Handlers Take Their Comedy Seriously

Feb 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Talent for the Game:

With this issue, TelevisionWeek introduces Rep Report, a monthly feature that will offer news, examine trends and feature the people and companies involved in talent agencies and personal management from coast to coast.

While the rep’s role is generally invisible to the public and the consumer media, who are fascinated by stars and hit shows, industry insiders know the value of the reps’ hard work and extraordinary efforts to get their clients, projects and programs before the cameras.

Rep Report will pull back the curtain on the firms and individuals who play such a central role in so much of what goes on in show business. We welcome readers’ comments and suggestions for people to feature on this page in the future.


Steve Smooke, an agent in the TV department of Creative Artists Agency, was in a bar in Montreal once attending the Just for Laughs Festival, when he became instantly intrigued by a woman performing a comedy act. He decided on the spot he had to sign her.

“I was so passionate about her,” he recalled recently, declining to identify the client, “I escorted her to the kitchen and signed her right there.”

The urgency he must have felt is understandable. Really good comedic talent is extremely valuable, especially in today’s TV marketplace, where so few comedy series are thriving.

In the past five years only a handful of comedies have even made it to a second season. As networks invested in a wide variety of out-of-the-box comedy pilots this development season, one thing TV executives agreed on: They really don’t know what the next big half-hour hit will be.

The good news, at least for the people in the business of representing comedians, is that the TV market remains strong for comedic talent. “You can’t replace a sense of humor,” Mr. Smooke said.

That’s in part what makes the job of talent agents like Mr. Smooke, and personal managers, so vital to the TV business. For the most part, they, more than anybody in show business, are on the front lines when it comes to discovering new comedic talent and placing them in successful shows.

“At the same time people are talking about how the form is suffering, I think it’s an exciting time because change can happen,” said Peter Principato, a partner in the management and production company Principato-Young Entertainment, whose clientele includes comedians Anthony Anderson and Will Arnett.

The trick is having a talent for spotting talent, said Elizabeth Porter, VP of talent and events at Comedy Central.

“There are so many stand-ups out there; people are performing in all kinds of clubs in all the major cities,” Ms. Porter said. “My job is to find maybe someone playing the Sunday night show at a Radisson, or some kind of underground bar scene. As everybody is looking for the next name … it’s helpful for me to get introduced. [Representatives] will bring me a lot of names and faces that they’ve seen. It’s their business to support them.”

Comedian reps regularly pound the pavement to find new talent. That can mean nights out at clubs in New York or L.A., attending festivals like Just for Laughs or the Aspen Comedy Festival, hopping on a plane or driving to towns in Southern California like Brea, Irvine and Ontario, where Mr. Smooke said crowds are different and stand-up sets tend to be closer to an hour, rather than the 10 to 15 minutes typical in Los Angeles.

“What I look for is, obviously, first and foremost charisma and just pure comedy,” Mr. Smooke said. “It’s got to be a gut feeling. You respond emotionally, become involved with that person comedically.”

Usually, for Mr. Smooke, because he’s in the TV department at CAA, that performer’s work should lend itself to television. “If I don’t see a show built around their point of view, it might not be the right client for me,” he said.

While agents tend to specialize in particular areas-TV, film, music or otherwise-managers intersect with a comedian’s career as a whole, said Mr. Principato, who was an agent at William Morris Agency before forming his management-production company with Paul Young about four years ago.

“Having been both, my experience as an agent was that you’re given very specific tasks to get clients jobs in very specific arenas, especially in a larger agency,” he said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody could be good at many things and never great at one. In an agency, you can be great at one. For a career that has many facets to it, you can have up to five agents on a team.”

Mr. Principato said he wanted to be involved in all aspects his clients’ careers. “I realized that’s what managers do, take someone’s talent, see all aspects of the business and turn it into an enterprise,” he said.

The really good manager-producers see things through to the end for their clients, Mr. Principato added, “being that protective force for the creative voice. You have to have a keen understanding of the business, really become their business partners, so the client is concentrating on the creative and innovations and you’re concerned about the business and development.”

For stand-ups, “management is especially important,” Ms. Porter said. “Agents and managers are really important as a stand-up tries to develop a voice. As you evolve a career, you have to not only hone material, grow material, but you have to figure out are you an actor? Can you write? They have to have help crafting a career.”

Whoever the client, big breaks in TV often play an important role in a comedic performer’s career. Many top actors who have big film careers-Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Mike Myers and Robin Williams, for example-got big starts in television.

And comedians-turned-actors are not relegated to comedic roles.

“When we think about how best to represent a client who wants to do television, we put them with a writer and work on creating the right show for them,” said Mr. Smooke, whose comedian client Bill Bellamy starred in former Fox drama “Fastlane.” “That could be a half-hour, it could be an hour. If you look at dramas now, there are a lot of comedic elements to a lot of them. [Networks] look for comedic actors in drama all the time.”

And while the TV business remains interested in comedians, comedians will always remain interested in TV, said one industry insider. “Talent always want to make movies. Actors want to see themselves on the big screen,” the insider said, “but they know they can make money in television.”