People like Mr. Lorre are particularly in demand this spring, amid a renaissance of sorts for the network TV sitcom, which not too long ago was pronounced terminally ill. On studio lots, where dozens of new shows are being fretted about and fought over ahead of the networks’ scheduling decisions in May, the number of sitcoms in development has spiked. “I think we’re on the cusp of a bull market for comedy,” said Kevin Reilly, Fox’s entertainment chief, whose No. 1 priority for the fall is adding more live-action comedies to his schedule.Hollywood agents are telling folks that dramas are dead.
It is evident that comedy success begets more comedy. The sitcom blocks on CBS, ABC and NBC are looking more stable than they have in years, thanks to shows like ABC’s “Modern Family,” the season’s breakthrough new sitcom; “The Big Bang Theory,” with surging ratings in its third season; and NBC’s “30 Rock,” still piling up awards well into its fourth season.
Despite some exaggerated claims to the contrary, the sitcom never died. What happened in the unfunny middle of the last decade, post-“Friends,” post-“Frasier,” post-“Everybody Loves Raymond,” turned out to be merely an anemic period. But it did deprive many comedy writers and producers of jobs as reality TV stole time slots from underwhelming scripted shows.
“We, the networks, drove comedy into the ground by being derivative,” said Stephen McPherson, the president of entertainment for ABC. The “Friends” copycats, like “Coupling” and “Joey,” all flopped, and for a time it was conventional wisdom that viewers had turned from comedy entirely.
“The TV industry is very, very adept at creating self-fulfilling prophecies,” Bill Lawrence, who co-created “Scrubs” and “Cougar Town,” said wryly. He noted that the writers’ strike three years ago further hampered sitcom growth.
Luckily for viewers, the bust has been followed by a comedy boom. ABC in particular took a risk when it introduced two hours of new comedy programming on Wednesdays last fall.
“I lost a few nights of sleep” over the scheduling move, Mr. McPherson admitted. But the extra emphasis on comedy worked, for the most part: along with “Modern Family,” the fellow first-year series “The Middle” and Mr. Lawrence’s “Cougar Town” were renewed for next season. The block’s fourth show, “Hank,” was canceled, a reminder that many new network shows face an early death.
Executives and producers cite several reasons for the boom, including the desire, according to some studios’ internal research, for lighter fare in a limp economy. “I do believe that the economy has created a need for escapist entertainment,” Mr. Lawrence said, before he emphasized that the economic climate sometimes gets too much credit. “First and foremost it’s an issue of quality.”
In a crowded television landscape, network executives say, they are able to sustain shows like NBC’s “Community,” which made its debut in the fall, with lower ratings than they may have demanded in the past. And, compared with reality shows at least, sitcoms have better prospects for future profits in syndication.
The 22-minute length of most sitcoms may also have something to do with their perceived bump in popularity. More people than ever are watching television online, and they prefer those choices in smaller pieces. Half-hour comedies like “The Office” and “Modern Family” regularly outrank almost all the hourlong dramas on Hulu.com. “Comedy is a much lower barrier to entry,” said Mr. Reilly, who nurtured “The Office” while at NBC.
Analysts say networks are producing about 40 comedy pilots this season, 4 to 10 more than last season, depending on who is counting.[...]
Given the boom-and-bust cycles of television, perhaps it is once again comedy’s turn. The reality genre — which several years ago had “funnier, more surprising, more outrageous characters than some of the canned sitcoms on the air,” Mr. Reilly said — is now starting to seem canned itself.
“The audience,” he said, “is starting to feel that sitcoms are the freshest shows now.”
That was the message for budding screenwriters at today’s London Book Fair seminar on writing for Hollywood. Andy Briggs, a British screenwriter who’s worked for Paramount and is currently rebooting the Tarzan and King Kong franchises, said US agents he’d spoken to during his most recent trip to Los Angeles advised him to avoid drama. These days drama is seen as being the purview of television, which does it so much better than movies, he said.Interesting.
Rob Kraitt, an agent at venerable London literary agency AP Watt, said that it’s become much harder for British agents to sell books as movies to the studios. AP Watt -- whose clients include Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stared at Goats), Lyn Barber (An Education) and Giles Foden (The Last King of Scotland) -- works with CAA and Rabineau Wachter Sanford Gillett in Los Angeles putting projects together.
The more you can do to help the sale, the better, added Briggs, who pointed out that screenwriters are converting unsold screenplays such as 30 Days of Night into graphic novels. You must do anything you can to help executives see the finished movie, he stressed.
Kraitt added, “What’s changed over the past few years is that studios are looking for sure-fire hits, properties which already have an audience built in.”