NEW YORK -- For all the attention given to this week's "Friends" finale, another long-running comedy taped its final episode a few weeks ago - and few people outside its Hollywood set were aware of it.
The finale of "The Drew Carey Show" is expected to air on ABC sometime this summer.
That the show still exists at all for its ninth season has more to do with a classically bad business deal than any sense viewers want to see it.
"You can point to a lot of things that ABC did - they did a lot of things that were dumb," said Sam Simon, who directed the final episode, "and I think this was one of them."
Smart and stylish - a blue-collar comedy set in Cleveland where the principals would occasionally break out into a show tune - Carey's show once was one of ABC's crown jewels. In the 1996-97 season, it averaged 17 million viewers, the first of three straight years in Nielsen Media Research's top 20.
The show's popularity was fading in 2001, but it still seemed savvy when ABC reached a deal with Warner Bros. Television, the show's producers, to keep it on the air through 2004.
Then the bottom fell out.
It's not clear whether viewers simply tired of the amiable, bespectacled comedian. Between his own show and "Whose Line is it Anyway?" he logged a lot of face time on the network.
Or they may simply have tired of trying to find "The Drew Carey Show." The program premiered on Wednesday nights, an evening where it has inhabited four separate time slots. It's also been shown regularly on Tuesdays. And Thursdays. And Fridays. And Mondays.
By the middle of last season, ABC took it off the air, and burned off many of the show's episodes during the summer.
ABC didn't even bother putting it on this season. New episodes will premiere on June 2, and the network will show two first-run episodes a week during the summer - the television equivalent of an afterthought.
If all this annoys the star, he's not letting on.
"I don't have anything bad to say about ABC," Carey said. "I never will. I only tried to do a good show. After that, it's out of my hands."
Simon said the show was effectively orphaned, as is often the case in the creative community, because the people who greenlighted it lost their jobs.
"If the people who put the show on the air at ABC were still there, we'd still be on the air and we'd still be a hit," he said. "It's just an embarrassment to new regimes when other shows do better than the ones they put on the air."
ABC entertainment's most recent management team, Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne, lost their jobs last month.
While ratings may have justified the show's eventual burial, the timing is still odd. It's not as if ABC is swimming in hits; the schedule has so many holes that there would seem to be room for Carey, particularly when ABC is paying around $3 million an episode for the show.
This would seem to be a deal ripe for a renegotiation: ABC agrees to pay Carey and Warner Bros. a tidy sum to go away, and forget the final season.
Nobody at ABC or Warner Bros. would talk about whether that idea had even been broached. There's probably a financial incentive for Warner to continue production since the show is popular in syndication - where the real money is made in television - and this just gives them more episodes to sell.
So it means the final season of "The Drew Carey Show" is produced in a virtual vacuum. Few people knew when, or if, the episodes would make it on the air.
It's still a lucrative vacuum: Carey reportedly made $600,000 to $750,000 an episode.
Money can't buy everything, though.
"I know you like people to see your work," said Simon, who considers Carey one of his best friends. "It's disappointing. A lot of the perks of being a hot star and being on a hit show, that stuff goes away."
Simon jokes that he asked ABC to speed things up by running the season's episodes in split screen, showing two in one half-hour.
"On the other hand ... it was a little bit liberating," he said. "There were no notes coming from the network. They didn't even bother coming to the run-throughs. They didn't seem really concerned about the character arcs or about promoting the characters they think America wants to see."
Producers had a little fun, took some chances. Parts of some episodes were shot in a single-camera format, without an audience, instead of the three-camera format before a live audience seen on most sitcoms.
Longtime fans will enjoy watching the journey taken by some of the characters during the final season. Carey must decide whether or not to marry his pregnant girlfriend in the show's final episode.
After the final taping, Carey gave cast and crew members a satellite radio and photo collage as a gift. Simon couldn't remember who, if anyone, was there from ABC.
The end had to be bittersweet, particularly compared to this week at NBC, where the "Friends" cast is exiting with a paroxysm of national mourning and $2 million-a-pop commercial spots.
"It was strange," Simon said. "It was really strange."
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