Comedy Central sees a need to loosen up

Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s career was, as he put it, “aggressively nowhere,” when the talent executives at Comedy Central first fell for his wry, self-deprecating act. He was living with his parents, working as a temp, earning $5 to $10 a week doing stand-up at New York’s Comic Strip.

Then he lost a Comedy Central standup contest in Boston, or as he told friends, “made it to the semifinals,” and, strangely, his star began to rise. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Birbiglia’s career was being lassoed into Comedy Central’s so-called 360-deal, a kind of dream machine that plucks young talent from obscurity and grooms them for a mass audience by booking tours, recording and distributing comedy albums and granting coveted TV spots on the network.

In Birbiglia’s case, this started with a job opening for a trio of bigger names on a national Comedy Central tour. A year later, he got his own five-minute set on the network’s stand-up TV show “Premium Blend,” which eventually led to his own half-hour comedy special on the network, and then a hot-selling Comedy Central comedy album and his own national college campus tour, sponsored by Xbox and promoted on Comedy Central. Before he knew it, college kids everywhere could quote his act from memory.

“I thought no one knew who I was,” Birbiglia said. “It was the first time where I thought this is substantial. The Comedy Central CDs combined with the TV specials are what led to my stuff being traded and passed around and a lot more people knowing my jokes than I thought.”

Comedy Central has used this strategy for years, with the likes of Dane Cook and Daniel Tosh, among others. And when it works, it allows the network to invest very little in young talent up front and earn big — in licensing fees, touring profit and advertising dollars — after a comedian gains a solid footing.

The idea is to “get into business with people early,” said Elizabeth Porter, Comedy Central’s head of talent development and specials. “Give them exposure. Watch them and guide them as they grow. Hope that the relationship and the faith is there, that they feel like Comedy Central is a place that they can really express themselves.”

Talent development can be a slow and deliberate process, easily overtaken by comedy fans on the Internet who make their own superstars and anoint them with abundant ticket sales on the road. And naturally, no one is more aware of this than Comedy Central’s executives. Perhaps that’s why they’re eager to stress their flexibility, their willingness to take more chances on emerging talent — Brooklyn alternative comic Reggie Watts and the L.A-based duo Nick Kroll and Jon Daly, for instance — who are unknown to people outside the comedy scene.

The 360 deal — which includes comedy albums and DVDs, tour booking, Comedy Central shows and maybe someday soon, comedy book publishing — allows the network to expand beyond mere broadcast television to reach the dispersed viewers whose short attention spans are costing Comedy Central and every other TV network precious ratings and ad dollars.

“We realized people now consume everything in different ways,” said Porter. “We realized that we really needed to be everywhere.”

Comedy Central’s talent development works something like this: A small clutch of the network’s talent executives in New York and Los Angeles finds a young, relatively unknown comedian with an act it feels has broadcast potential. Then a deal is tailored to that comic’s talents. In Birbiglia’s case, a fan base was built through touring and once he became a celebrity on campus — home to the young male adult demo — an album was recorded, and promoted it on TV.

“In some sense, Comedy Central has made their audience into comedy connoisseurs,” said Birbiglia.

Tosh had another kind of story. He too had been doing standup for years by the time Comedy Central’s Porter signed him up for the 360 deal: a standup special, an album and a TV pilot. But when the first pilot failed, Comedy Central’s executives gave Tosh a micro-development deal and a good idea. Out of that came last summer’s surprise hit “Tosh.0,” the crux of which is the comedian’s caustic insights on Internet videos and pop culture. Now in its second season, the show ranks among the network’s top three in ratings.

In the recent past, Comedy Central has seemed more reluctant to gamble on unknowns. There were several years when the network stuck with better-established comedians, who came to Comedy Central with a built-in following. Sarah Silverman and Jeff Dunham are among the most recent examples.

By the time she debuted “The Sarah Silverman Program” in 2007, Silverman had already released a successful concert film, “Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic,” and appeared in dozens of TV shows and films. Dunham, meanwhile, was selling out stadiums with his belligerent puppet act when his half-hour show debuted last October as the highest-rated premier in the network’s history.

But even that common sense approach lacked staying power. Both comedians’ shows were canceled this year, the critically panned Dunham in December and the Emmy-nominated Silverman in May. (Dunham had a 360-deal, so Comedy Central still has plans for his live tour, DVDs and another stand-up special.)

Though the network’s upcoming slate isn’t flush with unknowns, it has several alternative and experimental shows in development. Kroll and Daly’s new series, “Rich Dicks,” evolved from a Web series on The new sketch comedy show, “This Show Will Get You High,” will showcase young comics from the Upright Citizens Brigade theaters in New York and Los Angeles. And then there’s the Bob Odenkirk-produced sketch show starring Andre Hyland, which draws on Monty Python for inspiration. And early next year, Comedy Central debuts “Workaholics,” a series from the troupe Mail Order Comedy, discovered online by one of Comedy Central’s junior network talent executives.

“The truth is no one really knows where it’s all going,” says Kent Alterman, the network’s newly named head of original programming and production. “Our job is to find [talent], whether they’re coming up through stand-up or as writers or making their own shorts on the Internet. Basically we’re finding the people we want to make bets on and we want to help them actualize their vision.”

Birbiglia meanwhile is now a nationally known comedian with a critically acclaimed one-man show off-Broadway to his credit, and in October, Simon & Schuster publishes his memoir, “Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories.”

“I’m very happy where I’m at right now,” he said. “People come to my shows on purpose as opposed to coming to a ‘comedy show.’ Which was always my goal.”