Where has all the humor gone?; 'Shasta McNasty' and its ilk may be a sign that the sitcom is about to reinvent itself.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The network fall TV season is only two weeks away from its first early rollout of new series. So it's probably time to start preparing for the really bad news: You are going to see the worst collection of sitcoms in recent memory.

In fact, the sitcoms of the 1999-2000 TV season are so bad that that you can't help but wonder: Is the sitcom dead?

Take "Shasta McNasty" from UPN, featuring three teen-age members of a hip-hop group living together in Venice Beach. Based on the pilot, the one black and two white members of the group don't do much singing. Mainly what they do is play peeping Tom to mostly naked young women living in beachfront condos.

The big comic moment comes when one of the members breaks into the condo of one of the women on whom they spy, only to be attacked by her pet parrot. Don't you hate when that happens?

So, what can our young hero do but kill the parrot? It takes a couple minutes of beating and flapping before the battle is over, or a few minutes longer than this series ought to last.

But every network has its own "Shasta McNasty." In fact, when it comes to sitcoms, it's going to be wall-to-wall "McNasty" this fall.

On ABC, it's "Oh, Grow Up," a sitcom about three young men, former college roommates, living together in Brooklyn. Among the first sounds viewers hear in the opening scene are the screams of pleasure from a woman having sex with one of the trio upstairs. After the opening credits and commercials, we return on a tight camera shot from behind of one of the men in his underwear, who is bent over, looking in a cupboard.

"Oooohhh, breakfast is served," a young woman wearing only a slip says as she walks into the kitchen and ogles the sight, as only a bad sitcom actor or actress can.

On Fox, the sitcom is called "Action." This universe revolves around an incredibly unpleasant young movie producer in Hollywood. One of the big comic moments is supposed to occur when a nebbish of a screenwriter, having lunch with the producer, digs into a Cobb salad in which a waiter has spit.

I could go on. But the thought of further chronicling this particular brand of network idiocy is too depressing. Let's just say I can't stay the coarse.

As bad as the new sitcoms are, though, let's not get carried away and declare the sitcom dead. After all, the genre has been the backbone of prime-time network TV for some 50 years, since the 1949 debut of "The Goldbergs," a CBS show featuring a Jewish family in the Bronx that quickly earned a place in TV history as the first successful network sitcom.

"I think you need to have a sense of some history to put this group of sitcoms in perspective," Garth Ancier, president of NBC Entertainment, said last week.

"I remember in the 1980s, when everyone was saying the sitcom's dead, and then along comes 'The Cosby Show.' We had some pretty good sitcoms since, wouldn't you say? I think it's cyclical, and we are in a down cycle in that sense. But it will come back."

Ancier is right about the long view. An even lower low for network sitcoms than the one before "The Cosby Show" in 1984 occurred in the late 1960s. That period offers the best comparison for what is happening today.

For the 1968-1969 season, the highest-rated sitcom on network TV was "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," with Jim Nabors as a knucklehead Marine recruit who said "golly" a lot. For the 1969-1970 season, the top sitcom was "Mayberry R.F.D." -- which is not to be confused with "The Andy Griffith Show." This was the dregs of "The Andy Griffith Show," with Ken Berry starring as the new sheriff and George Lindsey as Gomer Pyle's cousin, Goober. Gomer and Andy represented the glory years of the Mayberry sitcom cycle, and they were gone by 1968.

The sitcom that reinvigorated the genre in 1970 was "All in the Family." Actually, it did more than reinvigorate. It reinvented the sitcom and plugged it into the energy of the cultural revolution that was taking place in American life.

"I couldn't agree more that we're in a period where the sitcom needs to be reinvented or at least reinvigorated in some way," says Aaron Sorkin, playwright, screenwriter and creator of the ABC sitcom "Sports Night."

While it's true that you can count on one hand the sitcoms worth keeping from the last several network seasons, how do you explain "Sports Night" if you're trying to sell the thesis that the sitcom is dead? "Sports Night," a backstage look at life on the set of a nightly sports broadcast, might rank only 50th in the Nielsens after one season, but by almost any measure it is everything a sitcom ought to be: smart, daring, relevant, entertaining and socially conscious.

"Sports Night" is also indicative of how the brighter lights in the TV industry are trying to recharge the sitcom battery.

Sorkin's producing partner, Thomas Schlamme, perhaps best known for directing the live episode of "ER," says he set out last year to find a look that fit the edgier, more realistic language that Sorkin was writing for "Sports Night." He, too, felt the sitcom needed to be reimagined.

What Schlamme did was borrow a technique from dramas like "ER" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," moving from the standard, four-camera style of shooting a sitcom, as if it were a play on a proscenium stage, to using one camera, often hand-held. It allows the show to be shot smack-dab in the middle of the action.

Schlamme is still perfecting the technique. But when it works, it gives "Sports Night" an immediacy unlike any other sitcom on TV. Instead of feeling as if you are looking in on the sitcom world as the action plays out on its stage, you have the illusion that you are seeing it from the inside out and are almost part of it.

Ironically, one of the reasons so many sitcoms will look and sound so strange this fall is that they are trying to imitate the one-camera, minimal-laugh-track feel of "Sports Night." But they're not getting it even half right. The poster sitcom for this brand of bad is "Action."

But that's the way it goes with new beginnings. And, after all, we've been watching the four-camera, proscenium-style sitcom for about 45 years. Any new look will take some getting used to.

There are other trends that help explain the overload of bad sitcoms we'll be seeing this fall.

For example, several networks are simultaneously trying to reach more young male viewers. Hence, the series with three young guys living together and encountering lots of almost-naked ladies. Hence the rear-view shots and spit-in-the-salad jokes.

I have to believe what we'll be seeing this fall when it comes to comedy is the network sitcom slouching, stumbling, struggling toward rebirth. The thought of "Shasta McNasty" as an end in itself is too much to bear.

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