Stand-ups Deliver Comics translate talent to TV, film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a long trek, economically at least, from the comedy clubs to a hit TV series.

Ask Paul Reiser. "You started at nothing, coming to the city, then you'd work your way up to $5 a night, $20 a weekend, $50 for a gig here and there," Mr. Reiser recalls. "With luck, you could put that together and you'd get enough to pay the rent."

About 15 years later, of course, rent money is the least of Mr. Reiser's concerns. "Mad About You," the situation comedy he co-created and stars in, leads off NBC's Thursday night juggernaut; he also found time along the way to write a No. 1 best-selling book ("Couplehood") and make a recent foray into movies ("Bye Bye Love").

Still, he says, perhaps a little disingenuously, "Certainly, no one goes into comedy for the money. You can't make money."

Sure you can't. Maybe the clubs will only give you $50 or $100 for a night's work these days, but consider:

* Jerry Seinfeld, after leading his sitcom to the top of the ratings for the 1994-1995 season, signed a very lucrative deal for one final season, the details of which he has elected to keep secret.

* Ellen DeGeneres, on the strength of her own hit sitcom on ABC, will receive $2 million -- a sum out of reach even to many veteran film actresses -- for her movie debut.

* Martin Lawrence's stock escalated faster than the bullets he fired in the spring theatrical film "Bad Boys."

* Jim Carrey, after a three-for-three 1994 (his films grossed more than $300 million combined, while his latest, "Batman Forever," blew past $100 million in a mere 10 days), recently signed a $20-million-dollar deal.

Next fall, 28 of the 42 series debuting on the four major networks and two mini-networks will be comedies; more than a third of those will star stand-ups. And in the Emmy Award nominations announced Thursday, Mr. Seinfeld and Mr. Reiser were nominated for best actor in a comedy series, and Ms. DeGeneres and Roseanne were nominated for best actress in a comedy series.

"Comedians explode almost faster than anyone in our society," says Michael Fuchs, CEO of HBO, which co-sponsored a comedy arts festival in Aspen in March to give the industry a chance to scout new talent. "This country likes to laugh, it likes to laugh at itself, it's how we get through. When something happens, like the O. J. murders, everyone wants to hear the first jokes out about it. That's very inherent in our personality of this country, it seems.

"When [HBO] started 20 years ago, there were about seven comedy clubs," Mr. Fuchs reflects. "And stand-ups were people who made their living doing stand-up and rarely had series built around them."

Now, whether for sitcoms, talk shows or even game shows, networks can't grab stand-ups fast enough. The same industry folks who hit Aspen anticipate finding the next big thing in Montreal, at the 13th annual Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, the world's largest comedy festival. It started July 19 and continues through July 30.

Comics whose careers took off after Montreal appearances include Mr. Seinfeld, Tim Allen and Brett Butler, according to Andy Nulman, CEO of the festival.

"There definitely is a feeding frenzy," says Mr. Nulman. "I only really noticed it two years ago and last year. . . . People were saying, 'We've signed you to this deal, drop your next show.' They were worried that someone was going to come along and say, 'Although you signed with this person, there's a way to break it, we're goinna give you more money.' I remember backstage at one small club, people climbing over one another screaming, 'Speak to me before you make a deal!' Business cards flying, it was almost surreal. That's when I started thinking, Things are getting a little weird.' "

Comedy actor Albert Brooks ponders the comedy boom, which rescued him from his early days as an opening act at rock concerts. "I've heard theories," he says. "One is that as the world gets crazier, this profession gets more needed. If we are heading toward the apocalypse, then every place is going to be a comedy club."

Harland Williams came to Los Angeles less than three years ago; his sitcom, "Simon," debuts on the Warner Bros. network in August. Interest in his act began the first time he set foot on an L.A. stage.

"That first night, [comedy manager] Rick Messina saw me," Mr. Williams says. "Afterward, he asked me if I would do the show 'Comedy on the Road.' It started immediately, my very first gig, and I was offered a national TV show. It's been going ever since.

"They're understanding that we're more versatile than they gave us credit for," says Mr. Williams, who was also in the film "Dumb and Dumber." "Some of us are capable of serious dramatic acting, doing cartoon voices, churning butter. They're learning to capitalize on our talents."

Mr. Reiser is proof -- he took a circuitous route to his current success, appearing in roles that didn't just require quick quipping in "Diner" and "Alien," though he says those weren't strategic career moves.

