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Comic crisis means mirth dearth: sitcoms have thrived with standup stars, but current shortage spells trouble for TV.

Comedy Central's William Shatner roast was supposed to showcase comedy's finest on a channel devoted to the craft. Yet the event mostly underscored how in disrepair the art of standup has become--and by extension, the deflating effect that's had on TV, particularly regarding sitcoms.

Among the key ingredients in television's near-existential comedy crisis is a shortage of comics who can make the episodic leap. Instead, cable presents a horde of vehicles with niche appeal, including HBO's Dane Cook vanity project "Tourgasm," Louis C.K.'s erratic "Lucky Louie," Bravo's peculiar fascination with Kathy Griffin and Jeff Foxworthy's latest hoedown for CMT.

Times change, but it wasn't that long ago when standups stood tall in TV showcases possessing vast popularity, usually drawn all or in part from their acts. The high point stretched from Bill Cosby to its peak in the 1990s, when Roseanne, Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Garry Shandling, Brett Butler, Bob Sager, Drew Carey and Martin Lawrence all starred in long-running comedies.

Today, the well has virtually run dry, with "Everybody Loves Raymond" representing the last golden gush from that spigot.

"There's definitely a void in the standup comedy world, which leads to a void in comedy on television," says producer-manager George Shapiro, who enjoyed one of TV's great successes with "Seinfeld."

Of that earlier comedy class, Shapiro adds, "They had a distinctive point of view, a persona. Those people worked for years as standups. You don't see people emerging like that today. Maybe it was the work ethic."

Admittedly, the dilution of standup comedy is a familiar lament, especially pertaining to sitcoms. Hypnotized by the prospect of the next "Seinfeld" or "Home Improvement," networks and producers began signing young comics to development deals before they mastered five minutes for a latenight spot, much less a cohesive routine.

The current decade also has fueled the "stardom now" mentality, with reality shows--among them "Last Comic Standing"--promising instant fame to the terminally mediocre.

Whatever the combination of factors, it's clear standup comedy has experienced a setback vs. the 1970s and '80s, when those who would migrate to TV--enriching themselves and plenty of others--came of age.

"At the time, the flavor in the clubs was first-person comedy, so you're telling stories about your life, about things that are relatable," recalls HBO chairman Chris Albrecht, who cut his professional teeth managing comics. "That's not as cool now ... as it was back then."

As evidence of the current comedy shortage, tune in to the Shatner roast that premiered Aug. 20, where host Jason Alexander dubbed the performing lineup a "who's that" of comedy--and on that score, he wasn't kidding.

The roster included roast regular Jeffrey Ross, Patton Oswalt, Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange, Greg Giraldo, walking circus act Andy Dick and Lisa Lampanelli. After the 237th joke about George Takei, "Star Trek's" Mr. Sutu, coming out and acknowledging that he's gay, you'd have thought someone, anyone, might have tried winging it. Ditto for Farrah Fawcett, subjected to the same "You used to be hot" joke a few dozen times.

These comics can deliver a line, all right, but they lack the kind of well-developed act that can be parlayed into programming. Rather, this next generation has largely failed to produce material that creates the latticework for a series--that does the hard work, as one exec put it, of laying a show's foundation.

Indeed, even stars of the under-40 class--ABC survivor Jimmy Kimmel, say, or Dave Chappelle, who enjoyed success on Comedy Central before mysteriously imploding--possess relatively narrow appeal, unlike the more universal comics who preceded them. The current brand of standup can be entertaining, but its heavy reliance on scatology and shock value has become a crutch that speaks to an overall dearth of creativity. Notably, top comics who work blue, like George Carlin and Chris Rock, can still be a riot cleaned up--demonstrating that obscenities spice their acts but aren't the whole enchilada.

Jamie Masada, owner of West Hollywood comedy club the Laugh Factory, directs the blame back at the networks. He considers reality competitions like "Last Comic Standing" "degrading" and says there's no modern equivalent of the late Jim McCawley, "The Tonight Show" producer who went into the clubs and helped discover some of comedy's biggest talent.

"The network people don't have that kind of vision now," Masada says. "They're cheap. ... It's not a lack of talent. The starmakers, they are not there anymore."

Whether the standup vine withered or programmers have forgotten how to cultivate it, Shapiro remains optimistic the cycle will inevitably bloom again. "I have faith in the comedy gods," he says.

Maybe so, but if history is any guide, the comedy gods tend to smile on those who help themselves.
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Author:Lowry, Brian
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 21, 2006
Words:785
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