s a “dude” comedy that objectifies women; I actually couldn’t care less about that. My dislike probably stems from “Men’s” lack of comedic class – neither the crude jokes nor the scenes in bed nor the dialogue is refined. There’s a little something called taste, and “Men” leaves one in your mouth comparable to vinegar.Bottom Line: It’s sad that this is still one of the highest rated comedies in primetime.

  • Accidentally on Purpose
    On par with “Two and a Half Men,” this tired concept should never have made it to the air in the first place. “Dharma & Greg”’s Jenna Elfman is wasted here as the “cougar” who gets knocked up by a twenty-something dude. Unfunny dialogue and stereotypical guy humor ensue (if the writers want to discover the proper execution of guy humor, they should watch “The Hangover”).Bottom Line: Bor-ing. Turn off the TV after “How I Met Your Mother” airs.

One-Night Stands:

Ultimately forgettable, but momentarily entertaining.

  • Ugly Betty
    I loved “Ugly Betty” when it premiered as a bright, quirky comedy in 2006. Much like “Heroes,” however, “Betty” fell into a sophomore slump and has since reached only mediocrity. The show now lacks the charm and whimsy that made it so delightful during its first season.Bottom Line: While Daniel has no memorable storyline to speak of and Betty’s romantic entanglements are dull and repetitive, Wilhelmina, Marc and Amanda continue to bring the inspired comedy the show sought its first season. Dump the other characters and give these three their own show.

  • Gary Unmarrried
    Another uninspired comedy on CBS’ schedule. While “Gary” is certainly more refined than “Men” and “Accidentally on Purpose,” it’s hardly a superior selection. It easily identifies with other marginally successful dad-centered comedies of past years: “The War at Home,” “According to Jim” and “Yes, Dear” come to mind.Bottom Line: Americans have proven that there is indeed an audience for these sub-par shows, and they thus continue to survive. Why not try something saucier, though?


Casual Dating:

“You’re pretty funny. Plus, you paid for dinner. I guess we can go out again.”

  • The Middle
    “The Middle” centers on the Hecks, a middle-class family in Indiana. While Patricia Heaton is the star, funnyman Neil Flynn, who previously played the Janitor on “Scrubs,” is my reason for watching. I’d say “The Middle” could be appointment TV, but with so many satisfying comedies out there, a girl can only watch so much.Bottom Line: Reminiscent of “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Middle” demonstrates how mixing kooky with funny plus a tinge of heartfelt emotion makes for an entertaining half-hour.
  • Cougar Town
    I’m sure you’ve heard of this Courtney Cox show. Question is, is it any good? Answer: Eh… “Cougar Town” tries for the laughs a smidge too hard, and the slapstick bits don’t quite fit in with today’s comedy demands. However, there’s no denying Cox’s charm, and as son Travis, Dan Byrd’s downplayed comedic timing reminds me of Michael Cera’s spot-on underacting on “Arrested Development.”Bottom Line: Not a bad show, but not a standout, either.
  • The New Adventures of Old Christine
    Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Seinfeld” fame plays Christine, a divorced mom who runs a gym. Her sidekick is the hilarious Wanda Sykes. I’m going to be honest with you: I’ve never seen this show. It’s shameful, because there’s no real excuse for it. But I’m going to endorse it because everyone who’s ever seen this show loves it. Plus, it comes with a top recommendation from my brother, and I’m OK with trusting Doc Sunny on this one.Bottom Line: Whether I’ve seen it or not, this show has Wanda Sykes. Come on, people, watch it. She’s quite possibly one of the funniest comedians ever.


Long Term Dating:

Comedy depends so much on personal preference, so it’s hard to figure out which shows to hate on and which to brag about. But the following are keepers. Girl Scout’s honor.

  • How I Met Your Mother
    This year has been a breakout year for “Mother” scene-stealer Neil Patrick Harris. The guy starred in Joss Whedon’s online saga “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” He finally hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” as well as the Tony Awards and the Emmy Awards, and he garnered an Emmy nomination himself for his work on “mother.” Folks, Doogie Howser has grown up. But Harris, as legendary/awesome playboy Barney Stinson, is only one element that makes “How I Met Your Mother” so fantastic.The ensemble cast includes Alyson Hannigan (“Buffy”! “American Pie”!); Josh Radnor; Cobie Smulders; and Jason Segel, who you probably know as “that guy” from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “I Love You, Man,” and “Knocked Up. Together, these five comedians bring us the multi-camera, next generation version of “Friends.” These friends live in NYC, hang out in MacLaren’s Bar (sorry, Central Perk), and make bold use of flashbacks to bring us one of the most subtly entertaining comedies we’ve seen in years.