"I don't think many of us have it all charted out," he says. "We have a wish list, but along the way, we have to deal realistically with what our options are. . . . I was just going up for different stuff, and this was a great opportunity for me to prove that I was capable of doing something different.

"But I don't have the anti-comedy view some people sometimes have -- 'Next, I need to do 'Death of a Salesman.' I think being able to do comedy is an equal virtue."

Jamie Masada, owner of the Hollywood comedy club Laugh Factory, says, "There's a frenzy going about the studios and production companies. They all want the first look at all the comedians. Some production companies, studios and networks have offered me money to find them talent. Everyone is desperately trying to find the next Seinfeld or Tim Allen or Roseanne. My audience, 40 percent of them, is made up of industry people."

George Lopez, who has spent nearly a decade touring the nation's clubs and has a development deal with Disney, thinks comics need to be examined with more scrutiny. "I don't think comedians work as hard today," he says. "There are more doing material that's too similar. They want instant success. No one wants to bother to hone and polish their act."

Paul Provenza, who abandoned sitcoms to appear on the recently cancelled "Northern Exposure," agrees. "It's really frustrating, not only as a performer, but also as an audience member. . . .

"I had a talk show on Comedy Central, and the performers that were pushed on us, we'd see their work and they'd literally have 10 minutes and that was it. We wanted seasoned performers, rather than hot ones, but people will seize on heat. Comics should be left to their own devices for five or six years. Stand-up has diminished greatly in the past decade. We need to focus in on what the art and the craft is all about, and not on the quick buck."

Selectivity returns

Despite the signing sprees, some sanity has been restored, says Bob Crestani, executive vice president and worldwide head of television for the William Morris Agency. "There is still tremendous interest, but the networks are now being a little more selective."

Kim Fleary, vice president, comedy series development for ABC Entertainment, says that to score big, a comic needs "a point of view and an infectious personality.

"But it varies widely. The criteria are so loose that it really depends on the individual. For example, seven years ago, I saw a comic, Mark Curry [star of 'Hangin' With Mr. Cooper']. Then, Mark's stand-up had no point of view, but his personality was so infectious, and he was so accessible, he just seemed like someone who could translate to the format of half-hours easily."

It's easier for the networks to build a sitcom around a comedy star, says Mr. Fuchs. "You see these attractive, funny people; they're TV stars because of exposure on cable, and it becomes easier to build a show around them. People who conceptualize those shows are human, . . . they're more comfortable with someone they know can make people laugh."

Yet, he adds, "They gobble these kids up, these kids don't even get to build careers as stand-ups. . . . They've been saying that about television forever -- it eats its young. That's the rapaciousness of this business."

Indeed, the expectations of comics and networks can be exasperatingly at odds. Comics are hired because of their unique outlook and perspective. Then the network often tries to shoehorn them into premises antithetical to their nature, and saddle them with writers and executive producers who don't understand their appeal.

"The nature of TV development is that there is this tremendous ambivalence on the part of networks -- they want something new and different, yet they feel most comfortable with what's tried and true," says Mr. Reiser. "Had 'Seinfeld' not had the process it had, going through NBC's late-night division, it never would have gone [on NBC]. They'd have just said, 'What is this about?' But they were given the opportunity to grow, and they opened the parameters to other shows."

Persona and material

Still, there can be difficulties in meshing a comic's persona with sitcom material. There was seemingly a revolving-door at "Ellen," as Ms. DeGeneres' show continued to seek its sensibility during its second season. Another ABC sitcom with another comic, Dave Chappelle, was yanked a week before it was scheduled to premiere; it will turn up later in the year. And Margaret Cho experienced a double whammy: first, critical barbs from all sides over her ABC series "All-American Girl," and then, after a vote of confidence in which the network announced it would revamp her series for its second season, it was canceled outright.

"I had a lot of input in the early development of the shows, but during pilot week, it changed a lot from what I had in mind," Ms. Cho explains. "It changed into something so different from what we thought we were going to get. What happened, they wanted to go for a family sitcom as opposed to a twentysomething-type show."

Wryly, she sums up the problem: "I had a lot of input, but a lot of other people did, too." She remains philosophical: "They always do it the wrong way first; that seems to be the tradition. The best thing to do is to trust the performer, yet they rarely do that."

Her advice to comics? "Be really stubborn. Know as much as you can about what you want, because you'll be pulled this way and that. . . . Stick to your guns, even though it's really difficult."

Mr. Provenza concurs. "Comics should wait until they get powerful enough to have some control over things. It's their reputation that rises and falls. Writers will go on to the next project, but the performer is saddled with the flop of a show."

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