Ready to laugh yet? The entertainment industry is hoping -- perhaps even saying a little (probably secular) prayer -- that you are.
After terrorism, war and a TV season dominated by so-called reality shows and crime-solving dramas, people in television are waiting for the pendulum to swing back toward comedy, traditionally their biggest cash cow. Yet getting the ball rolling is hardly that simple, with plenty of impediments to block its path.
Certainly, the stars seem aligned for a comedy comeback. People want to laugh, need to laugh. Lightly regarded movies like "Bringing Down the House" and "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" -- which earned the kind of reviews that make ABC's "According to Jim" look like "Brideshead Revisited" -- have both flown past the $100-million box-office mark.
Further underscoring the pent-up appetite for guffaws, the Adam Sandler-Jack Nicholson movie "Anger Management" set an April box office record over the weekend. Similarly, TV has recorded impressive premiere ratings for CBS' series adaptation "My Big Fat Greek Life" and Fox's "Wanda at Large."
After looking like the beast that swallowed prime time, the lightning advance of staged reality series has also slowed, thanks largely to ABC's midseason clunkers "All American Girl," "The Family" and "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People."
Suddenly, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner is telling stockholders that scripted comedy is the network's future, a proclamation sure to be tested as soon as one of ABC's new programs fails this fall, at which point "Celebrity Extreme Makeover" might sound too good to resist.
Until then, agents whose writer clients might have jobs after all should address thank-you cards and floral arrangements to ABC alternative programming chief Andrea Wong, whose department oversees reality shows. Then again, Fox reality guru Mike Darnell, hailed as a genius after "Joe Millionaire," has demonstrated with "Married by America" that in TV there is no sure thing or Midas touch.
Despite these rays of hope for sitcom scribblers, there are still plenty of challenges. They include a dearth of comedy hits to help launch new ones, more pronounced tension between creative types and corporate executives and the sort of heightened anxiety -- with "Friends" and likely "Frasier" a year removed from the great sitcom burial ground -- that seldom benefits decision-making.
The fact that the networks have fewer comedy titans is most significant, given the number of shows that made their debut following "Home Improvement" or sandwiched between "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld," the berth "Friends" initially occupied.
Such advantages don't ensure success, but they provide the best chance of getting a new program noticed. Lately, however, a shortage of hits has left networks scrambling to establish the next "Friends" or "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- true heavyweights capable of propping up the series around them. Dramas, by contrast, have gained ground through what might be called "brand extensions," adding versions of "Law & Order" and "CSI," which explains why spinoffs of "JAG" and "Gilmore Girls" are in the pipeline for next season.
Even so, nothing matches the rewards of hit comedies, which repeat better than dramas and cost less to produce. As a result, blockbuster sitcoms have historically offered extraordinary payoffs, generating hundreds of millions in revenue from syndication, where local TV stations can run a "Cheers" or "MASH" until the theme becomes a national lullaby.
Without such hits, stations will increasingly turn to cheaper original fare (think "Blind Date") to fill the void.
In light of these concerns, the harried development process feels particularly intense this year, with more rapid executive turnover doing little to foster patience.
A related issue is a lack of trust within the "creative community." Writers have always been a rebellious lot, but the "us versus them" mentality toward their employers has festered -- a perception producer David E. Kelley articulated at last month's Writers Guild of America awards, saying, "The medium is no longer respected by many of its guardians."
In other words, the viral spread of "reality" has fueled a sense that executives and series creators don't play on the same team. It doesn't help, either, that some of the latter's most exalted members have taken it on the chin of late -- from Kelley chafing at ABC's handling of "The Practice" to Fox firing "Bernie Mac Show" creator Larry Wilmore, to "The West Wing's" Aaron Sorkin reportedly being cuffed for budget overruns now that the ratings have slipped.
Veteran show business observers are prone to reminding us that everything is cyclical, from the prime-time quiz show reemerging with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to the long-dormant variety format rising again in the form of "American Idol" and "Star Search." To these sages, the sitcom -- left for dead before "The Cosby Show" exploded onto the scene in 1984 -- is simply waiting for the right elements to ignite another much-needed jolt.
Still, flipping through this month's annual "comedy issue" of the Writers Guild magazine, you can't help but wonder what next year's edition will look like, and whether a question mark should be affixed to the theme.
No one knows a magic formula to revive the genre but, assuming a resurgence is inevitable, now would seem to be the time. As for where to begin, here's a vote for being funny. When it comes to comedy, that's usually a good place to start.
The right man for the job
As the war in Iraq winds down, pundits and comedians have had a field day proposing career options for Mohammed Said Sahaf, Iraq's minister of information, who confidently stated that Baghdad was "safe and secure" as U.S. forces encircled the city.
Some have joked that Sahaf might have a public relations future with the tobacco industry or AOL Time Warner. Overlooked, however, has been ABC, which happens to have a vacant position overseeing corporate communications.
As ABC slogs through a difficult season, it's easy to see how announcing, "We have driven the infidels out of the airport" is good practice for telling the press, "We're turning the ship around" or that a fourth-place sweeps finish is "encouraging."
Then again, a fellow who could straight-facedly say "No one is in Baghdad" would also be ideal for Fox, where the PR staff has to say things like "We had no idea that contestant had a felony record" and "Absolutely, what America needs is another Michael Jackson special."
Whatever the situation, you can bet Sahaf will comment and let you decide. At a time when companies push boundaries to garner attention and dare critics to take their best shot, Hollywood can use a guy like Sahaf.