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Instant recipe for laffs

Fremantle's big idea for fast funnies

“American Idol” producer FremantleMedia has quietly launched an inhouse production unit dedicated to dreaming up half-hour laffer ideas — and putting them on film — in as little as one week.

Fremantle’s Instant Comedy Project is meant to answer the complaints of network execs who’ve loudly fretted about the sorry state of sitcoms. Just last week, Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman said the form had “dried up like a prune,” while NBC’s Kevin Reilly said with the current network model, “It’s a miracle anything gets through.”

Under the initiative, headed by FremantleMedia North America CEO Tom Gutteridge and comedy VP Ed Crasnick, Fremantle has recruited a half-dozen comedy hyphenates to brainstorm ideas, write up scripts and then act in three- to seven-minute pilot presentations.

“We basically let them create, from the ground up, a pilot demo each week,” Crasnick said.

By contrast, it takes up to nine months for a traditional studio sitcom to go from idea to script to pilot.

Projects taped

Instant Comedy quietly launched in August and has already taped a half-dozen projects. Several ideas have attracted early interest from top cable networks; broadcast webs have yet to be pitched.

By taping pilot presentations rather than simply pitching ideas, buyers “get the style, get the casting, get the potential” of a concept rather than going strictly on blind faith that an idea will pan out, Gutteridge said. Approach also provides Fremantle a low-cost entry into the U.S. comedy market.

Crasnick, an Emmy winner for his work as a writer on “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” said the rapid turnaround between idea and tape is a key advantage of Instant Comedy Project.

At most studios and webs, “The process is very watered down, and in most cases, the actors and writers have no voice in what goes on the air. That’s why it’s so bad,” said Crasnick, whose credits include “Just Shoot Me” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“By the time something gets on the air, there’s usually no shred of a vision there.”

The members

The six members of Instant Comedy all have backgrounds in multiple areas of TV development, including writing, acting and production. “They’re good both in front of and behind the camera,” he said.

Members of Instant Comedy include Mo Collins (“Mad TV”), Tim Scott (“Mystery Science Theater 3000”), Jay Johnston (“Arrested Development”), Rick Overton (“Joan of Arcadia”), Rose Abdoo (Espy Awards) and Chris Mancini.

Fremantle is already a comedy heavyweight in the U.K., where its Talkback Thames Prods. is behind major hits such as “Da Ali G Show” and “Never Mind the Buzzcocks.” Gutteridge said the “opportunity for cross-fertilization” made a move into comedy a logical step for Fremantle North America.

Indeed, Ash Atalla — a producer on BBC America skein “The Office” who now works at Talkback — has served as a consultant on Instant Comedy, helping to flesh out ideas and offer advice on the Brit style of comedy production. Atalla is interested in possibly developing one of Instant Comedy idea’s for the U.K. market.

Most of the projects produced so far mix elements of improv and scripted skeins, giving the shows the feel of “The Office” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

The ideas

Ideas in the works include “The Nelsons,” which revolves around a sitcom family that reviews real laffers; “Still in Search Of …,” a parody of a sci-fi investigative show; and “Altered Reality,” a skein set in the offices of a failing reality production company.

Gutteridge said the first phase of Instant Comedy is coming to a close; a decision on whether to restart the group and produce another batch of pilots will be made by year’s end. Exec wants the unit to be self-sustaining.

“As a company we have to take risks and move into new areas,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we just need one really, really good idea to come out of this, and it’ll pay for itself.”

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