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Nets ‘Desperate’ for Laughs

Nov 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As another season goes by without a breakout comedy, finding a scripted half-hour hit has become something of a prime-time broadcast network grail-and the networks have cast a wide net this development cycle to find it.

This week marks the end of the broadcast network buying season for the majority of new comedies that will eventually make the 2005-06 prime-time schedules, and as usual, network slates are packed with family comedies, workplace ensembles and the occasional single-camera and animated project. But in a season that has seen the renaissance of the serialized drama thanks to “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” and the continued dominance of procedural shows, networks and studios are at a loss to say what kind of comedy is needed to bring the genre back to its former glory. So the door is wide open in terms of the kinds of concepts that are being pitched.

In addition to the traditional paths taken to prime-time comedy, networks are experimenting with the kinds of characters they feature and are adapting elements from other genres that are consistently working in prime time.

“The difference this season between drama and comedy development is a confidence coming from the networks with dramas because they know what works for them,” said Carolyn Finger, VP of TVTracker.com, an online service that follows network development sales. “With comedy there is a lack of confidence, so there is more of an openness in ideas.”

Chris Silbermann, a partner at the Broder-Webb-Chervin-Silbermann Agency, said the networks’ goal this season is not so much to come up with an alternative to the technical aspects of the traditional television comedy, but rather to bring about innovation in terms of character and point of view.

“The trend is toward classic multicamera comedies that differentiate themselves from the pack not through overt style, like single-camera techniques, but through execution and character,” Mr. Silbermann said. “The risks networks are taking this year are more with newer kinds of characters at the center of the shows, rather than altering the format of the show itself. At the end of the day, there is not a desire to reinvent the wheel but to have well-executed shows.”

To that end, ABC has a project with Sally Field profiling a woman who leaves her picture-perfect family for a new life. NBC is developing a series about a klatch of amoral real estate agents in Houston from Brad Grey Television and a series from Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video about a wife who loses 300 pounds and ditches her overweight husband. CBS has at least four projects dealing with families struggling with divorce, including a put pilot with 20th Century Fox Television by Richard Appel about two couples splitting up-one couple amicably and the other less so. The WB is developing a script with the Tannenbaum Co. and Warner Bros. Television about a man who marries his ex-wife’s sister, and a cast-contingent put pilot, also from Warner Bros., about an expectant mother whose boyfriend leaves her just as she goes into labor.

“You’re seeing the character with more moral nuance in those roles,” Mr. Silbermann said, “kind of less the traditional dad with a couple of kids.”

Kathy Busby, senior VP and head of development for the nonnetwork-aligned studio Carsey-Werner, said the focus on character can be explained by viewers’ interest in the reality genre.

“The most interesting comedic characters are Donald Trump and the `Simple Life’ girls,” she said of the current broadcast television landscape. “People seem to be drawn to characters that seem to be from the real world. I’ve heard a lot of `We want the next Roseanne.’ When I first started talking to the networks [this development season], what showed through for me was `real.’ The networks want an authentic character.”

Reality television also is an influence on this development season in other ways. Networks and studios are mining the genre’s success to accentuate more traditional comedies. In terms of comedic backdrops, ABC is developing a script from Brad Grey Television about a young couple who fall in love on a reality show, and UPN has picked up a script from actors-turned-producers Courteney Cox Arquette and David Arquette about the behind-the-scenes life at a daytime talk show similar to “The View.” NBC is developing a script from Ms. Busby’s company that is a mockumentary about employees at a company that produces documentaries, while The WB has already picked up a pilot from NBC Universal that is being called a “scripted reality sitcom,” which follows two guys trying to create their own TV program.

David Janollari, president of entertainment at The WB, said besides coming up with characters outside the box, there is a need this development season to show characters within the context of a romantic comedy.

“With the loss of `Sex and the City’ and the loss of `Friends,’ we are going to see an audience out there that is hungry for comedy programming that is hopelessly and wildly romantic,” he said. “That is a target we will try to aim for. It has been a good staple in our drama over the years, and I think our audience would like to watch that kind of comedy.”

The WB is developing a put pilot tentatively called “I’ll Cuddle When I’m Dead” from Sony about a couple who may have married prematurely, and a script from Warner Bros. and Acme Productions with Adam Ferrara attached about a couple starting their life together. ABC is developing a Touchstone project about a wedding planner, and NBC has a script from 20th and Imagine about a man who finds his soul mate on the Internet. UPN has a pilot presentation from 20th and mother-daughter producing team Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson called “I Do, I Did, Now What?” about a modern marriage.

Star Factor

One perennial signature of any comedy development season is the attachment of high-profile talent to star in major projects. ABC has a put pilot from 20th with Chris Kattan as a cable news network correspondent, a single-camera project from Touchstone with Elton John producing about an aging rock superstar, and an additional put pilot from Warner Bros. starring Freddie Prinze Jr. as a man who lives in a household of women.

The network is going forward with a Melissa Etheridge-fronted comedy from 20th and Brad Grey, and is developing a Touchstone script with Cheri Oteri attached to play a woman who works at a children’s TV show.

CBS is developing a sports-related project from Sony starring Holly Robinson Peete, and has a Daryl “Chill” Mitchell script in development at Paramount. The network also has Aisha Tyler in a talent hold deal.

NBC has a Warner Bros. and Fort Hill Productions script with a penalty fronted by Dennis Hopper about a dad with an adult daughter and a 2-year-old daughter, an NBC Universal/Worldwide Pants cast-contingent pilot with Chazz Palminteri and a script based on the life of Tori Spelling.

Fox has a single-camera put pilot with 20th and 3 Arts in the vein of a harder-edged “Wonder Years” starring Chris Rock, as well as projects with Tara Reid, Carmen Electra, Molly Shannon and Jon Leguizamo, and a Touchstone/Storyline Entertainment script about a newly single mother played by Harvey Fierstein.

UPN is developing a script based on the Web site VivianLives.com with “The Sopranos”‘ Jamie-Lynn DiScala, and a pilot presentation from the Littlefield Co. starring Tyler Labine and Charisma Carpenter as a brother and sister. The network has also ordered a pilot pickup with six scripts for a Paramount project starring Shannon Elizabeth.

The WB has a Warner Bros. put pilot from “Will & Grace” creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan starring Sara Gilbert as a fraternal twin, a script from 20th and former WB topper Susanne Daniels’ First Move Television Productions about the life of singer Toni Braxton, and a talent hold deal with Bow Wow.

Success in television, however, is driven less by known pieces of talent and more by execution, a unique point of view and good writing, insiders say.

“The good news is that comedy is poised and ready for a big comeback on network television,” Mr. Janollari said. “Just as they prove
d they got re-excited for the drama form with [ABC’s] `Desperate Housewives,’ `Lost’ and `One Tree Hill’ from us here, the audience proved they wanted to come back to scripted drama programming. The same is true for scripted comedy series.”