Upright Citizens Brigade, Dan Harmon Drive Originals Strategy For NBCUniversal’s Seeso

NBCUniversal’s plan to launch a streaming channel next year to better mine the value of “Saturday Night Live” and all of its late-night comedy programming has been no secret in TV and digital circles. What was a surprise at the Oct. 15 unveiling of the subscription service, dubbed Seeso, was the high volume of original series slated for the ad-free platform.

An inaugural lineup of more than 20 series and specials have been put into production by Evan Shapiro, exec VP of NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises, and the handful of “comedy nerds,” aka execs, that he recruited to launch Seeso. Shapiro reasons that potential subscribers will come to channel for the marquee titles — “SNL,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” etc. — but will hopefully be intrigued by the originals to fork over $3.99 a month. (That’s the inspiration for the moniker: You’ve come to “see” this, “so” now you should check out that.)

The programming team at Seeso consists of Shapiro and four young comedy enthusiasts: New York-based Dan Kerstetter, Justin Purnell and Annamaria Sofillas and Los Angeles-based Kelsey Balance. Los Angeles-based Ben McLean, head of business operations, is the key dealmaker, leading acquisitions and joint ventures such as Seeso’s development pact with Australia’s ABC network and co-production deal with the U.K.’s Channel 4 on the series “Flowers.”

Shapiro, a cable vet who formerly ran IFC and Sundance Channel and more recently launched Participant Media’s Pivot, joined NBCUniversal in December 2014 with a mandate to create a digital comedy channel. Kerstetter had worked with Shapiro during his previous tenure as head of IFC. He became employee No. 2 for what was known in its early days as Project Chaos. Shapiro calls the twentysomething Kerstetter a “comedy whisperer” thanks to his instincts and depth of knowledge.

Balance previously worked with Shapiro during his run at Pivot. He describes the CAA alum as “one of the most connected people in the content community that I know.”

Seeso is targeting a December launch in invitation-only beta form with the hope of being open for business in January.

As plans for the launch began to gel, Shapiro and his team quietly put out feelers in the comedy community and to key talent agencies for projects. The response was overwhelmingly supportive. It certainly didn’t hurt that Seeso is part of the mighty NBCUniversal.

As the prospects came together, Seeso wound up organizing its development around three major pillars: the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe, the wacky world of Dan Harmon and standup comedy showcases.

“Dan (Kerstetter) and I early on made a list of every artist we wanted to work with,” Shapiro told Variety. “We’ve gotten to about 75% of them so far. What’s happened is that a comedian or writer will come to us and say, ‘You’re working with every friend I have in the business so I felt I had to be here.’”

The involvement of top UCB-affilated stars such as Amy Poehler and “Community” creator Harmon helped give them street cred. Poehler is co-hosting Seeso’s sketch comedy “The UCB Show,” with Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Matt Besser, which will originate from the troupe’s facilities in New York and Los Angeles. Harmon is bringing his “Dungeons and Dragons”-esque fantasy romp “HarmonQuest” to Seeso.

Seeso is producing a fair amount of its shows in-house, but it’s also working with outside production entities on some shows. As a startup venture the execs are trying to offer talent-friendly deals where possible.

“We never want to be a place that says, ‘This is our rule and we won’t change it,’” Shapiro says. “We own a piece of every show we’re producing. My only rule is, if we’re paying for all of it, we should own it. But I’m also a big believer in the idea that if you created the IP long before you met me, you should own it.”

Seeso intends to roll out its slate gradually, with three to five series running at a given time. Episodes will be made available on a weekly basis rather than all at once, in the hopes of extending the conversation throughout the week. The first episode of each original series will be made available free outside of the subscription paywall as a enticement for sampling Seeso’s wares.

Seeso is also investing in standup comedy showcases. The channel hopes to make a monthly event out of a live streaming standup performance.

Seeso intends to commission projects on a year-round basis. But as so much had to be ordered in preparation for the launch, the channel only has a few openings left on its 2016 slate. The programming team is busy managing the production of the shows already commissioned. The focus will soon shift to getting projects in the pipeline for 2017.

Birthing Seeso inside of 10 months has been a whirlwind process. Shapiro credits the willingness of NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke to give them the resources to make Seeso more than just a site for catch-up viewing of existing NBC shows. Throughout the Peacock, there’s an understanding that NBCU needs to be more proactive in developing meaningful digital content assets.

“When I came in I was told, ‘We know we want to be in this and we think comedy is the best niche for us.’ From there they let us design a service that is built around ergonomic viewer behavior, not a reverse-engineered business plan,” Shapiro says. “It’s remarkable the amount of educated risk-taking they are willing to let us try.”

Here is a rundown of Seeso’s initial slate:

Bajillion Dollar Propertie$
A half-hour, semi-scripted comedy with an ensemble of seven real estate agents set against the backdrop of a luxury, cut throat LA real estate firm. Created and executive produced by Kulap Vilaysack. Executive produced by Tom Lennon, Ben Garant, Scott Aukerman and David Jargowsky. Production services by Comedy Bang! Bang! Productions for Paramount Television.

Before the Morning After
A late night comedy entertainment show featuring the world’s best comedians getting drunk in a diner at 2am at the world’s largest festival. Hosts include Jena Friedman, Alex Edelman, Greg Proops, and more. Executive produced by Gary Reich for Brown Eyed Boy.

Big Jay Oakerson’s What’s Your F*@#ing Deal
Let go of pretension and leave your ego at the door as Big Jay Oakerson leads a pack of comics in a completely improvised show based on interactions with the crowd. Starring and executive produced by Jay Oakerson. Executive produced by Cris Italia, David Kimowitz, Lou Wallach, and Frank Mosca.

