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Comedy Comeback? (Expanded)

By RD Heldenfels Published: October 5, 2005

On Tuesday, NBC announced a full-season pickup for ''My Name Is Earl,'' the very funny sitcom starring Jason Lee. Today, UPN gave a full-season order to ''Everybody Hates Chris,''  the even funnier sitcom based on Chris Rock's youth.

That's a lot of good news. Not only does it suggest that TV audiences are finding laughs in prime time, it shows an embrace of a couple of quirky, unconventional comedies.

I've been thinking for some time about why some of the current comedies and good, and some are not.

''Joey,'' for one, seems better than last season -- and it was by no means terrible then -- but it's still something I watch more out of obligation than desire. It just feels old, as if you can predict the joke before it hits.

And what can we say about the live season premiere of ''Will & Grace,'' where the funniest bits involved Debra Messing and Sean Hayes fighting the urge to crack up? And the funniest character was Alec Baldwin's? (But that was true quite a bit last year. Baldwin knows where the laughs are -- look at his work for ''Saturday Night Live,'' for one thing, or his performance in ''State & Main.'')

But that doesn't explain why audiences haven't been drawn to other shows that are quirky and very funny, like ''Arrested Development.'' I suspect that ''Arrested'' just isn't likable enough. Almost all the characters are messed up, and the sane center -- Michael Bluth -- suffers considerably because the insanity around him is unrelenting. ''My Name Is Earl'' has its share of eccentrics, but they're more benign, and Earl is in a situation that allows him frequent success. ''Everybody Hates Chris'' is awash in well-intentioned characters, even if their intentions lead to odd behavior. ''Arrested Development'' is closer in tone to ''Curb Your Enthusiasm,'' another love-me-or-hate-me show, and one with a boutique-sized audience.

Still, I'm happy that ''Earl'' and ''Chris'' are going to be around longer. And ''Arrested Development'' has at least lasted long enough to yield two DVD collections; the second season comes out next week, and I was laughing even at the deleted scenes.

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