Comics forge unique pacts with networks

Standups gain creative control, return signature laffs

When FX president John Land-graf offered Louis C.K. $200,000 to create his own series for the network in 2009, the comedian’s response was as atypical as the stand-up on which he has built his loyal following. The comedy veteran, who’s written jokes for Chris Rock and was the head writer on the short-lived “Dana Carvey Show,” agreed to make “Louie,” but with the caveat that Landgraf simply wire him the cash and leave him alone until the show was done.

The so-called “Louis C.K. Deal,” which has quickly become the envy of showrunners and comics alike, not only resulted in solid ratings for FX, but it also highlights the TV industry’s increasing willingness to trade control in order to capitalize on highly individual voices.

Admittedly, C.K. enjoys a unique situation with the network. He recently told New York magazine: “No one on the planet Earth has what I have right now. No one ever has. And I don’t know that I ever will again.” But Nick Grad, FX’s executive VP of programming, says it’s all about nurturing a well-honed point of view.

“(FX is) encouraged to be specific and go for it, because the ratings bar is not nearly as high as it is for the broadcast networks. So I think you’re seeing more specific, personal visions, and that’s what’s going to get a resonant reaction from people,” Grad says.

Cable has been giving voice to niche-oriented comics and providing them with room to develop, according to comedian Chris Hardwick, whose Nerdist Industries is developing an animated series for IFC and recently received an influx of cash from Peter Levin and Peter Guber’s GeekChicDaily.

“You have all these great channels that say, ‘You’re not going to make millions of dollars on this project, but what you will get is the freedom to do what you want.’ So you start having relationships that are a little more equal between the content creator and the company that’s paying for it,” says Hardwick, whose popular Nerdist podcasts will be the basis for an upcoming pilot/special for BBC America.

Though, in general, deals aren’t as plentiful for comics as they’ve been in the past, big names like Chelsea Handler and up-and-comers like Whitney Cummings are turning their sharpened-by-standup schtick into behind-the-scenes power on both broadcast and cable, which Cummings credits to spending many late nights in comedy clubs.

“As a comedian, you’re used to 100% creative control, and that’s your winning formula,” she says. “Your development executives are an audience of drunk strangers. It’s the purest form of notes, because they laugh or they don’t.”

Cummings is starring in, writing and producing NBC’s fall series “Whitney,” which incorporates her relationship-phobic stand-up routine, as well as writing and producing CBS’ “Two Broke Girls” with “Sex and the City’s” Michael Patrick King. She admits that she never thought a broadcast network would be a good fit for her.

“There was this cliche of network television: They’re not going to let you say what you want, not let you do what you want,” she says, adding, “(NBCU TV Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt’s) priority is not clean and safe.”

While the broadcast mandate doesn’t typically have room for as much individual eccentricity as cable, attitudes are shifting, because of the fast pace of the Internet, which Hardwick says gives dedicated comedians a way to make their voices heard and keeps the good ones sharp.

“There’s no room for being lazy,” he says. “People will forget stuff almost immediately after they see it because there’s new stuff to see everywhere.”

For the successful standup, while the increasing freedom on cable is good, the payday must still make sense. Touring can be more lucrative than a TV deal, which gives comics a point of leverage, Cummings says.

“I didn’t want to do a bad sitcom. I didn’t want to do a show that wasn’t my voice, so I was just like, if this isn’t a perfect scenario, I’m just going to make money touring and do specials,” she says.

Louis C.K. put it even more succinctly in a recent Esquire interview: “I don’t need any of this financially. I make more in five nights of stand-up than I do in a whole season of the show.”

Of course working dark, 250-seat clubs could never compete with the reach of television, which is why the smallscreen still beckons and why the Internet has become a proving ground for funny people. It’s all a matter of not letting one’s voice get diluted, no matter the outlet.

“There’s something to be said for when you let a funny person be funny, be who they are. It works,” Hardwick says.

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