Fifty individuals, teams and companies who've moved the laughs forward this year
3 ARTS ENTERTAINMENT
When “The Office” took home the Emmy for comedy in August, the loudest cheers might just have been from the managers-producers at 3 Arts Entertainment. Company partner Howard Klein is an exec producer on the show, which was adapted for the U.S. market from the British hit skein by client Greg Daniels. The fact that a show as quirky as “The Office” could walk away with an Emmy seemed to indicate a sea change in American comedy — one that favors the type of product 3 Arts likes to generate. Embracing nonmainstream concepts has paid off big for the company, whose partners also include Michael Rotenberg, Erwin Stoff, Molly Madden, Dave Becky and David Miner.
3 Arts is particularly strong in TV comedy, with projects such as the well-reviewed (but low-rated) “30 Rock,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” The company is also huge in cable, with more than a dozen projects in the works at Comedy Central, BET, E! and other nets. And 3 Arts is making noise in features as well, with projects such as “Human Giant” and Mike Judge’s upcoming “Extract.”
POV: “We’re attracted to things which are a little off-center,” Klein says. “That’s who we are. That’s what we respond to.”
The veteran comic says he’s tapped into the “Sears mentality — not quite Kmart, not quite Bloomingdale’s.” Certainly, in the realm of family comedy, he’s become high end. This year, “Zoom” came and went, but his “Shaggy Dog” did over $61 million in domestic B.O., $84 million worldwide and more than $33 million in DVD sales and rental. Allen’s prior family hits for Disney all did solid B.O. as well — and his recent “Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause,” more than held its own, taking in a $20 million weekend gross, opposite the juggernaut “Borat.” His upcoming “Wild Hogs” teams him with John Travolta and Martin Lawrence.
POV: “Studios think comedy to death. When you slow comedy down to its elements, it gets difficult to keep it real, it involves risk and trust. It’s hard to explain funny. Studios are still transitioning; they’re still scared of comedies. Me, I dig this business, and I love being funny and sharing it with anyone near. Hell, I don’t let the FedEx guy leave without making him laugh.”
Sure, she’d been in some pretty successful feature comedies in the past, including “Bruce Almighty” (aka “that Jim Carrey film”) and “Along Came Polly” (“that Ben Stiller movie”). Somehow, though, in “The Break-Up” — which earned Universal more than $118 million in domestic box office — her appeal was at least on par with co-star Vince Vaughn. Now set to star in Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming comedy heist pic “The Gambit,” Aniston has transformed herself into perhaps the top female feature comedy star.
POV: “She has a unique physicality to her,” says producer Stacey Sher, who worked with Aniston on “Along Came Polly.” “Take her talent for screwball comedy, in the tradition of a Lucille Ball, coupled with how adorable and gorgeous she is, (and that makes for) an irresistible combination. You don’t see that often.”
The multihyphenate Apatow might well be the busiest guy in comedy. On the heels of this year’s “Talladega Nights,” which he produced with Jimmy Miller for Sony (it was one of the studio’s biggest hits of the year, grossing $148 million domestically), his next lineup of low-budget comedies is already at the starting gate. Next year, Universal will release “Knocked Up,” which Apatow wrote, directed and produced, followed by “Super Bad” at Sony, and “Drillbit Taylor” at Paramount, both of which Apatow is producing. He’s also producing the John C. Reilly starrer “Walk Hard” for Sony (which he co-wrote), and “Step Brothers,” starring Will Ferrell and Reilly.
POV: “I think of it as though I’m still running a TV show and each movie is a different episode. Because when you work in TV, you’re always writing, shooting and editing episodes simultaneously.”
Arndt hit pay dirt with his first script, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which has turned into what will be one of this year’s top-grossing indie pics, racking up more than $60 million in the U.S. to date, as well as ample awards consideration. After toiling in the development field as a freelance script reader, he wrote “Sunshine,” which was picked up by Universal Focus in 2002. When Focus put the project into turnaround in 2005, producer Marc Turtletaub financed the film independently. Fox Searchlight picked it up at January’s Sundance for around $10.5 million. With “Little Miss Sunshine” now under his belt, Arndt says he’s working with Pixar on an upcoming project.
POV: “After years of reading scripts that weren’t necessarily bad but didn’t feel finished, I was determined to have ‘Sunshine’ feel like a ready-to-shoot screenplay,” Arndt says. “At the same time, I thought it was the least commercial idea in the history of cinema. I basically wrote it to entertain myself.”
The prolific Long Islander has pulled off a pretty neat trick. More and more, the frequent “Saturday Night Live” guest star (he just hosted his 17th episode) plays for laughs, milking irony out of his power-guy persona, most recently in the NBC comedy “30 Rock” and indie feature “Running With Scissors.” Unlike Nielsen, Baldwin has also crossed back over, as evidenced by an award-season prominence that includes roles in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd.”
POV: Variety’s review of “30 Rock” tells you all you need to know about Baldwin’s evolution into a comic actor: “If ’30 Rock’s’ going to survive, Baldwin’s comedic chops will be tugging the lifeline,” Brian Lowry wrote.
LUKE BARATS AND JOE BERETA
Six months ago, the pair were recent Gonzaga U. graduates toiling in obscurity at a commercial production firm in Spokane, Wash. They had been making comic short films on the side for three years. Everything changed in May, when one of their shorts, “Mother’s Day,” made it to the front page of YouTube. Within months, their Web site was getting 40,000 hits a day, they’d signed with CAA and manager Dan Farah, and had a six-figure production deal with NBC to produce a pilot. Their wholesomely geeky shorts take on cubicle life, collegiate pranks and the agonies of dating through a mixture of “Kids in the Hall”-type good nature and “South Park” goofiness. And the kids love it: With one of the most-subscribed channels on YouTube, the pair now have more than a million fans and are the first true YouTube industry discoveries.
