Lifetime, TBS growing funny bone

Cable TV is getting a lot funnier these days.

Some of the fun is still being rented from the broadcast networks — late last month, Lifetime ponied up about $750,000 for reruns of Twentieth TV’s “How I Met Your Mother,” the CBS sitcom — but “we’re building more and more of these comedies ourselves,” says Steve Koonin, president of the Turner Entertainment Networks, including the laugh-happy TBS.

Cable networks in record numbers are launching their own comedies out of sheer necessity because there are so few comedies being scheduled by the broadcast networks. Since the late 1990s, reality shows have steadily displaced comedies on the broadcast side, and many broadcast comedy writers have shifted to cable.

TBS, which commissions more original comedies than any other ad-supported cable network in primetime with shows such as the inhouse “Bill Engvall Show,” Sony Pictures TV’s “My Boys” and Debmar-Mercury’s “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” has given a go to 10 half-hours of another Perry sitcom based on his movie “Meet the Browns.”

FX, which ventured into the world of raunchy original sitcoms three years ago with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” will give the show a primetime half-hour companion piece this week with the premiere of “Testees.” Created by Kenny Hotz, a former “South Park” writer, “Testees” is a knockabout comedy dealing with two young men who make their living as human guinea pigs for a company that tests drugs and other products.

Lifetime is set to go later this month with its first original primetime sitcom in more than a decade, “Rita Rocks,” with Nicole Sullivan as a stressed-out working wife and mother who puts her real life on hold while she forms a garage band with two of her neighbors. It will be paired with “Reba,” the former WB/CW comedy that has performed very well for the cabler.

Nick at Nite, which shot up in the third quarter by 33% in primetime thanks to reruns of “Family Matters” and “The George Lopez Show,” has teamed up with Michael Eisner’s Tornante Animation for 20 episodes of “Glenn Martin DDS,” an animated family comedy for 2009; it’s the network’s first original primetime sitcom for adults in more than 16 years.

Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids & Family Group, says the broadcast networks “have left the door wide open for us to do sitcoms, and a show like ‘Glenn Martin’ will help us to define the brand” of Nick at Nite.

Comedy Central, which like TBS keeps its entire focus on comedy, has two series in production for 2009: “Krod Mandoon & the Flaming Sword of Fire,” a satire of fantasy adventures like “Lord of the Rings,” and a sketch-comedy half-hour called “Important Things With Demetri Martin.”

JoAnn Alfano, executive VP of entertainment for the Lifetime Networks, points to one of the main reasons why cable networks have fallen in love with firstrun comedy when she says, “There are so many terrific comedy writers available because they’re not getting opportunities on broadcast these days.”

For example, the creators of “Rita Rocks,” Stan Zimmerman and James Berg, were writers on “Gilmore Girls” and “Roseanne.” Michael Leeson, co-creator of “The Bill Engvall Show,” wrote 40 episodes of “The Cosby Show.”

Steve Peterman, executive producer-writer of the Disney Channel’s family comedy “Hannah Montana” and former exec producer-writer of “Murphy Brown” and “Suddenly Susan,” decries most broadcast comedies as “much less interesting than what’s being done on cable.” He and his “Montana” co-exec producer Michael Poryes (“Veronica’s Closet,” “Cybill”) have hired a group of writers whose work on “Montana” “pays homage to the TV sitcoms that we grew up watching,” Peterman says.

Another Disney Channel writer, Danny Kallis (“Taxi,” “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper”), says as co-exec producer and writer of “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and its just-launched sequel “The Suite Life on Deck,” he and his staff are conscious of not writing down to the teenage viewers who dote on the shows.

Kallis is convinced that one of the reasons “Suite Life” continues chalking up healthy Nielsens after 3½ years on the air is that it’s a show that parents can watch “painlessly” with their kids.

Peterman and Kallis both say writing family comedies for Disney is a satisfying endeavor despite the fact that, as Kallis puts it, “we’re getting only about one-fifth of what we’d make on a broadcast sitcom.”

Above-the-line talent like Kallis is paid far less for a cable than a broadcast comedy because production costs have to be kept to a figure that’s less than two-thirds of the $1.2 million average for a broadcast sitcom.

Broadcasters will shoulder a more lavish budget for a comedy because, if the show racks up big ratings, they’ll make a killing in the ancillary markets. A hit sitcom can easily rack up hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of its reruns to TV syndication and basic cable.

Unfortunately for cable, no original cable sitcom except for Comedy Central’s “South Park” has ever stayed in production long enough to rack up between 120 and 150 half-hours.

“A distributor needs that many episodes these days,” says Garnett Losak, VP of programming for Petry Media, which represents dozens of stations. “Since stations will run sitcoms 10 times a week or more in reruns, there’d be too much repetition of the episodes” if the comedy shut off production at fewer than, say, 120 half-hours. (The subversive content of “South Park” prevented the series from breaking through to nine-figure grosses in rerun syndication.)

But TBS’ Koonin can foresee the day when cable TV will be awash with more original sitcoms than the broadcasters.

Massive amounts of news programming, kids shows and made-for-TV movies, along with most sports events, have already migrated from broadcast to cable over the years, says Koonin.

It’s only a matter of time, he adds, before sitcoms make the same exodus to cable’s promised land.

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