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Carsey-Werner Raises 'The Devil'

Television: Never ones to go by the book, the producers break rules again to make animated Bible-based sitcom.

May 17, 1999|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the major broadcast networks unveil their new fall schedules starting today, one prominent independent production house is quietly going all to hell.

Carsey-Werner, who brought to prime-time television the groundbreaking "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show," as well as the current "Cosby," "That '70s Show" and "3rd Rock From the Sun," is sitting out the frenzy for the moment, not having a new show on the fall lineup. But the company is already drawing attention over its upcoming project, "God, the Devil and Bob," an animated series targeted for midseason.

The comedy has come into the industry spotlight as one of Carsey-Werner's riskiest and potentially most controversial ventures in terms of its subject matter.

More significantly, Carsey-Werner, which has dealt exclusively with live action on its previous series, has quietly formed an animation division to develop and produce "God, the Devil and Bob" for NBC. With the unit, Carsey-Werner, one of the few remaining independent TV production companies, has become the only one to have its own animation division.

By establishing an animation operation, Carsey-Werner is bucking the trend of other producers who have gone into partnership with larger, more established studios such as Disney, or veteran animators such as Will Vinton Studios, which produces the animation for Fox's "The PJs," and Film Roman, which produces the animation for "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," also from Fox.

The new unit not only has key creative animation personnel, including several from the recently dissolved DreamWorks animation division, but has established an 18-step process, starting at development and going through design, storyboarding, timing, checking, color, sound effects, music and video post-production, to create a stand-alone operation. The actual animation--ink and paint and camera work--is done overseas, as are many animated series.

Tom Werner, co-partner at Carsey-Werner, called the venture a natural extension of the company's desire to be independent and in total control of the final product.

"This really does give us more creative control," said Werner. "We just felt, if this can be done, why not just do it on our own?"

"God, the Devil and Bob" revolves around a modern-day Job--the legendary biblical figure who was sorely tested by God--caught between God and the Devil. The series features the voices of French Stewart as Bob, Robert Downey Jr. as the Devil and James Garner as God, whose physical appearance bears no small resemblance to the Grateful Dead's late leader, Jerry Garcia.

'A Story About God's Relationship With Man'

The show is the brainchild of Matthew Carlson, who was an executive producer of two former comedy series, "Men Behaving Badly" on NBC and "Townies" on ABC.

"It's a story about God's relationship with man," said Carlson. "Our intention is to do a good show with funny characters."

Carsey-Werner executives and others associated with the series said that animation was the best form to get across the show's humor.

"It just allows us as many opportunities to be as humorous as we can," said Stewart, who co-stars as Harry, one of the aliens in Carsey-Werner's "3rd Rock From the Sun." "When you have a God that becomes 700 feet tall walking through Omaha, it might be a bit expensive to do live-action."

This newest division of Carsey-Werner is housed in a nondescript Encino office building a few miles from the company's Studio City headquarters. The unit is not unlike an insurance office with its alcoves and cubicles. Setting it apart are the thousands of rough drawings lining the walls of the hallways, and the 42-member creative and artistic staff walking around in Hawaiian shirts and blue jeans.

The success of "God, the Devil and Bob," which has a 13-episode commitment from NBC, also could help determine whether Carsey-Werner Animation develops any other prime-time animated series.

"We didn't set out specifically to get into animation, but to tell a story," said Stuart Glickman, the production company's chief executive and vice chairman. "And this really was the best way to tell this story. When we create something, we want to be hands-on all the way, not two or three steps removed as we would have been if we had gone with someone else."

Werner and other executives said they are also not concerned about forming a new animation division at a time when network prime-time schedules are becoming flooded with like product. Almost a dozen animated series aired last season, and several more may be added this week. In addition to "God, the Devil and Bob," NBC also has ordered 13 episodes of an animated series from David Spade ("Just Shoot Me") about his relationship with his father.

Said Werner: "Like with all the situation comedies, the good animated shows will survive. If this show is timely and it touches people, then it will survive."

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