MTV follows script on new laugh track

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MTV's next target: scripted comedy. The cable network is developing an unprecedented number of scripted half-hour projects, including greenlighting a new series and ordering five pilots.

"We're going to apply the same tenets of creativity and genre-busting to scripted comedy that 'Laguna Beach' used to make over the documentary," MTV head of programming Tony DiSanto said. "It makes sense as a progression for us when a lot of our shows like 'Run's House' and 'The Hills' look scripted to start going forward with actual scripted shows."

The projects include a 20-episode series order for a new animated series titled "DJ and the Fro," about two office drones who swap viral videos while surrounded by workplace mayhem.

The network's quintet of pilots — not all of which have closed deals — are a mix of live-action and animated projects, with three set in high school and two based on existing Web series.

One idea sure to get headlines if greenlighted is "Private High Musical," based on an online series that produced raunchy versions of high school shows.

"I've always been an avid musical fan, and when Disney's 'High School Musical' became this big phenomenon, I thought it was funny that nobody ever did a musical that told how high school really was," creator Taryn Southern said.

Another pilot is writer-actor Dan Levy's "Long Distance Relationship," also based on a Web series, about a high school couple who go to separate colleges and conduct a relationship via webcam. "Popzilla," meanwhile, is a half-hour sketch comedy pilot that lampoons celebrity news and gossip.

The projects are part of MTV's plan to produce nontraditional scripted shows that break the mold in terms of content as well as to use a more streamlined development process. Although MTV has dabbled in scripted shows, the current surge began with the on-air series "College Humor," which has been a cost-effective vehicle that has helped dip a toe into scripted comedy.

Some projects came out of "tape day," where executives were challenged to find a potential program through nontraditional means, like existing Internet series. For "Popzilla," MTV drew up a simple contract and gave writer Dave Thomas ("SCTV") seed money on speculation to produce an idea. The turnaround process took weeks instead of the usual months, MTV executives said.

"It's saying, 'Go prove us the idea' and seeding it with some money upfront rather than doing a longform deal with every deal point in place," MTV senior vp series development Liz Gately said. "We're moving more toward a 'proof is in the tape' model."

Two other pilots are "Hard Times," written by Seth Grahame-Smith and produced by David Katzenberg (son of Jeffrey), about a well-endowed high school geek whose social status is greatly improved after accidentally exposing himself at a basketball game, and "Who's Your Daddy?" from Les Firestein ("The Drew Carey Show"), an animated comedy about the multicultural adopted kids of a celebrity couple.

MTV's development department has been prolific in recent years, but executives say the current lineup has more pilots in production than any other time in network history. And there's no limit to how many might go on the air.

"We're not developing for slots," DiSanto said. "If we make 25 pilots and like them, we'll greenlight them all and then figure out where to put them. It's about finding balance across the board and doing storytelling in different ways that appeal to our viewers." (partialdiff)
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