POV: “As this stuff blows up, we’re just trying to stay true to who we are. It’s a lot of philosophy of trying not to sell out, trying not to get taken advantage of. Up to a month ago, we had never been to L.A., either one of us!,” says Barats.
Beacher isn’t surprised that his Beacher’s Madhouse comedy/variety show is the hottest ticket in Vegas. “It’s just the best show there is,” says the 32-year-old former standup.
Debuting in 2003 at the Hard Rock Hotel, Madhouse plays out on 15 stages with midgets, magicians, go-go dancers, karaoke and standups such as Artie Lange, Steve Byrne and Robert Kelly. An instant sensation, the show drew sellout crowds peppered with celebrities such as the Hilton sisters and Nick Lachey while scoring national write-ups in publications like Rolling Stone.
With the recent sale of the Hard Rock, Beacher is talking with other hotels to bring back Madhouse in December and has opened a bar on the Strip called Beacher’s Rockhouse. A pilot for a half-hour variety show has been shot and is being shopped to networks.
POV: “It’s like ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ meets Mr. Las Vegas,” Beacher says, promising 150 variety acts per show. “There’s a lot of personalities, to say the least.”
DOUGLAS CARTER BEANE
After having written no fewer than six plays (including “As Bees in Honey Drown”) and two produced screenplays (including “To Wong Foo, Thanks for E
verything, Julie Newmar”), Beane finally makes his debut Nov. 13 in a place where comedy comes harder than usual — Broadway. Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” tells the story of an in-the-closet movie star who marries the pregnant girlfriend of his ex-lover.
POV: According to Beane, gay characters are intrinsically funnier than the hetero variety: “We survive with style. If someone is insanely antigay, we have a very amusing quip that puts them in the idiot box, and then we move on. Also, there is something about a gay perspective that pulls you into the action and yet lets you look at everything.”
“Nacho Libre,” the Mexican wrestling pic Black co-produced with Mike White under their recently dissolved Black and White Prods. banner, banked a very respectable $80 million in early summer. And Black certainly isn’t done for the year: He’s currently touring the globe with his band to hype the Nov. 22 release of “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny.” And he’s starring opposite Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in “The Holiday” (Columbia) in December. He recently wrapped writer-director Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind” (New Line).
POV: “(Jack) can play all those sort of sophomoric, fall-down and fart-in-your-face kinds of comedies,” White says. “But there’s also a part of him that is always appealing and sweet so you forgive him for his insanity.”
Having broken out on “The Daily Show, he’s continued to fill the stat sheet with his prolific standup career in ’06. And the rage-fueled Black has also managed to hit some doubles recently in the feature realm. He landed a supporting role in Barry Levinson’s “Man of the Year” for Universal and appeared in “Accepted” (also Universal). He has upcoming parts in teen laffer “Unaccompanied Minors” (Warner Bros.) and “Farce of the Penguins” (ThinkFilm), for which he supplies voiceover work. The guy still does standup 200 nights a year, appears on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” regularly, and his standup special “Red, White and Screwed” scored both pay cable viewers and DVD sales for HBO.
POV: “The biggest challenge was, in a sense, calming down and relaxing when you’re working with Christopher Walken on one side and Robin Williams on the other, and Laura Linney,” Black says of his “Man of the Year” experience.
Having won over auds last year with “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” this year Carell gained Oscar cred with “Little Miss Sunshine,” cast as a suicidal professor in the most successful indie pic of the year so far. Meanwhile, “The Office” — in which Carell stars as socially blind-spotted boss Michael Scott — is NBC’s highest-rated comedy and took home the best laffer Emmy in August. Next up for Carell is a leading role in “Evan Almighty,” Universal and Sony’s follow-up to “Bruce Almighty,” and Disney’s “Dan in Real Life.”
POV: “We had one instance where we were shooting at a Chili’s, and there were last-minute script changes,” recalls “Office” exec producer Greg Daniels. “Steve, in the moment, thought of some great fixes. The rest of us were pretty much terrified. It’s an improvisational skill to trust that you’re going to open your mouth and say something funny.”
Over the years as a scribe on “Seinfeld” and a director on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Charles cultivated safe environments where the comedic cream of the crop could thrive.
In April 2005, Charles faced a daunting challenge when he took over the helm on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” in the middle of production. Scrapping the footage shot by pic’s first helmer, Todd Phillips, Charles and Cohen started from scratch, revising the mockumentary’s plotline and fleshing out the title character. “We rebuilt the entire culture of the movie,” Charles says.
Given Charles’ knack in guiding improvisational actors through story-outlined scripts on “Curb,” shooting “Borat” was a walk in the park. According to Charles, it was his “Curb” boss Larry David who insisted he take on “Borat.”
Prior to “Borat,” Charles’ resume boasted one feature helming credit, the arthouse pic “Masked and Anonymous,” starring Bob Dylan. That’s bound to change after the $26 million opening of “Borat.”
POV: “I respect artists who aren’t afraid to take risks, whether it’s John Coltrane or Marlon Brando –those who fearlessly explore unexplored territory.”
The monologue supervisor on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” Coen has helped shape the opening remarks for the top show in latenight since 1995. Six to eight writers contribute to each monologue, and Coen and Leno work through roughly 1,000 jokes a day. Leno test-delivers 150 potential jokes to Coen by phone each night. Before accepting this post, Coen wrote Gary Shandling’s monologues on “The Larry Sanders Show” and toured the country as a standup.
