IFC’s Big Comedy Push

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Garry Shandling’s TV show host alter ego Larry Sanders would constantly admonish his audience with a direct order: “No flipping.” For a certain kind of viewer in 2011 (the kind who enjoys shows that are crazy funny and pitch-perfect), that command would be redundant if he or she were lucky enough to stumble upon reruns of The Larry Sanders Show on TV. That same viewer would probably also need no extra nudging to stay tuned to a marathon of Mr. Show or an abundance of Arrested Development. Fortunately all those beloved alternative classics are airing on TV again, conveniently located on one channel — and they’re flanked by new shows featuring Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and the talent behind The Onion. When exactly did IFC become the red-hot epicenter of respectable comedy on television?

IFC is not yet known for its comedic programming, but that’s quickly changing. In fact, the cable channel has quietly been putting out funny shows for years. Formerly known as the Independent Film Channel, the foreshortened IFC — which, it must be said, occasionally runs advertisements on Splitsider, but did not sponsor this post — put its first scripted series on the air in 2005. Hopeless Pictures was an animated show created by Bob Balaban, featuring the voices of Jonathan Katz and Michael McKean. Although well reviewed, the show only lasted nine episodes. Next came Laura Kitelinger’s underrated Hollywood satire, The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman in 2006, which ran for two seasons. Around the same time, New York sketch troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know brought their show to IFC, and finished up a fourth season last year. Although these shows with a comedic bend were once the programming exception at IFC, they are quickly becoming the norm.

“Over the last two years we’ve refined the brand,” executive vice president Jennifer Caserta said in an interview with Fast Company. After conducting extensive research into viewers’ daily TV habits, Jennifer’s team discovered that IFC’s core audience prefers TV that takes risks, and that they were hungry for more series. Now the channel is in the midst of a full-scale metamorphosis.

When reruns of Arrested Development began airing in 2010, it was immediately apparent that there was a major overlap between the audience of that brilliant-but-cancelled show, and the independent-minded viewers IFC has always courted. This revelation led them to want to work with David Cross and Will Arnett again, so they jumped on the chance to pick up their pilot, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. According to Debbie DeMontreux, Senior Vice President of Original Programming, IFC now aims to curate a viewing experience for independent-minded viewers who have strong ties to the kinds of shows that failed on network TV. In addition to all the series mentioned above, the station has also started airing Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and The Ben Stiller Show (all of which involve Judd Apatow and lasted only one season.) These syndication deals are a strong indicator of IFC’s commitment to a certain kind of comedy.

Helping to round out the timeslots of these shows are interstitial segments from Comedy Death Ray, Scott Aukerman’s radio show-turned-podcast, which is now in business with IFC. “We got in touch with Scott Aukerman,” Debbie DeMontreux said, “because he and Comedy Death Ray have a natural relationship with a lot of the shows we’re airing now.” To wit, Aukerman himself wrote and performed on Mr. Show, and many frequent guests on his podcast and stage show in LA were involved in that and other legendary series. They also share a similar sharp comedic sensibility, and it’s one with which IFC has aligned itself. Segments filmed for the channel feature Aukerman interviewing Bob Odenkirk about Undeclared, Andy Dick on Freaks and Geeks, and Sarah Silverman on Arrested Development. For now, short bits like these are sandwiched in between other shows, but programming based around Comedy Death Ray could potentially become more extensive in the future.

Just as IFC’s sister network AMC has broken out in the field of drama with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, one of the keys to IFC’s success in comedy is going to be an onslaught of original scripted programming. Portlandia was pitched by Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, based on the ThunderAnt web series created by SNL’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (who is best known from her former life as a guitarist for Sleater-Kinney). It is an honest-to-goodness fresh take on the sketch series, filled with rich characters and a twisted attitude reminiscent of The Kids in The Hall (who now also have a show on IFC.) Another new original is The Onion News Network. “The Onion is a brand that we’ve just been enamored with for a long time,” Debbie DeMontreux says. “Having a series from them on IFC is a perfect match.” The show, a spoof of breathless newscasting a la Anderson Cooper 360 and The Situation Room, is hosted by “Brooke Alvarez”, an anchor played by actual former Fox News host, Suzanne Sena. Both Portlandia and The Onion News Network premiere tonight.

IFC has proven they are open to a wide variety of comedy programming, as long as it reflects the off-kilter sensibility the channel was established on. Upcoming plans include branching out into nonfiction and animation with some incredible talent on both sides of the screen. Several promising shows are currently in development, including Cartoon Show, an animated meta-variety half-hour from David Wain and the team behind Ugly Americans; Whisker Wars, a promising documentary series profiling a group of men from the National Beard and Mustache Championship; Hard ‘N Phirm’s Musical Timehole, an animated show from the hilarious team of Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman; and a currently untitled action series from producer Allan Spencer, about a psychotic criminal trying to juggle the demands of violence and an active social life. Pretty sure that last one safely qualifies as “off-kilter.”

Over the next five years, IFC will continue rolling out more shows and increasing its original programming over its slate of feature films. “We are investing in comedy long-term,” says Debbie DeMontreux. For those clamoring for funny television of the nontraditional variety, it looks as though IFC’s investment is already paying off handsomely.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.