The Cosby question--he's heard it before. Chris Rock knows his history well enough to know the parallel: in 1984 a black comic turned his stand-up act into a fresh-voiced family comedy that revived the sitcom genre when, like now, pundits were reading it the last rites. But suggest that UPN's Everybody Hates Chris, which Rock created and narrates, could be today's Great Black Hope, and the comic waxes unphilosophical. "If it's good, it'll work. If not, it won't work." Shrug. Silence. Move on.
The writers of NBC's My Name Is Earl likewise claim to feel little pressure to save a multibillion-dollar business. They just want to get the smoking episode done. In it, Earl Hickey (Jason Lee)--a ne'er-do-well trying to make amends to everyone he has ever wronged--resolves to quit cigarettes. NBC executives have asked for rewrites to make Earl more "active." Shooting is due to start in two days, so the staff of a dozen settles into comfy chairs in the writers' room, downs bottled water and bats around the problem: How can someone actively not do something? Finally, they hit on it. Earl's brother and his friend will kidnap him to force him to confront his task.
The fix works. But the TV business is hoping for a much bigger fix from Chris and Earl, the two funniest new shows of the fall. NBC began two decades of sitcom dominance with The Cosby Show. Last year--when, among other disappointments, Joey lost much of the Friends audience--it fell from first to fourth place in key advertising demographics. "You can't ignore that the stakes are high for NBC for this show," says Earl creator Greg Garcia. "They're excited because they need something to work." UPN, meanwhile, has unsubtly telegraphed its hopes for Chris. It will run Thursdays at 8, Cosby's old time slot on the most profitable night of TV, in the hope of turning the small network from a perpetual joke into a rival to the Big Four.
There's an opening for both shows, if they can take it. Something funny has been happening on TV lately--or, more accurately, hasn't. Everybody Loves Raymond, which signed off in May, was the last sitcom in the top-10 most-watched TV shows. In the 1996-97 season, there were seven. That might not matter, except that sitcoms are TV's cash cow: they do better in reruns and sell for far more money in syndication.
The problem is, there's no simple explanation for TV's laugh lack. "It just doesn't make sense," says Kevin Reilly, NBC's president of entertainment. "The feeling is that America needs to laugh now more than ever." And it does laugh--just not together. Viewers, especially younger ones, seem to be bored with laugh-track sitcoms. But the fresher shows--cable comedies, cartoons, even reality shows--often turn off less adventurous viewers. The key, it seems, is to find the Goldilaughs spot in between, to be original yet familiar.
CSI and Desperate Housewives did that for drama and soaps. But a genre show can hook viewers fast through sensational plots. Guy gets drugged by a hooker--bang, you got 30 million people's attention. Sitcoms depend on gradual bonding with characters, and today's networks, part of media conglomerates, want instant hits. "Laughs are in characters, and no time is being given to establishing them," says Phil Rosenthal, creator of Raymond, which--like Seinfeld and Cheers--had poor ratings its first season.