Against the backdrop of the NAACP’s continued saber rattling over the lack of diversity in primetime, CBS has inked series development deals with several leading African-American comics, including former “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper” star Mark Curry.
The Eye web has also signed a talent holding deal with standup Steve Harvey, whose self-titled WB sitcom, now in its fourth year, ranked as the highest-rated show on any network among African-Americans last season.
Also in the works at CBS: A DreamWorks comedy pilot starring Duane Martin (“Getting Personal”) that likely will be produced by “Spin City” and “Family Ties” exec producer Gary David Goldberg.
The Curry deal, brokered by manager David Goldman of Power Entertainment and agent Norman Aladjem of the Writers and Artists Agency, calls for the comic to develop a half-hour comedy for the network through his Mark Curry Prods. and Power Entertainment. Skein will probably be a family-oriented laffer, though nothing’s locked in at this point.
After five seasons on “Cooper,” which is still running in syndication, Curry returned to his standup roots and is on a 45-city tour. He’s also made several forays into film, including a cameo in “Armageddon” and roles in the indie features “The Fanatics” and “A Man Is Mostly Water.”
Harvey is also being eyed for a half-hour sitcom at the Eye. His WB laffer wraps production at the end of this season.
While there’s no guarantee any of the three pacts will actually result in a series order, the mere fact that CBS has a trio of projects in the works, all centered around African-American comics, is by itself significant. Last year at this time, the web — along with several other networks — had very little development with well-known African-American talent.
CBS insiders, however, caution against reading too much into the development slate.
“There wasn’t any conscious effort not to (develop African-American comedies) last year vs. doing it this year,” said CBS prexy and CEO Leslie Moonves, arguing that CBS “is colorblind” during the development process. “We had talent in play, and we made those deals.”
Indeed, despite its reputation as a rural-skewing web, CBS has actually had a respectable record on diversity in recent years. In addition to Billy Cosby starrers “Cosby” and “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” the net will launch Steven Bochco’s minority-led drama “City of Angels” early next year and has several skeins with significant minority characters.
Behind the scenes, the Eye is also developing shows with Latino filmmaker Gregory Nava and African-American director Thomas Carter.
In an interview with Daily Variety, Curry said there’s no doubt in his mind the major webs need to do a better job casting minorities in primetime projects.
“Let’s not deny there’s a problem. There is a problem,” he said, adding that his deal with CBS shows the Eye web recognizes the need for more diversity.
“They’re giving me a chance to do something about it,” he said.
Curry doesn’t believe webs are handing out development deals to minorities out of guilt, however.
“You’ve got to be funny, too,” he argued. “Just because you’re black doesn’t mean they’re going to give you a deal. The networks are looking for funny people.”
Still, the number of shows with African-American talent and producers in development at the webs seems already to be far ahead of last year’s tally.
NBC, for example, has pilots in the works from both Keenen Ivory Wayans and Marlon Wayans. The net also has a holding deal with David Alan Grier and a pilot project from producer Yvette Lee Bowser (“For Your Love,” “Living Single.”)
ABC also has a deal with a Wayans: The net recently committed to 13 segs of a comedy from Damon Wayans. The Alphabet has also signed on for a pilot adaptation of the Walter Moseley character “EZ Rawlins,” which will be directed by Carter; is developing a skein with helmer Spike Lee; and has a talent deal with comic Carlos Mencia.