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Monday, June 17

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A couple weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran the article "Is The Black Sitcom Dying?" It focused on the creation of The CW, and the likelihood of UPN's situational comedies making the merge. Outside of Everybody Hates Chris, it doesn't look good.

But it's not only African-American sitcoms that are dying. Reality TV (American Idol) and procedural dramas (CSI, Law & Order and their various offspring) currently reign supreme at the top of the ratings chart. VCRs, TiVO and the growth of cable television have certainly given viewers more options in what they watch and when. In fact, the most recent Nielsen numbers show that African-American households were the only ones watching sitcoms; in this case, All of Us and Girlfriends.

Situational comedy has come a long way from the 1950s and 1960s, when shows were often filmed live in front of studio audiences and relied on slapstick and misunderstandings to entertain the viewers. In the 1970s, though, sit-coms began to take on controversial issues of the era, from racism (All in the Family) to interracial marriage (The Jeffersons) to abortion (Maude) to divorce (One Day at a Time) to single career women (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to the 1950s (Happy Days). The civil rights and women's movements offered plenty of material for mining a range of emotions beyond mere amusement.

In the 1980s, the majority of mainstream comedy series did a complete reversal, mainly concentrating on getting laughs rather than tackling issues. However, Diff'rent Strokes started the "Very Special Episode" genre with an appearance by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan, who encouraged children to Just Say No to drugs. The series later surpassed this feat by airing an episode about a creepy bicycle repairman who wanted to be special friends with underage boys. Ick. Growing Pains featured the death of Carol's boyfriend — played by Chandler Bing himself, Matthew Perry — after a drunk driving incident. On Family Ties, a friend of Alex P. Keaton's commits suicide, and Uncle Ned (Tom Hanks) shows his alcoholic desperation by drinking a bottle of vanilla extract. Sha la la laaaaaa.

For the most part, though, '80s situational comedies were pure escapist fluff. Witness the No. 1 show of the decade, The Cosby Show. Its spin-off, A Different World, was much more political and often touched on serious topics, but the original Huxtable home concentrated on hoagies, parental control and lip syncing to jazz. There was an occasional lecture about racial equality or the importance of education, but it was mostly a venue to highlight Bill's mugging style. As well as his sweaters.

The 1990s ushered in the Friends era of Professional Pretty People With Wacky Problems, or: Even More Surface Than the '90s! Sure, there was Seinfeld, but even that was about nothing. Scads of interchangeable shows about young people living in big cities in even bigger apartments, falling in and out of love sprung up and fell off the schedule. Will & Grace was touted a groundbreaking series (Gasp! Gay men? I never!) but ended up as conventional as the next sit-com. Which says more, I would hope, about the acceptance of different lifestyles as "everyday" rather than "alternative," but that's an issue for a later column.

In the Oughts, a more subversive kind comedy slowly made itself be noticed. There has always been smart and funny television out there; one just had to know where to find it. On his FOX show, Bernie Mac talked directly to the camera, used text onscreen to point out specifics, and didn't employ a laugh track. NBC's yet-to-be-picked-up-for-another-season Scrubs takes the wackiness to even higher levels but without canned laughter (unless, of course, the episode is deliberately mocking TV conventions, which it does brutally and often). FOX's Arrested Development was adored by the industry as well as its loyal fan base. But even Emmys and Golden Globes couldn't save the show, and in spite of offers from other networks, the creator decided not to continue with the Bluth family. In fact, the only "standard" sitcoms — filmed with three cameras on indoor sets, rarely shot outdoors, laugh tracks to prompt the audience — that have already been renewed for next season are CBS's How I Met Your Mother and Two-and-a-Half Men. NBC's The Office and My Name Is Earl both eschew these methods, and they have been picked up for a third and second season, respectively.

So is the sitcom, no matter what its color or format, truly dead? I doubt it. For one thing, comedies are relatively inexpensive to make. Producers want to generate as much revenue as possible, and a failed sitcom will lose less money than a failed drama series. It's safe to say that Hollywood will keep on cranking out subpar series, hoping one of them will take off and be the next big thing. However, I'd like to think that U.S. audiences would skip Blue Collar TV to watch Earl Hickey's adventures instead. Even though both shows use "poor white trash" as blueprints, only one of them is truly funny (and still on the air)... and it ain't Larry the Cable Guy.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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