The sitcom elders have the floor

Times Staff Writer

Visit the right charity events or swankest Westside restaurants and you'll hear the nervous murmurs -- or in some cases thinly veiled panic -- about the declining state of TV comedy.

Heavyweights like "Friends," "Frasier" and "Sex and the City" are each nearing the end of storied runs without the networks having groomed clear successors capable of replacing them. Meanwhile, an outbreak of "reality shows" has sitcom writers wondering if their employment prospects are limited to contestant-hood on "Fear Factor" or "The Bachelor."

Sitcoms have been written off before -- perhaps most famously in the early 1980s, before "The Cosby Show" exploded on the scene. It was followed by a string of ratings-topping powerhouses -- think "Roseanne," "Home Improvement," "Seinfeld" -- that carried through the 1990s. Yet with too many "Friends" clones having yielded too few hits, the forecasts of doom and gloom have resurfaced, with a greater sense of urgency as "reality" takes root.

So what's wrong with comedies, and how can the form be fixed? The Times sought a diagnostic appraisal from four writer-producers who, each in his own way, helped define and shape the TV sitcom: Norman Lear ("All in the Family"), Carl Reiner ("The Dick Van Dyke Show"), Sherwood Schwartz ("The Brady Bunch") and Leonard Stern ("Get Smart"), who recently convened at Lear's Beverly Hills offices to offer their perspective on comedy and why it's ailing.

As members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed "the greatest generation" (Schwartz is 86 years old, while Lear, Reiner and Stern are each 80), this collected wisdom might fall on deaf ears among those charged with reaching the prototypical "American Idol" viewer.

Still, their programs continue to resonate and entertain. The reruns play across the cable dial and are being embraced by new generations thanks to Nickelodeon and sister network TV Land, which launches its inaugural TV Land Awards, a tribute to "classic TV," on March 12. Somehow, it's hard to imagine cultural curators awarding similar plaudits to "Good Morning, Miami" or "According to Jim" decades from now, much less "Joe Millionaire."

"I doubt many of these comedies will have the lasting power that the work we did has had," said Schwartz, who unabashedly makes the case that another of his enduring productions, "Gilligan's Island," actually provides a timely lesson for the world in its emphasis on a disparate group of people trying to get along. If nothing else, the show became its own sort of template for the ensemble comedy.

"We're talking about shows that aired 40, 50 years ago," Schwartz said. "I don't know how many current comedy shows will be returning for 40 or 50 years. I doubt it, really."

The session, however, was far from a tired rant about the good old days, as these men in their 80s talked about their TiVo digital recorders (a Lear favorite), DVD players and "South Park" -- while expressing admiration for such programs as Larry David's improvised HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond."

In addition, they seemed to agree that there will be an inevitable popular resurgence for comedy -- if only as a much-needed respite from the drumbeat of "terror alerts" and war.

"Comedy will always be there, because people need to laugh," Reiner said. "What's going on in the world today is so terrible, so chaotic, that people have to find a way to laugh. They have to be able to turn off Bush telling us that we're going to war."

"The wheel spins," said Lear. "What year was it that [TV executive] Fred Silverman said, 'Situation comedy's gone,' and within a year, a year and a half, there was a lot of stuff flourishing....

" 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' reflects this moment better than anything all of us did, and it's great. I feel the same way about 'South Park,' " Lear continued, wearing his trademark porkpie hat and talking about his shared affinity for the risque animated show with his 14-year-old son. "If you have the energy, and the time, and the desire to search everything that's there -- all the drama, all the cable channels, all the odd shows -- this could be the Golden Age of television. The problem is it isn't collected the way it used to be."

The perception nevertheless lingers that comedy is mired in the Zirconia Age, at a time when dramas are perceived to be at or near their creative apex. "The dramatic shows today are better than the comedy shows, no question," Schwartz said.

To Reiner, part of the problem is structural: Time -- or more precisely, the lack of it -- isn't on the side of modern sitcoms, which at 22 minutes minus promotion and commercials run at least four minutes shorter than early comedies -- interruptions, incidentally, that clearly annoy him to no end.

"Character and story seem to have diminished along with the loss of time," agreed Stern, who also wrote for "The Honeymooners."

"Because of the loss of time," added Schwartz.

According to Stern -- who despite his stately manner is an adept and pointed satirist of TV practices, having compiled a book of actual network notes to producers titled "A Martian Wouldn't Say That" -- the networks' emphasis on focus group testing and research has become "a substitute for making decisions, replacing the visceral instinct that we used to deal with.... Within 24 hours we always got a yes or no on whether we should go ahead, and we were free of any involvement until we delivered the script."

"And you could win battles," Schwartz said. "You cannot win battles now."

Corporate interests over comedy

Indeed, a frequent modern complaint is that the network and studio are often part of the same media empire, depriving producers of a strong advocate to intercede on their behalf.

That issue particularly resonates with Lear, whose current passion involves a national tour showcasing his copy of the Declaration of Independence (one of 25 known to exist), having parlayed his success as a producer into a platform for liberal political activism.

"I don't think there's anything more dangerous in American life, other than this war, than the concentration of media power," he said. "It's unthinkable that there could be just three funnels through which all the news and information, let alone entertainment, pass to the peoples of the world.

"That's what we're coming to. I remember when there were three networks, we used to talk about how there were only three doors to knock on, three stages to play on. True. And now, that may be what we're returning to -- after we have 112 stations."

