Comedy at Work
With The Office a bona fide hit, workplace sitcoms abound
By Jim Benson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/18/2007 7:00:00 PM
NBC’s translation of Britain’s The Office may rank only third among broadcast-network sitcoms this season, but its impact on the television business extends far beyond just ratings or the fictional Dunder-Mifflin headquarters in Scranton, Pa.
More than 20 workplace comedy pilots are in development for next season, as well as several concepts imported from the UK, as the networks put the finishing touches on about 45 comedy pilots vying for a handful of slots on 2007-08 primetime schedules.
They are approaching the task with some trepidation, since comedy has been in a slump for the past decade and unable to replicate the mass appeal of former sitcom giants like Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends or Seinfeld.
The goal now seems to be to find the next wave of shows that, like The Office, are capable of generating significant buzz in a multiplatform world—and appeal to a wide audience. At least two of the comedies are set in newsrooms, including the sought-after Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton vehicle Action News, now parked at Fox.
NBC development chief Katherine Pope insists that the network did not set out to replicate the success of The Office. In fact, it wants to stay as far away from knockoffs of the rising Thursday-night franchise as it can.
But the logline of Business Class, an NBC workplace-comedy pilot, indicates that it at least borrows some “absurd and surreal” elements from The Office. The story involves two high-powered soda salesmen on a never-ending business trip.
Networks appear to be putting more emphasis on workplace comedies now because jobs have become a primary focus of viewers’ family, dating and social lives, making such sitcoms a natural extension of family and buddy comedies.
The networks want to realistically portray modern-day society’s obsession with ultra-long work weeks, technology and pop culture. The issue of overly involved parents is also explored.
Next season’s pilot crop also tackles an array of controversial subjects, such as politics, religion, in vitro fertilization and racism. Two networks are venturing into uncharted territory: Handicapped characters are at the core of Fox’s Playing Chicken, about two brothers who differ politically and are forced to live together after one suffers an accident that leaves him wheelchair-bound, and NBC’s I’m With Stupid, about a pair of disabled roommates.
Once again, most of the comedy pilots will be shot single-camera style at ABC and NBC, which set off the wave two years ago with My Name Is Earl. Fox and CBS pilots are more evenly divided between single- and traditional multi-camera formats.
“Single-camera is very liberating for writers,” says Samie Kim Falvey, senior VP of comedy development at ABC, which has nine single- and four multi-camera sitcom pilots. “It is more conducive to new voices and non-traditional comedy writers, where multi-camera takes more experience and a better understanding of the form.”
Networks are also giving breaks to people who have never run a show before. ABC pilot orders have gone to Alana Sanko, an accomplished children’s writer who has developed her first primetime comedy, See Jayne Run; Irish novelist Cecelia Ahern, who co-created Sam I Am with Don Todd; Victoria Pile, a successful British writer new to the U.S. who has an untitled cop project; and Caroline Williams, a staff writer on The Office who is penning Miss/Guided.
The new voices are needed at a time when more-lighthearted one-hour dramas, which grew out of the dismal ratings of serial dramas, are borrowing humorous elements from 30-minute comedies. The trend has put tremendous competitive pressure on network and studio comedy departments to find the right talent, both in front of and behind the camera. And it has made devising distinctive comedies more challenging, since dramas have twice as long to convey the tone of their stories and characters.
NBC’s Pope says the convergence of comedy and drama played a role in the network’s unprecedented commitment to two alternative comedy-pilot projects, the elaborate stunt show called Improv Everywhere and This Is Culdesac, a buddy comedy based on stars Luke Barats and Joe Bereta’s quirky YouTube shtick.
But Pope acknowledges that NBC Universal’s 2.0 initiative to put cheaper fare in the first hour of prime was the main motivator behind the low-cost projects. The network could run them with reality fare and scripted shows in the 8-9 p.m. ET hours, perhaps as early as this summer.
NBCU also aims to reap the financial rewards, if any, of its comedy pilots, since it owns all eight of them.
