Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein star in "Portlandia." (Scott Green / IFC )
IFC is out to prove that big things can come out of small, quirky shows.
Sparked by the success of "Portlandia," the series poking gentle fun at Portland, Ore., and its offbeat residents that has charmed both critics and viewers, the basic cable network has enlisted A-listers Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller as it aggressively ratchets up in hopes of becoming a leader in alternative comedy fare.
Ferrell, who is currently filming the sequel to his hit "Anchorman," and frequent partner Adam McKay, are executive producers of "The Spoils of Babylon," which will be produced by Funny or Die, their comedy video website that is an outgrowth of their production company.
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The six-episode project will be a parody of lavish miniseries such as "The Thorn Birds." Like that project, "The Spoils of Babylon" will be an adaptation of a bestselling novel spanning generations and multiple characters — except that the book doesn't really exist. The "novel," by fictional famous author Eric Jonrosh (Ferrell), centers on a family who made it rich in the oil business.
"IFC is either really courageous or really stupid," Ferrell said in a statement, "which makes them the perfect partner for us."
Also greenlit is a sketch comedy show starring the Birthday Boys, who have been featured on Funny or Die's website and are frequent performers at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood. The executive producers are Stiller and Bob Odenkirk, the latter of whom created HBO's sketch comedy series "Mr. Show" and has lately been seen as shady attorney Saul Goodman on AMC's "Breaking Bad."
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Both projects are slated to premiere late this year.
Jennifer Caserta, president and general manager of IFC, said the new projects fit perfectly into the network's motto of "always on, slightly off," which has been its mantra for the last few years as it gradually shifts its focus from independent film while also vying to put its stamp on a crowded cable comedy field occupied by Comedy Central, Adult Swim and other networks.
"There was already something unique about the network," Caserta said, "but we needed to refine and expand beyond indie film."
The network was created in 1994 as the Independent Film Channel, concentrating on low-budget movies by filmmakers working outside the studio system. But as many other cable networks such as AMC, TLC and History discovered, the focus proved to be too narrow and executives explored ways to expand viewership with original programming and the resurrection of popular shows.
IFC aired repeats of "Arrested Development," "Freaks and Geeks" and "Mr. Show," and viewers reacted favorably.
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"We saw a way to remain true to our independent roots while expanding our brand," Caserta said. "In two short years, we've built our reputation."
A turning point that gained the network industry credibility and helped lure Ferrell and Stiller was the audience and critical response to "Portlandia," which just completed its third season and stars Fred Armisen of "Saturday Night Live" and Carrie Brownstein. The series doesn't deliver huge ratings, but it has won a Peabody Award, been nominated for writing and directing Emmys, and attracted several big names as guest stars.
Said Armisen in an interview, "They supported us in every possible way. They spent a lot on advertising for the show."
Caserta said, "We've definitely reaped the benefits of 'Portlandia' being our signature show. It's a credit that we wear proudly."
In an email, Ferrell quipped about why he brought "The Spoils of Babylon" to IFC, which he used to watch occasionally to catch an obscure film.
"I think IFC is proving to be one of the few places willing to take creative risks with comedy, a place where the artist is trusted and allowed to follow through with whatever their distinct voice may be," he said. "I think that's why they will be pitched more and more projects. That, and the fact that they have a great dental plan."
Added Odenkirk, "IFC is an eclectic network with a really smart audience. The executives are willing to take some risks as they look for something different. That will be very valuable for our group."
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