    Bottom Line: It’s gonna be legen… wait for it… and I hope you’re not lactose intolerant, because the second half of that word is dairy!”-Barney, “How I Met Your Mother”

  • The Big Bang Theory
    You’ve probably at some point (quietly) laughed at a nerd for something he or she said. “The Big Bang Theory” thankfully allows us to laugh at nerds loudly and proudly, thanks to a stock of sitcom characters who are nutty, naïve and endearingly neurotic. Good for a laugh are Raj Koothrappali, an Indian stereotype with a thick accent, bad dress sense and the inability to speak in front of women; Howard Wolowitz, a short Jewish man who dresses in bold colors and will do anything to be with a woman; and Leonard and Penny, the two characters we can most easily relate to.

Jim Parsons, however, steals the show as Sheldon Cooper, Leonard’s socially awkward physicist roommate who neurotically must eat at the same restaurant every night, depending on which day of the week it is, cannot discern sarcasm and always settles a dispute with a good round of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock: “Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock…

Bottom Line: …and as it always has, rock crushes scissors.”


  • Modern Family
    ABC’s breakout comedy follows three families, related in some way or another, over the course of their daily activities. Sound dull? It could be, except “Modern Family” is the first show to successfully mix elements of multi-camera and single-camera comedies, so along with the blatantly hilarious lines, there’s a slew of dialogue so witty that one can’t help but laugh. My favorite part is Ty Burrell as Phil, whose over-the-top attempts at being the “cool” dad mock everything our generation is about. With possibly the most laugh-out-loud moments of any comedy on TV right now, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not watching.Bottom Line: I’m a cool dad, that’s my thang. I’m hip, I surf the web, I text. LOL: laugh out loud, OMG: oh my god, WTF: why the face.” (cut to Phil doing the dance to “High School Musical’s” “We’re All in this Together.”)


  • Glee
    I’m sure you’ve heard of “Glee” by now, what with its musical numbers ripping up the iTunes chart week after week. Combining America’s love for undiscovered talent with nutty plotlines and distinctive high school personalities, “Glee” is broadcast television’s scripted answer to reality TV. What I like best about “Glee” is that it’s not a show focused on singing. It’s a character-centered dramedy with musical numbers sprinkled in. While the story about Will’s wife Terri pretending to be pregnant is frustrating, Jane Lynch’s portrayal of maniacal cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester more than makes up for it.Bottom Line: “I’ll often yell at homeless people, ‘Hey, how’s that homelessness working out for you? Give not being homeless a try!’” -Sue, explaining that people should be motivated to better themselves.


  • Community / Parks & Recreation / The Office / 30 Rock
    Like I said, NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday was the place to be in the ‘90s, and its revamped “Comedy Night Done Right” is no different. Each of these multi-camera comedies not only defines but also glorifies the genre. There’s no need to expound on “The Office”; I’m sure every college student has seen it at least once (“that’s what she said!”).“30 Rock” isn’t as popular, but it really should be. Every character is a standout. My favorite is Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, VP of East Coast Television for NBC (probably because I want his job one day). “30 Rock” never hesitates to mock NBC or television or politics or anything else for that matter. Not only is “30 Rock” bold, it is also smart, never insulting the audience or throwing jokes in our face. Much of the humor isn’t in the dialogue – it’s visual (just when Jack says “I need your guidance” and reaches for a picture of Jesus on his desk, he picks up the one behind Jesus… of Nixon.)


  • Parks & Recreation
    When Amy Poehler vehicle “Parks & Rec” debuted last year, it was shaky at best: the scripts weren’t quite funny and the acting was too forced. This season, however, the show has found its legs. Sometime, when America quit watching, “Parks & Rec” got funny. Poehler’s grown into her role, and the standout cast of supporting players now receives the emphasis it deserves.


  • Community
  • “Community” is the 2009 entry into NBC’s Thursday night comedy line-up, and if its ratings hold (or grow!), it will round-out the comedy block perfectly for years to come. Like the other comedies, “Community”’s greatest strength is the ensemble cast, led by “The Soup”’s Joel McHale, as manipulative lawyer Jeff who’s back in community college because it was finally discovered that his degree came not from Columbia University, but Colombia, South America. This show is, I kid you not, hilarious. The best comedic pairing is undoubtedly Abed and Troy, and the executive producers have realized this: they now dedicate the final thirty seconds of each episode to an Abed-Troy gimmick, be it rapping in Spanish, taking over the school’s PA system or talking in a Batman growl.

Bottom Lines:
How long have you known about the pregnancy? A week? A month? A year?” –Michael Scott, “The Office”

I haven’t had this much trouble with a book since “Where’s Waldo” went to that barber pole factory.” -Tracy, “30 Rock”

“Whenever Leslie asks me for the Latin names of any of our plants, I just give her the names of rappers.” -Tom, “Parks & Recreation”

“Our first assignment is to make a documentary. They’re like movies, but with ugly people.” -Abed, “Community”

-Sonya Chudgar