But some cracks are surfacing in the commitment to vertical integration at nearby Disney. ABC Television Studio (formerly Touchstone) is producing only five of 13 of the sibling network’s comedy pilots this year (and a majority of its drama pilots), versus 12 of 16 in 2006.
The year-to-year discrepancy is attributed to differing corporate agendas, the quest for the best material, and the “ebb and flow” of the development process. But the studio’s tally could change at series pickup time in May—the truly important measure—particularly since it has the strongest second-year–renewal rate in Hollywood.
The decrease could stem in part from network/studio combos’ coming to the realization that owning most of their shows, particularly comedies, can have an enormous downside, according to Carolyn Finger, VP/partner in TVtracker.com, which monitors industry trends.
“There was a sense among the conglomerates [in recent years] that vertical integration was a panacea and it was going to solve everything,” she says. “Now there may be a sense that they take all the rewards but also all of the risks.”
The network is using its aging traditional family sitcoms, George Lopez and According to Jim, as 8 and 9 p.m. Wednesday anchors against the onslaught of Fox’s American Idol. Their mission has been to prop up the lower-rated but critically acclaimed Knights of Prosperity and In Case of Emergency.
The latter two shows are looking to stretch the bounds of the traditional comedy format. But ABC has failed in its other efforts to do that this season with shows like the serialized real-time wedding saga, The Big Day.
Under pressure to increase its comedy presence next season, especially in its bread-and-butter area of family sitcoms, ABC has put 15 pilots into the pipeline.
“We wanted to find a way to resurrect the family comedy,” says Falvey. “We are in the business of broadcasting, and we haven’t said much about families that is exceptionally different than we did four years ago. ABC’s brand in the past has been family comedy.”
The themes range from maintaining outward appearances to a mother balancing home and work. With ABC largely responsible for the avalanche of workplace comedies this year—considering it the next logical step of the family-centered sitcom—the network has set up pilots with women working in a cruel corporate world. The comedies explore issues that arise when friends and colleagues suddenly become subordinates, and they look at the lives of people working at law firms and congressional offices.
Meanwhile, the Iraq war and start of the 2008 presidential election have made political humor more acceptable this year. Sensing that, ABC has greenlighted two comedy pilots, The Hill and an adaptation of the BBC’s The Thicke of It, both set in the nation’s capital.
A couple of ABC pilot concepts sound somewhat familiar. Miss/Guided appears to borrow from Ugly Betty, while the premise of an untitled cop project sounds like an updated take on acclaimed 1970s ABC sitcom Barney Miller.
THE SCOOP: Comedic political soap set in Washington
STUDIO: Warner Bros. TV (WBTV)
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Shana Goldberg-Meehan, Andy Ackerman
The Thick Of It
THE SCOOP: Based on the BBC format; follows workers in the office of a low-level congressman in D.C.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Mitch Hurwitz, Paul Telegdy
THE SCOOP: A modern family does what it takes to maintain appearances for the neighbors despite the chaos and challenges that are part of raising a family in 2007.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Jay Scherick & David Ronn
THE SCOOP: An ensemble show about modern men that follows the lives of four very different ones who carpool to work together each day.
STUDIO: ABC TV Studio, DreamWorks
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Bruce McCulloch, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, David Miner
Family of the Year
THE SCOOP: Centers on 10-time family-of-the-year winner, the Holloways—the Kennedys of Tatum, N.M.
STUDIO: Twentieth Century Fox TV (20th)
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Erica Rivinoja, Pam Brady
THE SCOOP: High school repeats itself when an ugly duckling returns to her alma mater as a guidance counselor, only to have her high school nemesis join her as a teacher.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Jason Goldburg, Karey Burke
Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office
THE SCOOP: Depicts the struggles of a “nice girl” trying to make it in the cutthroat corporate world; inspired by Dr. Lois Frankel’s book of the same name.
STUDIO: 20th, Imagine
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Josh Sternin, Jeff Ventimilia, David Nevins
Sam I Am
THE SCOOP: When a woman awakes from a coma with amnesia, she goes on a journey to reacquaint herself with her past. She quickly realizes that she was an awful person, and starting her life over is not as easy as she thinks.
