COMEDY SEEMS TO be king in the near-term future of prime-time television.
In announcing the ABC fall schedule, ABC entertainment president Fred Silverman noted that his new offerings gave his network 10 hours of prime-time comedy. He added: This is the first time in memory that a network has introduced exclusively comedic-form programs in its new fall schedule."
CBS added four situation comedies to its fall schedule, three new and one, "The Tony Randall Show, that had previously been droped by ABC.
NBC's fall lineup does not place the same degree of emphasis on comedy as do those of ABC and CBS. Nevertheless, NBC did give us two blockbuster comedy hours in the past few days on the same night - Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. And Pryor will have his own weekly show on NBC in the fall.
While all this has been going on, PBS has been reminding us just how good comedy can be on television by running a retrospective of the late Ernie Kovacs, the first person to use television technology for heightened comedic effect.
The Kovacs retrospective and the Pryor and Chase specials suggest the infinite possibilities of comedy on television. It can assume forms other than half-hour situation shows. People like Redd Foxx and Dick Van Dyke are moving into the comedy-variety area. Foxx will have his own hour on ABC and Van Dyke is joining Carol Burnett, who has lost Harvey Korman to ABC where he will be developing new projects.
In the past five or so years, situation comedy has been dominant over comedy variety. The pathfinders have been half-hour shows such as "All In the Family," "Maude," "M*A*S*H*," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and more recently, "Barney Miller." In earlier years, the groundbreaking shows that pushed back the limits of what you could or could not do on television, the shows that you turned to for distinctiveness, used the hour form - Sid Caesar, "The Colgate Comedy Hour," Steve Allen, "Laugh-In" and "The Smothers Brothers."
It is too early to tell whether this return to a greater balance in television comedy - the situation comedy as the staple, surrounded by more hour comedy-variety shows - is merely a fluke or trend for the future.
Part of the reason for comedy's seeming resurgence may be found in the trend away from the action-drama, works depends, in varying degrees, on violence. The networks' diminished interest in action drama may have followed pressure from viewers for less violence and from advertisers not wanting their products associated with such programs.
But I have suspicion that the shift from action-drama to more comedy may also have resulted from network programmers realizing that shows with violence as their main retionale were simply boring viewers. The net-works seem to have concluded that they were overdoing a bad thing.
My greatest concern about this trend - happy as I am to see its emergence - is that as violence diminishes on our screens, the bluenosed cultural vigilantes (the closet programmers) will turn their attention to what they consider to be promiscuousness on situation and variety comedy.
In Richard Pryor's special, he said at one point, "I'm going to bust your ass." In the Chevy Chase special, Chase had one very explicit reference to the old joke about boys going blind from excessive masturbation. Chase also had a scene at the end where he is in bed with his real-life wife. She complains she is tired and doesn't want to do "the same number" he always requests at bedtime. What he is really talking about, as it turns out, is her getting out of bed to play the piano so he can fall asleep.
It was all very harmless and terribly funny. But I had the growing feeling as I watched both specials that this kind of humor on the comedy-variety form, plus whatever Redd Foxx may have in store for us, will send the cultural vigilantes to lighting their torches or speed them to their typewriters to send off indgnant letters to the editor.
I hope this will not be the case. We have come a long way in the past five or six years in permitting adult humor to flourish on the situation comedies. It would be a pity if any similar efforts to appeal to the adult sense of humor on variety comedy would bring complains that the networks had replaced action-drama violence with sexual suggestiveness. Adults have their rights as to what is on television. There is nothing written in stone that says we have to have all programming pass muster for 12-year-olds.