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Can the laughs get back on track?

Times Staff Writer

If it were the mid-1990s, Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd would be a couple of months away from launching the closest thing to a sure hit on television. As if their award-winning comic chops, developed on a string of previous hits such as “Wings,” “Just Shoot Me” and “Frasier,” weren’t enough, their new show on Fox, “Back to You,” also marks the highly anticipated return of two certified TV stars -- Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer.

But a lot has changed on the small screen in the last decade. Sitcoms are no longer the lingua franca of prime-time television. New comedies are becoming more scarce thanks in no small part to the proliferation of reality programming. TV audiences too are steadily shrinking overall, and the networks, like many traditional media outlets, seem bewildered by the tectonic shifts shaking beneath them.

“We really do feel like underdogs,” said Levitan over lunch with his partner on the Fox lot. “I know that sounds crazy because we both have some successes under our belts, but the world is very different now.”

How this different audience-fragmented world receives “Back to You” when it premieres in mid-September could easily influence comedy development for the next season, perhaps even longer. Early reports from bloggers and TV critics about the sitcom set in a Pittsburgh local TV newsroom have been almost uniformly warm.

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Pre-premiere chatter helps, but if that doesn’t eventually translate into sizable ratings, the future of television comedy may be grimmer than even pessimists believe and the traditional multi-camera manner in which the show is shot could drop in demand to the level of a cord phone. And with the demise of the multi-cam, with its theater-like feel, popular culture would lose a form that carried some of the most beloved comedies -- ranging from “I Love Lucy” to “All in the Family” to “Seinfeld.”

“There are going to be a lot of eyes on this show, particularly with its two big comedy stars,” said Steve Sternberg, executive vice president of audience analysis for Magna Global, a New York-based media buying firm. “If it doesn’t work, it’s going to be a lot harder to get a multi-camera show on the air any time soon.”

For decades, multi-cam comedies have been a prime-time staple as much for their hit-making potential as for the relatively cheap production costs, but the shows, filmed before live studio audiences, have fallen out of fashion. Rising to take the few remaining network comedy spots has been the single-camera style, whose movie-like freedom and ease can be seen in such critically acclaimed programs as “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Arrested Development.” With a welcome change in pacing and no laugh-track-sweetened live audience, single-camera exudes a sophisticated cool that executives believe appeals to the prized and more tech-savvy 18-to-49 demographic.

Actually, few young viewers today probably realize that single-camera comedies are older than they are. The form used in such shows as “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie” in the mid-'60s was once the prevailing force of prime-time comedies. While not near those heights today, single-camera is again gaining ground. Of the eight new half-hour comedies greenlighted for this fall, five are single-camera -- the first time in decades singles have outnumbered the multi-cams.

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“The problem with multi-camera shows is that over the years there has been a glut of them and there have been so many bad ones with the same rhythm that the form itself got stale,” said Ken Levine, a veteran comedy writer for shows such as “MASH,” “Cheers” and “Frasier,” who blogs about pop culture. “Comedy itself is really at the lowest point it has ever been.”

Even in Hollywood, where blame gets passed around like a viral video, there’s little disagreement about the generally punchless condition of most prime-time sitcoms over the last decade. “Most of them haven’t been funny,” said Grammer, who plays an egocentric news anchor on his way down the ladder of success. “It’s just that simple.”

This isn’t the first era in which the media has been churning out stories about the alleged death of television comedy, multi-cam or otherwise. In 1983, when just one of Nielsen’s top 10 shows was a comedy, the media was filled with stories about its demise at the hands of prime-time soaps. However, the following year, NBC launched “The Cosby Show” -- a multi-camera sitcom that single-handedly rejuvenated the genre and transformed the then-sick network into a ratings giant.

Sitcom popularity may well be cyclical, but where the zeitgeist is in the cycle at the moment is unclear. Studio and network officials are obviously high on “Back to You” but caution against portraying it as a magic bullet that could wound the reality programming monster. “I don’t want to make it seem like we’re reinventing the multi-cam sitcom or that this one is going to somehow save the genre,” said Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces “Back to You.” “I don’t want to set the bar too high, but I can tell you, I like this show. I really like this show.”

