Trends in Network Television Comedy

The Spectators
Bushwick Farms, The Spectators, 2003. Courtesy of ­the Bushwick Farms Family Archive.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’re living in the age of Fat Guy/Hot Wife. Even a casual observer of present-day entertainment will surely have noticed that there are about ten identical shows on TV at the moment, the comedic premise of which is that a fat, unattractive man has a beautiful wife. One of the biggest hits (ratings-wise), but surely the least plausible, is ABC’s According to Jim, which asks us to believe that Jim Belushi, a 50-year-old untucked-T-shirt of a man, with a receding hairline and the worst that Albanian DNA has to offer, has somehow not only met, courted, and married golden retriever-tressed Courtney Thorne-Smith, but has gotten her to stay with him through the steady disintegration of his pants size.

The first of these shows to gain traction was CBS’s King of Queens, starring Kevin James and Leah Remini. It debuted in 1998, is still going strong today, and has steadily gained viewers and critical attention. The formula worked so well that it metastasized, spawning Jim and others: Still Standing, Listen Up!, Yes, Dear, Rodney, and so on. So successful is the Fat Guy/Hot Wife formula that even NBC’s multimillion-dollar 3-D animated dice-roll Father of the Pride uses it, and the show is about talking lions.

These shows are interchangeable. On Pride, John Goodman voices the main fat-guy lion, opposite Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines’s hot lion wife. Hines, in her day job, is the (relatively) hot wife to Larry David’s skinny ugly guy (he plays himself). Goodman also stars in CBS’s Center of the Universe, opposite Jean Smart, which gives him the honor of being the first fat guy to pull double duty.1 The writers know what’s up: Goodman’s character on Pride is named Larry. So, when Hines went into the recording booth to do the voice-overs for Pride, and she uttered her disapproving hot-wife lines about her fat/ugly husband’s fat-/ugly-guy foibles, she didn’t even have to remember a new name for the husband.

It’s no mystery that people should like the genre—it’s the Honeymooners plot, after all. It’s a classic; it started TV sitcoms off. You just have to ask yourself, how did we get so many Fat Guy/Hot Wives at once? And, a bit more depressingly, how did we wind up with this when ten years ago we were supposedly in an age that had revolutionized comedy, as the critics claimed—the Age of Irony?

The first question is the easier one to answer—it’s financial. The conservatism of the networks comes from the stakes they’re playing for and the need to go with anything that works.

TV and film development is just like the game Battleship. Executives flail around blindly, making wild guesses about what combination of coordinates will hit, and when they do stumble across something that connects, they just keep firing away at the same general area and hope to connect three or four more times with the same exact formula. Witness three CSI shows and soon a fourth Law and Order.

The reason for their desperation is that networks and production companies have to pay extraordinary amounts of money—up front—to put any product on the air. Most shows fail, for reasons the development execs never understand, often before even reaching the point of being aired. For every Cheers, there’s a Coupling. NBC recently pulled the plug on its prospective midseason replacement comedy, The Men’s Room, after the show had shot a half dozen or so episodes, which either will never be aired or will be “burned off” in the summer. That’s probably about $5–$7 million NBC won’t ever get back.

The economics of the industry are such that the TV shows that do air must last for a hundred episodes (five years, usually) in order to be sold into syndication, which is the way for the networks and production companies to make real money. These are long odds on which to bet, and yet no one has figured out a better way to do it. There are exceptions, of course: a movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cost pennies to make, grossed like eleventy billion dollars; and certain TV shows are so popular in the short run that networks can demand extremely high advertising rates. But the average TV show is a roughly break-even or money-losing proposition for the length of time it airs, and with soaring cast salary demands, union costs, and so on, syndication is, financially, the best bet.

