“Box Office”, “Family”, aims to bring back first-run funny back to syndication

For the first time in many years, syndication is going to have an original sitcom – or two.

Entertainment Studios announced Monday it has finished casting its new sitcom Mr. Box Office, one of two first-run sitcoms its planning to launch in syndication this fall.

And the talent appearing in these shows are not no-name actors – no, these are people who actually have some valid screen cred.

Bill Bellamy (of How To Be A Player Fame) stars in Mr. Box Office as a big-shot movie star who is sentenced to community service. His punishment? To teach in an inner-city high school in South L.A. (this should have been Frank McCourt’s punishment for nearly ruining the Dodgers.)

Box Office also stars Vivica A. Fox, Jon Lovitz (The Critic), Keshia Knight-Pulliam (The Cosby Show), Rick Fox, and Tim Meadows.

Box Office is being paired with another sitcom Entertainment Studios is creating for syndication (First Family) which centers on a African-American family in the White House (and no, they’re not named Obama.) Family features stage veterans Jackee Harry (227, Sister Sister), Marla Gibbs (The Jeffersons, 227) Christopher Duncan (The Jamie Foxx Show), Gladys Knight, Paul Rodriguez, and Kellita Smith (The Bernie Mac Show.)

Both Harry and Gibbs were in 227, which ran for five years on NBC from 1985-90.

First Family and Box Office both have each been greenlit for 104 episodes each.

Excluding Tyler Perry’s House of Payne (which was tested in syndication but sold to TBS first), this would mark the first time in more than a decade that an original comedy has been sold in first-run syndication. Even though first-run comedies were around as early as the 1970’s (with Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home, Dusty’s Trail, and Ozzie’s Girls), the genre boomed in the 1980’s and early 1990’s as first-run comedies became a staple of stations’ lineups with fare such as Small Wonder, Mama’s Family, and Charles in Charge. In 1987, NBC unsuccessfully tried a “checkerboard” format of situation comedies every weeknight in prime access for its owned-and-operated stations.

But the number sharply dropped to a trickle by the fall of 1993, with Harry and The Hendersons as the lone first-run sitcom left as stations traded in laughs for syndicated action hours such as Baywatch and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (today, weekend time periods are filled with mostly movies, infomercials, and reruns as HUT levels – at least outside of football season – have sharply fallen off.)

The last first-run sitcom to air in syndication was Student Bodies, a Canadian import which ran during the 1997-98 season.

Entertainment Studios head Byron Allen said told the Hollywood Reporter in March that there’s a void in the marketplace for family-friendly sitcoms and intends on filling the void.

While both series are excepted to air on broadcast stations, First Family and Box Office also plan to show up on Entertainment Studios’ six HD cable channels.

No broadcast clearances have been announced.