Levitan, whose first job out of college was as a local TV news reporter and morning anchor in Madison, Wis., and Lloyd, whose first big break came as a writer for “The Golden Girls,” concede the multi-cam format has suffered from its own success. After hundreds of shows, audiences now know the multi-cam sitcom drill all too well -- setup, punch line, setup, punch line, setup, punch line. See you next week.

“There is a pervasive panic at the networks about why comedy, especially anything that seems old-fashioned or less flashy, isn’t working,” said Lloyd. “When you go in with an idea now, there’s a lot of ‘Does this need to be racier?’ ‘Does this need to be younger?’ It’s a deer-in-the-headlights kind of reaction almost.”

But from the day last year that “Back to You” was conceived, the writing and producing partners always envisioned the show as a multi-cam comedy despite the risk of appearing conventional. Raised on the style with programs such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” the pair are convinced the form, even in today’s “YouTube” world, has much more to give.

“The reason the form has worked as successfully as it has for the past 40 years is that energy of a live audience laughing takes the actors up to another level,” said Lloyd, who met Levitan on the writing staff of “Wings” and later linked with him on “Frasier.” “The home audience feels that too.”

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As a performer, Heaton prefers the multi-cam comedy. “I rarely laugh out loud at a single-camera comedy,” said Heaton, who enjoyed a nine-season run on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “In my head, I’m thinking it’s funny, but with a multi-cam, when you are out there in front of an audience, there’s this heightened reality, and it’s really something. There’s a reason that’s the classic way to do a sitcom.”

Heavyweights lend some heft

AFTER a sitcom pitch for another series last year was roundly rejected by the networks, a stunned Levitan and Lloyd took the unusual step of further developing the “Back to You” idea by writing a spec script. With Grammer in mind, they built a story that could capture the insanity of local news but also the poignancy of an aging anchor who was finally being forced by circumstance to grow up. Grammer read the script and signed on almost immediately. He then recommended Heaton, who came aboard shortly thereafter.

“People want an invitation to laugh, and this is it,” said Grammer, who rocketed to stardom playing the pompous psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane on “Cheers.” “Patricia and I have a history in television, we are living history, and I think we have a chance to do something special that audiences will remember.”

“Back to You” was bid on by three networks, with Fox eventually outmaneuvering the others for the property. “I’ve never for one second believed the multi-camera comedy is dead,” said Peter Liguori, who was president of Fox Entertainment when he bought the comedy but has since been bumped up to chairman. “We think there is still a lot of great humor to be mined in the multi-cam world and thought what better way to go forward than with two actors and two show runners [Levitan and Lloyd] with a tremendous comic pedigree.”

The show will not only be battling to stand out on the fall schedule but also may be fighting a surprising force -- multi-cam classics in syndication. Every day across the country hundreds of stations are rebroadcasting the greatest multi-cam sitcom hits -- “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Frasier,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld” -- many infused with talents from the “Back to You” team.

“The audience is comparing the new comedies to those old ones,” said Sternberg, who wrote a report in March titled “Comedies on Television” that was circulated throughout the industry. “And, well, you have to have a pretty darn good one to break through.”

Of course, there is evidence a multi-camera show can still corral an audience. Television’s No. 1 comedy is a multi-cam -- CBS’ “Two and a Half Men,” which is entering its fifth season this fall.

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Levitan and Lloyd are hoping to join the funny boys atop the ratings. So are many others. Levitan recalled meeting the Midwestern owner of a chain of Fox affiliates at the New York upfronts, where the networks unveiled their fall schedules for advertisers in the spring.

“He said, and I remember this because he grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘We need this to work.’ That’s how dire it has become for these station groups because the sitcom multi-cam has been their bread and butter for so long.”

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martin.miller@latimes.com


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