Sitcoms alive and well on cable, but who cares?

by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

16 July 2009


There were two questions that people used to ask me. One was, “So what’s with this reality TV deal?”

And the other was, “What happened to all the great sitcoms? Is there ever going to be another ‘Seinfeld’/ ‘Raymond’/ ‘Cheers’/‘Frasier’?”

Nowadays, people are still asking about reality TV, probably hoping against hope that I’ll say something like, “Hey, didn’t you hear? The kids are getting hooked on this new Smithsonian Channel!”

But no one really asks me about situation comedies anymore. Which is funny, or maybe odd is the better word, because there are probably more successful sitcoms on TV right now than at any time in history.

But the days are over when TV comedy has to be great to be a hit. It doesn’t even need to be that good. I think there was a time, for instance, when I found CBS’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine” mildly amusing. But that was before it took a creative nosedive and the career of Julia Louis-Dreyfus with it.

And yet somehow, by the sheer power of formula (Christine is a crazy middle-age gal who can’t get a date) and format (CBS could bake a cake at 8 p.m. on a Monday night and still win its time period), this clunker will soon tape its 100th episode and air in perpetuity on the Lifetime channel, which just announced it had bought the cable rights. And Louis-Dreyfus just made a few more million bucks. My guess is she’s not laughing all the way to the bank.

Buying network sitcoms, though, usually costs more than making one yourself, especially if one adheres to the “good, schmood” guiding principle.

Consider “The Bill Engvall Show,” which is returning for its third mercifully brief season at 9 p.m. Saturday on TBS. Engvall, a stand-up comic best known for his performance in the 2003 “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” movie — itself a rip-off of the “Original Kings of Comedy” tour and film featuring four African-American joke-tellers — plays a family therapist who is tormented by what passes in sitcomland as a crazy, mixed-up family.

In truth, this “TBS original” is little more than a reworking of the 1990s “classic” Tim Allen sitcom “Home Improvement,” which I guess seemed a less daunting task than reworking “Frasier.”

In the first of two back-to-back episodes — and let me just say kudos to TBS for trying to get this season over with as quickly as possible — Bill (that would be Engvall) gets himself into a terrible pickle when he promises his oldest daughter that she can go to Cancun, mere moments after Mrs. Bill (Nancy Travis) tells him she can’t because the family has no money to spare.

In fairness, Bill Engvall is hardly the largest talent that TBS has going. That honor goes to megaproducer Tyler Perry, who has quietly become the new king of all media, with box-office hits, best-selling books and stage plays under his belt before TBS signed him to produce his first sitcom, “House of Payne” (8 p.m. Wednesdays), which he followed up with “Meet the Browns” (9 p.m. Wednesdays, both TBS).

By adapting the tired conventions of TV sitcoms to the unique viewpoint and cultural knowledge that Perry expects his audience to have, the result is something with a voice, rhythm and style unlike any other show on TV.

But the Perry shows are the exceptions that prove the rule. Generally speaking, there is nothing you can do to a sitcom that hasn’t been done to it 100 times before. HBO’s “Hung” (10 p.m. Sundays) is another male midlife crackup series with swearing and nudity, like “Eastbound and Down” and “The Mind of the Married Man” before it. But they can’t all be “Entourage,” a true HBO original.

The only way to get away from half-hour sitcoms is to do half-hour sketch shows, though these draw much of their humor from satirizing conventions overused by TV shows, including sitcoms. You see a lot of these on Comedy Central, usually on Wednesdays following its long-running cartoon “South Park,” an anti-sitcom.

The latest of these is “Michael and Michael Have Issues” (10:30 p.m. Wednesday), a series of sketches woven around scenes supposedly filmed backstage at the show. Writers and co-stars Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter blend these worlds so cleverly that it’s easy to forgive them for falling back on the by now familiar show-within-a-show concept.

//Mixed media