Cablers bullish on telly belly-laughs

Producers, scribes tailor projects for wired world

With laffers falling flat at the major nets, cable nets are the beneficiaries, as a wealth of proven talent is eager to dive into cable’s uncensored domain.

Though cable salaries remain a fraction of the pay at broadcast webs, producers and scribes are filling their slates with passion projects tailored especially for the wired world.

They’re not worried that TV history is littered with cable’s comedy casualties: “Manhattan, AZ” and “The War Next Door” on USA; “Mind of the Married Man” on HBO; “Lucky” on FX; and “Oh Baby” and “Maggie” on Lifetime, among them.

Though HBO demonstrated agility in selling “Sex and the City” into syndication for $100 million, cablers still haven’t found a recipe for the syndicate-able scripted hit comedy.

But it hasn’t stopped the next generation of programmers from trying. And frustrated scribes are jumping at the chance to help. Carol Leifer, who has worked on eight sitcoms including “Seinfeld” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” has set up a semiautobiographical half-hour at Lifetime.

The women’s cabler also has inked development deals with actress Kathy Najimy for a comedy about overweight sisters, and with producer Susan Estelle Jansen (“Lizzie McGuire”) for a series about the off-the-court antics of the Lakers cheerleaders.

ABC Family is spending its programming bucks on three sitcom pilots from big-league producers including Brad Grey, Barry Wernick (“Two Guys and a Girl”) and Tollin/Robbins Prods.

An agent who handles comedy writers and producers says, “Work is work.

“Of course the pay isn’t at the broadcast level,” the agent says. “But at least on cable, they are less restricted. They can take chances or pursue passion projects, which tend to be better quality than what they’ve done for the Big Four.”

For FX entertainment topper John Landgraf, who arrived at the cabler after the Emmy-nommed Vegas-based comedy “Lucky” was canceled, it’s about finding the voices he hasn’t heard or seen before.

On his first four comedy pilots, he’s teamed with relative unknowns on quirky, smart, single-cam projects — something he knows a thing or two about as exec producer of Comedy Central’s “Cops” spoof “Reno 911!”

“I really don’t believe traditional sitcoms are the right way to go,” he observes. “If you look at the comedy that most people under 40 are exposed to, it’s all single-camera — animation, videogames, comedic films.

“FX has an older audience with a taste clearly for programming which is more honest, edgy and adult. Those adjectives describe our drama and will absolutely apply to our comedy.”

Among the FX pilots are a satiric look at America’s obsession with food; a sketch show from Jamie Foxx; and an absurdist series about married wildlife documentarians who decide to explore the human “animals” involved in a bizarre murder trial.

The ever-ambitious HBO, meanwhile — the only company to have sold a cable comedy into syndication — is trying its hand at reviving the multicamera comedy.

HBO Independent Prods., the shingle behind “Everybody Loves Raymond,” is prepping several sitcoms for the paybox.

Cabler brass say the move will not only strengthen ties with the comedy community but vary HBO’s slate of laffers, which includes “Entourage” and “Da Ali G Show.”

Execs at Comedy Central are hunting for a more traditional scripted hit.

Making headlines with its cheeky brand of comedy behind “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” “Chappelle’s Show,” “South Park” and frosh success “Drawn Together,” laffer net has already shot a pilot for potentially its first-ever live-action scripted series.

Cabler has joined forces with the writers behind “Wet Hot American Summer,” Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain, for a show centered on the wacky exploits of three unemployed average Joes.

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