Which is why the networks’ recent path has been unsustainable (and they know it), and why their desperation has grown. The cheaper programming that’s became so popular in the last few years—primarily reality shows, which have proliferated, with increasingly baroque and far-out premises, while sitcom plots have been consolidated into, like, one—is fatally compromised for syndication. Reality shows are cheap to produce, and the biggies get good ad rates, but The Apprentice isn’t going to fill producers’ pockets for twenty years in syndication. You already know who’s fired.

The lure of the half-hour sitcom is that it’s more amenable to syndication than almost anything else, and a mega-sitcom can become a flagship for a network while it lasts—dragging a whole night, sometimes, into high ratings. In 2002, NBC’s then-President of Programming, Jeff Zucker, who’d failed time and again to find a decent replacement for Friends, threw a million dollars per episode at each of the six principals to bring them back for one more year, one of the most expensive Band-Aids in entertainment history. It guaranteed that despite the farewell season’s huge ratings, the show could barely make any money that year. Zucker also made Kelsey Grammar the highest-paid actor on TV for Frasier, and Jane Leeves (Daphne, on the show) the highest-paid British actress in history, and so on, and so on.

But no network has a Friends on its roster right now. Every year, the networks announce their new fall lineups at something called the “Up-Fronts,” which is a presentation to advertisers from major corporations. The TV executives boldly promise that their new shows will draw crowds by the tens of millions. But they’re as baffled as anybody. With more hours devoted to reality TV, prime-time news, and police procedurals, fewer slots go to new comedies. Whatever time is left is going to be crowded with the same formulas, wherever a network suspects it can get a response—B19, A5.

I sincerely doubt that anyone at CBS thought that their show Two and a Half Men would be a big hit. And yet we somehow find ourselves participating in a culture where Two and a Half Men is a big hit. Once it happens, you get two, five, ten Two and a Half Men. Network comedy is a business in which lightning always strikes twice.

Poor Age of Irony: so short-lived, so much talked about, so misunderstood.

In his 1999 book, For Common Things, Jedediah Purdy attacked irony with a declaration of its evils. “Refusing to place its trust in the world, irony helps to make a world that is the more likely to be worthy of despair. . . . [D]isappointment and a quiet, pervasive sadness have crept into our lives.” He put television comedy at its center:

Certain personalities bring together the convictions, aspirations, and misgivings that are ambient in an era. . . . This is the stance of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, whose departure from the airwaves in 1998 made the front page of the New York Times. . . . For he is irony incarnate. Autonomous by virtue of his detachment, disloyal in a manner too vague to be mistaken for treachery, he is matchless in discerning the surfaces whose creature he is. The point of irony is a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech.

By the dictionary, irony is saying one thing while meaning another. To me, that’s always the definition of speech. I guess that’s what Purdy was working from—deceptive surfaces, double-talk. But irony in TV comedy simply has a different definition, at least to TV comedy writers: it seems to indicate a sort of self-awareness, or consciousness, that this (whatever “this” is, be it a TV show, movie, or stand-up routine) is “comedy,” and “comedy” has certain “conventions,” and we, the comedians, are “using” these conventions while at the same time sort of commenting on them and on how trite they are. Basically, pre-irony: comedian tells jokes. Irony: “comedian” “tells” “jokes.”2

Many people point to, say, Janeane Garofolo, as a representative of comedic irony. In her 1990s stand-up act, Garofolo became something of an indie-rock comedy sensation because instead of presentationally talking to the crowd for five minutes, she took the stage with a notepad on which she had jotted down a few fragments of thought, and didn’t necessarily even tell “jokes” as much as she sort of mentioned things she’d noticed or was angry about.3 Eddie Izzard, the transvestite Brit whose 1999 HBO comedy special won a bunch of Emmys because, well, it was on HBO, was also said to fit the irony bill, though, to me, the only thing ironic about him is that he is clearly in no way, shape, or form a transvestite. (I saw him once at the Grange Hall in New York with a very beautiful woman, and he was wearing a very manly leather jacket, with no discernable lip gloss or high heels or anything. It made me wonder whether he is even British.)

