Recognizing that comedy is too important to be left to the professionals, cable's Bravo is inviting couch potatoes to create the next great sitcom.
The two viewer-written scripts judged best will be turned into 15-minute presentations and aired as part of Bravo's forthcoming series "Situation: Comedy," a behind-the-scenes look at the whole sitcom development process. Then its viewers will decide the winner, who gets $25,000 and a year's exclusive representation from the high-powered Creative Artists Agency.
You can get contest details at the Bravo Web site. But, to borrow a trusty sitcom quip, "What part of `I could be the next sitcom big cheese' don't you understand?"
The main hitch: Putting something on paper and in the mail by Sept. 18.
But how hard could that be? It's not as if you're a stranger to the form.
I'm sure not. One of my first memories is watching a scene from a 1950s sitcom called "I Married Joan" where the zany housewife somehow got her finger stuck in the barrel of a shotgun. That was supposed to be funny, but since I was 3 and scared for her, I started crying. A half-century later, I experience the same dread even contemplating "Whoopi."
In between, how many zillion sitcoms have I been exposed to? Now, if I were going to build my own sitcom, all I would need to do is think of one I haven't seen yet, but feel like I have. It is in that comfy gray zone between invention and pirating where so many sitcom ideas wait.
Just consider the new Fox sitcom "Method and Red," where two rap stars cope with living in a stuffy gated community. Will Smith was living with a starkly similar concept a decade ago on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." And what about the WB's fall show "Commando Nanny"? It's a Y-chromosome twist on the 1990s Fran Drescher sitcom "The Nanny."
In the eyes of sitcom-makers, to copy is an act of genuflection.
So ... how about six attractive young Manhattanites who hang out and drink a lot of, I don't know, maybe herbal tea? How about a button-down version of "Will & Grace" with Log Cabin Republicans?
There's always an appetite for workplace comedies. Maybe I'll create a workplace comedy about a real-life TV critic. Why not? This fall, CBS' "Listen Up" has Jason Alexander playing real-life Washington Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser. And we mustn't forget "Dave's World," the CBS sitcom based on real-life humor columnist Dave Barry.
I know, I'm not in the famous ranks of Kornheiser or Barry. But instead of CBS, I could pitch my show to UPN.
Or what about a cutting-edge sitcom for post-9/11, set in the Department of Homeland Security? Laughs galore! Someone keeps stealing office supplies. The boss's deputy has agoraphobia. One of the operatives (too bad Andy Dick isn't available to play him) spends all his time swapping music files with suspected terrorists.
Hmmm. I can already feel those chuckle-bucks in my billfold.
But I don't mean to suggest that Bravo's contest should be all about personal gain. There's a larger issue here.
With the crowd-pleasing "Friends" and the groundbreaking "Sex and the City" at an end, and "Everybody Loves Raymond" going into its last season, the future for sitcoms looks bleak.
"Arrested Development," the innovative Fox comedy headed for its sophomore year, is the current best effort by the broadcast networks to give the genre new life. But six years later, the void left by "Seinfeld" remains unfilled. These days, sitcoms are running on fumes (and often smell like it).
So Bravo's sitcom contest comes with a public-service appeal. It's a chance for you, the dedicated sitcom viewer, to give something back. And to help make the world safe for sitcoms again after recent stinkers like "Coupling" and "The Mullets."
Hint: When you write YOUR script, think of THEIRS. Then do the opposite.
By Frazier Moore