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Sunday, funny Sunday

Fox makes a claim for TV’s funniest night
/ Source: contributor

“The Best Night of Comedy on Television.” It’s a title TV networks have competed for as long has there have been networks.

Probably the greatest comedy line-up ever dates back to 1973 (when there actually was original programming on Saturday night) and CBS’s Saturday consisted of “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Three hours of classic television comedy only occasionally interrupted by Carol’s musical guests (like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who, after 30 years, have become unintentionally funny). Like many other world championship teams, this Sunday powerhouse was soon broken up, sending Archie Bunker and Hawkeye to improve CBS’s ratings on other nights.

In 1977, ABC dominated the ratings with the Tuesday sitcom block of “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Three’s Company” and “Soap” (replaced the next season by “Taxi”). And in 1978, with “Mork and Mindy” joining “Barney Miller” and the relocated “Soap” on Thursday, ABC had bragging rights for both the top line-up and the runner-up.

Then in 1984, NBC brought in the Dream Team of “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers” and “Night Court,” and “Must See TV Thursday” has held the title almost continuously through the “Seinfeld” and “Friends” years, even when only two of the four half-hours were truly world class.

But in 2004, when half of their comedy block was unceremoniously displaced by the desperately unhumorous Donald Trump, NBC forfeited the title and the time came to crown a new Royal Family of Ha-Ha.

The ContendersABC’s current “TGIF” line-up is now trying harder to be TGIFunny than TGIFamily, but it isn’t grabbing much audience, and TV critics are reluctant to support anything with David Spade, Ted McGinley and Andy Dick. Ever since “Everybody Loves Raymond” took off, CBS’s Monday comedy block has been The Night of a Thousand Dumb Dads, and Jason Alexander’s new comedy fits in disappointingly well. Meanwhile ABC’s Tuesday night is “The Other Night of a Thousand Dumb Dads” (with extra secret ingredient: Ethnicity!). And then, there’s Fox.

The upstart, underdog and often justifiably derided Fox network debuted almost two decades ago with a comedy-centric Sunday Night. Their first line-up brought us the adventurous “Tracy Ullman Show,” the infamous “Married With Children” and the deservedly forgotten “Duet,” then adding the recycled cable comedy “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” providing a precedent for a Night of Comedy that would try almost anything.

Through these timeslots passed a melting pot of shows including the high-attitude sketch comedy “In Living Color” (with various Wayans Brothers and Jim Carrey as the token white guy), the short-lived “Ben Stiller Show” (with its future all-star cast of Janeane Garofalo, David Cross and -- gasp -- Andy Dick), Chris Elliott’s slacker comedy “Get a Life” and the sly sci-fi satire of “Futurama,” as well as such comic meltdowns as “Herman’s Head” and “Whoops!” the self-proclaimed “post-nuclear-apocalypse Gilligan’s Island” that’s in contention for Worst Show Idea in TV History.

After all its trials and errors, inevitably Fox’s Sunday Night had to get it right.

Funny families
The bedrock of Fox Sunday is “The Simpsons,” which emerged fully-grown out of two-minute segments on “Tracy Ullman,” and immediately became the most popular prime-time cartoon since the Flintstone Age (only to be sent away to challenge NBC’s Must See Thursday in the waning years of the Cosby Era). When "The Simpsons" eventually returned home to take out a 99-year lease on the Sunday 8 p.m. timeslot, it became a seriously funny contender for Best Comedy in TV History.

The case for “The Simpsons” is strong: a high concentration of gags per half-hour, adept use of the animated format (and the Physical Laws of the Cartoon Universe), smarter-than-most usage of pop culture references, a massive cast of unique and genuinely funny characters, and uncanny skill at pushing the limits of controversy without breaking them. And all while working within tightly self-imposed limits (Bart and Lisa will be in elementary school forever, no more than one life-changing event for one secondary character per year, etc.).  

Mike Judge made his mark with a series of short animations on MTV’s “Liquid Television,” in which he depicted a variety of characters barely on the wrong side of normalcy. But one bit, featuring two demented kids playing the gross-out game of “frog baseball,” captured the collective imagination of the MTV Generation, and Beavis and Butthead became instant icons.