That corporate influence has also exacted a toll on comedy, Stern maintains, souring the atmosphere within the TV business. "There's been a theft of joy," he said. "I don't sense the fun that once was prevalent on each of our sets, or behind the scenes."

"But we don't know," Reiner interjected. "We're so old, they don't let us on the sets to see."

With a performing career dating back to "Your Show of Shows" as well as "Dick Van Dyke" as temperamental host Alan Brady, Reiner remains exceptionally quick with a one-liner -- exploding with a terse (and unprintable) response when the subject of language is raised, then feigning deafness at the mention of Hollywood ageism.

He is also relatively sanguine about the quality of today's comedies. "There are shows that pop up and can't get tamped down, like 'Raymond,' or Larry David's show," Reiner said. "There are islands that crop up."

"Gifted individuals always overcome the system," Stern said. "The five or six shows we all agree we admire are the results of individuals who defied, and defeated, creative interference. It's a tribute, because today it comes in waves."

Lear also noted that questions of form -- whether single-camera comedies such as Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," say, are preferable to more traditional multiple-camera shows like "Friends" -- are less important than substance, noting that David in his show has managed to "bend the form in his direction."

A more significant shift, Stern suggested, is that earlier generations of TV writers were better trained -- particularly those who cut their teeth in the 1950s and grew up listening to radio.

"Radio was an enormous mentor," he said. "It gave us cadence, rhythms. We understood jokes, and we could construct jokes so they were witty.... Today, there's an absence of the basic structure." These producers, of course, fought their own battles with network censors that, in hindsight, sound almost quaint -- from Schwartz wrestling to keep footage of swimsuit-clad "Gilligan" co-star Tina Louise exiting a lagoon to a CBS executive, concerned about the fit of Mary Tyler Moore's dress, ungrammatically cautioning Reiner to "watch the under-cupage."

"I said, 'I will watch it, and the country will watch it,' " Reiner quipped.

Still, while hardly prudes, they unanimously said that more permissive standards haven't benefited TV comedy. "I don't mind the language as much as the innuendo," Lear said. "I hate the cheap sex jokes."

"You know when you're watching a show when the language is necessary to make the scene work," Reiner said. "I don't care what the curse word is, you know when that man must say that word at that moment. It's when they decide to use it because they know it's going to get a laugh."

Lear, in fact, remembered an episode of "Maude" in which the title character learned her husband had nearly cheated on her. After an extended debate, he challenged the network standards executive to come up with another phrase Maude would utter in that situation. The network finally relented, he said, "and not one state seceded from the Union."

"It shouldn't be a substitute for a punch line, and it's become that," Stern said.

Despite such battles years ago, comedy veterans such as Mel Brooks have proposed that political correctness -- in the form of heightened sensitivity among a vast assortment of easily offended groups -- has made comedy a more delicate balancing act. Reiner, Brooks' partner on "The 2000 Year Old Man," agreed to a point.

"Political correctness is the death of commercial [supported] comedy, when people are paying you for selling a product," he said. "If you're watching HBO or the cable shows, political correctness doesn't stop George Carlin from telling the truth, and it's forcing people to stop watching these shows where they're not getting the truth. So when George Carlin is on, I'm switching over."

Such pressures invite the question: How much trickier would it be to launch a boundary-pushing political comedy like "All in the Family" now?

"I'll tell you what made 'All in the Family' possible: It was the best thing ever, and you can't throw away the best thing ever," said Reiner, whose son, Rob, co-starred on the series.

"Once you're on, you can do it," Lear said. "It's the American adage, don't [fool] with success. David Kelley's doing it. Dick Wolf is doing what he wants to do. Those guys who are functioning and bringing in the ratings are doing it."

Notably, today's best comedies generally run for more years than their predecessors, which might have contributed to a sense of fatigue. The staggering salaries paid producers and stars make it difficult to push themselves away from the table, even if a show might be beyond its creative prime.

Citing "Frasier," Schwartz said, "The first five years of that show were absolutely brilliant, but they've gone so overboard, I think they've lost their true self."

As for the temptation to keep cashing in, Schwartz said, "It's not about money. You should be proud of what you're doing, or you shouldn't do it.... We all take pride in what we do, and if we don't, you should be doing something else."

For that reason, Reiner balked at a sixth year of "Dick Van Dyke" despite a lucrative offer to continue. "We knew we had started to repeat ourselves, and when you get to that, it's time to stop," he said.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, none of them could begin to fathom the appeal of the so-called reality shows that have helped push sitcoms to the sidelines this season. "Grrr," Reiner said. "Can you put that down? Grrr."

"I cannot comprehend why those shows are entertainment," Schwartz said. "It's like a car crash, but that's over in an instant."

"You don't like people eating worms?" Lear asked.

As for the fact that such shows reach the younger viewers advertisers covet, Stern called that "a ridiculous self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make shows that only appeal to a certain age group, eventually, that's all you're going to have."

The producers acknowledged that not every project they made deserved immortality, and Reiner stressed that current hand-wringing over TV comedy might not be borne out by history.

"Everybody has their own nostalgia," he said. "The people who are living today will watch these shows and remember them fondly, because that's what they grew up with. That's the food you were served as child, even if it's not as good as the food that was served before."

And while Schwartz deadpanned that he always knew his castaways would remain stranded and the Bradys would still be smiling from their grid into the 21st century, Stern echoed a common adage among those whose work plays on and on.

"If we knew the shows were going to become classics," he said, "we would have written them better."

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