When international TV executives describe this as the Golden Age, they’re usually thinking of US dramas like Breaking Bad or House of Cards, but digital and formats are helping to put comedy into the picture, reports Andy Fry
There are three main reasons why comedy is challenging to sell. The first is that far fewer networks invest in comedy than drama, which means the pool of potential hits is smaller. In the US, which drives the agenda in most genres, new comedy tends to be the preserve of the big four networks and a handful of specialist cable channels, unlike drama, in which 40 to 50 channels are in search of signature shows.
The second is that comedies are more likely to crash and burn at birth. While it’s possible to point to a few stalwart performers like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, of the new shows to debut on the big four networks last season, only The Goldbergs has survived.
The third is that comedy doesn’t travel as well as drama. Exceptions include Friends, Anger Management, New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and The Simpsons, which has just been sold to China, but the general view is that comedy is often too culturally specific to export successfully.
Having said all this, most companies in the scripted content business see comedy as an important part of their portfolios, and there’s a general consensus that changes in consumer media behaviour are probably working to the genre’s advantage.
Zodiak Media’s head of international scripted, Caroline Torrance, has a comedy slate that is predominantly UK-originated. “Our traditional markets for comedy are Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and Scandinavia,” she says. “Some shows sell to Germany, but I can count the sales to Spain, Italy and France on one hand.”
The rise of digital platforms, however, makes her optimistic: “When you look at what people watch on YouTube and other online platforms, viewing is so driven by comedy. It’s not half-hours, it’s clips, but it’s interesting for the comedy world. We’re also looking at how Netflix is opening up opportunities. There is definitely an appetite at the SVOD services to use comedy to reach a young audience not served by broadcasters. We have series like BBC3’s Siblings, which are perfect for SVOD platforms.”
Digital’s impact on comedy is also referenced by SPT president of international distribution Keith LeGoy. “There is a young audience, aged 12-34, that has grown up as part of a global community thanks to platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube,” he says. “They are more inclined to relate to the same characters and situations than in the past, and I think that shared sensibility is helping comedy travel more easily, particularly US comedy. Broadcasters see that trend and are keen to attract that demo.”
From SPT’s perspective, says LeGoy, this globalised sensibility is reinforced by the fact “there are so many more channels buying content these days”. “That’s an opportunity for comedies of ours like Marry Me and The Goldbergs, which we brought to MIPCOM.”
Not to be overlooked either is the fact that Netflix and Amazon are now commissioning full-blown scripted series, he adds. “We’re bringing Amazon series Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle to the Cannes market as well. Anything that brings through new talent and ideas is fantastic for the future of comedy.”
SPT is also a global leader in formatting comedy, which has been an effective way of tackling the issue of cultural relevance. “Married With Children and The Nanny have been juggernauts for us,” says LeGoy. “We’ve made more episodes of MWC for Russia than we had in the archive. And now we’ve had another breakthrough with The Jeffersons, which sold to America Television in Peru.”
The above themes tend to guide the strategies at most companies in the comedy business. Endemol Worldwide Distribution’s CEO, Cathy Payne, says her company’s UK-based comedies generally have quite local appeal, “whereas we have an output deal with US cable channel TV Land that does well for us. Hot in Cleveland and The Exes have been big successes for us in international distribution, and we have high hopes for Younger, which stars Hilary Duff and is created by Darren Star [Sex in the City].”
With 100 episodes in the can, Hot in Cleveland is also being adapted for Russia, says Payne. “But formatting is much tougher for a British comedy because they don’t have the episodes.”
One way that British comedy creators try to get round this lack of episodes is by attempting to emulate The Office. Originated in the UK, it ran for 12 episodes on the BBC. Subsequently, however, a US version for NBC clocked up over 200 episodes, which makes it perfect for global distribution and formatting.
The theory makes sense, says Payne, but the problem in practice is that Brit comedies rarely get beyond pilot stage in the US. Bad Education (which was one of EWD’s comedy for MIPCOM), Only Fools & Horses, Gavin & Stacey and Spy are just a few of the British comedies that generated interest in the US but didn’t make it to series. “The Inbetweeners is one of the few that made it,” says Payne, “but then it got cancelled. The problem is that the US versions are often softer and lose some of the humour.”
BBC Worldwide’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, acknowledges the general thesis that non-US comedy doesn’t travel well outside its core markets, but he shares LeGoy’s view that digital is changing the market. “Shows like Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys tend to do best in the English-speaking markets and Scandinavia, but SVOD providers are helping some shows develop broader international followings. Moone Boy, Pramface and Misfits are all shows that have gone onto Hulu in the US and done very well. It was Misfits’ performance on Hulu that led to it being picked up by US cable. SVOD gives comedies more time to develop a fanbase than TV channels, which are more beholden to overnight ratings.”
The new platforms are also becoming valuable business partners, he adds. “There are a lot more interesting deals that can be done these days around windows,” he says. “Think of something like The Wrong Mans, which was a coproduction between the BBC and Hulu.”
