So 10,000 sitcom writers walk into a bar...
For an art form no one has ever respected, people spend a lot of time worrying about the state of the sitcom. How about jazz or painting? Or poetry? Pretty important for the last 24 centuries, that one has deteriorated into whatever 50 Cent can rhyme with “club.” The man is one album away from cornering himself into a Charlie Daniels-esque hubbub with Beelzebub.
Yet people feel that a season without hilarious 21-minute playlets bespeaks a failure of our entire society. The unspoken fear is that if we can’t make another “Seinfeld,” what hope do we have against the Chinese? Those people can even make menus funny.
To save us before we fall disastrously behind, Sean Hayes, who plays the gayer gay guy on “Will & Grace,” decided to stop complaining about sitcoms and finally do something to save the cursed format that has made him rich and famous. His Bravo show, “Situation: Comedy,” invited people from across the country to submit pilot scripts. He was looking for new voices that the staid network pitching system doesn’t seek out. The last time someone tried this, Redd Foxx rehired all the Jews the next day.
But Hayes indeed got 10,000 scripts from all over the country, from young and old, red states and blue states, men and women, and one person who wanted the main character to be a lampshade. A lampshade that, no doubt, was fat and annoying but had a hot lampshade wife.
The nationwide search ended, of course, with the selection of two teams of young white guys. And the team that’s winning has a guy so connected that I know him. And I know Carrot Top. Do the math.
Bravo has been referring to one finalist, Andrew Leeds, as a math tutor. What they’ve left out is that he’s a 26-year-old Stanford graduate who has acted on shows such as “The Practice,” “CSI,” “Nip/Tuck” and “I’m With Her.” He has Stanford and Harvard buddies writing for “Desperate Housewives,” “Joey,” “King of Queens” and the upcoming “Everybody Hates Chris” pilot. My new boss, the creator of a show on both the upcoming ABC and NBC schedules, also knows him. This was the most unsuccessful search party outside of Tora Bora.
Leeds’ writing partner on the show, Stanford grad David Lampson, was the editor of the Stanford humor magazine and a novelist. The team they are competing against for the chance to get a TV writing agent are two young Jewish guys who have optioned a screenplay -- and already have an agent.
“I was surprised there wasn’t one person who just picked up a pen and just wrote a great sitcom,” Lampson said. “It kind of makes you think that most of the guys who really want to write comedy are already trying to do it.” Not only that, but even guys who don’t want to write comedy are working for Jim Belushi.
Sitcom writing isn’t, after all, a profession you have to trick people into, like nursing or being press secretary for Pat Robertson. People aren’t exactly scared away by getting paid a lot of money to eat snacks and make jokes. Although Showtime probably wishes it hadn’t offered that deal to Kirstie Alley.
Hayes’ bold experiment proves that a broken system isn’t causing sitcoms to be lousy. The problem is that very few people can make something good, whether it’s sitcoms, classical music, pizza or an article that can explain that Robert Novak scandal.
And now that we have cable, the Internet, MP3s and Xboxes, our bar for what is worthwhile has been raised. Few of the hit sitcoms from previous decades would make it past the pitch stage today. In the ‘60s, you were satisfied with shows about genie wives and talking horses and identical cousins. It’s like you were all on drugs or something.
The irony is that even making a good reality show is hard.
“Situation: Comedy” is such a ratings catastrophe that Bravo bumped it to Fridays at 7 p.m., when the audience is made up only of guys like me -- in high school. I bet, after this experience, Sean Hayes is being really nice to the “Will & Grace” creators.