But the undoubted king and father of modern comedic ironists was David Letterman—he’d been working this vein since 1982. Late at night, in the 1 am darkness, after Johnny Carson’s viewers had brushed their teeth and turned in, Letterman slowly but surely dismantled the talk show format and laid the pieces out on his studio floor like a mechanic. He disowned the stunts and gags on the show even as he completed them. He and his writers invented hundreds of ways to waste network TV time, and announced that that’s what they were doing—my favorite was when they sent a camera crew to film luggage coming onto a carousel in a St. Louis airport. “Stupid Pet Tricks” somehow amazed the country, but then there was “What’s Hal Wearing?”—in which they turned a camera on director Hal Gurney and had him announce, with absolutely no jokes or written material of any kind, what he was wearing. (“Tan pants, short-sleeve white shirt,” etc.) When Johnny went into his audience to play “Stump the Band,” he gave the participating audience member dinner for four at a posh LA restaurant. When Letterman did a similar bit, he gave the audience member a car tire with a bow around it or a pile of scrap wood. Which, let’s face it, is funnier.4

Letterman perfected the art of repeating a phrase until it becomes funny. He hyped each meaningless event with the zeal of a carnival barker—the excitement, for him, for us, was how unexciting it was. Then, when he donned a suit covered with open baggies of nacho chips and had himself lifted by a crane into a giant fish tank of cheese dip, and walked out to a cheering audience and made them pull bags of chips off his body and eat them—well, it’d be hard to explain now, but this was a comic sacrament. Those audience members were eating irony.

The moment of Letterman’s fall is all too well known. It came with his infamous “Oprah-Uma” joke at the Oscars in 1995, which marked the first time critics ever took him to task, en masse, and marked the beginning of Dave’s long ratings slide. Trying to get some comic mileage out of the pure absurdity of two names, a vowelly phonemic concatenation, as if it were the most exciting thing ever; repeating the same gag over and over, when it didn’t work the first time—this was Letterman irony at its most Euclidian, basic, unforgiving. The joke died. Hard.

Just months later, in July, sex-scandalized Hugh Grant famously appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Leno uttered the immortal question, “What the hell were you thinking?” That Grant could be dating Elizabeth Hurley, the, like, most beautiful human being on earth, and still head out at night to solicit a Sunset Strip hooker, was, well, ironic. Dave might have understood; Leno refused to. And Leno beat Letterman in the ratings that night and has maintained a stranglehold on first place ever since.

Even as Letterman began to lag behind, however, the prince regent of irony still lived in prime time, and that was indeed Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld was a gentler personality than Letterman. His strength as a comic, as has been noted time and time again, was that he observed and crystallized things that were so plainly and obviously funny it was a wonder no one had given voice to them before.

So he proved just the ambassador to take late-night sensibility to the 8 to 11 pm Holy Land. One of the 1990s’ best-rated series, Seinfeld starred comedian Seinfeld as a comedian named Seinfeld. Its observational style and resistance to traditional sitcom plots led it to be dubbed, in the media, a “show about nothing.” A few seasons in, the character Seinfeld and his friend George pitch a TV show to NBC that will be made up of the exact stories they’ve been experiencing—the fictitious show, George says, will be a “show about nothing.” Get it? To TV audiences, this was groundbreaking stuff. They ate it up.

The usual Battleship effect ensued. But where other irony-heavy sitcoms instantly failed—like Fox’s Titus, in which characters spoke directly to the camera, and NBC’s Inside Schwartz, regarding which, if you ever made it through an entire episode, my congratulations—Seinfeld only got stronger. They did an episode that went backward in time. They did an episode in which George Costanza (Jason Alexander) discovers that he still has the high score on the arcade game Frogger ten years after he played it, then weaves his way in and out of traffic like the video frog. Nothing they did was too ironic, too self-referential, incredibly, to slow down the viewers.

