Frost Previews Best and Worst Summer TV Comedies

Salt Lake City Weekly | August 7, 2004
Summer Funny TV comedy isn’t completely dead, it’s just warming up elsewhere.


The biggest unspoken message sent by last month’s upfront presentations by the six major TV networks was easily, “The sitcom is dead.” Other subliminal hints at what’s in store for fall 2004 included “Sci-fi is too expensive—go read a comic book, geek,” “Everybody loves reality dating/makeover/talent shows, how could we possibly ever make too many?” and “Caller No. 16 wins today’s CSI: Your Town franchise deal and tickets to see Nickelback this weekend.”

If comedy on TV is dying, it’s because of life-sucking yuk vacuums like Come to Papa (NBC; debuts June 3), the Peacock net’s lone scripted offering in a deceptively-marketed New! Summer! Season! full of the usual cheap-o reality programming. According to NBC but unverifiable through other sources, Tom Papa is a famous comedian, and Come to Papa (get it?) is based on his “wildly successful stand-up” (also unverifiable). He stars here as a New Jersey newspaper reporter who wants to break out and become a comedy writer, a common newspaper reporter dream right up there with paying off the Hyundai and drinking oneself to death. We’ve all learned to avoid NBC Thursdays at 7:30, right? Go with that.

If comedy on TV is still alive and well, it’s because of unconventional sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office, Significant Others and a growing handful that eschews laugh tracks and predictable rhythms in favor of smart scripting, new spins on familiar situations and, crazy as it sounds, comedy not transparently designed to appeal to all demographics at all times at all costs.

Unfortunately, like cussing cowboys and shows dedicated entirely to Lil’ John’s rims, this comedy approach is almost exclusively the domain of cable—add Good Girls Don’t (Oxygen; debuts June 4) to the list. Kind of a Sex and the City reconfigured for 20-something Los Angelinos, this perils-of-dating sitcom isn’t quite as edgy and irreverent as it thinks it is, but for those of us who’ve had little reason to flip to Oxygen since they canceled Pajama Party (where art thou, Katie Puckrick?), it’s way further above the bar than it has to be. Sample banter: “Just because I’m hot doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings.” “Yes, it does—you don’t get to have everything.”

More reality talent competition than sitcom, Last Comic Standing (NBC; season premiere June 8) still packed more laughs in its debut 10-week summer run than NBC’s entire (and now entirely canceled) new fall 2003 “comedy” lineup that followed—can we get one last shout-out for Whoopi? No? OK, that’s cool.

Despite revelations of dubious casting practices (a reality TV given, like product placement and random nudity), a painfully unfunny first winner (Dat Phan, who seems to be working less than the comics he beat out; he should hook up a tour with Rueben Studdard, or Tom Papa) and the continued presence of host Jay Mohr (part comedian, part ferret, all ooky), Last Comic Standing remains a much-needed platform for that most underrated of performance arts, stand-up comedy. Think the “talents” on American Idol could write their own material, much less dare to perform it in a $10 Members Only jacket from the outlet mall? Not likely, dawg.

As was the case last summer, the funniest show on TV during the hot months is once again Reno 911! (Comedy Central; season premiere Wednesday, June 9), the too-perfect Cops parody that actually produces more comedy than Cops itself—a feat believed impossible for well over a decade. The sight of short-shorted Lt. Dangle (Thomas Lennon, an alum of The State and Viva Variety) busting—and occasionally engaging in homoerotic activities with—sleazy perps in the sleazier ‘burbs of Reno is probably the least politically incorrect aspect of the improvised show, which drops pointed jokes about race and class at a pace bested only by South Park.

Like many current hit cable series, Reno 911! was originally developed for and rejected by a broadcast network (in this case, Fox). So, whose fault is it that the sitcom is “dead”?

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