CAA’s laugh lab

Creative Artists Agency has signed a three-year deal with Comedy Central to use the ad-supported cable network as a laboratory for CAA clients with offbeat projects that the agency would package.

Such a linkup between a major talent agency and a cable network is unprecedented, but the deal resembles last week’s announcement by Brillstein-Grey Entertainment that it would set up a separate division to produce TV series and specials for Capital Cities/ABC.

Although CAA will not set up a separate company, the overall deal resembles Brillstein-Grey because CAA will try to get broadcast-network financing for many of the Comedy Central series.

In that scenario, Comedy Central would serve as the farm system for a TV-series wannabe, with a broadcast network’s primetime schedule the coveted eventual destination for a show with mass audience potential. Comedy Central would not be the final stop because it reaches only 31 million subscribers.

CAA declined to comment on the deal. But Mitch Semel, senior VP of programming for ComedyCentral, says at least three series, each of them with an initial order of four half-hour episodes, could be in the network’s lineup before the year is out:

  • “High Octane,” a Francis Ford Coppola production about two young women, played by Zoe Cassavetes and Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who meet all sorts of comic characters as they tool around Southern California in a convertible.

“An American Family,” produced by Ken Finkleman, a mock documentary about a camera crew which contracts to do a cinema-verite film about a family that turns out to be dysfunctional in a major-league way.

“The White Cyc Show,” a series of fast-paced comedy sketches in “Laugh-In” style, with performers appearing in costume against the stylized background of a white cyclorama. The producers are Lol Creme, the former rock musician who founded the group 10cc, and Jerry Kramer.

New area for cabler

Those shows would all be departures for Comedy Central, which is jointly owned by HBO and Viacom.

“We’ve had to restrict our original programming mostly to shows with modest budgets, such as standup comedy and talk formats,” Semel said. “This deal with CAA raises us up to the next level — it gives us access to bigger production budgets and a larger talent pool, both behind and in front of the cameras. We’ll now be able to do new things, like put on animated series and produce scripted sketch comedies.”

Asked why someone with the clout of Francis Coppola wants to get involved in such a small project, Semel said: “This is a favorite idea of his, but he hasn’t had any luck selling it elsewhere. It certainly doesn’t justify going out as a $ 40 million movie.”

CAA strategy

The way Semel sees the deal evolving is that CAA will probably try to extract additional money for each of the projects not only from an American broadcast-TV network but from foreign broadcasters as well.

For its portion of the license fee, Comedy Central would get to schedule the four initial episodes of the series. But if the American TV network became convinced the show had broadcast potential, it would then take over the financing and get exclusive domestic rights to subsequent episodes.

Foreign option

If, however, the American TV network decided to bow out after seeing the first four half-hours, Comedy Central would have the option of continuing to fund new episodes for exclusive showing on its network, with the hope that foreign partners would stay on board to shoulder a portion of the production cost.

Semel says if the deal yields five limited-run series over the three years — and even if none of them ends up as regularly scheduled shows on Comedy Central — he’ll consider it a success because of all the industry attention it’ll shower on the network.

As he puts it, Comedy Central “is trying to hook up with the right people, the people who’ll help to make us famous.”

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