POV: “We go through jokes all day,” Leno says. “The real trick is to have someone who has a good ear. And Jack has worked all over the country. Consequently, you get a sense sometimes that a joke that would be hilariously sarcastic in New York or L.A., in another place would be, ‘You’re a smartass.’ Jack has a real good ear for that.”
SACHA BARON COHEN
Cohen’s big recent feature foray, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” had the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan comparing the biting satirist’s impact to that of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. In fact, “Borat’s” pre-release buzz got so loud, it managed to upset an entire former Soviet Union territory, with incensed Kazakh leaders launching an ad campaign to boost their country’s image. As for the box office impact, the Fox pic’s opening weekend ranked No. 1 with $26 million and featured an astounding $31,000 per-screen average. Universal isn’t waiting around to see how high it goes — it is close to ponying up $42.5 million for the worldwide distribution rights to Cohen’s next project, “Bruno,” based on the comic’s effeminate Austrian journalist character. Further bolstering Cohen’s case for hottest comedian of the year, his gay Frenchman character Jean Girard nearly stole laughs right out from under Will Ferrell in last summer’s hit race car comedy “Talladega Nights.”
POV: Clearly, the hurt feelings of the Kazakh government haven’t moved Cohen off message. The British comedian — who has stayed in character for the entire “Borat” junket — emailed Variety this response to a question regarding his next project: “I not sure when this can happen, as for next three years my country’s camera is fully booked for film ‘Kazakhstan’s Next Top Prostitute’ and moviefilm ‘The 4-Year-Old Virgin.’ ”
Spinning off from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Colbert’s “Colbert Report” retained an impressive 86% of the mother ship’s aud and nabbed four Emmy nominations during its first season. But that measures only half of Colbert’s impact. His, er, roast of President George W. Bush at April’s White House Correspondents Dinner constituted the viral video of the month, and he made plenty of magazine lists besides this one, including Time’s most influential of 2006. His narcissistic schtick could mean his name will outlive his media career. For example, in a Faustian exchange for a little publicity on “The Colbert Report,” Saginaw Valley State U.’s class of 2106 will call its mascot “Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle,” unless somebody does something about it.
POV: “The great thing about working with Stephen and with Jon is those guys are the No. 1 contributors to the shows they headline,” says Ben Karlin, who produces both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” “They are roll-up-your-sleeve comedy writers and performers. I would say without question, Stephen is the driving creative force of his show; at the same time, he’s someone who absolutely adheres to the-best-idea-wins mentality.”
COMEDY CENTRAL’S MOTHERLOAD
Old media still rules the bottom line, but Comedy Central is betting the future looks a lot like MotherLoad,
its nascent broadband channel.
Launched a year ago under the aegis of East Coast original programming VP Lou Wallach and exec VP of development Lauren Corrao, MotherLoad has spawned more than a dozen original skeins from new and established talent in a low-risk, high-reward environment. Upcoming series “Awesome Friends” scored a six-episode order after winning a user-generated video contest, and “Baxter & McGuire,” about a pair of animated testicles, is from “King of Queens” co-creator Michael J. Weithorn.
POV: “We’re still a television company, but we really are also a content company,” Wallach says. “It really kind of opens up the playing field; it’s like a great big sandbox where you’ve got some of the older kids and some of the younger kids coming together in this kind of new thing on the playground.”
Coogan fans who have seen every episode of his BBC series “I’m Alan Partridge” were relieved this fall when — four years after “Partridge” went off the air — Coogan dreamed up another BBC spoof series. In “Saxondale,” Coogan plays a divorced former roadie with anger-management issues. Debuting this fall in the U.S. to rave reviews, the Brit skein is being developed into a pilot for NBC. Meanwhile, Coogan has been busy appearing in films, such as Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and the upcoming “Hot Fuzz” for Rogue Pictures plus “A Night at the Museum,” starring Ben Stiller.
POV: “When people go, ‘Oh, I saw Steve Coogan do this thing, and it’s a little bit like Alan Partridge,’ what I have to say is, ‘No, that’s not Alan Partridge. That’s me. I came first,’ ” Coogan told the New York Times.
The energetic Laugh Factory regular has made a recent quantum career leap, transforming from mere comedian into a brand. His “Retaliation” CD reached No. 4 on the Billboard charts (making it the highest-ranking comedy record in 25 years); he had his own weekly reality series, “Tourgasm,” on HBO and a 90-minute concert for the cabler; and on the touring front, he just played two shows at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 fans each. Oh, and he co-starred in Lionsgate’s “Employee of the Month,” which has earned over $26 million domestically.
POV: “It’s been a very rewarding time creatively. I’m a person that sets their sights high and truly believed that if I worked diligently and put in the extra hours, I would be able to make my mark in comedy.”
‘THE DAILY SHOW’
As proved by Lewis Black, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart’s “correspondents” often spin their blue-screen time into gold. Five-year “Daily Show” vet Ed Helms, for example, just left the groundbreaking Comedy Central skein for a recurring role on “The Office,” playing an unhinged workmate in the Dunder Mifflin branch that John Krasinski (aka “Jim”) just transferred into. In addition to a deal with NBC Universal to write and star in his own series, Helms has roles in upcoming feature comedies “Evan Almighty” and “A Night at the Museum.”
Meanwhile, fellow “Daily Show” regular Rob Corddry is set to star in his own Fox series, “The Winner,” from writer-producers Ricky Blitt and Seth MacFarlane, plus he has roles in the Farrelly brothers’ “Seven Day Itch,” starring Ben Stiller, and “Blades of Glory,” opposite Will Ferrell, Will Arnett and Jon Heder.
