The lunatics are back in charge of NBC’s Thursday asylum - and we wouldn’t want it any other way. “My Name Is Earl,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Scrubs,” all of which return with new episodes this month, make for the boldest, most satisfying lineup since “The Cosby Show” turned the night into something special in the 1980s. Now, if only audiences would treat them with “must-see” respect.
The four sitcoms may have 12 Emmys among them, including best comedy statues for “The Office” and “30 Rock,” but none ranks in Nielsen’s top 20 and all fall short ratings-wise compared with CBS’ Monday-night run, anchored by “Two and a Half Men.”
If they’re not getting the traditional love from viewers, maybe it’s because they refuse to take a traditional approach.
While CBS’ hits all rely on four-camera setups, studio audiences and more gags than Carrot Top has in his prop trunk, each of NBC’s Thursday comedies is shot with a single camera and without any background laughter. They also share a belief that shaping personalities is more important than shaping punch lines. The militant, power-hungry Dwight Schrute on “The Office” might be TV’s funniest character because he has absolutely no sense of humor about anything at all. It’s the kind of comedic risk you wouldn’t see on, say, “How I Met Your Mother.”
“Those shows with tried-and-true formulas became more about the formula than anything else,” said Rainn Wilson, who plays Schrute. “They were about sitting around in a common area with setups and punch lines and kind of making fun of each other. That became tired and worn out. It was time for reinvention.”
The more grounded approach means “The Office” actors are always making sure they don’t go over the top. Wilson said he was filming a scene the other day when he had to rush into the office of Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell.
“After the scene, I turned to Steve and said, `I just ran into your office like I was a cartoon character. Why am I doing that?’” he said. “Of course, that’s probably the take that they’ll use, but we’re always checking in with each other and making sure we tone down the broadness.”
“Office” executive producer Greg Daniels said it’s not hard to find real-life counterparts to their make-believe characters. When cast member John Krasinski was doing research for the show, he met a salesman at a paper company who insisted on doing politically incorrect impressions - horribly. (That encounter no doubt inspired the classic episode in which Scott butchered a Chris Rock routine.) Then there was the time an egocentric businessman won an opportunity to watch the show being taped and decided he’d step in and give Carell notes on his performance.
“Stuff like that happens and you say, `This is very, very real,’” Daniels said.
Tina Fey, the star and creator of “30 Rock,” agrees that it’s important to keep her characters believable. Alec Baldwin might play network president Jack Donaghy with unbridled testosterone, but is he really that different from any number of bosses you’ve dealt with at work?
“We have to keep our characters grounded and make sure that what’s at stake is real,” Fey said. “When we do flashbacks or look at things from a certain character’s point of view, we can be a little more bent, but I think if the show was just silliness and cutaways, it would be hard for it to sustain itself.”
While the single-camera format forces these shows to stay rooted in reality, it also allows for more whimsy. “Scrubs” can’t seem to go five minutes without a dream sequence that could feature anything from a David Copperfield cameo to an all-out musical number.
“My Name Is Earl” will push some boundaries when it returns this week for the first of nine new episodes. The title character, played by Jason Lee, has slipped into a coma, sending his mind to a fantasyland also visited by Paris Hilton. Those kinds of escapes are exactly what drew Lee to the project.
“I’ve never had much of a traditional approach to things. That’s why I didn’t want to do television to begin with,” he said. “I was concerned about how much we could do on a mainstream network like NBC, how this crazy idea would do amongst this corporate, well-oiled machine, but we’re getting along just fine.”
Lee said telling the story of a former bad boy trying to correct his past sins would never work in front of a studio audience.
“You’ve got limited body movement and limited sets when you do that,” he said. “You’ve also got to wait for the audience to stop laughing before you say the next line. Now we’re out on location, like we’re shooting a little film every week. We can do special effects. We can do stunts. We’re always asking, `What crazy, bruise-causing thing can we do next week?’”
That kind of freedom is a big part of why NBC remains comedy king, if not in ratings, then at least in quality. One could argue that a more typical, more predictable sitcom might bring more eyeballs to the night, but the Thursday-night stars and creators don’t seem willing to trade what they have: a consistent, creative evening of both humor and heart.
“You can’t control ratings,” Fey said. “Our feeling is that we’re going to keep making these episodes until they won’t let us make them anymore. This is the best night of comedy on TV, and I’m very proud to be on with all these shows.”