Network craves 'Chocolate News,' 'Held Up'

Comedy Central has announced an ambitious development slate that includes a pact with producer Jamie Tarses, a Chappelle-like show with David Alan Grier and an attempt to jump a series about Middle Eastern comics from its broadband site to the net.

Announcement is part of a strategy in which Comedy Central will seek to balance the proven with the experimental. The net enjoyed a primetime ratings gain of 5% among total viewers and 17% among viewers 18-34 for the first quarter of 2007, but has taken some more daring steps as it tries to replenish its pipeline.

“It’s all about the balance,” said programming topper Lauren Corrao. “You don’t want to have complete unknowns on your slate. But going for the tried-and-true doesn’t always mean it will be successful either.”

Viacom net continues to generate strong ratings with shows like “South Park” and “Reno 911,” but has been looking to develop newer shows as some of its flagships grow long in the tooth.

Execs announced eight projects that are getting either a full pilot or a shorter pilot presentation deal and said they will greenlight at least two, and possibly three, to series.

The Tarses show, for which a pilot has been ordered, is titled “Held Up.” It will focus on a bank robbery conducted by criminals who dress up as pop-culture characters like Spider Man and the Three Stooges and take a thirtysomething male teller as a hostage.

The teller will be the main character and will likely be played by an experienced actor and not just a comic, said Corrao, who added that casting that role will be the project’s most significant choice. “We think this show can be a character comedy the way ‘The Office’ is a character comedy,” she said.

The entire series will take place during the hostage standoff; despite the potential chronological limitations, execs believe the show could live on for many seasons.

Former ABC Entertainment prexy Tarses has recently dabbled in cable as an exec producer on TBS comedy “My Boys.” She will exec produce “Held Up” with Alan Freedland, Alan Cohen and Gene Hong, last of whom wrote the pilot script.

Net has also signed a deal with “In Living Color” vet David Allen Grier for “David Allen Grier’s Chocolate News,” which execs described as a show that will use a newsmagazine format to conduct investigations of outrageous pop-culture topics, with Grier as the studio host communicating with faux field reporters.

With its racial themes and envelope-pushing sketches, show will be the most overt attempt to mimic the success of “Chappelle’s Show,” the series that catapulted the net to new ratings heights several years ago but which abruptly went off the air after its star unexpectedly departed.

Deal is for a shortened pilot presentation; Grier will exec produce with Robert Morton, Peter Aronson and Jordon Levin.

Also in the ethnic-comedy vein, net has made a presentation deal for “The Watch List,” a series that aims to showcase young Middle Eastern-American comedians, with Arab-American comic Dean Obeidallah and former SNL scribe Max Brooks creating and producing.

Much of the comedy will turn on the reaction to Middle Eastern people in a post-9/11 U.S., execs said.

Show was an original on net’s Motherload broadband Web site; if it gets picked up, it would mark the first time net has jumped a series from broadband to television.

Also on the slate is “Night Writer” from former SNL top scribe T. Sean Shannon; net has ordered a pilot for the show, which will blend live-action sketches and animation and center on a television writer trying to keep pace with world events.

A deal for an animated version of “Gay Robot,” the show from Sony TV and Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison shingle that had been passed on by the net as a live-action concept before getting a second life on YouTube, was not on the slate; it will likely be on a future slate.

Announcement also includes previously reported pilots from Michael Ian Black titled “Michael Ian Black Doesn’t Understand” (Daily Variety, April 19), a scripted showcase for the pundit; the faux-trial show “Root of all Evil (Daily Variety, April 24), hosted by “Daily Show” vet Lewis Black; and a presentation deal for a sketch comedy skein featuring Asian-American comic JoKoy (Daily Variety, May 23).

Net also confirmed reports that it is developing an animated show with “Larry the Cable Guy,” in which the net personality will exec produce and star essentially as himself, taking the guise of a co-owner of a cable station who spars with his liberal partner.

Larry will exec produce with J.P. Williams, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow.

Execs said the animated format will allow for the comedian to do the show while concentrating on other projects and also give auds a chance to see him in a new light.

Net also has high hopes for Sarah Silverman’s self-titled sitcom, which it has renewed for a second season.

Comedy Central has been the beneficiary of a dearth of sitcoms on the broadcast nets, which has prompted comedians like Carlos Mencia and Grier to turn to the all-laffer network.

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