Drilling further into the “DS” depth chart, Samantha Bee, Dan Bakkedahl, John Hodgman, Demitri Martin and Rob Riggle are just a few of the names to watch for future impact lists. And that’s not to mention an Emmy-winning writers’ room, led by Ben Karlin and David Javerbaum.
POV: “I got my master’s in comedy from ‘The Daily Show,’ ” Helms says. “It’s been so great because it’s put me in a position where people are so much more inclined to listen to me now than when I was a standup comic bouncing around New York City.”
Before Mark Lisanti, a very unemployed screenwriter, launched the Defamer blog in May 2004, the entertainment industry lacked a gossip Web site. Now Defamer is the Drudge Report of Hollywood, and Lisanti’s comedic opinions about the bizarre world of entertainment draw a 250,000 page views a day. At any given hour, you can read Lisanti’s snarky takes on the very latest industry brouhahas, from Brangelina baby madness (“Breaking! The Chosen One Has Arrived!”) to Mel Gibson’s post-DUI press (dubbed the “Mel Gibson Redemption Tour”). Wondering what the weekend box office was, or what agency poached which agent, or what brand of tennis shoes Michael Bay prefers? Lisanti has the gossip, the ennui and all the snark you can take.
POV: “We’re trying to pick apart the absurdity of Hollywood — all the excesses and the commercialism of it all,” says Lisanti, who still pursues TV writing. “Our primary goal is to be entertaining above all else; the information can be found elsewhere, in a million places, so we have to dress it up with anything we can put on it.”
This year, the creator and exec producer of “Entourage” received an Emmy nom for penning an episode and saw the series take a massive jump in buzzworthiness — thanks to HBO’s marketing blitz — that translated into a nice ratings bump. An average of 2.6 million viewers tuned in each Sunday night for the hip look at Hollywood life, an increase of 700,000 from the season before.
And not all of “Entourage’s” impact can be measured in numbers, with the show now firmly rooted in the zeitgeist — a summer installment of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” for example, was packed on average with no less than half a dozen references to the skein.
POV: “It’s been a really hard year. I knew it would be going in, when HBO asked me to do 20 episodes. I’ve been working 18-20 months, six to seven days a week, with little break. But I wanted us to premiere after ‘Sopranos.’ ”
WILL FERRELL AND ADAM MCKAY
The “Saturday Night Live” alums have succeeded in propelling their absurdist comedies about ’70s news anchors and hillbilly NASCAR drivers into mainstream box office gold. With nearly $150 million in domestic B.O., “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” became Ferrell’s second-highest grosser behind 2003’s “Elf.” This summer, Ferrell and McKay set up their first shingle, Gary Sanchez Prods., at Paramount Vantage. The deal gives them creative autonomy to produce films under $15 million. The duo are already shepherding projects and artists that share their humor: the Sundance acquisition “The Foot Fist Way” about a zany tae kwon do school, the half-hour Fox laffer “Church of Steve” from Sanchez exec Chris Henchy, and an HBO pilot from “Foot” creators Danny McBride, Jody Hill and Ben Best. Ferrell and McKay are also busy on their next feature, “Step Brothers,” for Columbia Pictures, about two coddled guys who must contend with each other after their parents get married.
POV: “Will has an incredible ability to take a strange sketch and make it succeed,” McKay says. “He’s extremely accessible as a performer. You trust him and at the same time he has this obscure sense of humor you wouldn’t expect of him.”
The half-hour sitcom might be hurting, but hourlong comedies are thriving. “Desperate Housewives” remains a powerhouse for ABC while “Gilmore Girls” is doing well for CW. Now there’s “Ugly Betty,” one of only two breakout hits this fall — and America Ferrera is a big part of the reason why. She pulls off a complicated high-wire act, wringing laughs from Betty’s lack of social graces while also making sure the character remains proud rather than pitiable. Ferrera’s character is one of the few female comedy leads on TV. Don’t be surprised if “Betty’s” success leads to a slew of femme-toplined laffers.
POV: “She can be hilarious one second, and then, in the same scene, she can have you crying,” says series exec producer Jim Parriott. “We love her internal strength. We cheer her resilience.”
BOB CRESTANI AND BRUCE HILLS
Their respective festivals — Crestani’s The Comedy Festival in Vegas and Aspen-headquartered U.S. Comedy Arts Festiva
l, and Hills’ Montreal-based Just for Laughs — continue to be industry barometers measuring the state of comedy, not to mention highly coveted springboards for comedic artists and projects.
After being hired by HBO in 2003, Crestani successfully expanded the cabler’s comedy brand from its edgy U.S. Comedy Arts Festival to a glitzy, televised event, The Comedy Festival in Las Vegas (co-sponsored by TBS and AEG Live). While the Vegas fest typically books established acts like Dave Chappelle and Don Rickles, one of this year’s televised highlights includes the Jim Henson Co.’s “Puppet Up!,” an improvised puppet stage show that debuted at Comedy Arts Fest.
Meanwhile, having been an industry starting point for Kevin James and Jimmy Fallon, the Hills-headed Just for Laughs has taken its 2004 show “Evil Dead the Musical” — based on the Sam Raimi film — Off Broadway.
POV: “I just look at the industry and love the idea that the broadband world is a new place for discovery,” says Crestani, who is a proponent of discovering nascent comedians from the Web. “With agencies signing some of these artists off the Internet, it says something about new talent breaking through in a different way.”
“The industry has changed,” Hills adds. “No one is making $500,000 pilot deals for up-and-coming comedians. It’s not a reflection on us, but the industry. They’ve ended up becoming more frugal and smart. Rather than a deal happening at the bar or hotel, it comes together a month later. It’s a more efficient process.”
