It's not a bad job if you can get it: Invite select writers and comedians to your office, listen to them pitch you all day long, and then pick which one gets to develop a show for your network.
That's basically the task of Stephanie Leifer, who at 34 is ABC's new senior vice president of comedy development. Leifer works hard and puts in long days, but it's a lot easier to show up every day and stay late when you simply adore your work, she says.
"I've always loved TV and have always watched a lot of TV," she says, wearing her love for her craft on her sleeve. "This is all I've ever wanted to do."
Leifer got her break early, when she was hired as the assistant to the vice president of movies and miniseries at ABC in January 1994. From there, she zipped right up the ladder, with promotions coming annually. She became assistant to the vice president of current series in September 1994. She left the world of assistants the following year to become manager of current series.
Fast-forward to July 1996, when she was promoted again to director of drama series. She became director of comedy series programming in September 1997, executive director of comedy series programming in July 1998 and vice president of comedy series programming in July 1999.
After the success this season of ABC's Tuesday-night comedy lineup—and, particularly, of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenager Daughter, starring John Ritter and Katey Segal—Leifer was promoted to senior vice president in September.
"Stephanie's not a rising star at ABC. She's a star," says Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment. "Since taking the reigns of the Comedy department in January, she's steered us on a course that embraces our strengths. Steph knows what works for our audience, and she knows what's been missing from the six-network schedules. Our new Tuesday comedy block has her fingerprints all over it, and I thank her for it at least once a day."
After a horrible 2001-02 season, ABC desperately needed to find shows that the network could rebuild around this fall. To do that, says Leifer, "we were more focused in this development season than we had ever been before. We really tried to go back to an inclusive kind of broad-based comedies that also were smart, distinctive and had a bit of emotion in them."
Leifer finds that, while she enjoys working in comedy and drama—and she has experience in both—comedy provides a more immediate experience. "When you are developing a comedy, you are going to the set at least three times a week and facing the producers. It's different than drama programming, in which you are usually catching up with them while they are already shooting. I like going to comedy sets; it's like having a little play performed for you."
The key to her success, she says, is her ability to think long-term and thus perform well in jobs that she doesn't necessarily want to be in for very long. "You learn something at every job even if you are learning not
to do something," she observes. "I think the key is reading everything, watching everything, talking to everyone and showing up for things even what that's not your job. It's being around the executives, having opinions and really just watching a lot of TV."