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Surge in sitcoms is no laughing matter

By Richard Verrier
Saturday, November 27, 2010; C04

LOS ANGELES - In a case of true comic relief, sitcoms are making a comeback and keeping sorely needed jobs in Los Angeles.

Fueling the increase in sitcoms are several new productions filming locally, including NBC's "The Paul Reiser Show," Fox's "Raising Hope" and the cable comedies "The Hard Times of RJ Berger" on MTV and Showtime's "Shameless."

This new crop of half-hour comedies is helping drive up television production at a time when L.A. has been struggling to keep major feature films from fleeing the state to cheaper locales.

Last week, activity for on-location shoots for television programs doubled over the same time a year ago, a sign that the sector is rebounding after falling in the third quarter. Dramas were up 36 percent, TV reality programs rose 128 percent and situation comedies jumped 1,580 percent - no, that's not a typo - from the same time last year. A similar surge in sitcom activity occurred the previous week.

Sitcoms, which a year ago accounted for only 2 percent of TV production, saw their share of the pie increase to 16 percent, according to data from nonprofit film permitting group FilmL.A.

After the success of hit shows such as "Friends" and "Seinfeld," there had been a lull in sitcom production in the past decade because few new series took off, prompting programmers to pull back on the genre. But with the popularity of such programs as the hit CBS comedy "Two and a Half Men" and ABC's "Modern Family," studios and networks are again devoting more resources to the format.

Sitcoms can be more lucrative to the studios when the reruns are sold into syndication because they command higher prices from TV stations than dramas.

Cable channels also are getting into the comedy business. A decade ago, sitcoms were almost exclusively the domain of the large broadcast networks. But the explosion of cable channels hungry for programming, and the recent success with such comedies as "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" on FX, have enticed basic cable channels - including USA, MTV and even TV Land - to get on board.

(Although the rise in cable sitcoms is creating more jobs, those who work on the shows frequently earn less money than they would on network programs.)

Half-hour comedies have been generating strong ratings: Six of the top 10 scripted shows are comedies, and about 40 percent of all comedies this season are maintaining or exceeding last year's ratings, compared with 14 percent for dramas, said Gary Newman, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Television.

"There just seems to be renewed interest in comedies that for the longest time wasn't there," Newman said. "Comedies across the board are performing better on network television than any other genre of programming." Newman chalks up the popularity of comedies to the cyclical nature of the TV business and to viewers "looking for an escape" from the dour economy.

Unlike traditional multi-camera sitcoms, which were typically recorded before a live audience, most of the new half-hour comedies are shot more like dramas, with a single camera. And they often are filmed on location, not just on a soundstage.

Fox shoots five half-hour comedies in Los Angeles, including "Friends With Benefits" and the new series "Raising Hope," which is based in Chatsworth, Calif., and films heavily in the San Fernando Valley, where the show's writer, Greg Garcia, lives.

"Modern Family" is based on the Fox lot and frequently shoots in the Los Angeles area.

Unlike dramas, which can easily be shot out of state, sitcoms have always been centered in L.A. because comedy writers typically need to be close to the production so they can interact with directors and producers.

"We think comedies have a better chance of working," Newman said, "if we can get everyone in the same city."

- Los Angeles Times

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