Canada pitches breakthrough TV comedies

Indie producers are readying sitcoms for primetime

TORONTO -- After homemade dramas like "Flashpoint" cracked U.S. network schedules, indie producers are readying Canadian-originated sitcoms for primetime.

The Canucks, known more for sketch shows than sitcoms, raised the U.S. network pulse when Fox picked up the U.S. format rights to "Little Mosque on the Prairie," a CBC comedy about fish-out-of-water Muslims in rural Canada, and NBC co-produced the Howie Mandel-starring practical joke series "Howie Do It" with Global Television.

Breakthrough Films & Television executive producer Ira Levy insists the American networks see value in Canuck comedies written and produced by Canadian expats in Los Angeles, and tapping lucrative production subsidies and tax breaks back home.

"The networks have seen the comic strength coming out of Canada -- Russell Peters, Jim Carrey, Tom Green, Kenny vs Spenny. The opportunity is for us to have a 'Crash Canyon,' a 'Less Than Kind,' migrate to the American networks, or the higher end of the cable end, Showtime, HBO, Comedy Central," Levy said.

Breakthrough's "Less Than Kind," a Jewish family laugher set in Winnipeg, recently dominated the comedy field at the Geminis, Canada's TV awards, along with "Flashpoint."

The dark comedy was the brainchild of young writers Marvin Kaye and Chris Sheasgreen, and received punching up by veteran comic Mark McKinney before a funny-or-die writers' room with Garry Campbell ("Mad TV"), Jen Engels and Rob Sheridan ("Little Mosque on the Prairie") took shape.

The same pain-staking preparation went into "Crash Canyon," an animated prime time adult comedy developed by Joel Cohen, a veteran writer and associate producer of "The Simpsons" and creative produced by Greg Lawrence.

" 'Crash Canyon' has the imprint of 'The Simpsons' all over it," Levy said.

He adds Canadians have a wry sense of humor born of irony learnt from being a former British colony and having a stage-side seat on American culture.

Canadian broadcasters are driving the bonanza in homegrown comedies. CTV acquired the comedy "Hiccups" from Brent Butt, the creator of CTV/Superstation WGN's "Corner Gas," and "Dan For Mayor," which stars Fred Ewanuick.

And the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has bulked up on homegrown sitcoms and mockumentaries, including the CBC/ABC comedy "18 to Life," about young neighbors who marry on a dare, and the father-and-son crime dramedy "Republic of Doyle" on Wednesday nights.

The CBC also commissioned "Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town," an eight-part murder mystery starring the 1990s Kids in the Hall comedy troupe.

Breakthrough is also building on its comedy competition franchise "Kenny vs. Spenny" on Comedy Central, which now has a spin-off in "Single White Spenny," executive produced by David Steinberg ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") and Stevie Ray Fromstein.

And the Canadian producer is developing new comedies round Dave Thomas and Dave Foley.

"It's definitely the way the U.S. and the U.K. do it. They celebrate their comics and build shows around them," Levy said.