STUDIO: ABC TV Studio, Brillstein Grey
See Jayne Run
THE SCOOP: An accomplished alpha female, working in the male-dominated world of investment banking, struggles to balance career and motherhood.
STUDIO: ABC TV Studio, Brillstein Grey
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Alana Sanko
THE SCOOP: From the 24 team, an action comedy set in real time, about gifted yet unconventional L.A. paramedics who save people’s lives while screwing up each other’s.
STUDIO: 20th, Real Time
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Dave Hemingson, Joel Surnow, Bob Cochran, Howard Gordon
THE SCOOP: A middle-class Midwestern family seen through the eyes of the mother
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Eileen Heisler, DeAnn Heline
THE SCOOP: A woman must deal with the changing dynamics between her peers and co-workers when she becomes the youngest female to head a news organization.
STUDIO: ABC TV Studio
Traveling In Packs
THE SCOOP: Three women in their 30s find living together has more benefits (and is more fun) than living alone.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Jhoni Marchinko
Untitled cop project
THE SCOOP: Workplace comedy about the eccentric characters in a police precinct
STUDIO: CBS Paramount
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Victoria Pile, Chris Godsick
Untitled Sachs & Judah
THE SCOOP: The lives of co-workers and friends at a top-tier law firm intertwine on both a personal and a professional level as they compete to make partner.
STUDIO: ABC TV Studio
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Jeff Judah, Gabe Sachs
Reaping the rewards of Super Bowl promotion, CBS earlier this month was able to launch the highest-rated comedy of the season during sweeps, Rules of Engagement. In its first two outings, the midseason entry even surpassed its lead-in, the previous comedy king Two and a Half Men, in adults 18-49.
While it’s early yet, the show’s strong start has to be encouraging for CBS. The network trimmed a night of comedy last fall in an effort to further strengthen its Monday-night sitcom franchise.
Rules’ ratings will also provide a lift to the comedy business in general after a decade of struggles. But through the middle of last week, the network still appeared skittish about the shaky comedy genre. It had placed orders for only about a half as many comedy pilots (including one presentation) as ABC.
CBS could continue with just one sitcom night, Mondays, next fall. With three solid performers there, including The New Adventures of Old Christine, one of the new candidates could likely replace The Class, which has had a tough time even with a strong online push.
At the Television Critics Association press tour last month, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler was willing to say about chances for The Class only that “we’re cautiously optimistic.”
She added that she was “very hopeful” about the state of the genre at her network: “We’ve got a lot of great stuff in development, so we’re looking forward to having a good comedy- development season this year.”
The network is getting more adventurous, breaking from its tradition-bound roots and ordering at least three single-camera comedies: The Captain, Ex Men and 3121 Clover.
THE SCOOP: Three siblings move to Los Angeles to find their fortune.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Greg Garcia, Todd Holland
The Big Bang Theory
THE SCOOP: From Two and a Half Men Executive Producer Chuck Lorre and directed by James Burrows; science geeks befriend a woman who is out of their league.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Lorre, Bill Prady
THE SCOOP: Single-camera; a young writer’s life starts to change when he moves into a legendary old Hollywood apartment building.
STUDIO: CBS Paramount
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: John Hamburg
THE SCOOP: Single-camera, documentary-style; typical suburban American family.
STUDIO: CBS Paramount
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Paul Corrigan and Brad Walsh
Giants of Radio (presentation)
THE SCOOP: Ensemble comedy set at a radio network from star, writer, director and producer Jason Weiner.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Weiner, Guy Walks into a Bar (Todd Komarnicki/Jon Berg/Matt Weinberg)
THE SCOOP: Single-camera; newly single dude finds support from “more experienced” guys; Rob Greenberg (How I Met Your Mother, Frasier) wrote.
STUDIO: CBS Paramount
Executive Producer: Greenberg
When Fox recently had the chance to provide a 13-episode commitment to sister 20th Century Fox Television’s Action News from Frasier scribes Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, it was a no-brainer.
It got a show bringing back sitcom icons Kelsey Grammer (Frasier, Cheers) and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) to TV, despite a hefty weekly license fee reportedly approaching $1.3 million-$1.4 million per episode. Other networks also had bid for it.
