Marriage Is Easy. Comedy Is Hard.

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Cliff Lipson/Courtesy of CBS

B y now we’ve seen so many CBS promos for Rules of Engagement—with David Spade’s obscene shimmy on the dance floor, part frug, part squid, like the mating call of a Japanese noodle—that we probably think we’ve already watched the show. And so we have, in bits and pieces, elsewhere and elsewhen. When it isn’t slamming bedroom doors in a high-rise apartment house in ostensible Manhattan (just like Mad About You except without the charm) or meeting for heavy innuendos at the corner diner (just like Seinfeld except without the writers), Rules reiterates Til Death’s take on marriage (i.e., bad for your sex life), while looking nervously over a shoulder, like every other buddy bondcom, to check if it just said something that sounded, you know, too gay.

On Rules, Patrick Warburton plays a longtime-married Jeff, Oliver Hudson plays a recently engaged Adam, and Spade is feckless Russell. Of course, whether he is impersonating Joe Dirt, Dickie Roberts, or Just Shoot Me’s Dennis Finch, Spade will always come across as a hairy ashtray. It’s not only hard to tell what his much younger dates see in him; these dates are so much taller than he is that it must be hard for them to see him at all. Still, he perseveres in “shallow, sex-based relationships based on lies.” To himself, he’s a paradigm of stud. To Jeff and Adam, he’s the nomadic roaming they’ve left behind for agricultural cultivation. To Jeff’s wife, Audrey (Megyn Price), and Adam’s fiancée, Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich), he’s a plague of locusts. And to the rest of us, he is a reason to get hitched as quickly as possible, so as never to end up at such a lonely loss.

Unfortunately, on the evidence of three episodes of Rules, getting hitched seems to mean feeding your face while biting your tongue, along with spats about furniture, face cream, and flirting, not to mention less love and more Letterman late at night. When did art galleries turn into places on sitcoms where men get to prove we’re red-blooded philistines? What happened to creator Tom Hertz between Spin City and this show? I’m not saying I require the forties slapstick romance of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in Mad About You; I’d even settle for the married love of any old Bob Newhart show. But somehow the Simpsons have rewritten the matrimonial book so it reads a lot more like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

And while we are in the business of remembering when sitcoms actually accommodated subtleties, 30 Rock reminds me of just how dark it’s been ever since Mary Tyler Moore turned out the newsroom lights at WJM-TV in Minneapolis 30 years ago. 30 Rock has improved since its pilot, though not as much as its advocates say it has. (And, anyway, they just seem to want to use it as a stick to beat up on Aaron Sorkin for the perceived delinquencies of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.) What most worries Tina Fey’s Liz? Corporate troglodytism is often on her mind, as embodied as well as microwaved by Alec Baldwin’s antic Jack. And her own integrity is occasionally at stake in disputes over this or that sketch. And if I were in her pinchy shoes, I’d be wondering whether Tracy Morgan’s riff on Martin Lawrence has become as unfunny as Martin Lawrence has himself.

But no. What seems to worry Liz most, at least since she dumped Dennis and certainly since secretary Cerie announced her engagement to a filthy-rich Aristotle Onassis type, are the babies she hasn’t gotten around to having. Which is why she hit the dating scene with Jane Krakowski’s Jenna, where incest reared its ugly Freudian head. Who knows, it may even be why she goes out with Jack this Thursday, February 1, where he meets his ex-wife at a birthday party for a foreign prince. Since we have been recently and reliably informed that a majority of American women now manage to live manless, maybe one of them will actually show up on network television without a kick me in the estrogen sign around her wrinkled neck. Bring back the smart-mouth Sugarbakers of Designing Women. Or any one of the Golden Girls. I especially miss Marlo Thomas.

Rules of Engagement
CBS. Premieres Monday, February 5, 9:30 p.m.

30 Rock
NBC. Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.

Marriage Is Easy. Comedy Is Hard.