Frankel had a nice little thing going at HBO, writing and directing episodes of “Sex and the City” and “Entourage,” and even winning a helming Emmy for his work on the WWII mini “Band of Brothers.” He’d been out of features for a decade — and intended to stay out — but persistent producer Wendy Finerman kept on him about directing Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada.” He finally relented — and wasn’t sorry.
“Prada” has grossed more than $260 million worldwide to date. Frankel is now planning to direct “I Don’t Know How She Does It” for the Weinstein Co. and “The Big Year” for DreamWorks.
POV: “Elizabeth Gabler (the Fox 2000 prexy) worked closely with screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and me to capture the ambiguities of the fashion world,” says Frankel of “Prada’s” creative gestation. “At the same time, we tried not to mock it because it’s self-satirizing enough. There’s no degree of meanness, backbiting or ambition that isn’t real in that world — you can’t ever be too extreme. The only real trick to directing is casting great actors like Meryl Streep, Annie Hathaway, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt. I’ve learned if you get one great take of the scene as scripted, then you can let the actors improvise and embroider. I think we captured that playful freedom in this film.”
While the American version of his BBC series “The Office” became an Emmy-winning hit for NBC, his skein about life on the fringes of the film biz, “Extras,” scored a second season on HBO.
He has a slew of feature appearances coming up, including “For Your Consideration” with Christopher Guest, “Stardust” with Robert De Niro and “Night at the Museum” with Ben Stiller. Meanwhile, “The Ricky Gervais Show” has become a podcasting phenomenon.
POV: “I consider the legacy, not the quick laugh,” Gervais says. “I try and capture the zeitgeist; nastiness, machismo or sexiness in comedy leaves me cold. Comedy is being at the bottom of the ladder, being scuffed by life, which includes poignancy and pathos. We see ourselves as desperate, and we despise it and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. It’s all in the same ball of emotion and quite complicated. With that said, I’m a comedian (who) owns my own labor, and that excites me more than anything.”
The ubiquitous Green’s “Robot Chicken,” an animated series that he writes, directs — and also voices up to 65 characters per week — is a pop culture hit on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. It also debuted at No. 1 its first week on DVD. Green also is the voice of Chris Griffin for Fox’s hit toon “Family Guy” and has a cult comicbook, “The Freshman.”
The NBC comedy he headlined, “Four Kings,” failed to catch on, but any lost buzz was recaptured by a self-deprecating stint on HBO’s “Entourage,” which had him playing a braggart version of himself. On the feature side, Green and his partner, Matthew Senreich, just teamed up with Dimension to produce several films.
POV: “We’d like to shepherd projects like Imagine does,” Green says. “Geek is not a dirty word — it’s an elusive market that we’ve been able to translate to studio language… The industry is geared toward the entrepreneur. You need to develop your own vehicles.”
Going up against latenight legends Jay Leno and David Letterman can be a daunting challenge for any budding yakker, but “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” stole sleepy eyeballs away from them this season, increasing its audience by 22% to 1.9 million viewers.
Just as notable, Kimmel’s show has become a platform for budding comics. Take offbeat discovery Andrew Milonakis, a thirtysomething who looks and acts like a child. After spotting Milonakis’ sophomoric vignettes on the Internet, Kimmel told his audience that he wanted to track him down and adopt him. It was a sincere promise. After hiring Milonakis as a correspondent for his show, Kimmel exec produced and co-created his protege’s short film series “The Andy Milonakis Show” for MTV 2. The show has been a success for the music network, spawning a third season and a double DVD set.
Meanwhile, through his Jackhole Industries shingle, Kimmel’s fingerprints also appear on the next season of Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers” and on the underground comedy pic “Windy City Heat.”
Kimmel also will be working overtime for ABC as the host of the “2006 American Music Awards” on Nov. 21 and the upcoming gameshow “Set for Life.”
POV: “There isn’t a trick to succeeding in latenight,” Kimmel says. “Ideally, you get better at it every month. Hopefully, after you’re on every night after two years, people watching will say ‘Hey, this guy is pretty funny.’ ”
LARRY THE CABLE GUY
The man known as Dan Whitney to the guys he grew up with in West Palm Beach, Fla., is the top touring standup three years running, selling 500,000 tickets and raking in $20 million last year, all the while playing big in Peoria … literally. On the early November day Variety caught up with the genial Southern comic, he was camped out in his tour bus, ready to play the town’s sold-out Civic Center. Having steadily worked it since 1985, Whitney caught his big transcendental break with Jeff Foxworthy’s boffo Blue Collar Comedy Tour several years ago.
In 2006, not only has his drawl continued to draw for his nearly 260 tour dates — down from a bus-breaking 290 last year, with the birth of a son over the summer — Whitney’s populist brand of down-home laughs resonated at the film box office, with his own modestly performing vehicle “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” as well as a voice role in Disney-Pixar’s “Cars.”
POV: “I really don’t take myself too seriously, and I really don’t give much thought to the whole ‘blue state/red state’ thing,” Whitney says. “I love what I do, and I love to make people laugh.”
‘LAST COMIC STANDING’
“Last Comic Standing” got the last laugh this summer. NBC, realizing it had screwed up when it canceled standup’s version of “American Idol” two years ago, decided to give the show another shot. It worked: Ratings were strong, making “Comic” one of the summer’s few reality hits. But in many ways, “Comic” is more than just another reality show.
For budding comics, it’s become a critical way to get wide exposure via television — particularly now that the dozens of on-air standup spotlights that once populated the cable universe have disappeared. Even though only a few comics end up getting long-term exposure via the main competition, dozens more get noticed during the early a
udition episodes.Also benefiting: Barry Katz and Peter Engel, who exec produce with the folks from Magical Elves (“Project Runway”).
