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Networks burst out laughing

October 16, 2009

Comedy's primetime momentum is spilling into development season. With CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" morphing from hit to megahit, and new ABC laffer "Modern Family" earning critical raves and good ratings, things have finally been perking up for the long-downtrodden laffer genre.

That upbeat forecast helped fuel a bit of a buying frenzy this summer, as the nets nabbed more comedy projects than normal, particularly of the multicamera variety.

More recently, the success of "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" and the critical acclaim behind "The Middle," "Community" and even improved soph laffer "Parks and Recreation" has led to a last-minute surge in single-camera comedy purchases.

"There's definitely an enthusiasm (for comedy) this year," says one network exec. "Everyone sees an opportunity, and has been emboldened by the early success of some shows."

Also possibly fueling the comedy explosion is the sheer number of out-of-work comedy writers with time on their hands to craft new, well-thought-out concepts.

"People have had more time to noodle around," one agent says.

The pitch cycle for dramas, on the other hand, took a little longer to get moving , according to industry players.

As development season continues, some normalcy has returned to the process, execs and agents say, now that enough time has passed from the 2007-08 writers' strike.

Says an exec: "The rhythm is back in terms of the season."

But the movement toward more year-round development, which predates the strike, also continues.

"Everything is trending more year-round," one tenpercenter says. "You could probably sell anything year-round if it's strong enough."

Scribes getting early commitments include Greg Garcia, who wasted no time after the cancellation of "My Name Is Earl," scoring a put pilot at Fox for "Keep Hope Alive," a project about a twentysomething slacker who winds up having to care for an infant. Garcia also has a project in the works at ABC.

Fox also gave an early nod to "That '70s Show" alum Mark Brazil's new entry, "Rednecks and Romeos."

The comedy revival has brought back a group that rode the last comedy wave to great success: the "Home Improvement" trio of Matt Williams, Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean, who have a multicam comedy at ABC about a stay-at-home working dad.

Family and relationships actually show up in much of this year's comedy development. Several focus on newlyweds, or couples with new babies. There are also a handful of projects about siblings in the works.

At ABC, Shana Goldberg-Meehan's "Leapfrog" looks at two sisters who are in two very different relationships. And Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa's "18 Years" centers on a married couple whose lifestyle dramatically changes with kids.

NBC's "Nature vs. Nurture," from David Guarascio and Moses Port, looks at a heart surgeon and his underachieving family, while another project would star Debra Messing as a CEO who loses her job and becomes a full-time parent.

And CBS' "Hitched," from Josh Schwartz and Matt Miller, revolves around newlyweds who realize they don't really know each other, while the Eye's "True Love," from Matt Tarses, examines twentysomethings looking for love.

It's not all family, however: ABC's comedy project from Greg Malins and Arianna Huffington looks at a group of Congress members living together in D.C.

Humor is even seeping into the drama side, as net execs say they're looking to lighten up after several years of going down the path of dark procedurals and serials. That already can be seen this fall in the success of "Glee," which is light enough that Fox bills it as a comedy.

"For quite a while, the idea of the antihero was the prevalent thing in drama," one exec says. "But people are taking measures to look into their ideas and try to find more aspirational aspects of their show. There are opportunities to find some fun and comedy in their ideas, and not go exceedingly dark.

"That's doesn't speak to every pitch or show, but it's something I'm sensing writers are trying to incorporate as part of their pitch," he says.

For example, Fox's "Rex Is Not Your Lawyer," from Barry Schindel, centers on a attorney whose panic attacks lead him to coach his clients to represent themselves. CBS' Peter Tolan drama project, about an eccentric professor-turned detective, also appears to have some laughs.

Not everything is being played for laughs, however. Fox has a Chicago-set cop drama from Shawn Ryan, and "Worthy," about a politico being blackmailed, while NBC has the Jennifer Johnson drama "Chase," from Bruckheimer TV, about fugitives. At ABC, a thriller from Kevin Falls looks at a mysterious man in a company town.

Meanwhile, the nets are also circling around more familiar franchises, including "The Traveler's Wife" and "St. Elmo's Fire" at ABC, "Hawaii 5-0" and the book "Deliverance Dane" at CBS, "Heathers" and the website "Texts From Last Night" at Fox, "Prime Suspect," "The Rockford Files" and DC Comics title "Midnight Mass" at NBC, and the book "Confessions of a Back-up Dancer" at the CW.

That's possibly also a reaction to what's working among hourlongs this season: loud and/or easily promotable skeins like "Glee," "FlashForward" and "NCIS: Los Angeles," all of which were marketing priorities at their respective networks.

With so many dramas already on the air, both via broadcast and cable, that may explain why the nets are having a field day with comedy, while being a tad more picky with drama.

"Our bar for (dramas) is high," says one net exec. "There's just a lot of it on the air. We want things that are really ambitious in tone and feel like nothing else on TV. That can become more difficult to do.'

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