‘SNL’ crew takes test primetime test

Michaels still looking for first hit sitcom

Lorne Michaels may finally have found a series player that’s ready for primetime.

“30 Rock,” the other new NBC show set behind the scenes at a sketch comedy show, is generating significant positive buzz in advance of its Oct. 11 premiere.

Also behind the scenes, network execs speak optimistically about the Tina Fey creation, calling it a show that could be a key player in the net’s comedy comeback.

But there’s something else riding on the project.

More than 30 years after “SNL” launched, Michaels has had several feature successes and launched Conan O’Brien’s show — but he has failed to translate his latenight success to primetime. A sitcom hit would go a long way to filling what’s been a notable hole in Michaels’ resume.

It might also inspire more “SNL”-bred projects, giving NBC the sort of inhouse comedy farm team it’s always hoped Michaels could coach. Until now, most “SNL” alum have gone on to seek stardom in the movies, eschewing the idea of sitcom stardom.

“When I came to the studio there were huge priorities — one was (Conan O’Brien’s) Conaco, the other was (Michaels’) Broadway Video,” says NBC U TV Studio prexy Angela Bromstad. “Lorne and Conan are such critical people to the network, and so known for comedy. I remember (GE chief) Jeffrey Immelt saying, ‘I don’t understand why we don’t have them developing for us.'”

Indeed, despite numerous attempts to export “SNL” characters to the feature world, Michaels has taken few stabs at branching out into primetime. He’s put his name on a couple projects in the last two years, but Michaels says “30 Rock” is different.

“This is the first show I’ve done where I’ve said, ‘OK, I’m proud of it, I was involved from the beginning,'” Michaels explains. “If it’s successful, whatever the next thing will be well thought through.”

Michaels says he “had to get banged around a little” to realize the importance of being personally involved in projects bearing his name.

Going into production on “30 Rock,” Michaels said he was most worried about whether they’d be able to do the show “our way.”

“There are so many hands on these shows, and we’ve been a backwater at ‘SNL.’ We’re left alone in a benign way. Shows get altered to look like shows that are already on. Tina earned the right to be left alone. She can defend her positions.”

Equally important: Making sure NBC agreed to film the show in Gotham.

“We were determined to do it here,” Michaels says. “It makes all the difference in the world, because it allows the sensibility in that show to come to a surface and it’s easier to control.”

While the development process for “30 Rock” wasn’t a nightmare, it wasn’t what you’d call a quick delivery, either.

Fey first pacted with NBC to do a primetime show more than two years ago, back when Peacock supremo Jeff Zucker was running the entertainment division.

By the time Kevin Reilly was tapped to run NBC Entertainment, Fey wanted to develop something that could be a vehicle for her ex-“SNL” colleague Tracy Morgan. In the back of her mind, Fey also envisioned a part for Alec Baldwin — even though there were no indications the actor wanted to do TV.

But Michaels said Baldwin — who has hosted “SNL” more than almost anyone else — was willing to do TV because “he knew the writing would be great.”

The development process crept along, however.

Fey still had her roles as “SNL” head writer and co-anchor of “Weekend Update,” two jobs that leave little time for pitching sitcom ideas. She also gave birth to two babies: A daughter — and the hit movie “Mean Girls” (produced by Michaels).

Latter development could have been fatal to the project.

“I was worried about that,” Reilly admits. “She had a ton of options and at one point I did think, ‘Well, that’s that.’ I said to Lorne, ‘Is she really going to commit?'”

Michaels assured Reilly, “It’ll be great.”

Concerns about Fey’s experience, limited to “SNL” and “Mean Girls,” didn’t seem to stall the project. Bromstad emphasized this is not the Tina Fey Show. “It’s an ensemble. Tina is the heart and center of the show but everybody else is so strong as well.”

At some point, Fey envisioned playing a character who worked behind the scenes at a Bill O’Reilly-like cable news show. Reilly, however, encouraged her to explore concepts closer to home.

“I said to her, ‘Why thinly veil it? Write what you know,'” Reilly recalls. Fey soon came up with the concept for what would become “30 Rock.”

In the show, Fey plays the head writer of a sketch comedy show who must contend with a meddling network suit (Baldwin) and the show’s new eccentric star (Morgan).

“The draft hit my desk, we picked it up (to pilot) and we started casting,” Reilly says. “From that point on, it was on a greased track.”

Coincidentally, NBC had begun developing another show about the inner workings of a “SNL” like skein, Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” But after much hand-wringing by critics over the shows’ similar conceits, NBC and Michaels say the two series couldn’t be more different.

“It’s unfortunate that it got blurred with ‘Studio 60,'” Michaels says. “They come from separate places.”

For Michaels, “30 Rock” is almost an extension of the partnership he forged with Fey on 2004’s “Mean Girls.” The film repped her breakthrough film success and his first feature hit after a series of duds.

While “Wayne’s World” was a hit in 1992, it spawned a decade of unsuccessful “SNL” movie spinoffs (“A Night at the Roxbury,” “The Ladies Man”).

Michaels has actually done better by producing SNL alums in films that aren’t direct spinoffs, starting with 1986’s “Three Amigos” (starring “SNL” staples Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin), which he co-wrote and produced. Beyond “Mean Girls,” he also was behind the mid-’90s Chris Farley entries “Tommy Boy” and “Black Sheep.”

That “SNL”-to-movies track became so ingrained that most of the sketch skein’s top players never even considered other TV options.

“On drawing hosts and in sensibilities, we were much closer to the movie business,” Michaels says.

Adds Reilly: “A big part of the history of ‘SNL’ has been movies. The entire mindset was wired for that. The reps felt their clients should go punch the ticket at the box office.”

Michael’sBroadway Video had mostly shied away from TV development until 2003, when former NBC comedy development topper JoAnn Alfano took over as its TV head.

Based on the West Coast, Alfano served as a “critical link” for NBC Universal TV Studio and Broadway Video to start working closely on primetime projects, Bromstad says.

Last year, the company scored a rare double play straight off the bat, landing “Sons and Daughters” at ABC and “Thick and Thin” at NBC. But the critically acclaimed “Sons” failed to deliver an audience, and NBC never aired “Thick and Thin,” leaving 13 episodes in the can.

Bromstad notes it usually takes a few years for a new pod deal to bear fruit.

“We spent the past two or three years focusing on our relationship with Broadway Video and getting things going,” she says. “It’s been a huge priority for the company, and we couldn’t be happier about ’30 Rock.’ ”

Although network and studio execs say they’re pleased with the show’s early progress, the success of “30 Rock” is by no means a given. The show has been given the tough task of opening up Wednesday night at 8 p.m. And audiences still are showing indifference to most new comedies.

But Reilly pledges to stick with the show, even if it doesn’t click with viewers out of the gate. After all, the net’s patience with “The Office” has started to pay off for the Peacock.

In success, Reilly hints that he’d like to see “30 Rock” make the jump to Thursday nights, alongside “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl.”

“It tucks right in with those shows on Thursday,” he says.

But that seems unlikely to happen this season, given the fierce “CSI”-“Grey’s Anatomy” battle currently being waged on Thursday. For now, Michaels and NBC just want to make sure “30 Rock” makes it to season two.

“I think the show is really good,” Michaels says. “I’m hesitant to say that because I’ve never really said that before something’s come on.”

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