Keelan says sitcoms like David Walliams and Catherine Tate’s Big School have done good business, but he also stresses that comedy looks a lot more successful in terms of exports if you define it more broadly. “Karl Pilkington’s An Idiot Abroad and The Moaning of Life are strong international series that link Karl’s distinctive humour and work when combined with the travel genre. I think there are more situations now where you see comedy on TV in factual entertainment formats.”
As an exec who deals with a lot of comedy, Hat Trick International sales chief Sarah Tong knows what she’s talking about when she says: “Comedy is the hardest thing to sell and is still tough. It’s a lot to do with personal preferences and tastes. Humour doesn’t travel like drama or factual entertainment.
“The secret internationally is keep it simple and visual. One of the best shows for us is The Worst Week of My Life, which is from 2004. We are still selling it as a format.”
UK-based Tong confirms that US comedy is the big seller, but she has got round that fact with Episodes: “Some channels have a lot of US [comedy] content and don’t want British – but we can take Episodes to them, as it has a US feel. It helps Matt LeBlanc is in it and it is written by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik – it is part-American.”
The number of episodes is a problem, confirms Tong. “American comedies have 20+ episodes,” she says, “so pitching a six-part British comedy can be hard. Outnumbered didn’t really start selling until we were into season three. Now [that] there are 34 episodes interest is much stronger.”
Episodes goes out on premium cable net Showtime in the US and the distribution arm of another premium cabler, Starz, is now getting into international comedy sales after the channel moved into original comedy in the US. It launched Survivor’s Remorse at MIPCOM, a six-part half-hour comedy following Cam Calloway, a basketball phenomena in his early twenties who is thrust into the limelight after signing a multi-million-dollar contract with a professional basketball team in Atlanta.
“The ideas of family, relationships and what happens when you become successful and what you owe the neighbourhood you came from are universal,” says Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik.
“It was the right time for us to start doing original comedy. There was no doubt that we would do it eventually, and when we saw Survivor’s Remorse, we thought the time was right with LeBron [James, the basketball star who is an executive producer] and Maverick’s insight and Mike O’Malley and Tom Werner’s ability to execute that.”
Starz’s comedy play will continue with Blunt Talk, another half-hour series, from Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) and Jonathan Ames (hBored to Death) and produced by MRC. The character comedy will follow a US TV host played by Patrick Stewart, and Starz gave the show an immediate two-season order, for 20 episodes in all. “It is quite a commitment but not a big risk,” says Zlotnik. “When you look at the group involved, you know it will be good, it will be funny.” He adds that when it comes to comedy, Starz’ strategy is “crawl-walk-run”, and it is now waiting to see how its first offering performs.
Tong picks out Boomers as one of its recent highlights. “It features an older-generation ensemble cast, so will attract a wide demographic,” she says. “Since its launch on BBC One on Friday nights it’s won its slot every week, which will be a fantastic selling point.”
Echoing Tong’s reference to LeBlanc, Tricon Films & TV senior VP distribution and business development Jon Rutherford says that having recognised stars helps comedy sell. “We have an output deal with US cable channel IFC,” he says, “which has brought some outstanding comedy into our catalogue. A lot of their shows feature A-List comics, which is attractive to buyers looking for stand-out shows.”
Examples include Comedy Bang Bang, a comedy format that has featured guest stars such as Zach Galifianakis, Andy Samberg, Jessica Alba and Jason Schwartzman, says Rutherford. There’s also The Spoils Of Babylon, a spoof miniseries produced by and starring Will Ferrell, and Birthday Boys, a sketch comedy series executive produced by Bob Odenkirk and Ben Stiller. “It’s the kind of irreverent programming that won’t play on every channel, but it’s great for pay TV, SVOD and some public channels. ABC Australia is a good home for comedy, for example.”
FremantleMedia’s director of global drama, Sarah Doole, approaches comedy on a number of fronts. She is, for example, in the midst of a project to ramp up FM’s scripted-format business. “We own a lot of classic comedies like Man About the House and
George and Mildred, which have lots of episodes and great writing.”
Like her peers, Doole says comedy can be tough to sell internationally. “But we have had successes such as The IT Crowd. We’re also very positive about the chances for Cuckoo, which we have just sold to ARD in Germany. Part of the appeal of that show is its US leads [Andy Samberg in season one and Taylor Lautner in season two], but also co-star Greg Davies has a very visual, almost slapstick, humour that travels well internationally. Both shows work because they have universal elements that everybody recognises – such as being stuck in an office and family life.”
In terms of the influence of digital on mainstream comedy, Doole points to shows like Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy (represented by FremantleMedia International), which went from web to TV. “We also do incredibly well with World’s Craziest Fools With Mr T. That’s a clip-based show that we have sold to more than 30 territories. I think part of its appeal is its connection to what’s on the web.”
There are interesting developments in the comedy market, says eOne head of television John Morayniss. He points to Welcome to Sweden, a kind of comedic equivalent to Lilyhammer. “Created by Amy Poehler’s brother, Greg, it’s a sweet, character-driven comedy about a US man who gets married to a Swede and goes to live there. It was commissioned by TV4 Sweden, but produced in English, and then was picked up by NBC. It’s now in season two.”
