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‘Situation’ reveals the sitcom drought

Behind Bravo's reality show is a sad truth about today's TV comedies
/ Source: The Associated Press

Who will get the last laugh: “The Sperm Donor” or “Stephen’s Life”?

Each is a finalist in Bravo’s sitcompetition, “Situation: Comedy,” which, since premiering in July, has tracked the development of these rival comedies from raw script to finished 15-minute presentation.

A rugged, step-by-step process pushed along by producers under the thumb of a network (in this case, NBC), sitcom-building seems to leave no time for funny business. Friday’s “Situation: Comedy” (7 p.m. ET) will cover each pilot’s pressure-packed taping in front of a live audience. Will anybody laugh?

Why wait to find out? You can view the results online right now. Just visit the “Situation: Comedy” Web site to screen both contenders, then, before midnight EDT Friday, click your choice for the one you think should go to series. The winner (whose writing partners share $50,000 and get a year’s representation by a Hollywood talent agency) will be announced on the finale Sept. 9.

The stated purpose of “Situation: Comedy” is to find America’s next hit sitcom by reaching out to fresh, untapped writing talent.

A torrent of 10,000 scripts answered the call. Then in the opening episode they were winnowed to 10, then five, then (after NBC executives passed judgment) whittled down to this pair:

“The Sperm Donor” (created by newcomers Shoe Schuster and Mark Treitel) is about an uptight psychiatrist/single mother who decides to bring some order into her unruly 13-year-old daughter’s life by seeking out the girl’s biological father.

But that long-unknown dad, who clearly stretched the truth on his sperm donor form, turns out to be a leather-clad biker and musicians’ roadie.

“I guess you lied about attending MIT, too,” says Mom when she meets him.

“No way!” he protests. “Michigan Institute of Trucking was the best five weeks of my life!”

“Stephen’s Life” (by first-timers Andrew Leeds and David Lampson) is about a stubby, take-charge 11-year-old who dreams big and enlists his oddly indulgent mom in his grandiose schemes (which include budgeting $5,000 to campaign for middle-school president with actor George Wendt directing his campaign commercial).

Meanwhile, Stephen carries a torch for his teenage baby sitter.

“I can make you feel 11 again,” he coos.

“Let me make this clear to you one more time,” she replies. “I’m only here to make sure you don’t drink bleach.”

Laugh if you must. But wouldn’t it be great if such a talent search as this had led to something jaw-droppingly novel?

Sitcom hellThe state of TV comedy is no laughing matter. Just consider: Among them, the six broadcast networks have introduced only one hit sitcom in the past five years (CBS’ “Two and a Half Men”).

Sitcoms overall have made themselves less suited to laugh at than to jeer at, as HBO’s “The Comeback” has demonstrated wickedly (its season finale airs 10:30 p.m. Sunday).

On “The Comeback,” Lisa Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a 40-ish has-been in a cringingly vapid sitcom called “Room & Bored,” where she plays clownish den mother to a coed quartet of sexy singles who share an apartment (and — wink, wink — other things).

Too awful to be true? “Twins,” an all-too-true sitcom premiering on the WB Sept. 16, comes complete with real-life has-beens Melanie Griffith and Mark-Linn Baker as the parents of mismatched twin sisters who run a company that manufactures sexy lingerie.

“These are good,” says the hottie sister as she models the company’s latest underwear design. “I like the way they make my butt pucker.” She looks pensive. “Should we call it The Butt Pucker?”

So funny you forget to laugh!

Form vs. functionOf the total 31 new fall series, “Twins” and nine others call themselves comedies. And with varying degrees of success, a few really try to restore life to the sitcom form (including CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” NBC’s “My Name is Earl,” Fox’s “Kitchen Confidential” and UPN’s “Everybody Loves Chris”).

But will long-term success reward any from this freshman class? Or incumbent offbeat comedies like Fox’s struggling “Arrested Development” or NBC’s “The Office”?

Isn’t a smash new sitcom long overdue? That’s the notion driving “Situation: Comedy” mastermind Sean Hayes, himself a star of the groundbreaking “Will & Grace” (already being mourned as the last of a breed as it enters its eighth and final season).

But viewers of “Situation: Comedy” may find “Stephen’s Life” and “The Sperm Donor” offer no real choice — either one over the other, or between them and what’s already on the air.

Small wonder. Giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at how sitcoms are made, “Situation: Comedy” stuck to by-the-numbers gospel observed for decades. The shows it developed were fated to be routine.

At a time when the system needs to be shaken up, not blindly supported, “Situation: Comedy” exposed a major problem afflicting sitcoms: that same old sameness. With its high aspirations, it must have been joking.