“It is all about the creative auspices of that show,” says Fox Executive VP Craig Erwich. “It is not even about the star value but the rare opportunity to be in business with the talent. Having a star on a show is no guarantee of getting a rating.”
But Fox has another proven sitcom star among its dozen comedy pilots: Grammer’s fellow Cheers alum Kirstie Alley stars in The Minister of Devine (based on the BBC series The Vicar of Dibley). Like Grammer and Heaton, she will be easy to promote.
As with Action News, which may give Fox its best chance yet of breaking its live-action sitcom curse, the network continues to take aim at more-traditional multi-camera sitcoms despite its cutting-edge image.
Previous attempts to crack the genre have failed, including the broken rookie Happy Hour. Meanwhile, ’Til Death has avoided the gallows, and The War at Home, now in its second season, has fought valiantly to stay alive.
Perhaps to hedge its pilot bets this year, Fox (the network of The Simpsons and Family Guy) has put another animated concept into the pilot hopper with The Life & Times of Tim.
The Rules For Starting Over
THE SCOOP: single-camera effort from the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber); 35-year-old and his buddies, all newly single after years of marriage, jump headfirst into the dating scene and learn the painful rules of starting over.
STUDIO: 20th, Conundrum Entertainment, Watson Pond Prods.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Bradley Thomas, Brad Johnson
THE SCOOP: Tom Werner (The Cosby Show, Roseanne) is among the producers of a multi-camera comedy about two brothers who differ politically and are forced to live together after one suffers an accident that leaves him wheelchair bound.
STUDIO: Warner Bros., Werner-Gold-Miller Productions
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Werner, Eric Gold, Jimmy Miller
The Return of Jezebel James
THE SCOOP: A single, successful children’s-book editor, physically unable to conceive, asks her estranged younger sister to carry her baby for her.
STUDIO: Regency Television
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Amy Sherman-Palladino, Dan Palladino
The Minister of Devine
THE SCOOP: A woman known for her rebellious younger days returns to the small town she grew up in to be a minister at the town church.
STUDIO: 20th, Tiger Aspect
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Suzanne Martin, Richard Curtis, Andrew Zein, Mark Chapman
Untitled Victor Fresco project
THE SCOOP: A 10-year-old boy tries to navigate life in his high-achieving, overstressed family with the help of his grandfather.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Victor Fresco (My Name Is Earl)
THE SCOOP: Bad-boy literary luminary Thomas Hackett escapes his troubles with a woman and a disgraced career teaching at Yale, only to find himself among ultra-PC ranks as a public high school teacher in Ohio.
STUDIO: Sony, 25C Productions
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Denise Moss, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly
THE SCOOP: A blended family with two sets of adult siblings who didn’t know they had the same father
STUDIO: 20th, HIP
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Barbara Wallace, Thomas R. Wolfe
THE SCOOP: A womanizing veterinarian isn’t particularly fond of animals but loves meeting and dating their female owners.
STUDIO: CBS Paramount, FremantleMedia
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Tucker Cawley
Untitled Liz Meriwether project
THE SCOOP: Three sorority sisters try to clean up their act after graduating from college but find altering their party-girl ways harder than expected.
STUDIO: 20th, Dawn Parouse Prods.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Dawn Parouse, Jeff Richman
THE SCOOP: Ensemble comedy in which an egotistical anchor whose career has seen better days (Grammer), rejoins his former co-anchor (Heaton) at the Buffalo TV station where they spent many happy years driving each other crazy.
STUDIO: 20th, Levitan/Lloyd Prods.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd
Me & Lee?
THE SCOOP: Suffering chronic back pain and a disappointing existence, Joel Salsberg gets more than he bargained for when he undergoes “bionic” back surgery in Lee Majors’ secret basement lab.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Matthew Salsberg, Jenji Kohan, Allan Loeb, Steven Pearl
The Life & Times Of Tim
THE SCOOP: Animated story of a very normal guy who somehow always finds himself in deep trouble at both home and the office.
