Call it an occupational hazard. Lauren Corrao is doubled over with laughter. Comedian Wanda Sykes is in Comedy Central's Los Angeles office pitching storylines for her upcoming show, where she masquerades in unlikely jobs. In one scenario, she learns to be a pilot; in another, she impersonates a repo man. Corrao, the channel's senior vice president of original programming, loves it. But when Sykes suggests a turn as sommelier, Corrao hesitates. Comedy's young-male audience won't know—or care—about a wine expert.
Three words: pitch-perfect comedy.
After all, making guys laugh is her job. Which makes her bosses at Comedy Central and MTV Networks happy. Very happy. Because Comedy is red hot. Chappelle's Show, with comedian Dave Chappelle, and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
are sizzling. In June, Reno 911, a Cops-inspired spoof, returns for its second season. And South Park
is a winner—in both its time slot and repeats.
Corrao is pleased. But the 43-year-old slender mother of two is in perpetual motion. Her goal is to double original output with four new shows, including Sykes's I Can Do That, which debuts later this year. Another three are planned for early 2005.
And the new shows do a 180 from the lineup she inherited two years ago. "We were the white-frat-boy network," Corrao remembers. "We're trying to diversify the portfolio." Translation: Comedy's most ambitious-and eclectic-slate yet. A mix of sketch comedy, improv, animation, and reality she prays will prove potent.
They'll hit at a critical point. A year ago, Viacom plunked down $1.2 billion to buy Time Warner's 50% stake in Comedy and make the channel part of MTV Networks. With MTVN's direction, Comedy's promotion and development have gotten a boost. The results are in the ratings. Prime time viewership climbed 17% in the first quarter to an average 875,000 viewers, compared with a year before, per Nielsen. In recent weeks, with Chappelle's Show
pulling in record numbers, Comedy is averaging around 1 million viewers a week in prime. To keep feeding the pipeline, Comedy will spend about $150 million on programming this year, reports Kagan World Media.
Leading the charge is incoming CEO Doug Herzog, who discovered South Park, returning for his second tour of duty. After nearly 10 years at Fox Broadcasting and USA Network, Herzog is older, wiser, and ready to take Comedy to the next level.
Her days are filled with pitch meetings and preview tapes. She spends much of her time curled in a worn leather chair in her bachelor-pad–like office filled with a big-screen TV, a lumpy green velour couch, and a low wood coffee table, and decorated with mementos from Comedy Central shows. Big-name talent, like Sykes and British performer Graham Norton, pass through. So do aspiring comics and wannabe writers looking for a break. What Corrao can't see, her staff of 13 does. Nothing is left to chance.
Take note: She isn't looking for the next Last Comic Standing
or The Osbournes. If it isn't fresh, it's history. "This network was made by one of the biggest risks in television: South Park," says Corrao. "We will always take risks. We're not going to have any success by playing it safe."
Instead, she wants sparks to fly. On board: Drawn Together, an animated reality show slated for October. It spoofs classic cartoons and Big Brother
and The Real World
reality formats. The "housemates" are familiar cartoon types—a superhero character, a Betty Boop—trying to live together. "It is so inventive," she says, "yet so familiar."
Premiering in June is The Graham Norton Effect,
a comedy and variety show that Corrao hopes will attract a broader audience for Comedy, including more women. Another animated effort, Odd Todd, scheduled for next year, is about a 30-year-old New York slacker. One of Corrao's staffers hit on the idea after finding Todd's Web site.
Building on the channel's success with spoofs, Corrao has two courtroom farces in development: Judge Paul Mooney, a People's Court
parody executive- produced by Chappelle and his partner, Neal Brennan, and Defending Your Date, a dating show where comics set couples up and then hear testimony in mock court. Herzog also wants to try out scripted comedy, which will fall under Corrao's purview.
Corrao and Herzog are products of the MTV school of programming. That means frenetic development, lots of stunts, uncovering new talent, and giving existing stars freedom to work. The two friends spent a decade together at MTV early in their careers; at one point, Herzog was Corrao's boss. When he accepted the Comedy job, he shipped a piece of their past to her office: a 6-foot-tall Pez dispenser with Bob Eubanks's head from the set of Remote Control, an MTV game show they worked on together. Inheriting Corrao saves Herzog from courting her again. He had tried to lure her over to both Fox and USA, but she demurred.
"Lauren is great with talent and has a deft touch with programming," says Herzog. "And her comedy chops are terrific."
Yet in some ways, Corrao and Comedy Central are an offbeat pair. The Brown University grad is the first person from her Italian-American clan to leave Providence, R.I. She is not a wisecracking, wannabe comic. One-liners aren't her forte. Spotting talent is.
After MTV, Corrao graduated to Fox Broadcasting, leading alternative and late-night programming and, later, comedy. From Remote Control
to Fox's Mad TV
and Family Guy, her résumé is chock full of wacky ideas that worked.
"Lauren sees the value in taking a non-traditional approach to television," says her former production partner, veteran TV and film producer Peter Tolan, who worked with her post-Fox on ABC's The Job, with Denis Leary. "She was always finding interesting projects, interesting writers, and theater people."
In fact, Corrao's alternative pedigree helped shepherd Chappelle. His show was in development when Corrao arrived at Comedy. She refused to let the comic slip away. He had a development deal with Fox during her stint there, although she wasn't in charge of him, but split after a dispute over creative direction.
At Comedy Central, Chappelle wanted to do a standup and sketch show. It was hardly a revolutionary format, but Corrao knew raucous Chappelle was something fresh. She finessed his act, adding an audience and standup segments to wrap around sketches. "She has put Dave in a position to shine," says Tolan, who worked closely with Chappelle on the failed Fox show. "He was notoriously wasted in network television."
Years ago, her eye found another diamond in the rough: The Real World. Three days after college graduation, Corrao moved to New York to work for MTV and decamped in a 10,000-square-foot Chelsea loft with10 friends-of-friends. She jockeyed for time in the loft's single bathroom. They threw wild parties every weekend. One roommate brought a homeless woman home for a few days. She was living The Real World
So when reality producer Mary Ellis Bunim came to MTV's offices a few years later with a then-radical idea, Corrao, vice president of development, jumped. MTV had wanted to make a scripted soap opera but couldn't afford the writers' or actors' fees. Bunim suggested a "real" soap: Put strangers in a house and film their lives.
"It was an out-there idea," Corrao recalls, "but I had completely lived the experience." Now in its 14th season, The Real World
is still going strong. It is one of Corrao's proudest creations, because, she says simply, "it was groundbreaking television."
That's the kind of magic Corrao would like for Comedy, but she's the first to admit that clever ideas don't always make good TV. "It has to be provocative, it has to make you think, and it has to be original." And most important, she smiles, "It always has to be funny."