Dave & Ethan: Lovemakers
A comedic sketch and gameshow that makes impromptu love connections between contestants plucked off the streets of New York City. Starring and Executive produced by Dave Ahdoot and Ethan Fixell. Executive produced by Jen Danielson, Ashley Bearden and Josh Poole for Above Average.

Flowers
An imaginative, cinematic comedy about an eccentric family, The Flowers, struggling to hold themselves together. Starring Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt. Written and directed by Will Sharpe. Executive produced by Naomi de Pear and Diederick Santer for Kudos. A co-production with Channel 4.

Gentlemen Lobsters
Based on the hit GQ series, Garrett and Quinn are best friends and roommates struggling to survive the devastating reality that is being a twentysomething lobster. Starring and executive produced by Kevin Burrows and Matt Mider. For Condé Nast Entertainment, executive Producers are Dawn Ostroff, Michael Klein and Jed Weintrob. For HotHouse Productions, executive producers are Michael J. Rizzo and Sean Conroy.

HarmonQuest
A comedic journey into the hilarious world of fantasy role-playing with Dan Harmon and his Comedian Companions. Starring Dan Harmon, Spencer Crittenden, Erin McGathy, and Jeff Bryan Davis. Created and Executive produced by Dan Harmon and Spencer Crittenden. Produced by Starburns Industries and Universal Cable Productions.

Hidden America with Jonah Ray
A fake travel show where the places are real but the people aren’t. Starring Jonah Ray. Executive produced by Ray, Troy Miller, Alex Murray, Todd Sellers and produced by Dakota Pictures.

Live From The Barrel House
A live stand-up series set at the famed Barrel House in San Francisco and featuring showcase performances from top comedians. Executive produced by Rooftop Comedy.

New York’s Funniest
Launched in 2008 and set at the famed Carolines on Broadway, the “New York’s Funniest” competition is open to any and all performers from around the Big Apple who think they have what it takes to be “New York’s Funniest.” Executive produced by Caroline Hirsch, Louis Faranda, Andrew Fox, and Lou Wallach.

Night Train with Wyatt Cenac
A freewheeling mix of stand up, music and other surprises, where anything can happen and anything is welcome, “Night Train” captures the amazing talent and spontaneity that has made the live show a staple of the New York comedy scene for the past three years. Starring and executive produced by Wyatt Cenac. Produced by Avalon Television Inc., with Marianne Ways as Executive Consultant.

Sammy J & Randy in Ricketts Lane
A musical comedy about two mismatched housemates from the acclaimed comedic duo, Sammy J – a human – and Randy – a purple puppet. Starring Sammy J and Randy. Created and written by Sammy J & Randy. Produced by Donna Andrews, Co-Producer Chris McDonald, Directed by Jonathan Brough, Sticky Pictures Executive Producers Donna Andrews & Stu Connolly ABC Executive Producers Rick Kalowski & Brett Sleigh. A Sticky Pictures Production in association with the ABC TV, Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

Soul Mates
The story of two kindred spirits trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth, exploring love, loyalty and fashion in four different lifetimes. Starring Nick Boshier and Christiaan Van Vuuren. Created by Christiaan Van Vuuren, Connor Van Vuuren and Nick Boshier. Written and directed by Connor Van Vuuren and Christiaan Van Vuuren. Produced by Chloe Rickard. Executive Producers Rick Kalowski, Greg Waters and Abe Forsythe. A Van Vuuren Bros and Ludo Production in association with ABC TV, Screen Australia and Screen NSW.

Take My Wife (working title)
A half hour single-cam series that follows a young married couple as elements of their domestic lives provide material for the underground standup showcase they co-host. Starring and executive produced by Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher. Executive produced by Scott Aukerman and David Jargowsky for Comedy Bang! Bang! Productions.

The Amazing Gayl Pile
A scripted series about one man’s misguided quest to conquer the world of home shopping. Starring and executive produced by Morgan Waters and Brooks Gray. Executive produced by Matt King and Andrew Ferguson for LaRue Entertainment in association with Tom Spriggs for The Coronel Group, Jonathan Stern for Abominable Pictures, Paul Scheer for 2nd Man on the Moon and Becca Kinskey.

The Comedy Show Show
A series highlighting the best themed comedy shows across the U.S., from panel shows to contests to comedy storytelling. Executive produced by Rooftop Comedy.

The Cyanide & Happiness Show
An animated comedy series based on the popular web comic, which has cultivated a passionate online following with more than 4.9 million YouTube subscribers and 821 million views, including a record 117 million monthly views this past August. Created and Executive produced by Rob DenBleyker, Kris Wilson and Dave McElfatrick of ExplosmEntertainment, and Executive produced by Collective Digital Studio.

The UCB Show (8×30)
A weekly variety showcase for the best sketch, characters and stand-up homegrown at the UCB Theatres in LA and NYC. Hosted by Upright Citizens Brigade co-founders Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh and filmed with a live audience at UCB Sunset in Hollywood. Executive produced by Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Bart Coleman, and Lou Wallach.

Thingstarter (6×15)
A workplace comedy with reality elements, Thingstarter is about a startup company that develops ridiculous yet plausible products and takes them into the real world to get feedback from real people and experts. Created and executive produced by Lucas Klauss, Matt Moskoviac, and Ben Stadler. Executive produced by Jen Danielson, Ashley Bearden, and Josh Poole for Above Average.

Stand-Up Specials:

Besser Breaks The Record
An hour-long stand up special from Matt Besser. From Comedy Dynamics.

Rory Scovel: The Charleston Special
An hour-long stand up special from Rory Scovel. Executive produced by Rory Scovel, Molly Mandel, and Mike Berkowitz.

Untitled Cameron Esposito Stand Up Special (1×60)
An hour-long stand up special from Cameron Esposito. From Comedy Dynamics.

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