As the major broadcast networks unveil their new fall schedules starting today, one prominent independent production house is quietly going all to hell.
Carsey-Werner, who brought to prime-time television the groundbreaking “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show,” as well as the current “Cosby,” “That ‘70s Show” and “3rd Rock From the Sun,” is sitting out the frenzy for the moment, not having a new show on the fall lineup. But the company is already drawing attention over its upcoming project, “God, the Devil and Bob,” an animated series targeted for midseason.
The comedy has come into the industry spotlight as one of Carsey-Werner’s riskiest and potentially most controversial ventures in terms of its subject matter.
More significantly, Carsey-Werner, which has dealt exclusively with live action on its previous series, has quietly formed an animation division to develop and produce “God, the Devil and Bob” for NBC. With the unit, Carsey-Werner, one of the few remaining independent TV production companies, has become the only one to have its own animation division.
By establishing an animation operation, Carsey-Werner is bucking the trend of other producers who have gone into partnership with larger, more established studios such as Disney, or veteran animators such as Will Vinton Studios, which produces the animation for Fox’s “The PJs,” and Film Roman, which produces the animation for “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” also from Fox.
The new unit not only has key creative animation personnel, including several from the recently dissolved DreamWorks animation division, but has established an 18-step process, starting at development and going through design, storyboarding, timing, checking, color, sound effects, music and video post-production, to create a stand-alone operation. The actual animation--ink and paint and camera work--is done overseas, as are many animated series.
Tom Werner, co-partner at Carsey-Werner, called the venture a natural extension of the company’s desire to be independent and in total control of the final product.
“This really does give us more creative control,” said Werner. “We just felt, if this can be done, why not just do it on our own?”
“God, the Devil and Bob” revolves around a modern-day Job--the legendary biblical figure who was sorely tested by God--caught between God and the Devil. The series features the voices of French Stewart as Bob, Robert Downey Jr. as the Devil and James Garner as God, whose physical appearance bears no small resemblance to the Grateful Dead’s late leader, Jerry Garcia.
‘A Story About God’s Relationship With Man’
The show is the brainchild of Matthew Carlson, who was an executive producer of two former comedy series, “Men Behaving Badly” on NBC and “Townies” on ABC.
“It’s a story about God’s relationship with man,” said Carlson. “Our intention is to do a good show with funny characters.”
Carsey-Werner executives and others associated with the series said that animation was the best form to get across the show’s humor.
“It just allows us as many opportunities to be as humorous as we can,” said Stewart, who co-stars as Harry, one of the aliens in Carsey-Werner’s “3rd Rock From the Sun.” “When you have a God that becomes 700 feet tall walking through Omaha, it might be a bit expensive to do live-action.”
This newest division of Carsey-Werner is housed in a nondescript Encino office building a few miles from the company’s Studio City headquarters. The unit is not unlike an insurance office with its alcoves and cubicles. Setting it apart are the thousands of rough drawings lining the walls of the hallways, and the 42-member creative and artistic staff walking around in Hawaiian shirts and blue jeans.
The success of “God, the Devil and Bob,” which has a 13-episode commitment from NBC, also could help determine whether Carsey-Werner Animation develops any other prime-time animated series.
“We didn’t set out specifically to get into animation, but to tell a story,” said Stuart Glickman, the production company’s chief executive and vice chairman. “And this really was the best way to tell this story. When we create something, we want to be hands-on all the way, not two or three steps removed as we would have been if we had gone with someone else.”
Werner and other executives said they are also not concerned about forming a new animation division at a time when network prime-time schedules are becoming flooded with like product. Almost a dozen animated series aired last season, and several more may be added this week. In addition to “God, the Devil and Bob,” NBC also has ordered 13 episodes of an animated series from David Spade (“Just Shoot Me”) about his relationship with his father.
Said Werner: “Like with all the situation comedies, the good animated shows will survive. If this show is timely and it touches people, then it will survive.”
Added Glickman: “I remember when they said comedy was dead years ago, and then we came up with ‘The Cosby Show.’ This is what we do. We takes risks. This is risky, there’s no getting around that. But we only do shows that we have great passion for. And this fits with the quality of everything we do.”
A Pedigree Past and Hopeful Future
The development process on “God, the Devil and Bob” is typical of the way Carsey-Werner has done business through the years, choosing to focus on a relatively small number of noteworthy projects rather than a constant stream. Among some of the company’s most critically acclaimed and popular shows have been “Roseanne,” “A Different World,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill.”
NBC executives clearly don’t see this latest project and the maiden ‘toon voyage of Carsey-Werner as a risk. “The material is so outstanding, and it’s one of the most creative concepts I’ve ever seen,” said Karey Burke, the network’s senior vice president of prime-time series. “Will the animation work? I know that smart comedy works, so I’m sure a smart animated comedy will work.”
If Carsey-Werner does proceed with more animation, all the pieces seem to be in place. Helping to head up the operation is Margot Pipkin, former head of the now-defunct DreamWorks animation unit. Pipkin also was instrumental in attracting several other creative artists from DreamWorks and other studios.
With word leaking out about the operation, producers already have been approached about doing other animated projects.
“Yes, we’ve had inquiries,” said Courtney Conte, the production house’s executive vice president of production who set up the new unit. “We’re extremely flattered, but we’ve really got to keep our eye on the ball with this show. We’re taking this very seriously.”
Establishing its own animation unit is a relatively low-profile step in the continuing growth of Carsey-Werner, which last year formed a partnership with former Nickelodeon boss Geraldine Laybourne and Oprah Winfrey to create the cable channel Oxygen, targeting women.
“We are developing shows for the launch of Oxygen in early 2000,” Werner said. “We’re hiring producers and executives for five or six programming blocks. We’ll have an information block in the morning, a financial block at lunchtime, a teen block in the afternoon, an entertainment block and a movie block. We’re very excited about it. It’s never been done before, so there are no real rules.”
The Oxygen venture represents the first time Carsey-Werner will hand off day-to-day involvement, with Werner saying the company would not be producing any of the cable venture’s shows. “We will launch them and pay attention, but we won’t be on the line every day with these series,” he said.
Werner stressed that, despite the focus on Oxygen, “God, the Devil and Bob” and the animation unit are top priorities. In addition, the production house is also developing a live-action ABC comedy for actress Joan Cusack that would air in midseason.
While consumed by the frantic schedule, producer Carlson is also aware that a show featuring God and the Devil may come in for a bit of controversy.
“It’s not my intention to raise the red flag about religion,” Carlson said. “I want to be irreverent. I’m not trying to make a major comment about religion. I don’t expect theologians to take this all that seriously.”
Said Stewart: “Whenever you’re dealing with the story of Job, you’re going to find someone who won’t be thrilled. But we’re not out to upset anyone. The line is very clearly drawn and walked with aplomb.
“Besides,” he added, “James Garner is God. How can you go wrong with that?”