There is something very yin and yang about Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's senior vice president of original programming and head of development.
Three days after graduating Brown University with a bachelor's degree in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, she joined the ranks of that institution of higher intellect, MTV: Music Television. Then again, many consider MTV a bellwether of our times.
She also knows a lot about wine, and has a “nearly encyclopedic storage in her head about 1970s wrestling. As a young girl, she was a big wrestling fan,” notes her boss, Comedy Central president Doug Herzog. “Those two things combined make her a bit of a renaissance woman.”
Having a renaissance woman around Comedy Central is certainly paying off for Herzog and his compatriots within the MTV Networks family. The channel enjoyed a 22% rise in primetime ratings during 2004 among adults 18-to-49, and it cracked cable's top 10 for the first time with that demographic in total day, sharing the ninth slot with MTV, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel.
That Nielsen success was the result of network staple South Park, which Corrao inherited when she joined Comedy in July 2002, as well as hits that bear her insignia: Chapelle's Show, Reno 911! and the animated Drawn Together.
“I've tried to work with her every place I've gone,” says Herzog, who has also had presidential titles at USA Networks and Fox Broadcasting Co. They first worked together at MTV, where Corrao was one of the masterminds behind The Real World, The Ben Stiller Show and The Jon Stewart Show.
Corrao obviously has a great fondness for MTV, and laughs away questions about her odd college major. After all, if she hadn't majored in semiotics, she wouldn't have been able to take the film and TV production courses she was after. She learned early on that perseverance pays off: waiting in the reception area at MTV for three hours for the interview that got her in the door as a production assistant. Once inside, she rose through the ranks to become a vice president and executive producer, and launched the network's non-music program development department, which led to, among other things, The Real World.
From there, Corrao spent four years at Fox Broadcasting Co. as vice president of comedy development and vice president of alternative and late-night development, helping establish That 70s Show, MAD TV and King of the Hill.
Before joining Comedy Central, she and partner Peter Tolan secured a production deal with Touchstone Television. Among the programs she executive-produced was Denis Leary's The Job.
Her current post provides her with plenty of fresh challenges. She's among those charged with developing a spin-off channel focusing on stand-up comedy. And she's on a mission to come up with a program that will skewer showbiz the way The Daily Show With Jon Stewart has successfully sent up news and politics.
“It's more challenging than we initially anticipated,” she says. “Because [the entertainment business] is so comedic unto itself, it's harder to make fun of it. We've piloted a couple of shows and might pick up a variation of one, but we're not there yet.”
Corrao is also on a quest to infuse new creative life into the tired TV sitcom genre. One early stab: Stella, an adaptation of a stage show, is scheduled to premiere this summer. It features what Comedy Central describes as “modern-day Marx brothers, who embark on various misadventures.”
Corrao said the network's biggest challenge is straddling a somewhat bifurcated world. The network thinks like premium networks Home Box Office or Showtime, with provocative content not generally associated with basic cable. Yet at the same time, it needs to sell those shows to advertisers.
Corrao has managed to solve such brainteasers over the years without the aid of an industry mentor. In her formative TV years, she was thrown in with a group of young bright people at MTV who figured things out themselves. But her mother is the person that has most influenced her life.
“She instilled in me the idea that I could do anything that I set out to do,” Corrao explains. “I was constantly challenging things. I wasn't a bad kid. It wasn't about breaking the rules, but it was about challenging rules.”
It was in that spirit that Corrao became the first female president of the senior class at her high school in Providence, R.I.
“I came from a very strong, Italian-values background. My dad cut hair, and my mom worked in a bank. Neither went to college, but all three of their children did,” Corrao says, adding that she is one of the few members of her extended family who ever moved from Rhode Island.
Corrao and her husband Jim Jones, an independent producer, have a family of their own — a 10-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. When she's not involved in work and family life, her yin-yang nature seems to come to the surface.
“I'm either going a million miles an hour, or one of the other things I like to do is shop for antiques,” she says. “I like to go to flea markets and auctions. I finally understand what it's like for my husband to watch a football game, because I get the same adrenalin rush at an auction.”
As for that “million miles an hour,” Corrao explains that when she's faced with a traffic jam, she's one of those people who just can't stand still. She will ferret out any unclogged side street to reach her final destination. “I probably don't get there any faster, but at least I'm moving.”