POV: Katz, head of talent management at New Wave Entertainment, says the popularity of “Comic” has helped create “a new breed of comedy stars with seven-figure earnings.”
There hasn’t been much to laugh about at CBS in recent years, with the net using a heavy dose of crime procedurals to ride its way to No. 1 in viewers. But that’s starting to change, thanks in part to execs such as Leingang.
After seven years at NBC, Leingang joined the Eye last year as the net’s new Gotham-based VP of development. She’s been charged with helping the net expand its talent base, looking for both comedy and drama talent from outside the usual Hollywood casting pool. She’s just starting to play a role in CBS’ development, putting together a possible pilot for Internet star Todd Rosenberg. Still, Leingang thinks her biggest impact is simply being on the job.
POV: “This office didn’t exist before,” says Leingang, a former comedy booker who’s well respected in the live laffs arena. “Me coming aboard … marked a new direction for the network. There’s more than just the usual suspects to go after. There are a lot of discoveries to be made.”
KARI LIZER AND JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS
Creator/exec producer Lizer’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine” — inspired by her real-life experiences — scored an Emmy for star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, shattering the dreaded “Seinfeld” curse and causing Louis-Dreyfus to clutch her statuette and shout, “Curse this!”
Averaging a 4 rating among the 18-49 set and 12.5 million overall viewers, “Christine” now ranks in the top 25 in terms of viewer popularity.
POV: “I needed to find an area that had legs,” says Lizer, an actress-turned-writer who formerly exec produced NBC’s “Will & Grace.” “(In the past), I’ve created series where I knew what the pilot was, but I didn’t know what the second episode was. I wanted an idea that had life — this one does for me.”
MacFarlane is quickly turning into a one-man TV comedy factory. The scribe will soon have three laffers on the air: “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and the yet-to-launch “The Winner.” The latter, a co-production with Ricky Blitt and starring “The Daily Show’s” Rob Corddry, reps MacFarlane’s first stab at a live-action sitcom. No other individual producer has more laffers on the nets right now — and with less than 20 comedies currently on the Big Five skeds, MacFarlane’s comedy trio reps more than 10% of the total tally.
Right now, MacFarlane is basically running his Fuzzy Door Prods. solo. But if “The Winner” works — and advance buzz is solid — he says it’ll “become essential” for him to name someone to run the company with him.
POV: “I absolutely plan to develop my own stuff and other projects with writers,” says MacFarlane, who marked his 33rd birthday last month. “If you set the wheels in motion with good, smart, talented and funny people, you can run a production company with multiple projects at once and not worry about diminished quality.”
While the ratings for his Comedy Central show “Mind of Mencia” continue to impress, averaging 2.1 million viewers — it’s the network’s highest-rated skein behind “South Park” — what remains phenomenal about Mencia is that his racially charged humor has crossed over from ethnic metropolitan auds to crowds in Larry the Cable Guy country.
This has been very evident on his “Punisher” tour, which has racked up $10 million from sellouts in Boise, Idaho, Missoula, Mont., and Salt Lake City — truly an anomaly for a Latino standup.
The tour was initially skedded for 44 markets and 52 performances, but has been upped by producer Comedy Central to 60 markets and 100 performances through the end of December. Mencia was so overbooked, he had to cancel a few playdates to film his role opposite Ben Stiller in the Farrelly brothers’ comedy “Seven Day Itch.” Then it’s back to the “Mencia” set in January for season three.
POV: “I had protesters the other night at my show in Champaign, Ill.,” says Mencia, describing a group of college students who thumbed their noses at his racial material. “I went out to talk with them; I wanted to know where they were coming from, and then I invited them to the show.”
Morgan has had a banner year since leaving “Saturday Night Live” after more than a decade, appearing in the successful Wayans Brothers comedy “Little Man,” releasing the DVD “Tracy Morgan: Life, Love and Lust,” and starring in the VH1 ’80s tribute TV movie “Totally Awesome.” That’s not to mention the character he plays on NBC’s new “30 Rock,” which is largely based on his “SNL” life.
POV: “We have a few things in common, like being in show business, but I’m not crazy, I don’t take medication, and I don’t run down the street in my underwear,” says the 38-year-old comic, demarking the line between himself and his “30 Rock” alter ego, Tracy Jordan.
Looking to avoid the latenight wars of the future, NBC proactively booked the “Late Night” host for Jay Leno’s 11:30 chair starting in 2009 — a decidedly risky move that speaks a thousand monologues about O’Brien’s importance to the Peacock. Meanwhile, viewer dissonance aside, the redheaded funnyman’s return to Emmy hosting duties this year proved solid, and his Conaco Prods. sold six episodes of “Andy Barker, P.I.” — starring pal Andy Richter — to NBC.
POV: “The most fun I had at the Emmys was threatening to kill Bob Newhart on live television. I always enjoy getting laughs for something that technically should get me arrested.”
‘THE OFFICE’ STAFF
After a somewhat skeptical beginning, when there were doubts that an American version of Ricky Gervais’ beloved original BBC show could win over auds, NBC has proved that workplace humor is a global phenomenon.
The show is currently NBC’s highest-rated laffer and is viewed as a farm team for comedy much in the way “Saturday Night Live” was in its heyday.
