Humor is hard, but it shouldn't look that way. Tonight, as the new TV season begins trickling our way, CBS premieres two sitcoms. One is full of famous actors struggling to inject life into lines written with blood, sweat and tears. The other consists of a room of unknowns lofting witticisms so light they seem 90 percent attitude, 10 percent words.
Which show will last? If we knew that, we wouldn't be working here.
"The Boys" (9 p.m.) is the one that tries too hard. Written by a former "Cheers" writer and directed by "The Golden Girls" alumnus Terry Hughes, "Boys" has talent to spare, and a tone we've heard before. Call it "The Golden Boys."
Ned Beatty, Richard Venture and John Harkins play three retirees who get together once a week for Monopoly and root beer (really). Chris Meloni is a young best-selling author who moves to their Seattle neighborhood with his girlfriend (Isabella Hofmann).
The setup recalls "Newhart," whose humor was in the city slicker's reactions to the local yokels. But where "Newhart's" neighbors were actually weird, these fellows are merely quaint.
For instance, Mr. Beatty used to have a dog. But "Harlan brought over his Civil War chess set. Daisy ate Jefferson Davis. His little sword -- chewed up her insides pretty good."
That's a lot of work for one rather alarming laugh.
Then there is the retiree who used to work in tar. This makes for plenty of tar jokes, as in:
Retiree: "Tar: I think of it as the glue that binds us all together."
Mr. Beatty: "I think of it as the stuff that would come out of your head if you squeezed it."
Mr. Beatty, a wonderful actor, is wasted in the Bea Arthur role here, snarling and insulting his dimmer friends. Doris Roberts, as Mr. Beatty's wife, is Betty White -- sweet and naive. Perhaps later, as their characters are allowed to develop, the laughs will flow from their interaction and not from the river of disconcerting details we get early on. But there's not much time; CBS has scheduled only six episodes.
"The Building" (9:30 p.m.) is the one that pretends not to try. This is the brainchild of Bonnie Hunt, who turned down roles on "Designing Women" and "Home Improvement" to do her own thing.
In "Building," she plays a jilted bride moving into a dumpy apartment within home-run range of Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Ms. Hunt is as flat of affect as Roseanne Arnold. In a man, we'd call this deadpan and think no more about it; when women, taught from birth to be perky, forgo facial expression, it's even funnier.
"Building's" first episode mostly introduces characters. In the tradition of recent great sitcoms, all appear to be losers. The man-hunting roommate, the dour sportswriter who just lost his column, the obscenity-spewing doorman, the struggling actor.
The details are minimal, the best jokes purely observational.
Sportswriter to Ms. Hunt, who has heard from her ex-fiance: "You going to see him?"
Ms. Hunt: "Well, not like this. I'll wash my hair, put on a little makeup."
Sportswriter: "He'll still recognize you."
I laughed out loud at that, and laughed more when the sportswriter then mumbled something about knowing his jokes were "a defense mechanism." Thus another layer of irony was effortlessly added to an already funny situation.
Still, "Building" has room for improvement.
Ms. Hunt and her roommate do a lot of overlapping dialogue, trading lines rapid-fire until they culminate in a laugh. When this works, it turns tiny jokes into tours de force, but a little of it goes a long way. The obscene doorman's lines are beeped: clever, not funny. And the end of the first episode turns suddenly sappy -- disappointing, after so much easy humor.