Israel’s Dori Media, meanwhile, is having a lot of success with its comedy series Little Mom, which won best comedy at the 2014 Rose d’Or Awards. A primetime comedy for Channel 10, it is being remade for TF1 in France and TET TV Ukraine, with US and Polish versions planned. “The show is successful because it deals with a topic that mothers around the world can relate to,” says Dori CEO and president Nadav Palti.
Finally, Red Arrow International joint MD Henrik Pabst has secured worldwide rights to Safety First, a Belgian comedy format from Tim van Aelst, creator of What If? and Benidorm Bastards. Set in a security company, it was a ratings hit on Belgium’s VTM, having outperformed its channel average by up to 63%.
The producer perspective
Ash Atalla is on the A List of UK comedy producers. Having established his reputation working on shows like The Office and The IT Crowd, he went on to launch indie producer Roughcut TV. Five years on, he says the company is experiencing its fastest-ever growth phase. “Trollied, for Sky, is about to go into its fourth season, something we’ve achieved in a very short space of time by UK production standards. We’ve also got a new studio comedy for Comedy Central coming soon and a very silly cop buddy sitcom for the BBC called Top Coppers. That’s in addition to sitcom Cuckoo and Mr T’s World’s Craziest Fools.”
According to Atalla, comedy is “a momentum business. The more you are able to demonstrate a good track record as a company, the more people want to work with you. I also think the skills are very transferable. If you can handle the logistical complexity of a sitcom then you can extend that into other programme areas”.
Roughcut’s international distribution activities are handled by FremantleMedia International, but Atalla says he also keeps a close eye on the global market. “The world has gotten smaller,” he says. “We talk to US cable networks and SVOD players, and they know who we are, so that raises the possibility of working directly for them.”
In terms of the internet’s impact on the comedy business, Atalla sees it as “another way for talent to come to our attention, but from a company perspective, the economics remain difficult, because there are no budgets of any scale. I think it’s individuals who are having success in that field, with companies waiting to see who gets traction and whether they want to transfer into TV”.
For the most part, he says, “Humour isn’t that universal, with countries laughing in a different way.” But he does see scope for format deals with certain shows. “We’re ready to take the Trollied format to the market. It’s set in a supermarket that is a very universal world. That’s something we believe can translate.”
The channel perspective
Lourdes Diaz, VP, head of global production and development at Comedy Central International, says her remit is to find “broad relatable comedies that can travel across our large international network of channels and appeal to our 16-34 year-old viewers”.
But it isn’t easy, she says. “What’s the quote? ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard.’ Every day our team goes out to find those things in comedy that bring us together, as opposed to those that drive us apart. It’s finding those common relatable themes and characters where we look to make a difference with our original comedies.”
To this end, she says CCI has piloted a number of multi-camera sitcoms over the past six months and greenlit series production on a couple, the latest being I Live With Models from Ash Atalla’s Roughcut. However, she admits it is hard to come up with shows that can cross borders. “Sometimes what we are doing at CCI feels like the Wild Wild West – trying to make broad comedies in the UK, with UK talent that have a US pace, look and feel. Fortunately, we’re working with producers who share our vision.”
In terms of trends, “We saw many relationship comedies at the LA Screenings with funny family dynamics”, adds Diaz. On the role of the internet, she observes that the web is great for new talent: “There is lots of funny talent online, and we track them for the right opportunity to translate to TV.” Asked to qualify this era for comedy, Diaz is diplomatic. “We are due another big broad comedy that the world loves equally across borders,” she says.
The digital perspective
Endemol Beyond is a global initiative that has around 300 digital video channels featuring premium content. According to George Ramme, managing director of Endemol Beyond International: “Comedy is one of the most important genres in the online world, and there are staggering statistics on the number of followers, views and subscriptions from comedic YouTubers and Vine stars.”
In terms of its own activities, Ramme says: “This year we have launched several comedy channels, including SHFTY in the US with Vine’s ‘Queen of Comedy’ Brittany Furlan, who has over seven million followers. We also signed a deal with Kev Adam, a comedian and actor from France with a wealth of cinema and TV credits under his belt. Kev has three million Facebook fans and over a million Twitter followers, [so] we launched a new channel called Kick On.”
In terms of the interplay between digital and TV media, Ramme says: “Digital definitely plays a key role in finding comedy talent for television. We’re seeing a lot of talent travel from online to TV. In Germany, Endemol Beyond has brought Dr. Allwissend (Doctor Know-It-All) to TV with the show Yps, following his success on YouTube, and in Brazil we closed a deal with Portas do Fundos to do the TV distribution. We also bring our existing TV formats in the online world. A good example is the German comedy show Circus HalliGalli with Joko and Klaas, which just won a Rose d’Or award and has over a million Facebook likes. With Kev Adam, we have been looking to mirror his film and TV success online.”
Ramme has no doubt that online is pushing the genre forward. “Online is a great platform for comedy talent,” he says, “as you can be more experimental and interactive than with traditional television. Digital video is leading the way, like MTV has done the past.”