IFC Chief on Comedy, Competition and Fred Armisen's New 'Late Night' Gig (Q&A)

Jennifer Caserta
Jennifer Caserta
 Adam Krause

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The door to Jennifer Caserta's office in midtown Manhattan is the professional equivalent of your mother's refrigerator. In place of report cards and teacher notes is a collage of positive press clippings, of which there have been a flurry of late. What her IFC network lacks in ratings -- originals lure only 138,000 viewers on average -- it has made up for in buzz thanks to a portfolio that includes Peabody-winning Portlandia, whose fourth season premiered Feb. 27, critically acclaimed Maron and miniseries The Spoils of Babylon, starring Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire and Will Ferrell. Later this year, the comedy network president will add a Fred Savage-directed series starring female comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates and another installment of R. Kelly's "tremendously ironic" Trapped in the Closet hip-hopera.

Catering to hipster male comedy lovers is key to Caserta's programming strategy, which is why she's heading to SXSW in mid-March with the AMC Networks-owned channel's most ambitious push yet. "The venue and the audience that congregates there are a great representation of the people who watch our network," she says of the Austin locale, where IFC will stage a massive outdoor carnival.

Looking ahead, Caserta, 41, who counts The Soup among her favorite TV shows, suggests she's open to different types of comedy, a potential late-night show and maybe even an awards show. In the meantime, her team is out scouring festivals and comedy clubs in search of new talent for the network she rejoined in 2007 as executive vp programming and marketing. She was elevated to president in 2012. (Caserta did an earlier stint at IFC as vp marketing as well as others at the Food Network, Oxygen and Fuse.)

A former ballerina and now married mother of two young boys, Caserta opened up about IFC's next steps, the producers atop her wish list and what it is about her that is, as IFC's tagline suggests, "slightly off."

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IFC is not delivering big ratings, so what defines success for the network?

With a network of our size, you have to look at everything. What is the reaction off the air? What's happening in social media? What do the critics have to say? Is there awards recognition? Our original programming often sees 100 percent-plus in playback in the demo, and we look for trends because, unlike in the past, shows gain in audience now. We saw that with Portlandia. [Season two jumped 23 percent; then the show added 3 percent in season three.]

What's your biggest challenge?

Competition. We're all competing so heavily for attention and for projects. You're constantly wondering and self-reflecting on whether you're doing enough to grab it and if you're seeing the best of what's out there in terms of comedy.

How has that changed how you do business?

We've gotten more aggressive. You tend to act more quickly when you think something is right for you, and be a little more flexible in how you conduct your business and make decisions. Spoils of Babylon is the best example. That's a show where we broke tradition a bit and went straight to series based on concept, promise and conceit.

Given the cast and critical attention, were you disappointed by Spoils of Babylon's ratings?

It's not just about the numbers, though the numbers are obviously incredibly important to us. You've got to look at the visibility and critical attention that a project like that gave our network just from six half-hours of programming.

Late-night talk shows are springing up all over cable. Is that of any interest?

Right now we're focused on adding more narrative, single-camera comedies like Maron. But we're open to other formats, whether that's a chat show, a talk show with an audience, a green screen or a panel show. It's really about the right time and the right host.

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Would you consider Marc Maron, who is often lauded for the interviews he does for his WTF podcast, for that role?

I love having him on our air with Maron, and that's where his focus is now. But there's no denying how masterful of an interviewer he is, and I'd love to explore ways of doing more with him and seeing more of him on this network.

You found Maron and Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang! Bang!) via their podcasts. Which other podcasts would you like to turn into a show?

Scott does all of these things with Paul F. Tompkins, whom I think is such a talent. He's somebody that I always have my eye on.

You've ordered a series starring female comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates. How important is it to bring in female viewers?

I've been to [Garfunkel and Oates] shows, and they have a rabid fan base that's made up of a lot of guys, too. So it wasn't specifically about going after women, but I'm excited to see two female leads at the forefront of the show, which we haven't had before.

What's the funniest pitch you've heard?

We had a pitch with Robert Smigel where he pulled out Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to participate in the pitch. It was awesome.

Is there room for drama on IFC?

Comedy is our focus right now, but that's not to say we wouldn't go a little darker or maybe do some dramedy in the future. But first we've got to get this.

Which shows do you wish were yours?

I love what FX has done with Louie, which is bold and irreverent. Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project feel tonally right for us, too.

Who's atop your professional wish list?

I'd love for us to do work with Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader -- I saw Hader in Skeleton Twins at Sundance, and it was my favorite movie there. I'd love to do more with Kristen Wiig, too.

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Fred Armisen is now the bandleader for Late Night With Seth Meyers. What was your initial reaction?

My first thought was, "My God, how?" But he's this guy of many talents, and I was so excited for him. It can only do positive things for us, much like SNL did, with him on TV potentially every night.

What's the best piece of professional advice you've received?

I'm lucky that I have two senior execs, Ed Carroll and Josh Sapan, whom I respect and admire; but I also look up to other women in the industry. I look at what [NBCUniversal's] Bonnie Hammer does, everything from the business choices she makes to the way she dresses; or [A+E Networks'] Nancy Dubuc, and the respect she's gained in the industry. I reached out to both of them just to say, "You're an important woman in this industry; you know what it's like to be me, a women in charge with a family at home." They both gave me the time and have been incredibly supportive. One of the things Bonnie said to me was, "Think about what you really want to do, what you want your next move to be."

You spent much of your upbringing as a classically trained dancer with the New York City Ballet. How did that inform who you are as a professional?

I think it made me a more creative person who has a little more understanding of what it's like to be artistic. But more importantly, it gave me discipline and drive. I always was wanting to win and wanting more.

IFC's tagline is "Always on. Slightly off." What's slightly off about you?

I'm a TV executive and a mother, but then I have this edge to me. I like things that people probably wouldn't imagine I'd like, like heavy metal and classic rock. So I could be wearing a suit, but then I'll have black nail polish, a piece of funky jewelry or a rock T-shirt underneath. I really love Metallica, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and The Who. I think I've always been a bit unconventional, and that [extends] to how I live right now, where my husband is a stay-at-home dad.

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