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Networks look fora reason to laugh

Pete Schulberg/On Television

HELP WANTED

Looking for TV comedy series containing increasingly elusive quality (namely, comedy) that appeals to fickle viewers 18-49 years of age and whose stars make a lot less than the $1.8 million per episode that Ray Romano will get next fall. Must make people laugh out loud, unlike 90 percent of the other sitcoms that have come and mostly gone over the past several years. (All right, we'll settle for smiles.) If your rŽsumŽ contains 'The In-Laws' or any program in the last three years starring Jason Alexander, Michael Richards or Julia Louis-Dreyfus, no need to apply. We're looking for the next 'I Love Lucy,' 'Dick Van Dyke Show,' 'Seinfeld' or Ñ because beggars can't be choosers Ñ 'My Mother the Car.'

Apply at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Yeah, the networks are desperate. Just when you expected dramas and reality shows to monopolize the fall lineups, here come the comedies roaring back.

No rational person ever expected the big four networks to roll out 13 (count 'em É 13!) comedies for next fall. And this in the age when dramas are king and reality shows are insanely cheap to produce.

But who said TV programmers were supposed to be rational? Otherwise, 'Joe Millionaire,' the Game Show Channel and infomercials would be yet undreamed of.

The fact is that the sitcom form refuses to roll over and play dead, even though it's been looking that way lately. A measly two sitcoms were ratings hits during the past season: NBC's 'Friends' and CBS' 'Everybody Loves Raymond.'

Hollywood studios and network executives love comedies: There is nothing more attractive to a McDonald's or a Sears or a General Motors than a successful series that produces laughs, isn't controversial (at least most of the time see 'Murphy Brown') and appeals to generally younger audiences who aren't set in their ways about how they spend their money.

That's why Romano, of 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' is the highest-paid TV performer ever, and why NBC just wishes the 'Friends' characters would wait until they're in their early 50s before going their separate ways.

This season, for the first time, cable attracted a larger prime-time audience than the networks. To stop the erosion, the network chiefs think it's practically a necessity to start the comedy ball rolling again.

There's also the theory that in this post-Sept. 11 era, viewers are ready and eager to laugh again, if you can only give them something to laugh about.

With the exception of CBS, which sees its megapopular 'CSI' franchise as a reason to introduce two more crime dramas (one of them called 'Navy CIS,' not to be confused with 'CSI'), the networks are pinning much of their optimism on new comedy shows.

ABC: The network is trying to wean itself off reality programming that viewers are tiring of and advertisers get nervous about. OK, so 'The Bachelor' will be back. But Regis Philbin's partner Kelly Ripa will be starring in 'Hope and Faith,' and 'Back to Kansas' features Breckin Meyer as a Jewish writer from New York who moves to Kansas so his wife can be closer to her WASP family.

NBC: With 'Friends' and 'Frasier' gone after next season, the idea here is to establish bona fide comedy hits with some big names. Whoopi Goldberg stars as a former singer who runs a hotel in 'Whoopi'; in 'Happy Family,' John Larroquette and Christine Baranski play parents having to put up with their living-at-home adult children.

FOX: Two new sitcoms feature Hispanic families: 'The Ortegas' and 'Louis.' Norm McDonald of 'Saturday Night Live' fame returns in 'A Minute With Stan Hooper.'

Pete Schulberg is the host of 'Portland's Morning News' on KPAM (860 AM). Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..