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FROM THIS EPISODE

It's a Mistake

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot.

I got a call from a reporter recently. He was doing a piece on the decline of the TV sitcom, trying to figure out why thee hasn't been a really big hit in a while. Dramas, serials, reality -- all of those areas are doing robust business. But comedy, which used to pay the big bills, isn't doing much of anything.

---Do you think,--- he asked me, ---that comedy will ever come back strong to television?---

---No.---

---Really?---

See, I was hungry and I wanted to get off the phone, and additionally, I usually hate it when reporters call me and want me to sort of talk it all out for them, so that they end up with a lot of material that can form the body of their piece, plus a quote to button it up, so that it looks like the reporter did some darn hard thinking about the issue, and, well, quotable expert so-and-so agrees with him, when in fact, quotable expert so-and-so is really agreeing with himself.

---Nope. Comedy is dead.---

And then I went back to my sandwich.

I was only half-kidding, of course. It isn't exactly dead, but it isn't exactly alive, either. Put it this way: television comedy is right now lolling in the day room of an assisted living facility, and not one of the super-nice ones, either, with the golf course and the fun theme buffets, but one of the places where they don't get to clean the floors as much as they should, where the TV set is always on, and the air smells vaguely of scrambled eggs and despair. (Wow. That was vivid. I can't tell if that was good writing or really bad writing.) Anyway, television comedy is still spry, still all there upstairs, but it's losing its joy. Comedy is lonely for company. Comedy gets no visitors on Sunday.

Here's the problem: every hit comedy -- every one, for as far back as I can remember -- has been some kind of mistake. Somebody somewhere at a network or a studio screwed up and let a show slip through that really shouldn't have. Seinfeld was too Jewish. Friends was too young, if you can believe it. Cheers was too... complicated. For these shows -- and all of the other comedy hits -- to have slipped through, something had to have gone haywire. The network had to have been broke and unable to replace it quickly. The other shows in contention had to have collapsed, somehow, during the pilot production phase. A hit show is a mistake. It's an anomaly. It's not the by-product of the careful, controlled, rigid system of developing, casting, and market-testing TV comedy that networks need, for some reason, to do. It's the widget that slips through the quality control system. It's the Twinkie with no filling. It's the chicken noodle soup in the tomato soup can. It's the severed finger in the frozen burrito. I mean... you know what I mean. It's the thing that slips through, despite the all efforts. Show business success reverse Darwinism. The unlikely survival of the weakest.

So is TV comedy dead? Only if the doctors succeed. But if they make a mistake, it's got a real shot at recovery.

That's it for this week. Next week, we eat pineapple rice. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.

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