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Doug Elfman

If you can't stand bad sitcoms, hold out for Fox's 'Kitchen'

September 19, 2005


One of the mysteries of sitcoms is bewildering: What in the hell are studio audiences laughing at?

It sure isn't humor. In CBS' new sitcom "Out of Practice," a mom says to her son, "Grab your coat, Benji, Mommy needs a big fat martini before the symphony."

"Ha-ha-ha-ha," goes the TV crowd. These people need a life.

"Out of Practice" lives in a comedy vacuum: All its laughs are trapped inside and can't get out. The show is about a family of doctors played by actors with credentials. Henry "The Fonz" Winkler plays a dad who is shtupping a young thing after he and cocktail-gobbling Mom (Stockard "Rizzo" Channing) break up.

Tonight's first episode was written by Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd (not the Christopher Lloyd from "Back to the Future"). They were among the many producers of "Frasier." They've given "Out of Practice" a "Frasier" stab by making characters say ridiculous things ("frankenpimple") in big stage voices, as if this were a farce.

Oh, "Out of Practice's" existence is a farce, all right.

Another sitcom that begins tonight, "How I Met Your Mother," also suffers from fake laughter. It doesn't stink outright, though. The script is just poor. "How I Met Your Mother" begins in the year 2030. We see a boy and a girl on a couch listening to a narrator begin the story of how he met the woman who gave them life.

Then we see this future dad in present day. He sees a woman he thinks he's fallen in love with at first sight, but his best friend looks at her and says, "You just know she likes it dirty." The studio audiences bursts into laughter, because clearly, this is one super-funny sentence.

The future dad has a bunch of zany pals; if you like shows about circles of friends, this is another one. Thankfully, one of these friends is played by the embraceably funny Alyson Hannigan, the former Willow of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Cobie Smulders is also natural and good as a potential love interest.

Hannigan's character reacts to a marriage proposal from her silly good guy by humping him on his kitchen floor. Afterward, she sits up contentedly.

"Do you know there's a Pop Tart under your fridge?" she asks.

"No," he responds, "but dibs!"

That's what the comedy writers call "hard jokes," the hardy-har-har equivalent of the quickie. In, out, boom, done, time for chow or sleep.

The guy on the kitchen floor is not the future father character on the show. The future father is a friend of theirs. They and other characters tell hard jokes containing the phrases "Smurf penis" and "Kiss the crap out of that girl!" Evidently, hard jokes are not necessarily funny jokes.

Yet a third comedy starting tonight, "Kitchen Confidential," smartly does not film in front of an audience, letting the comedy unfold for each viewer genuinely.

There is attempted sex on its floors, too, and this sex is expected only because "Kitchen Confidential" was created by Darren Star, who created "Sex and the City" for HBO. The hero is Jack (Bradley Cooper), an upwardly bound and tightly wound chef who fell from grace (cocaine, jail) and gets a new start at a fancy Italian eatery in New York.

We hear a few hard jokes ("You put the 'ho' in 'hostess' ") and see some sight gags (a finger gets cut off in the food, yum).

But the lack of a studio audience combines with good directing and editing, and we're allowed to laugh naturally even at some obvious pranks; when the chef gets caught with his pants down, this ancient cheap shot is more amusing than it has a right to be.

"Kitchen Confidential" holds more potential than tonight's decent if imperfect start, given Star's track record and casting. Cooper nails the part of the somewhat likable perfectionist. I'm hoping good character development follows for Jaime King as an airhead hostess, and Nicholas Brendon, formerly Xander on "Buffy," as a goofball pastry chef.

For now, it heaves out of the gate stronger than do "Out of Practice" and "How I Met Your Mother." In other words, it wins by default, the modus operandi of most network comedies.



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