And now its writer-thesps are gaining notice in the film world. This year, Mindy Kaling sold her comedy pitch “Unaffiliated” to Fox Atomic. John Krasinski is loaded up with roles in the upcoming films “Shrek the Third,” “Dreamgirls” and “The Holiday.” Jenna Fischer is starring in the Will Ferrell comedy “Blades of Glory” and “Brothers Solomon.” Rainn Wilson is in New Line’s “Mimzy.” B.J. Novak stars in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” and the Adam Sandler pic “Reign Over Me.” Other support staffers, including Brian Baumgartner and Angela Kinsey, are also getting looks.
POV: “(We made) an aesthetic decision that it’s best when everyone on the show is participating and using their creativity and special sense of humor, and that it isn’t a writing staff imposing ideas on people who just execute them,” says “Office” exec producer Greg Daniels. “All of the cast are constantly doing funny things in the background, even when the show is in the foreground, because they’re really into their characters and are always improvising with those characters. I think it gives the show more depth.”
TREY PARKER AND MATT STONE
With their pointed Comedy Central toon “South Park” entering its 10th year — and still the cabler’s top-rated show — the iconoclastic duo hit what Stone calls “the perfect storm of controversy” this past year.
First, Catholic groups strenuously objected to an “South Park” episode featuring a bleeding Virgin Mary. Then came “Trapped in the Closet,” a Scientology-spoofing installment that allegedly triggered behind-the-scenes machinations by Church denizen Tom Cruise as well as a resignation by longtime voiceover artist Isaac Hayes, himself a Scientologist. Perhaps to make sure everyone took a shot, Stone and Parker also got the prophet Mohammed involved in an episode called “Cartoon Wars.”
Of course, nobody is better at turning controversy into comedy than these guys. Neither cowed nor detoured,
they bought the back cover of Variety in the days following Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic stir, featuring a “South Park”-style drawing of a Scientology building and the copy, “C’mon Jews … Show them who really runs Hollywood.” (The ad was reportedly created before the Gibson incident, however.)
POV: “Our extreme comedy comes from making fun of extreme people,” Stone says. “If you pull one episode off because someone gets mad, with this show, you’d have pulled every one… It does cause us a lot of weekly stress, but now we don’t have to fight the fight as much because the fans do it for us on the Internet. We pick the low-hanging idea fruit… We’re not out to get anybody, we just want to do stuff we find funny.”
He wasn’t the first African-American actor to don a housedress in the name of comedy, but Tyler Perry has certainly given Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence a run for their money in that department. Hollywood was skeptical, but Perry’s sold-out shows — in which he plays Madea, a black woman who always speaks her mind — convinced Lionsgate production prexy Michael Paseornek that the New Orleans-born actor had a built-in following. “He reaches the mainstream, but also appeals to an audience that doesn’t normally go to the movies,” Paseornek says, citing the success of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” ($50 million) and follow-up “Madea’s Family Reunion” ($63 million) at defying tracking numbers.
DVDs of his plays alone have earned more than $100 million. TBS ordered up 65 episodes of Perry’s “House of Payne” show, and Lionsgate has more Perry projects in the works, including “Daddy’s Little Girls” (in which Perry remains strictly behind the camera).
POV: “I’m always the person for the underdog,” Perry told MovieWeb. “That’s what they called me, the underdog, so I’m always looking for the person who hasn’t had that shot, but who can definitely do it.”
When Piven’s name was announced as best comedy supporting actor at this year’s Emmys, he walked up to the microphone chest out, strutting with a winner’s confidence. After the sting of two Golden Globe losses and an Emmy defeat in 2005, “Entourage’s” super agent Ari Gold didn’t want to seem overconfident, but, obvious from the applause raining down at the Shrine, he was clearly the people’s choice.
In addition to a fourth season of the HBO comedy, Piven has upcoming roles in the action/comedy “Smokin’ Aces” alongside Ben Affleck and in Peter Berg’s “The Kingdom.”
POV: “I was talking to my mom on the phone, and I looked up and I saw myself on a poster,” says Piven, who claims to still be shocked and awed over “Entourage’s” profile. “I was scared. They’re putting a lot of energy behind this, and none of it is lost on us. We’re all working really hard and really appreciate and love our jobs. We’ve having a great time.”
JOHN C. REILLY
His stint as Will Ferrell’s racing buddy in “Talladega Nights” revealed the character actor to be a real character. He’s now set to star in Judd Apatow’s “Walk Hard” and alongside Ferrell in “Step Brothers.”
POV: “The key to longevity in an acting career is to avoid as many words before the word ‘actor’ as possible and to work with people that really care about the work … that give a shit,” Reilly says. “It’s not a good creative thing to be competing with the people that you’re working with.”
It’s been a wild year of ups and downs for the director-producer. On the low end of that spectrum was the high-profile demise of Roach’s Ben Stiller/Jim Carrey vehicle “Used Guys,” a $120 million Fox project that got its plug pulled because of escalating costs.
More than making up for that disappointment, is the film that could become the year’s top comedy, “Borat.” As producer, Roach was instrumental in helping Sacha Baron Cohen fully develop the Kazakh character he first mined on his “Ali G” TV series. In fact, after spending the last decade as one of Hollywood’s most successful comedy directors — helming the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” series — Roach will likely be more active as a producer going forward.
With “Borat” under his belt, his next pic will be “Charlie Bartlett,” an MGM comedy staring Robert Downey Jr. and Hope Davis.
POV: “As some film studios become more corporate and conservative, it seems like cable TV and British TV are setting the pace in relevant comedy,” Roach says. “Fox was brave to let us make ‘Borat’ the way we wanted, but Sacha’s superpowers had to be demonstrated on British TV and HBO first. As was true in the ’70 s, I hope the studios get back to consistently breaking new ground with bold comedies.”
Since starring as the prototypical Guy’s Guy in “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Rogen has become the latest It Guy in studio comedies.
