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Laffers light up Sony Pictures TV biz

It has comedies at four networks

Funny business has become good business for Sony Pictures TV.

A few years after the studio started putting a greater emphasis on developing a new generation of half-hour comedies, the strategy has paid off.

Sony has lined up laffers at the four major broadcast networks this midseason — Matthew Perry starrer “Mr. Sunshine” has landed the coveted slot behind “Modern Family” on ABC as of Feb. 9 and workplace comedy “Breaking In” gets an “American Idol” lead-in at Fox from April 6.

That’s a strong showing for any studio, let alone one that has no corporate ties to any of the Big Four. Sony also has high-profile laffers in development at the major nets and several cable outlets for next season.

“This is the year that the networks and the business and everyone’s attention caught up to our strategy,” said Sony Pictures TV programming co-prexy Zack Van Amburg. “Sony has a large comedy library and a rich tradition in comedy. To not honor that and not play to our corporate strengths would be silly.”

It also made good business sense, said Van Amburg’s co-prexy, Jamie Erlicht. With comedy on the downswing, Sony had been able to get in business with several A-list sitcom showrunners “at a much lower entry price than drama,” he said.

“We as an indie studio were competing with other studios with far more development resources,” Erlicht said. “We looked up at our development strategy and thought that comedy would be a great opportunity. What we’re now seeing is the culmination of that. It’s a great feeling to see that investment pay off.”

As a result, heading to the second half of the TV season, Sony has lined up “Mr. Sunshine” and relationship laffer “Happy Endings” at ABC; the CBS romantic comedy “Mad Love,” which settles into the post-“How I Met Your Mother” slot on Feb. 21; and “Breaking In” at Fox. Those four join continuing series “Rules of Engagement” at CBS and critical darling “Community” at NBC.

Among the producers in business at Sony: Peter Tolan; Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison label; Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa; Anthony and Joe Russo; Tom Hertz; and Matt Tarses.

Then there’s the tremendous success this year of Jamie Tarses and her Fanfare shingle. Tarses’ Sony-based production company managed to get several projects on both broadcast and cable this year, including “Mr. Sunshine,” “Happy Endings” and “Mad Love.”

“It does feel like home for me,” Tarses told Variety last year. “I don’t want to be anywhere else. The fact is you can sell anywhere because there’s no vertical integration. They will hear your ideas and figure out what the best home is for that project. It’s wonderful to have that freedom.”

Sony’s campaign has hit some bumpy patches along the way. Like other studios, Sony had to trim its producer roster amid the economic downturn. That meant parting ways with many of its pods, including comedic-centric producers Eric and Kim Tannenbaum.

Sony also dropped out as producer of the Fox comedy “Running Wilde” because it didn’t see much economic upside in the Mitch Hurwitz/Will Arnett laffer. Ultimately, “Running Wilde,” which landed at Lionsgate TV, scored a spot on the fall sked but didn’t receive a back nine order.

As “Running Wilde” stumbled in the fall, Sony’s lobbying for “Breaking In” finally paid off. “That was one of the most hard-fought post-upfront battles we’ve ever waged,” Van Amburg said.

Now, projects in development for next season include Peter Tolan comedies at NBC and Fox; a Nicole Richie starrer at ABC, which is also developing the studio’s take on website “Awkward Family Photos”; and an adaptation of “My Life as an Experiment” from Reveille, Jack Black and sitcom vets Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa.

“It all comes down to, does it have a strong point of view?” Erlicht said. “It’s about what you’re trying to say about relationships, marriage, the workplace or a first job. In each one of those shows you’ll find a strong central voice.”

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