Like the stock market going up and up in the ’90s, you began to think it could go on forever; the rules of comedic gravity had been reversed. Until the end. Seinfeld’s final episode featured the four main characters trapped in a small town due to plane trouble. After witnessing a crime and doing nothing to stop it (and laughing at the victim’s misfortune), the gang is arrested for violating a Good Samaritan law, and, during the trial, characters from all nine seasons are brought in to testify about what horrible people the four are. This was the final act of one of the most successful and remarkable programs in TV history, yet despite the predictably good ratings, critics, audiences, even hard-core fans agreed: it was self-obsessed and unsatisfying.

As much as viewers loved the show, they were still sappy and unironic enough to want a series finale to tie up threads the way the Friends ending would six years later—Ross and Rachel get married, Joey moves to LA, Monica and Chandler buy a new house, etc. Even an audience trained to follow slavishly the ironic adventures of the Seinfeld cast could not find it within themselves to accept a completely ironic ending to the series. Comedic irony can be very funny. But, as Jedediah Purdy suggested in his own way (and I’m more than paraphrasing here), it can’t comfort you, or make you feel like the world is a good and happy place. Seinfeld wrote itself into a corner—never having done the traditional thing of having characters pair off, or get married, or seek happiness elsewhere in the world, there was no neat way to separate them, and no place to wind them up. Thus, no tearful goodbye—and thus, despite the fact that the audience had condoned the style of the show by watching it in record numbers, a suddenly angry fan base. And the backlash seemed to begin.

In private, Seinfeld was not only familiar with Purdy’s “letter of love to the world’s possibilities,” but somewhat miffed and confused that he (Seinfeld) had been singled out as a particular social ill. I happened to meet him shortly after his show ended, and was more than a little surprised to hear him casually make a joke about Purdy. I told him I was familiar with the book and actually knew the author. Seinfeld, showing what can only be called genuine interest, asked intently: “You know him? Who is this guy?” I told him I knew Jed from college, that he was an astounding home-schooled intellect from rural West Virginia.

SEINFELD: What did I do to him? Why did he go after me?
ME: I don’t know. He’s kind of unique. I really wouldn’t take it personally.
SEINFELD: [smiling] Don’t take it personally? He said I’m destroying society!

The fact remains that Seinfeld was miffed enough to actually play a character he named Jedediah Purdy when hosting the season premiere of Saturday Night Live in 1999.5

There was something prophetic, or perhaps poetic, in the fact that Seinfeld ended in 1999, before the dawn of a new century that is shaping up to be a particularly bad one, so far at least, and not just for comedy. Not that the transition from ’90s “irony” to ’00s “familiarity” on television was immediate—it’s not like audiences rose up as one and demanded to go back to the 1950s. The bridge between the two eras might have been CBS’s durable hit Everybody Loves Raymond, which has been cranking out remarkably similar episodes since 1996, and which doesn’t have a single ironic bone anywhere in its body.

Could things have gone any other way?

Around the same moment of ironic decline there appeared a bunch of movies that employed a much-debated thesis in comedy writing: that a groan is as good as a laugh. The Farrelly brothers’ 1998 opus terribilis There’s Something About Mary got us started, of course; somehow, their hodgepodge film featuring a mentally retarded man-child, a leather-skinned old woman, and ejaculate posing as hair gel was so successful, critics mentioned it as a possible Best Picture candidate for the Oscars. I’m going to repeat that. It was being mentioned as a possible Best Picture candidate for the Oscars. And lest anyone believe the movie industry has a more sophisticated development machine than its small-screened cousin, a genuine onslaught of copycats followed right on its heels.

Gross-out humor was all the rage for several years. Remember this phase we all went through? American Pie (1999) featured a teenager drinking ejaculate-spiked beer. Its sequel featured an unwanted (and recognized-as-such) golden shower. Scary Movie (2000), a send-up of horror movies like Scream, made its name with an androgynous gym teacher’s prop testicles falling out of her skirt, a volcanic ejaculation, and, as if to prove that no joke is too childish, mucous dripping out of a woman’s nose! Tomcats (2001) included a man eating a removed, cancerous testicle, thinking it was candy. Even Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) skewed gross, featuring a scene in which the title character drinks liquefied feces.

