'Last Man Standing,' 'New Girl' and the great comedy renaissance of 2011-12

comedy-renaissance.jpgABC's new series "Last Man Standing" premiered to strong ratings Tuesday night (Oct. 11), with 13.2 million people tuning into Tim Allen's return to sitcomdom.

That the former star of a hit comedy ("Home Improvement," in this case) would draw a big audience in his return is maybe not a surprise. Except that when you look at the track record of some of Allen's contemporaries in recent years, it sort of is.

Consider: "Back to You" and "Hank," both of which starred multiple Emmy winner Kelsey Grammer (the former also featured fellow Emmy winner Patricia Heaton), couldn't make it past their first seasons. Ditto for Matthew Perry ("Mr. Sunshine"), Paul Reiser ("The Paul Reiser Show") and Jenna Elfman ("Accidentally on Purpose"), all of whom starred in hit shows in the 1990s and early 2000s and had one-and-done shows in the past couple of seasons.

This year, though? Allen seems to have picked just the right time for a comeback. Moreso than anytime since "Friends," "Frasier" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" left the air in 2004 and 2005, comedy on network television is on an upswing with audiences.

Fueled by Ashton Kutcher's replacing Charlie Sheen, "Two and a Half Men" is currently the most-watched show of the season and has put up numbers no comedy has sniffed in several seasons (it's averaging close to 24 million viewers and an 8.7 rating among adults 18-49 over the season's first three weeks). Four other comedies are in Nielsen's Top 20 in total viewers.

Comedies are making an even bigger dent in the adults 18-49 demographic that drives advertising dollars. Six of the Top 10 shows among adults 18-49 so far this season, and nine of the Top 20, are comedies.

Maybe most telling is this stat: Through the week ending Oct. 9, seven comedies -- "Two and a Half Men," "Modern Family," "2 Broke Girls," "The Big Bang Theory," "New Girl," "How I Met Your Mother" and "Mike & Molly" -- are drawing better demographic numbers than the highest-rated reality show, the Wednesday edition of "The X Factor."

So why have TV viewers rediscovered comedy in such a big way this season? The hard-times explanation -- the idea that when real life brings a lot of bad news, taking a half-hour or an hour to laugh at stuff is therapeutic -- probably holds some weight. But the economy has been rough for several years, and there wasn't this kind of surge in TV comedy last season or the season before.

It's not because all the old shows suddenly got funnier, and the new ones arrived fully formed. ABC's "Suburgatory" was the only new comedy that got nearly all positive reviews ("New Girl" got a lot of high marks too, but those who don't like it really don't like it), but as with most seasons it's a mixed bag in terms of quality.

We have some other ideas as to why comedy is on such a roll so far this fall:

"Modern Family" fallout: When a show in any genre breaks out, it usually takes a season or two for other networks to get their own version of that show on the air. Comedy certainly wasn't dead in the fall of 2009 -- CBS' sitcoms were doing just fine, thanks, and "The Office" was humming along too -- but it pretty much was on ABC. That a network could launch a self-starting success in a fairly competitive time period seemed to open some eyes and cause development executives to recommit to the genre.

Better scheduling: In recent years, networks have bee pretty gun-shy about both greenlighting new comedies and trying to launch them. That sometimes led to weird scheduling where a lone comedy was sandwiched between a 90-minute reality show and a 10 o'clock drama or the local news. But comedy tends to work best with comedy, and by launching blocks instead of single shows, the networks seem to be learning that lesson. It doesn't always work -- NBC's "Up All Night" is holding its own on Wednesdays, but "Free Agents" is already gone -- but it's a better strategy than sending out single shows by themselves.

Aging, or untested, reality shows: "Dancing With the Stars" and "Survivor" still draw crowds, but they're in their 13th and 23rd seasons -- eyes are bound to wander a little bit. "The X Factor" has performed solidly, and it may grow as it gets closer to crowning a winner, but it hasn't been the world-beater people expected (or feared) it would be.

Dull dramas: As you may have noticed, the fall hasn't brought a single breakout drama series on the broadcast networks. A few of them, including FOX's "Terra Nova" and CBS' "Person of Interest" and "Unforgettable" are chugging along fine so far, but none is drawing the intense fan interest of a true water-cooler show.

So what do you think? Are you watching more comedy this season than you have in the past, and if so, why?
Photo/Video credit: FOX, CBS, ABC
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