Trends in Network Television Comedy

The Spectators
Bushwick Farms, The Spectators, 2003. Courtesy of ­the Bushwick Farms Family Archive.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’re living in the age of Fat Guy/Hot Wife. Even a casual observer of present-day entertainment will surely have noticed that there are about ten identical shows on TV at the moment, the comedic premise of which is that a fat, unattractive man has a beautiful wife. One of the biggest hits (ratings-wise), but surely the least plausible, is ABC’s According to Jim, which asks us to believe that Jim Belushi, a 50-year-old untucked-T-shirt of a man, with a receding hairline and the worst that Albanian DNA has to offer, has somehow not only met, courted, and married golden retriever-tressed Courtney Thorne-Smith, but has gotten her to stay with him through the steady disintegration of his pants size.

The first of these shows to gain traction was CBS’s King of Queens, starring Kevin James and Leah Remini. It debuted in 1998, is still going strong today, and has steadily gained viewers and critical attention. The formula worked so well that it metastasized, spawning Jim and others: Still StandingListen Up!YesDearRodney, and so on. So successful is the Fat Guy/Hot Wife formula that even NBC’s multimillion-dollar 3-D animated dice-roll Father of the Pride uses it, and the show is about talking lions.

These shows are interchangeable. On Pride, John Goodman voices the main fat-guy lion, opposite Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines’s hot lion wife. Hines, in her day job, is the (relatively) hot wife to Larry David’s skinny ugly guy (he plays himself). Goodman also stars in CBS’s Center of the Universe, opposite Jean Smart, which gives him the honor of being the first fat guy to pull double duty.1 The writers know what’s up: Goodman’s character on Pride is named Larry. So, when Hines went into the recording booth to do the voice-overs for Pride, and she uttered her disapproving hot-wife lines about her fat/ugly husband’s fat-/ugly-guy foibles, she didn’t even have to remember a new name for the husband.

It’s no mystery that people should like the genre—it’s the Honeymooners plot, after all. It’s a classic; it started TV sitcoms off. You just have to ask yourself, how did we get so many Fat Guy/Hot Wives at once? And, a bit more depressingly, how did we wind up with this when ten years ago we were supposedly in an age that had revolutionized comedy, as the critics claimed—the Age of Irony?

The first question is the easier one to answer—it’s financial. The conservatism of the networks comes from the stakes they’re playing for and the need to go with anything that works.

TV and film development is just like the game Battleship. Executives flail around blindly, making wild guesses about what combination of coordinates will hit, and when they do stumble across something that connects, they just keep firing away at the same general area and hope to connect three or four more times with the same exact formula. Witness three CSI shows and soon a fourth Law and Order.

The reason for their desperation is that networks and production companies have to pay extraordinary amounts of money—up front—to put any product on the air. Most shows fail, for reasons the development execs never understand, often before even reaching the point of being aired. For every Cheers, there’s a Coupling. NBC recently pulled the plug on its prospective midseason replacement comedy, The Men’s Room, after the show had shot a half dozen or so episodes, which either will never be aired or will be “burned off” in the summer. That’s probably about $5–$7 million NBC won’t ever get back.

The economics of the industry are such that the TV shows that do air must last for a hundred episodes (five years, usually) in order to be sold into syndication, which is the way for the networks and production companies to make real money. These are long odds on which to bet, and yet no one has figured out a better way to do it. There are exceptions, of course: a movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cost pennies to make, grossed like eleventy billion dollars; and certain TV shows are so popular in the short run that networks can demand extremely high advertising rates. But the average TV show is a roughly break-even or money-losing proposition for the length of time it airs, and with soaring cast salary demands, union costs, and so on, syndication is, financially, the best bet.

Which is why the networks’ recent path has been unsustainable (and they know it), and why their desperation has grown. The cheaper programming that’s became so popular in the last few years—primarily reality shows, which have proliferated, with increasingly baroque and far-out premises, while sitcom plots have been consolidated into, like, one—is fatally compromised for syndication. Reality shows are cheap to produce, and the biggies get good ad rates, but The Apprentice isn’t going to fill producers’ pockets for twenty years in syndication. You already know who’s fired.

The lure of the half-hour sitcom is that it’s more amenable to syndication than almost anything else, and a mega-sitcom can become a flagship for a network while it lasts—dragging a whole night, sometimes, into high ratings. In 2002, NBC’s then-President of Programming, Jeff Zucker, who’d failed time and again to find a decent replacement for Friends, threw a million dollars per episode at each of the six principals to bring them back for one more year, one of the most expensive Band-Aids in entertainment history. It guaranteed that despite the farewell season’s huge ratings, the show could barely make any money that year. Zucker also made Kelsey Grammar the highest-paid actor on TV for Frasier, and Jane Leeves (Daphne, on the show) the highest-paid British actress in history, and so on, and so on.

But no network has a Friends on its roster right now. Every year, the networks announce their new fall lineups at something called the “Up-Fronts,” which is a presentation to advertisers from major corporations. The TV executives boldly promise that their new shows will draw crowds by the tens of millions. But they’re as baffled as anybody. With more hours devoted to reality TV, prime-time news, and police procedurals, fewer slots go to new comedies. Whatever time is left is going to be crowded with the same formulas, wherever a network suspects it can get a response—B19, A5.

I sincerely doubt that anyone at CBS thought that their show Two and a Half Men would be a big hit. And yet we somehow find ourselves participating in a culture where Two and a Half Men is a big hit. Once it happens, you get two, five, ten Two and a Half Men. Network comedy is a business in which lightning always strikes twice.

  1. Center of the Universe’s Jean Smart, if not “hot,” is, at the very least, far too hot to be married to John Goodman, who is, at the time of this writing, one glazed bear claw away from complete aortic rebellion. 

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