The closest network television got to this came from the unusual genius of Robert Smigel (best known for Triumph, his insult comic dog). His short-lived 2000 series TV Funhouse hardly counts; true, it opened with a necrophilic puppet lobster getting a take-out real boiled lobster from a restaurant so he could rape it at home, but that was cable. In 1996, maybe he tried too early as head writer on The Dana Carvey Show—the first skit of the first show featured Bill Clinton loving everybody so much that he tore open his shirt to reveal two rows of teats that got sucked by live dogs. ABC canceled it.

I know some people might say the FCC is a barrier, but that’s just cover. The TV audience didn’t respond. If NBC made an hour-long show featuring home movies of cats defecating set to Scott Joplin music that somehow drew 18 million viewers, you can bet the show would run twice a week, and that the other nets would soon follow suit. And, it should be noted, I might watch it.

So, what’s next? So far, no new rival trend has emerged. If you look at late night as a harbinger of what’s to come in prime time, the selection of British actor Colin Ferguson to replace Craig Kilborn on CBS’s Late Late Show perhaps means an incremental uptick in sophistication is in the works—Kilborn was about the least sophisticated meathead ever to grace the airwaves, and Ferguson, whether he succeeds or fails, is at the very least a thinking human being with the ability to speak with a female guest without staring at her breasts. Letterman has also had a bit of a resurgence lately, and the decision to award Conan O’Brien the Tonight Show anchor seat for 2009 bodes well for comedy in general.

Extrapolating just a bit, we might look for a more worldly prime time in the next few years—perhaps some shows that take place outside of living-room sets with faded couches. Fox’s Arrested Development, while still struggling in the ratings, has established a beachhead in the critical community. NBC’s The Office, based on the British show of the same name, will be a mock-documentary half hour, with “realistic” acting and no laugh track, and maybe could sneakily capitalize on the reality craze. Will it herald an era of sophisticated, ironic-but-not-damagingly-so comic hybrids? I hope so. In the meantime, the networks have no choice but to fire away on whatever’s beloved to Nielsen. You sunk my battleship!

  1. Center of the Universe’s Jean Smart, if not “hot,” is, at the very least, far too hot to be married to John Goodman, who is, at the time of this writing, one glazed bear claw away from complete aortic rebellion. 

  2. Of course it’s tough to replace one definition of a word with another, which has led to a lot of confusion. An oft-quoted favorite joke among comedy writers comes from a 1996 Simpsons episode called “Homerpalooza,” wherein two kids at a Lollapalooza-style event watch Homer as he stops a cannonball with his stomach. One of them says (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh, a guy who can stop a cannonball with his stomach. I’m so impressed.” The other: “Are you being ironic?” The first (sadly): “I don’t even know anymore.” 

  3. Then there’s the comedy of Dennis Miller, who strings together cultural references into rambling sentences that have the rhythm of jokes but are not, frequently, jokes. He’ll say things like, “I haven’t seen a tax plan this poorly constructed since Tony Orlando did Jäger shots with Buzz Aldrin,” and the crowd will, inexplicably, bust its gut. 

  4. One tenet of comedic irony that survived to the present day is that it’s funnier to call something what it is than to come up with a funny name. Letterman still abides by this: his favorite bit these days is “Will it Float?” which involves dropping things in a tank of water to see if they will float, and Conan O’Brien has stuck with it, always pointing out when he’s given a segment the most straightforward and basic name it could possibly have. 

  5. When I related this story to a friend of mine, he proposed that Seinfeld’s revenge should have been to reprint Jed’s book, word-for-word, but with the entire text inside quotation marks. 

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