In 2004, two of television's most iconic sitcoms aired their final episodes. One show went on to win more Emmy awards than any other sitcom in history, including five consecutive wins for Outstanding Comedy Series. The other show paved the way for comedies directed to a younger generation of viewers. Both aired on the once-prosperous NBC. One lasted ten seasons, the other eleven seasons, both shows accumulating over 200 episodes each.
Frasier and Friends.
In May 2004, when both Frasier and Friends ended their respective runs, a part of the sitcom world as we always knew it died. Traditional, multi-camera (those featuring either a studio audience or built-in laugh track) sitcoms have been prevelant on television since the very beginning of boob tube. Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Carroll O'Connor, Betty White and many more defined their careers on the television sitcom. That specific generation of sitcom star, more or less, came to an end in 2004.
By then, several single-camera (those without laughter placed after each joke) comedies flooded the airwaves, including Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development. More and more, TV writers crafted their comedies to cater to the needs of an audience that didn't need to be told when to laugh, as had been the case with many traditional sitcoms of the 90s. More or less, those shows told you when to laugh, even when you knew better.
To make matters worse for the future of the laugh track, many hour-long comedies in the last seven years qualified as comedies according to the Emmys, including Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and Glee. At one time, the only non-stop funny on TV came in the form of a 30-minute, laughter-heavy sitcom. Now, the line is blurred and reliance on being told when to laugh has all but ceased. However, TV audiences didn't embrace the new breed of comedy, as long-running series such as The Office, 30 Rock and Scrubs have never enjoyed high viewership in all American homes. Networks began relying solely on strong results in the coveted 18-49 demographic for said series, however total viewership never came close to the levels of All in the Family, M*A*S*H or even Frasier and Friends. And the top sitcoms in the past seven years have inarguably been Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, two of the few traditional sitcoms on the air. CBS especially has stayed loyal to the laugh track.
While critic accolades have been heavy on The Office and 30 Rock, pay cable networks have been even stronger with their own uncensored comedies, including Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage on HBO, as well as Weeds, Californication and Nurse Jackie on Showtime. Series like Sex and the City and The Larry Sanders Show paved the way for cable and pay cable networks to produce their own brand of laughs, despite not having the level of viewership of the main networks.
When all else seemed to be lost in the world of comedy, in 2009, ABC debuted the modern take on the family sitcom, appropriately (and simply) titled Modern Family. Combining all we've come to know of modern comedy (the single-camera setup, as well as The Office's documentary-style of filming), Modern Family struck a chord with viewers and critics alike, something yet to really be seen today thus far. In the last two years, the series swept up a bevy of Emmy awards, including two Outstanding Drama Series wins, as well as acting wins for Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen and Eric Stonestreet. 30 Rock achieved even greater success several years ago at the Emmys, but Modern Family has been lucky enough to enjoy an average of 13-14 million viewers a week, as well as a strong showing in the 18-49 demographic. And the indirect effects have spread across the networks this year, as this has been perhaps the best year for comedy in the past decade.
CBS has built a strong sitcom base with traditional choices like How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly and the aforementioned Two and a Half Men. This past September, 2 Broke Girls debuted, rocking the ratings and positioning itself to eventually anchor the evening when the aging Two and a Half Men ends for good. Critics and audiences embraced the Kat Dennings/Beth Behr laugher immediately, scoring big in the ratings and never letting up.
Over at ABC, Modern Family continues to anchor Wednesday nights, accompanied by growing hits in Patricia Heaton's The Middle and newcomer Suburgatory. The only network to accomodate both brands of comedy, ABC also houses the second sitcom to star Tim Allen entitled Last Man Standing. While critics have been less than kind to the previous Home Improvement star, audiences have warmed up to the series in its first four weeks on the air, proving there is still an audience searching for traditional fare, especially in the family genre.
Even FOX, never one to be plentiful in comedy of any variety outside of the animated world, has been enjoying success on Tuesday nights with the one-two-three punch of musical comedy Glee, sophomore favorite Raising Hope and the critically acclaimed New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel.
Only NBC continues to struggle as none of their current comedies are registering on the ratings charts. Newcomers Up All Night and Whitney are hardly lighting fire to the viewership numbers, despite full season orders, while critical darlings Community and Parks & Recreation are averaging below 4 million viewers, a number at which NBC would have laughed uncontrollably just twenty years ago. The lone bright spot on NBC has always been The Office. Despite rarely succeeding in viewership, The Office has always been strong in 18-49 year olds. However this year, the age is starting to show for the Steve Carell-less series. Ratings are down across the board, even in the coveted 18-49 demo.
Still, despite the bad news for NBC, the main networks are enjoying a huge boom in the world of comedy. For the first time ever, the worlds of modern and traditional sitcoms are starting to merge. When all seemed lost in comedy a few years ago, the comedy writing started getting sharper, funnier and more in tune with today's genearation of television viewer.
Perhaps it's an economical backlash allowing comedies to tickle our funny bones all over again, or maybe it's that comedies are finally what we've all wanted for the past several years: smart and funny.
-Last night, FOX's New Girl returned after a one-month hiatus, shedding 2 million viewers and an entire ratings point in the adults 18-49 demographic. I hate to say I told you so, FOX, but... you know...
-FX renewed American Horror Story for a second season. Or, as most followers of Ryan Murphy will call it, the beginning of the end.
-FOX's Allen Gregory debuted to low numbers following The Simpsons this past Sunday. Most would've agreed that Jonah Hill was better-suited as a cartoon character. As far as FOX branching out beyond the Groening/MacFarlane duo in animation, look for Napolean Dynamite to crash and burn in midseason as well. Besides, any new Sunday night toons will simply be placeholders for 2013. Yabba dabba doo...
-ABC's Last Man Standing continues to prove me wrong, notching over 9 million viewers for episode 5 last night. Well done, Tim Allen. You may be one of the few, the proud to headline two successful sitcoms on your own.
As always, thank you sincerely for reading any or all of my column. It's a work in progress, as you can see. If you have any suggestions, comments or criticisms, sound off below. Any ideas for future columns? Be sure to let me know. Next week I'll be taking a look at a few of my favorite gone-too-soon shows. Until then, stay tuned.