He’s currently shooting Columbia Pictures’ “Super Bad,” which he co-wrote, stars in and is exec producing. (He wrote the script when he was in high school and used it to convince Judd Apatow to hire him for “Undeclared” back in 2001.)
Also on Rogen’s slate are Universal’s “Knocked Up,” which he stars in and exec produces, and “Drillbit Taylor,” which he co-wrote for Paramount.
POV: Although Rogen credits “Virgin” for getting him noticed as an actor, as a writer he says he owes it to his time working on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show.” “It was a major momentum-starter for the sole reason that there was nothing better to talk about with people in a meeting,” he explains. “People love to hear stories about it.”
Channeling the “Bruce Almighty” theme into a remote control with magic powers, Sandler’s “Click” scored $137 million in domestic B.O. and an impressive $91 million internationally.
Up next for him is the more serious-minded “Reign Over Me,” in which he co-stars with Don Cheadle.
POV: “Adam’s got many qualities that the average guy — and especially young people — relate to,” says Doug Belgrad, Columbia Pictures production prexy. “He’s paid his dues and has developed a loyalty with the audience. They relate to the fact that he’s genuine, irreverent and a bit of an underdog. He also typically gets what he wants by the end of the movie — and he’s learned a lesson along the way.”
Stiller’s hefty workload in 2006 is about to impact the box office, warming up with an appearance in Jack Black’s “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny” before the holiday release of his headliner “Night at the Museum.” The Fox pic is a comedy tour de force, written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, helmed by Shawn Levy and co-starring Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan and Robin Williams, as well as showbiz greats Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney.
The toil continues for one of the hardest workers in the comedy biz, with Stiller currently shooting the Farrelly brothers’ “Seven Day Itch.”
POV: “You have to go in fat in terms of your script,” Stiller says. “You can’t have only 25 minutes that works. You never know what’s going to be funny, and I don’t want to know… I always want to take chances. I don’t have that fear about being embarrassed. Maybe it’s a false sense of security when I’m working on the movie; it’s an insular environment that allows me freedom to try whatever. If it makes sense for the tone of the movie, then why not try it?”
Vaughn brought “The Break-Up” to Universal, nabbing producer credit. The film, in which he co-starred with Jennifer Aniston, grossed more than $118 million in domestic B.O., marking the third straight summer in which Vaughn has been a major player in the feature comedy arena — this following the success of summer releases “Wedding Crashers” in 2005 and “DodgeBall” in ’04.
Coming up, the multihyphenate has a documentary on the recent comedy tour he produced, “Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights — Hollywood to the Heartland.” The Weinstein Co. plans to release it in 2007. He also shooting the David Dobkin-helmed “Fred Claus” for Warner Bros.
s verbal dexterity remains impressive, and he exhibits genuine pain, as well as flashes of the comedy chops that, arguably, were the strongest element in last summer’s hit ‘Wedding Crashers,’ ” noted Variety’s review of “The Break-Up.”
THE WAYANS BROTHERS
Their raunchy urban comedies may be savaged by the critics, but the Wayans brothers — Marlon, Keenen, Shawn and Damon — have been laughing all the way to the bank.
Even “Little Man” — the latest in their oeuvre — netted them a decent profit despite critical drubbings.
These days, however, the brothers’ role model is Walt Disney, as they look to launch a family-friendly empire of their own, with children’s cartoons, comicbooks and games.
Their latest endeavors include “Thugaboo,” which encompasses a Nickelodeon cartoon and Scholastic children’s book series. The franchise follows the adventures of nine urban kids as they learn important life lessons.
Also being peddled are “The Dozens,” a trading card series featuring an assortment of silly “yo mama” jokes, and “Super Bad James Dynomite” a comic, released
last January, based on a “Shaft”-like vigilante.
POV: “I believe in nurtur-
ing kids’ sense of humor — that helps keep them from violence. When they have problems, they can use comedy as a source of remedy and therapy,” Marlon Wayans says.
It didn’t quite have the splash of “Wedding Crashers,” but Wilson’s ’06 summer comedy effort, “You, Me and Dupree,” still grossed more than $122 million worldwide. He also voiced Lightning McQueen, the lead toon racer in Disney-Pixar’s “Cars.” Up next for him is the role of a miniature cowboy in the Ben Stiller comedy “Night at the Museum.”
POV: “There’s a Jim Brooks influence that’s affected me from the beginning,” Wilson says. “It’s not a mean-spirited humor but (one) with an earnestness to it. That’s what ‘Wedding Crashers’ had. It’s not calculated.”
How did a little Web site that is only 18 months old with a mere 67 employees grow to have 72 million users, serve 100 million videos every day and become valued at — according to Google, which purchased YouTube in October — a boggling $1.65 billion? The answer is simple: humor.
YouTube was initially conceived by founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley (both early employees at PayPal) as a site for their friends to swap video clips. But on any given day, the most popular clips are comedy, from Justin Timberlake parodies to weird Japanese commercials.
And when an “SNL” sketch by a rookie comic named Andy Samberg called “Lazy Sunday” was downloaded a million times in a week, Hollywood began to take notice.
POV: “YouTube provides a unique opportunity for comedians, where there are no auditions, no casting calls — just them broadcasting to the world,” Chen says. “YouTube has widened the reach for comedians. The community decides what is popular and rises up the most talented people.”
— Josef Adalian, Betsy Boyd, Janelle Brown, Anthony D’Alessandro, Peter Debruge, Daniel Frankel, Robert Hofler, Nicole LaPorte, Stuart Levine, Thomas J. McLean and Leah Sydney contributed to this report.