Ellen Gray | Sitcoms & viewers: Plight of the living dead

TV COMEDY may not be dead, but it's possible that the people who like watching it are.

And if not dead, then over 50, which in network TV is pretty much the same thing.

How else to explain the presence of only a single half-hour comedy in Nielsen's Top 10?

The highest-rated sitcom - No. 7 for last week and No. 15 for the season to date - is CBS' "Two and a Half Men," with a weekly average of just under 15 million viewers, of whom only an estimated 6.2 million are 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic most advertisers pay to reach.

CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine" is next, at No. 16 for the week, No. 31 for the season, averaging 11.8 million viewers, 5 million of them 18-to-49.

You'll have to scroll down Nielsen Media Research's season-to-date report to No. 45 to find one of the single-camera, laugh-track-free half-hours currently considered to be the future of television comedy.

That would be NBC's "My Name Is Earl," which is averaging 9.5 million viewers a week, about 5.3 million of them 18-to-49.

According to Nielsen, more than 112 million people watched prime-time television on an average Thursday in November. Where did the rest of them go?

What about NBC's "The Office"? Funniest show on television, right? Tell it to all the people who aren't among the 8.8 million Nielsen says are watching. (If you're keeping score at home, 5.56 million "Office"-watchers are 18-to-49, which translates, I guess, into fewer dead people than "Two and a Half Men," but still seems like an underwhelming number, given that more than 19 million in that age group found time, twice last week, for "American Idol.")

The news is even worse for some other comedies, including NBC's "30 Rock," ranked 101st with 5.85 million total viewers, 3.39 million of them 18-49.

Thanks to Alec Baldwin - who at 48 only has a bit more than a year left before NBC puts a mirror in front of his face to see if he's still breathing - "30 Rock" is getting funnier by the week. It has a particularly good episode tonight (9:30 p.m., Channel 10), with Isabella Rossellini (already dead at 54) guest-starring as his ex-wife.

Still, it remains only a blip on Nielsen's radar, and I can't help wondering whether television, in its YouTube-fueled obsession with What Makes Young People Laugh, might not have wandered into the tricky territory of What Makes Picky People Laugh.

I'd say smart people, but since the picky people include TV critics, that might be immodest. Not to mention stupid.

Still, as a professional picky person - and the mother of sons - I do have some ideas about What Makes Young People Laugh.

That would be farting, folks.

Beyond farting, many young people - none related to me, I hope - enjoy selfishness and making fun of the people they've been taught not to make fun of since kindergarten.

Comedian Sarah Silverman knows that, and her new show, "The Sarah Silverman Program" (10:30 p.m., Comedy Central) manages to hit all those youth-friendly notes in tonight's premiere, which features a cameo by "Heroes" star Masi Oka as a store clerk.

Young or not, some picky people will also find Silverman funny, if only for the contrast between that sitcom-perfect face and the 12-year-old boy who lives behind it. You have to admire any woman in Hollywood who'd rather pretend to poop in her pants on Comedy Central than play along with the network grown-ups and end up as some fat guy's improbably pretty wife.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that the market for poopie pants is ever going to be big enough to save sitcoms. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.