A Laughing Matter


Cable has built a strong track record with dramatic series, reality shows and animation. Now it wants to make its mark in the final frontier — scripted comedy.

In the past, shows like USA Network’s hour-long “dramedy,” Monk, and Home Box Office’s Sex and the City, performed well with audiences. But basic cable really hasn’t had a breakout hit with a half-hour scripted comedy.

This year, premium services and basic-cable networks alike are either staking a bigger claim or starting to aggressively pursue the genre.

VH1 is taking its first crack at scripted comedy in April when it debuts So NoTORIous, featuring actress Tori Spelling playing a fictionalized version of herself.

And the summer will yield a bumper crop of comedies. HBO — creator of scripted comedies The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage as well as Sex — will put its own stamp on the sitcom with Lucky Louie, starring stand-up comedian Louis C.K.

Comedy Central — which has dabbled in scripted comedies with shows like Strangers With Candy, How’s My Bush and Reno 911! — has made a commitment to be much more aggressive in the format. It’s launching two scripted comedies, The Sarah Silverman Programme and American Lives this summer, while Lifetime Television will bow Lovespring, about a matchmaking service, from Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack.

During the summer, FX is adding Danny DeVito to the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and plans to put a big promotional push behind the sophomore show.

Showtime’s Weeds and Oxygen’s Campus Ladies also recently won second-season renewals.

Broadcast has hit home runs with hour-long dramas but struck out with comedies lately, which leaves a perceived opportunity for cable, according to Michael Wright, senior vice president of original programming for TBS and Turner Network Television. TBS is doing two scripted-comedy pilots, My Boys and Boy’s Life.

“We’re trying to grow our business,” Wright said. “The instinct as a programmer is you’re trying to go where the void is. You look at the landscape the last couple of years and there hasn’t necessarily been a great big breakout comedy … It’s due.”

FX president and general manager John Landgraf said that, in his view, basic cable has never had a scripted comedy that’s been a bona fide hit. He considers Monk a “funny drama.”

“So you’ve got a lot of people basically betting that it’s just a matter of time, and inevitably somebody will [get a comedy hit],” Landgraf said.

The boom in hour-long dramas on broadcast also leaves room for cable to stand out and make a mark with comedy, according to Lifetime president of entertainment Susanne Daniels.

“Maybe in a world where every other show feels like CSI and Law & Order, cable networks are trying to distinguish themselves with comedy this year,” Daniels said.

Several executives said that scripted comedies are essentially the next logical evolutionary step for their networks.

“Comedy is one of the staples of television programming, and I don’t think you can really consider yourself a full-fledged network unless you have both [comedy and drama],” said Showtime president of entertainment Robert Greenblatt.

There’s a lot of upside for a network when a comedy is a hit.

“When scripted comedy works, there’s nothing better,” said Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central executive vice president of original programming and development. “It syndicates well. The characters last forever. You can get a new audience each week because you’re not dependent on them [the characters] being part of some overall story arc. But it’s just really incredibly difficult to do right.”

With its scripted comedies, TBS is trying to do character-driven, relationship-based shows that are complementary to the off-network sitcoms it airs, such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends, Wright said.

But some networks, similar to their approach with other genres, are seeking something very provocative and fresh with their scripted comedies, something different from what the Big Four broadcasters offer. For example, some cable comedies, like Reno 911! or Campus Ladies, incorporate a good measure of improvisation.

Cable has blurred the lines for scripted comedy in other ways, as well, melding humor and drama. Monk is one of cable’s highest-rated shows, averaging a 4.3 household rating so far this year. USA submits the detective program in the comedy category come Emmy time. In fact, lead Tony Shalhoub has won two Emmys as best actor in a comedy series. USA president Bonnie Hammer described Monk as a “dramedy.”

Kids’ channels such as Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, with shows like That’s So Raven and Clarissa Explains It All, respectively, have a successful history with scripted comedies. But with adult-targeted cable networks, programmers claim the scripted-comedy arena is one of the most difficult formats to master.

“Comedy is so darn subjective,” Daniels said. “You can show a dramatic moment to everybody and everybody will say, 'Yes, that’s sad.’ And you could show a piece of comedy to the same 100 people and they’ll say, 'Oh, that’s not funny’ or 'That’s really funny.’”

Several programmers said they’re eagerly waiting to see how HBO does with its sitcom Lucky Louie.

“What we realized in a weird way is by steering clear of sitcoms we were playing on only half the field,” HBO Entertainment president Carolyn Strauss said. “The sitcom has taken a lot of blows lately … But what [HBO CEO Chris Albrecht] and I have said is, 'Look, there are a lot of sitcoms that we really admire. And when done well, it can be a terrific art form.’”

The trick, she said was to find one with the right sensibility for HBO. She and Albrecht admired stand-up comedian Louis C.K.’s edgy work, and during his act he often talked about “classic sitcom issues,” like his wife and family, according to Strauss.

“There’s a certain amount of frankness and honesty that Louie has in his act that I think we were able to translate fairly well into a sitcom format,” she said.

Adult-targeted cable networks in general have eschewed the sitcom format, which traditionally is set in a studio and uses three to four cameras. Weeds and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are single-camera comedies that are shot like films, for example.

“It just felt like we could push the envelope better in a single-camera form,” Greenblatt said.

FX wouldn’t do a sitcom, said Landgraf. He claimed it’s an archaic form, derivative of vaudeville when comedians appeared on a stage.

“HBO may prove me and others wrong with Louie C.K., but I don’t believe it,” Landgraf said.

FX last year debuted two scripted comedies — Philadelphia and Starved, which wasn’t renewed — that it produced very inexpensively in-house. Production costs on Philadelphia run about $500,000 an episode, versus the more than $1 million that’s typically spent on a half-hour comedy.

Cost is one of the reasons Comedy Central hasn’t done many scripted comedies, according to Corrao. But that’s changing this year.

“Because of the success we’ve had over the past couple of years, we felt it was time to start focusing our attention on projects that were a little bit higher profile and give it a shot,” Corrao said.

Oxygen had worked on an original movie with actress Cheryl Hines (co-star of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm), who brought the network Campus Ladies, about two middle-aged housewives who go to college. Network officials said the show is a good fit for Oxygen’s brand.

“For us, comedy is in our DNA, just in terms of how we approach the network,” Oxygen president of programming and marketing Debby Beece said. “We’re an optimistic, funny place, and we just always sort of carried that around in us.”

VH1’s So NoTORIous was actually a pilot that NBC didn’t pick up, according to Michael Hirschorn, VH1 executive vice president of production and programming.

“We felt it fit nicely with what we were doing,” he said. “It seemed like a logical half step beyond celeb reality because it’s rooted in her real life. And it’s also very pop culture, nostalgia-driven, so it seemed to hit all the classic VH1 beats.”