Why American TV is having a laugh

They're calling it the sitcom-back as the funny folk run crime out of town. Joe O'Shea reports

There is something funny happening on US television. After a decade of reality TV and wall-to-wall crime dramas, with endless retreads of the CSI and Law & Order formats dominating network programming, comedy is king once more.

The recent launch of the new network season saw the executives who run American TV splurge on comedy.

US critics are talking about a new "Golden Age of TV comedy" with the sitcom in particular staging a dramatic comeback.

And discerning fans on this side of the Atlantic can give thanks as the major networks, and cable channels such as Comedy Central and HBO invest big in the talent that usually ends up on our late-night schedules.

"There is a lot of very strong stuff coming out of the US right now," says writer and director David Coffey, the young Dubliner behind innovative RTE comedies Dan & Becs and the new-to-air Sarah & Steve.

"And it's great to see a lot of them showing up every week on Channel 4 or RTE or TV3.

"You have shows like 30 Rock that are very clever in straddling that line between being great, smart satire and just being very, very funny".

The hottest names in US entertainment (even A-list movie stars who traditionally gave TV a wide berth) are now either working in comedy or trying to get attached.

Tina Fey used the worldwide fame she won thanks to her uncanny take-offs of Sarah Palin before the last US presidential election to boost her own critically acclaimed but previously struggling sitcom 30 Rock.

Kelsey Grammer, out to pasture since Frasier went off the air in 2004, is back with a prime-time sitcom called Hank that is so old-fashioned ABC could be beaming it direct to us from 1985.

There are more modern takes on the sitcom genre: the mockumentary-style Modern Family (which has just kicked off on this side of the Atlantic on Sky One and 3e) takes traditional suburban America and gives it a late noughties twist.

The new season launch saw ABC, the network owned by Disney, add four new sitcoms to its Wednesday evening prime-time schedule. More radically, NBC has replaced five hours of drama each week with Jay Leno's new nightly variety/chat show, a distinctly old-fashioned format that has one big appeal for the executives -- it is very cheap to make.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, US viewers will have the option of watching nothing but comedy on the four major networks between 8pm and 11pm.

And then it's on to the late-night and late-late-night comedy shows with the likes of Conan O'Brien and the scandal-hit but still hugely popular David Letterman. It's a dramatic turnaround in the trend that had British and American broadcasters lamenting the slow death of TV comedy, and especially the sitcom.

TV executives had blamed everything from audience fragmentation to multiculturalism for the slow death of the sitcom, saying traditional mass-appeal comedies were doomed when you couldn't find enough viewers to agree on what was funny.

Some executives blamed more specific targets, naming two comedy series that may have set the bar too high for all those to follow. The consensus was that American situation comedies went into a terminal decline after the third season of Friends.

That was when the networks started throwing money at any pale imitation which looked like it could repeat the success of the show created by super-producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman.

The result was, predictably, a slew of half-baked failures including one disastrous effort, Joey, that couldn't even be helped by having an actual Friend in the lead role.

And then came The Office, the game-changing, cod-documentary workplace sitcom that was first aired in Britain in 2001.

The Office, which did away with the laugh tracks, the obvious studio sets and the tightly scripted "set up, joke, set up, joke" format, made a lot of TV comedy obsolete almost overnight.

One American producer later confessed that after seeing the first few episodes of The Office, he understood how a beat group guitarist must have felt after seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time.

Office co-writer and star Ricky Gervais even had the cheek to have his second ground-breaking series, Extras, have a lame sitcom within a sitcom, pointing out in no uncertain terms just how old and tired traditional TV sitcoms had become.

Ironically, The Office, which was originally seen as raising the bar to impossible heights, actually helped to inspire the renaissance in US comedy in the way that The Beatles and then the Sex Pistols changed American music.

The hit spin-off series The US Office, which stars Steve Carrell and has made the careers of newcomers John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, is now into its sixth season and a firm favourite on Irish channel 3e.

The US Office and the other recent US hits are also cleaning up in the syndication market.

Comedies repeat better than dramas and much better than reality television. They are also cheaper to make than crime dramas because they rarely feature stunts and explosions or require producers to shut down entire streets in Manhattan.

Traditional fixed-camera sitcoms are about one-fifth cheaper to make than "single-camera" comedies, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, which are filmed on location.

And variety shows like the new five-nights-a-week show hosted by Jay Leno are even more cost effective. Leno has boasted that it is possible to make five episodes of his show for the price of one episode of a police drama like CSI Miami.

And even if Leno ends up attracting fewer viewers than those police dramas, the trade-off makes economic sense, particularly when advertising revenues remain low.

However, Tina Fey is not a fan of Jay Leno's new prime-time comedy and chat show, which shares the same NBC network as her 30 Rock.

Fey used her acceptance speech at the recent Emmys, where her show won Best Comedy gong for the second year in a row, to take a bitchy pop at Leno.

In her speech, Fey thanked NBC for keeping 30 Rock on the air, even though "we are more expensive than a talk show".

Ben Frow, the director of programming at TV3 and 3e, stops short of agreeing with the "new Golden Age of comedy" theory and believes that TV is simply entering a new cycle.

"After Friends, you had five years when everybody was making crime dramas and now that genre is tanking in the US and the networks are looking at comedy," says Mr Frow.

"What you don't have is a huge, worldwide hit like Friends. You have three or four very solid propositions that are doing well so the networks are now looking at comedy in a big way again."

It may be just a trend, or it could simply be that network bosses and viewers are tired of reality TV and crime drama.

But Dan & Becs creator Dave Coffey has no doubt where he would like to be working in the future. "I would like to work in the UK but going to America and getting the chance to do comedy over there, that is the ultimate dream," he says.