Comedy Pilots Get Creative

Feb 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

With another season going by without a breakout comedy hit, studios and networks are redoubling their efforts to think outside the box and come up with innovative comedic programming that will win back audiences.

As in years past, workplace ensembles and blended families will dominate the comedy pilot landscape. However, as the comedy pilot pickup season drew to a close last week, it became clear the broadcast networks are gambling on at least a few creative choices-in terms of character, production style and auspices-with the hope of reviving the troubled genre. Craig Erwich, executive VP of programming for Fox Broadcasting Co., said his network is trying to incorporate new themes in its pilots.

“Probably this year we expanded beyond our traditional scope of family and teenagers,” he said, pointing to Darren Star’s pilot “Kitchen Confidential,” a comedy based on chef Anthony Bourdain’s book about the restaurant industry, and “New Car Smell,” a workplace ensemble set on a used-car lot.

Lanny Novack, senior VP in the William Morris Agency’s television literary department, said networks have not shied away from more challenging characters.

“I see more of a willingness to take a chance,” he said.

ABC is developing a pilot from Conan O’Brien’s company about a woman with a seemingly perfect family life who leaves her family for a new career, while NBC is developing a pilot about a formerly obese woman who dumps her fat husband for a new life. Where in the past network executives worried more about whether a character was liked by the audience, there is now more freedom to explore flawed characters.

Make ‘Em Laugh

Shelley McCrory, senior VP of comedy series for NBC Universal Television Studio, said the trend is natural, considering comedies are supposed to make people laugh.

“We reminded ourselves that characters who are likable are not necessarily the pathway to funny,” she said.

Changes aren’t happening only on the pages of scripts. Larry Salz, a partner at United Talent Agency, said this development season networks are more open to diversity in terms of pilot format.

“For years, what we’ve been hearing is no one would buy single-camera,” he said, noting that other than Fox, networks in the past have shown less interest in the format over the traditional multicamera setup most familiar to sitcom audiences.

Fox is once again diving into the single-camera pond with several projects, but ABC is doing a single-camera pilot from Touchstone about a group of friends brought together by a dating couple and a project from Sony TV about a self-help author. In addition, NBC has at least three single-camera projects, including a 20th Century Fox TV pilot starring Morris Chestnut as a former football superstar.

“It’s interesting to see how it is different,” Mr. Salz said.

The difference goes beyond the multicamera/single-camera debate to the networks casting a wider net in terms of writing talent.

“There are those A-list names you expect to see, and then there are those new names that have not been staffed on a show before, that have not come up through the system,” Mr. Salz said. “It is a trend in terms of taking chances on new stuff.”

Traditionally, established television writers bring ideas to studios and networks, pitch an idea, get notes, and then go write a script, often with close supervision from attentive development executives. Mr. Salz said this development season several spec scripts, or scripts written outside the initial development process and handed in already completed to studios and networks, have made it to the pilot stage.

In the past, getting a pickup off a spec script, especially for untested writers, was unheard of. Not this year; Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s script “Adopted” got picked up at ABC, and former top network executive Sandy Grushow’s project “Don’t Ask,” written by Nicky Silver for Fox on spec, was greenlighted last week.

“People are much more open than in the past,” Mr. Salz said.

Spec Pilot Succeeds

Besides spec scripts making it through the development process, this season a spec pilot has found success. When David Hornsby, Lance Krall and Danny Salles walked in to Fox with their concept “The Other Mall,” they had more than 10 minutes of self-financed footage shot with the help of a group of actors they had assembled. After receiving some broad notes from network executives, the group went back out and reshot without doing extensive development at the script level. The reshot material then got a pilot presentation pickup from Fox.

For Mr. Novack, whose agency represents the trio, the format has advantages for show creators, despite the upfront costs.

“It was certainly done a lot less expensively,” he said, “and you see more of the vision of the creators invested in it.”

Mr. Erwich said he was a strong supporter of the “Other shows such as Fox’s “Lonely Island Guys” have been a staple of development for several seasons (“Blue Collar Comedy” has found success on The WB), but this year scripted-improv pilots in the vein of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are populating schedules. Broadway Video and NBC Universal Television Studio are developing a show about siblings for ABC and a project for NBC called “The Weekend,” about three families living on the same cul-de-sac. Both projects are being co-developed with Fred Goss, a series regular on the improvisational Bravo series “Significant Others.”

“There is a lesson to be learned from what’s happening in reality,” Ms. McCrory said. “Reality is very visceral, even though it’s largely scripted. It’s improvised, but each one of these things has a pretty tight story.”

Ms. McCrory also pointed to “American Lives,” her company’s pilot with DreamWorks, where real-life, unwitting interviewees find themselves interacting with the show’s fictionalized news reporters. The concept was created by Dan Mazer, a producer of HBO’s “Da Ali G Show.” The next step for producers is assembling casts and hiring directors that will flesh out their concepts into actual filmed product, before spring, when networks finally decide what will make their schedules. While Ms. McCrory said “A down cycle is not really a bad thing,” since “there’s real opportunity now,” she stopped short of predicting the 2005-06 season is going to launch the next generation of top 10 must-see comedies.

“I don’t think anybody could have told you `Desperate Housewives’ was the big hit that it was,” she said. “When lightning strikes, it strikes, and you can’t predict it.”

Comedy Pilot Pickups Chart 1

Comedy Pilot Pickups Chart 2