Nets bet on sitcom vets for next season

2012-13 scripts bring out the stars

Now that Tim Allen has made his TV comeback on the new comedy “Last Man Standing,” ABC and NBC are looking to a slew of other former broadcast-TV stars to repeat the feat.

Faces famous for toplining half-hours going back a few decades — think Roseanne Barr, Kirstie Alley and Sean Hayes — are attached to a healthy number of the comedy scripts piling up for the 2012-13 TV season. They’re all hoping that whatever pixie dust got sprinkled on Allen, who topped ABC’s “Home Improvement” in the 1990s, works for them as well.

Recent comedic hits like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” are giving execs renewed confidence in the half-hour format. And given that comedy had long struggled on broadcast TV until recently, it’s only natural that the nets are turning to some of the key practitioners from back when the genre was going gangbusters.

Script deals with talent attached differ from the traditional holding deals in that they pair an actor with a writer and/or concept rather than plugging them in later to a script that wasn’t necessarily tailored to fit his or her voice. But like holding deals, they’re largely intended to keep the talent under a particular net’s roof, though some pacts give them the ability to opt out or be plugged into other scripts later in development season.

“Aside from a few exceptions, there was a long period of time there when actor-based talent deals of any kind were pretty nonexistent at the studios and networks,” said UTA talent agent Mike Jelline. “As the health of the TV business, particularly on the comedy side, has improved so rapidly over the past couple years, the appetite for these deals has definitely increased.”

“Standing” has been a standout for ABC so far. Since premiering Oct. 12 as the net’s highest-rated 8 p.m. comedy premiere in seven years, the show cooled off some but stayed strong in its second week, declining just 9% to 10.1 million viewers and 3.0 rating/9 share in adults 18-49.

Banking on familiar faces is one of the oldest tricks in the programming playbook. A name with a solid track record not only gives execs some reassurance in the always risky TV business but helps break through the cluttered fall sked with auds eager to get reacquainted with a proven quantity.

But there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Some of these stars know that all too well given that they’re already on their third or fourth comeback attempts.

Barr, in particular, just came off the cancellation of “Roseanne’s Nuts,” an unscripted series on Lifetime. But she’s hoping to be back on NBC with “Downwardly Mobile,” a comedy from 20th Century Fox TV set in a mobile-home park that reunites her with Eric Gilliand, exec producer of her 1990s smash “Roseanne.” “Mobile” has a script commitment plus penalty, giving it a decent shot to make the schedule.

Hayes, who broke out on the NBC sitcom “Will and Grace” from 1998-2006, is set to star in a gay-parenting comedy from “Rescue Me” exec producer Peter Tolan via Sony Pictures Television and Universal Television.

Alley, who had two different series at the front and tail end of the 1990s with “Cheers” and “Veronica’s Closet,” is angling for a third with “The Manzanis,” a comedy about a brash Italian-American family that’s already ordered to pilot at ABC from ABC Studios and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

ABC is also looking for talent from latenight’s past, with onetime “Saturday Night Live” cast member Jim Breuer and Craig Kilborn, former host of “The Daily Show” and his own CBS latenight series, attached to scripts that would have them star in and exec produce their own comedies.

ABC is also turning to some proven players from the aughts in hopes of lightning striking twice: Jim Belushi and Reba McEntire, who spent the better part of that decade headlining half-hours, both have put-pilot commitments for their scripts. NBC is also dipping into 2000s-era talent by giving a put-pilot commitment to Portia de Rossi, most notably of Fox’s “Arrested Development.”

Still more talent have script deals at ABC, which has “Curb Your Enthusiasm” supporting player Jeff Garlin, and NBC, which has the eponymous stars of “The Sarah Silverman Program” (Comedy Central), E!’s “Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood” (E!) and “Dane Cook’s Tourgasm” (HBO).

There’s far less talent attached to scripts on the drama side, though a few, including Ethan Hawke and Jason Ritter, are under consideration for new hourlongs at NBC.

CBS may also take part in the 1990s revival having secured former Fox sitcom star Martin Lawrence to a holding deal that could put him back into circulation next season.