Primetime comedy is all about finding unique characters with a specific voice. Next season, the nets are increasingly banking on projects from hyphenates who will shape that voice on both sides of the camera.
Each of the Big Four has ordered laffers created by thesps who will also star in their shows: NBC’s “Whitney” (Whitney Cummings) and “Best Friends Forever” (Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham); CBS’ “How to Be a Gentleman” (David Hornsby); ABC’s “Man Up” (Christopher Moynihan); and Fox’s toon “Allen Gregory” (Jonah Hill).
The increase in the number of creatives looking to follow in the footsteps of Tina Fey and the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” team reflects the inclinations of comics and actors who have come of age writing their own material — out of necessity, frustration and a desire to exert more control over their careers.
Cummings has emerged this development season as the poster child for hyphenate overachievers. She created a romantic comedy series for NBC loosely based on her own experiences, and she also co-wrote with Michael Patrick King the pilot for CBS laffer “Two Broke Girls,” which has nabbed a series order (though Cummings never intended to have a thesping role in that show).
What’s more, she’s also awaiting a pickup decision from NBC cable sibling E! on a latenight yakker that would run as a companion to “Chelsea Lately.”
“Man Up” creator Moynihan began writing pilot scripts out of necessity — and looming mortgage payments. He’d had the experience of being a regular cast member on a short-lived series (NBC’s “The Fighting Fitzgeralds”) but he endured a dry spell during the 2003 pilot season.
The following year, he landed a regular role on NBC’s “Coupling,” and he used his network connections to pitch the script he’d long been nursing. To his surprise, NBC’s then-newly appointed programming chief Kevin Reilly was impressed and greenlit it to pilot. It didn’t go, but the experience of writing and producing the laffer was invaluable. Moynihan has juggled acting roles and pilot development deals ever since.
“For me it was just a way to have some sort of control over my career,” Moynihan said. “I know that the chances of getting a pilot on the air and stay on the air are (low). I wanted to increase the odds of having some security and not having to wait tables.”
Cummings has cited Fey and Seth Rogen as role models who inspired her to focus on fielding her own material. In making her name first as a standup comic, she had no choice but to hone her voice through writing (and rewriting).
“There are so few good roles out there for women,” Cummings told Variety in December. “The sitting-around-and-waiting-to-get-cast model is just something that will make you insane. It was something I was never really complacent with.”
Hornsby began working steadily as a thesp in TV and film shortly after his graduation from Carnegie Mellon U. in 1998. He’d been friendly with the trio behind FX’s “Sunny in Philadelphia” — thesp-writers Rob McIlhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day — and was eventually cast on the edgy laffer in a recurring role. After working on the show for a while, he submitted a script that was well received, and it wasn’t long before he was onboard as a writer-producer (he’s advanced to exec producer status in the show’s upcoming season).
Hornsby’s idea to develop “How to Be a Gentleman” was spurred by his teenage fondness for the famed book of male manners distribbed by upper-crust clothier Brooks Brothers. He took the idea to CBS late in the development season — toward the end of January — and it was scooped up in the room.
In “Gentleman” Hornsby plays a manners columnist for a GQ-type magazine who rails against the coarsening of society; Kevin Dillon is his rough-hewn trainer and comic foil. To help him handle the rigors of pilot and series production, CBS paired Hornsby with seasoned sitcom showrunner Adam Chase.
The series order for “Best Friends Forever” surprised many bizzers as the project had floated under the radar. Thesps St. Clair and Parham have their share of TV acting credits between them, but neither has made a major mark.
Project was greenlit as a low-budget presentation (helmed by Fred Savage), not even a full pilot. The single-camera laffer revolves around the disruption caused when a couple who have just moved in together take in the woman’s best friend following the latter’s divorce. (St. Clair plays the newly divorced friend; Parham plays her BFF).
With animated series “Allen Gregory,” Hill is continuing the long tradition of comedians from the Judd Apatow school who work on both sides of the camera. He co-created the show, with Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, and will provide the voice of the lead character, a pretentious 7-year-old forced to leave his coddling father and homeschooling to attend a traditional elementary school for the first time.
“Man Up” marks Moynihan’s second on-air shot with his own sitcom creation. Last season he landed an order at NBC for laffer “100 Questions,” but the show wound up with a short run in the summer off-season.
“Man Up” revolves around three male friends and their trials and tribulations with wives, ex-wives and lost loves. Moynihan plays the nebbishy one who pines for his college sweetheart and is pushed by his pals to be more macho. He knows intuitively, as an actor and a writer, that he’s better off in a supporting role than in the lead.
“I know what I do well. I put myself off to the right, not in the center,” he said. “It also helps me to write when I’m not carrying a show.”
Moynihan said he’s not surprised by the number of actors who are emerging as series creators given the inevitable ups and downs of trying to make it as a thesp.
“I tell all my friends who are actors that if they have the slightest inkling to write, they should just put it down on a page,” he said. “If nothing more, you feel more productive while you’re sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.”