STUDIO: WBTV, Werner-Gold-Miller
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Steve Dildarian, Tom Werner, Eric Gold, Jimmy Miller
Desperate to regain its “must-see TV” crown on Thursday nights, NBC is developing eight fall pilots—about on par with last year—with an eye toward the highly competitive evening.
Vying against stalwarts like CBS’ Survivor and ABC’s Ugly Betty at 8 p.m., the fourth-place network, which made its name on comedies, has gained traction this year with My Name Is Earl and The Office in the hour.
Through last week, The Office ranked third among all comedies in adults 18-49, with a 4.3 rating/11 share, while its lead-in, Earl, attracted a fifth-place 4.1/11.
While that’s a far cry from NBC’s glory days, the numbers are impressive enough to give the network confidence that they might be able to provide the spark that can reignite the entire night leading into the aging yet still potent ER at 10.
“It is working,” NBC’s Pope says. “We feel good about Thursdays. The night feels solid. It is a huge goal for us this year to get that comedy block back for us.”
The 9-10 p.m. hour will be tougher to crack as long as ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and CBS’ CSI remain hot. NBC has utility hitter Scrubs—a favorite of younger viewers—there now, along with the critically lauded but low-rated 30 Rock, which could be used to open up new comedy nights.
While NBC has turned to established showrunners for its comedy pilots, Pope says the network is looking for distinctive fare with topical subjects and strong characters. The goal is to differentiate its shows from the other guys, the way The Office and Earl have, and to develop comedies that will play across multiple platforms.
She cites Zip, which taps into the haves-versus-have-not angst (think ABC’s Knights of Prosperity) in the country, and sci-fi workplace comedy Area 52.
I’m With Stupid, an Odd Couple social commentary with the leads in wheelchairs, is one of three pilots that NBC adapted from international formats— two from Britain and one from Australia. Says Pope, “We thought for a while that we had become horrible Anglophiles.”
The It Crowd
THE SCOOP: Adapted from the British format, it focuses on the life of IT guys at a company.
STUDIO: NBCU TV STUDIO (NUTS), FremantleMedia
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Joe Wiseman, Joe Port, Moses Port, David Guarascio, Steve Tao
I'm With Stupid
THE SCOOP: A down-on-his-luck guy befriends a wheelchair-bound man and moves into his home for the handicapped.
STUDIO: NUTS, Reveille
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Wil Calhoun, Ben Silverman, Teri Weinberg, Kenton Allen, Paul Telegdy
Kath and Kim
THE SCOOP: The adventures of love and denial, adapted from Down Under, as only a mother and daughter could live it
STUDIO: NUTS, Reveille
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Nancy Pimental, Gina Riley, Jane Turner, Rick McKenna, Ben Silverman
THE SCOOP: Set in a ZIP code full of “haves,” this is a show about the “have nots” as they hustle to join their rich counterparts.
STUDIO: NUTS, Reveille
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Mark Rizzo, Ben Silverman, Marc Abrams, Michael Benson, D. Dan Attias
THE SCOOP: Office comedy set at a secret location in the Nevada desert where the staff must watch after a crude alien
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Mike Armstrong, Dean Parisot, David Latt
The Mastersons of Manhattan
THE SCOOP: James Burrows directs this serialized soap about a wealthy family in NYC, centered on two socialite sisters.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Gary Janetti
THE SCOOP: The absurd and surreal adventures of two high-powered soda salesmen on a never-ending business trip
STUDIO: NUTS, Dutch Oven
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, David Bartis, Doug Liman
THE SCOOP: From the mind of Conan O’Brien, a workplace comedy set in an animal park
STUDIO: NUTS, Conaco
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: David Israel, Jim O’Doherty, David Kissinger, O’Brien, Jeff Ross
THE SCOOP: Improvisational group performs elaborate stunts using volunteers, as well as the viewing public.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Charlie Todd, Jason Carbone, Cara Welker, Dave Rath
This is Culdesac
THE SCOOP: Buddy show based on YouTube’s Luke Barats and Joe Bereta’s material
STUDIO: Realand Prods.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Barats, Bereta, Dan Farah
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