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Comedy Central Cuts a Few Creative Deals : Television: Agencies such as CAA get to use the cable channel as a test lab for new talent, while the network develops a name as a showcase for original programming.


NEW YORK — If you blink watching Comedy Central this summer, you may miss another series being introduced. In the past month, four newcomers have checked in on the cable channel--from the British import "Absolutely Fabulous" to "Limboland," an ambitious sketch series that aims to be a "Laugh-In" for the visually hip.

Two more series arrive Friday: "The Vacant Lot," featuring a Canadian comedy troupe whose work resembles that of Kids in the Hall, and "Small Doses," featuring several bite-sized versions of sitcoms and TV-drama parodies in each half-hour episode.

What's behind this summertime frenzy is Comedy Central seeking to establish itself as a showcase for original comedy while the broadcast networks are filled with reruns. To help accomplish its goal, the channel has struck unusual deals with two talent agencies, including the powerful Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles.

"Limboland," which has its second outing Friday, is the first of four limited-run series that are being produced for Comedy Central through CAA. Another series will feature CAA client Francis Ford Coppola as executive producer of "High Octane," starring Coppola's daughter Sofia and Zoe Cassavetes as two young women who tool around Southern California in a convertible.

"We want to establish ourselves in viewers' minds as a channel that does a lot of original programming, with humor that has a lot of attitude and can be daring or outrageous," said Mitch Semel, senior vice president for programming at Comedy Central. "The deal with CAA allows us access to concepts and creative talent that we wouldn't have been able to get on our own."

As an example he cited Coppola, the director of "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now," who "was interested in expanding his base and wanted to try TV without having to make a five-year commitment to do it."

"Small Doses," meanwhile, is from the Los Angeles-based comedy management firm of Messina Baker Entertainment.

For both CAA and Messina Baker, the deals offer an opportunity to use Comedy Central as a comedy laboratory, testing offbeat shows and new talent in a showcase that might catapult them to a larger venue such as ABC, CBS or NBC.

"Comedy Central's creative instincts are fresh and energized, and many of our clients have ideas which are particularly right for the channel," said Tony Krantz, an agent at CAA. "This deal allows us to go directly into production with ideas without going through the typical development process. Each of these projects hopefully will have a life beyond its first incarnation, whether through more episodes on Comedy Central or through serving as a pilot for a TV series on one of the broadcast networks."

Richard Baker, one of the partners in Messina Baker, considered the "Small Doses" offer a blessing. "Instead of turning our talent over to other companies to determine their television fate," he explained, "we were able to directly provide the opportunity for our clients, and to work closely with them to make sure that their vision was executed faithfully, with more control than we normally would have if they were signed over to another studio or production company."

Each half-hour episode of "Small Doses" contains four segments selected from seven mini-programs, ranging from a show about two Generation Xers who work the graveyard shift of a 24-hour supermarket, to a parody of wildlife nature documentaries hosted by comedian Peter Gaulke. The entire project was produced for a bargain $70,000 per half-hour, with each mini-program intended to be a pitch for its own series.

Baker has made the rounds to the broadcast networks and has already received a network order for a pilot script for one of them, although he won't say which one.

CAA's "Limboland" is hosted by "the late Jackie Lenny,' a joke-telling, computer-generated skeleton in a boater hat. The quick-hit comedy vignettes are shot in front of a stark white cyclorama, from a 30-second cattle drive to a Salman Rushdie look-alike contest, and feature performers such as Christian Bocher and Jon Ross. Produced and created by music-video director Lol Creme, the show has an initial order for three episodes.

The other three CAA projects, which will begin airing in the fall, will have four episodes. Besides "High Octane," they are "An American Family," a mock-documentary by producer Ken Finkleman (who wrote and directed "Airplane II"), about a camera crew that follows a young couple for a cinema verite film, and "The Clinic," a soap-opera parody by Matt Wickline and Sandy Frank, former executive producers on the Fox show "Martin."

Even if none of the CAA series ends up being a long-term hit on Comedy Central, Semel said, the higher profile they accord the network will have been worth it.

He also foresees a positive impact from having introduced so many series this summer. Other newcomers are "Musical Shorts," a music-clip series hosted by Debi Mazar of "L.A. Law," and "Jocks," a sports show for non-sports fans.

"When we first tried out just a couple of new shows last July as 'the fall season in summer,' we had our highest-rated quarter in our history," Semel said. "I expect that we'll do the same this year with our new slate of shows."

Comedy Central, a joint venture between Home Box Office and Viacom International that reaches 31 million homes, will be in the black financially next year, Semel said.

Times staff writer Daniel Cerone contributed to this article from Los Angeles.

* "The Vacant Lot" premieres at 9:30 p.m. Friday, followed by "Small Doses" at 10 p.m. and "Limboland" at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.

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