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Bemoaning the state of unfunny sitcoms: Stand-up shtick isn't enough

Tuesday, September 21, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- There's probably no new sitcom more emblematic of the state of TV comedy than "The Mike O'Malley Show," premiering tonight at 9:30 on NBC.

That's not a compliment.

The laugh-starved sitcom stars unknown writer/actor Mike O'Malley as a 30-year-old guy who needs to grow up. O'Malley said the show developed out of his writing and "the philosophies of a guy questing to do the right thing."

That quest will probably be cut short.

Signs of a comedy drought are everywhere, from CBS's "Work with Me" to ABC's "Odd Man Out." Most of the new sitcoms forgot the "com" part of the equation. Fox had such rotten luck with sitcoms in recent years (Anyone remember "Costello"? Anyone?) executives gave up and opted to program an edited rerun of "Ally McBeal" for a half-hour at 8 p.m. beginning next Tuesday.

Part of the problem is cyclical. In the early '90s, TV was in a drama slump as "Seinfeld" and "Roseanne" caught ratings fire. Now dramas are back and comedies have declined.

There's a feeling in Hollywood the talent pool -- for both sitcom stars and writers -- has been tapped out. With six major networks and more original programming on cable, talent has been spread too thin.

The lack of a distinct point of view is another complaint.

"You've got to have, if not a special voice, then something to say," said Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group. "It's very difficult if he's a just a funny guy. D.L. Hughley brings a very specific point of view to domestic comedy, that's what excited us when he came in and presented his idea for ['The Hughleys'] to us. And that's why it works."

Every year network execs troll comedy clubs and festivals, hoping to find a diamond in the rough. Too often what they find is simply rough, but they build a show around the person anyway.

Producers discovered comic Mo'Nique at the Montreal Comedy Festival and UPN executives gave her the lead in the network's new "Moesha" spin-off, "The Parkers."

"We could see Mo'Nique spinning out of 'Moesha' really easily," Nunan said, but he's lukewarm on the pickings from today's crop of stand-up comics. "The state of comedy is in such a free-fall. Someone, either a comedy writer or an executive producer, needs to stand up and say, 'Here's where the future of comedy is, and I'm it.' "

Fox Entertainment President Doug Herzog said too few comics are willing to put in the time on stage.

"No one's doing stand-up anymore," Herzog said. "Chris Rock is the only one doing it. If we could find a great standup comedian to develop a sitcom around, we'd be all over him."

Herzog said stand-ups get promoted too quickly to star in their own shows.

"They're not out there honing their chops," he said. "There are plenty of unknowns out there, and hopefully we'll find the next great one, but too many are going from 'go!' to a development deal to cancellation and back to clubs and folding sweaters at The Gap."

When a star is found, pairing that person with a talented writer is key, executives say. UPN's Nunan said it's important the star has a muse in the show runner/writer.

"Drew Carey had several failed sitcoms before his show came along," Nunan said. "It wasn't until he hooked up with [co-creator] Bruce Helford, who got his essence. If you can get the right pairing of writer and performer, then you're golden, because that writer almost has to inhabit the soul of the performer to make sure it works."

Helford, who also co-created "Norm" with Norm Macdonald, said few stand-ups are in touch with who they are as people.

"If they're not, they can't pull upon stuff to act," Helford said. "Drew was a very three-dimensional person. A lot of people, when they became stand-ups, blocked out a lot of stuff, but Norm and Drew are both very much in touch with who they are."

Betty White, who stars in CBS's "Ladies Man" with British actor Alfred Molina, said she welcomes the chance to perform in a show with character humor as opposed to joke humor.

"That's what made 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' work," White said. "The characters were there and you knew the characters and how they would react to a situation."

Ray Romano, the most recent successful stand-up to make the move to television with CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond," said his biggest concern was whether or not he could act.

"The stand-ups that do make it seem to have a quality in their stand-up where they're really playing themselves," Romano said.

Phil Rosenthal, who co-created "Raymond," said Romano's act reminded him of Bill Cosby.

"It was very identifiable and I related very strongly to it," Rosenthal said, adding there was a center to Romano's act that could be built upon by a writing staff. Rosenthal said it's important a comic who gets a TV show be more than a joker.

"A comic that is joke-oriented with no character and personality and point of view just tells jokes anyone could be saying," Rosenthal said. "That's what's wrong with a lot of the sitcoms you see today."

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