It has been long suspected that when Fox recruited Judge to create a companion show for “Simpsons,” they were hoping for something kinda buttheaded, but the animator and his production partners pulled a switch and delivered “King of the Hill”.

It’s the saga of Hank Hill, a Texan whose greatest ambition, to live his idea of a normal life, is constantly undermined by craziness among his family, neighbors and workplace. The simple character design and lack of cartoonish action contrasts with the outrageousness of the cast, and even while the show occasionally veers from absurdity into soap operatic melodrama, Hank Hill’s very human reaction to chaos makes him one of the most sympathetic characters on any sitcom. Not bad for a cartoon.

Based on its title, “Malcolm in the Middle” was originally designed to showcase a smart kid dropped into a deeply dysfunctional family, but wisely evolved to allow Frankie Muniz’s title character to join into the absurdity. (The role of anchor of normalcy now falls to the occasional brief visits by Malcolm’s prodigal oldest brother, Francis.)

In contrast with “King of the Hill’s” tendency to ground its animated characters in reality, “Malcolm” is a live-action cartoon, but without the constraint of characters who never grow older. I feel compelled to point out that the true origin of much of “Malcolm’s” style is Nickelodeon’s “Adventures of Pete and Pete,” probably the most grown-up-friendly kids’ show ever, which seamlessly mixed the pre-teen angst of Big Pete with the outrageous antics of Little Pete, with his superhero best friend and mysterious tattoo. But even the bastard child of “Pete and Pete” is a worthy contribution to a night of quality comedy.

Starting with one of the most multiple-meaninged titles in the history of TV, “Arrested Development” is a thinking person’s nut house. The fun starts with Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth, part Hank Hill and part Malcolm, surrounded by a collection of privileged misfits wandering into the real world and bumping into things. Jeffrey Tambor’s imprisoned patriarch is the meatiest role of his long career, and with his season-ending jail break and the introduction of a twin brother, Tambor will have even more scenery to chew in upcoming episodes.

All of the characters are blessed with dynamically oddball personalities, and the writing is fearless in taking on issues of parenting and relationships that make the audience squirm (my guess for the reason it hasn’t caught on with more of a mass audience). With an armful of Emmys and the post-Simpsons timeslot for the next two months, “Development” has become “You Really Ought to See It At Least Once TV.”

The third hourWith this rock-solid two hour block being promoted with table cards in every Burger King in America, Fox’s next job is filling the third hour of the longest night on its Prime Time schedule. The months-ago pre-announcement for that timeslot of “The Partner,” a reality competition for lawyers was just plain wrong. Fortunately, “The Partner” turned out to be a cover for Fox’s real intended show, “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss,” an “Apprentice” parody with unwitting contestants that erases the line between Reality Shows with ‘twists’ and prank shows like “Candid Camera” and “Punk’d.” It’s up in the air whether it’ll turn out to be genuinely funny or just cringingly cruel, but if successful, it may never be safe to try out for reality competition again. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

After the “Obnoxious Boss” delivers his final punchline, Fox has pre-loaded two half-hour shows for January. “American Dad” marks the return of Seth MacFarlane to Fox, and the first time he has been allowed onto the Sunday schedule (Fox was rightfully wary of comparisons between “Family Guy’s” title character to Homer Simpson, and kept the show a safe distance away). With terror alert jokes, a household alien reminiscent of “Alf,” and a talking goldfish with a German accent, this show will have some work to do to deserve its timeslot.

And “The Sketch Show”, a transplanted British series hosted by comedy icon Kelsey Grammer, seems like nothing more than an attempt to inject a bit of pseudo-prestige into the line-up. If so, why is it going to be the only show on Sunday with a laugh track?

Fox’s Sunday Night still deserves the “Best Night of Comedy on TV” title, but it’s going to take the network more time and effort before it approaches the accomplishment of CBS’s 1973 Saturday Night. At least we can feel secure it won’t include Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.

is the online alias of a writer from Southern California.