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FX’s Five Rules of Comedy, and How to Explain Anger Management

Ever since The Shield kicked its way into living rooms in 2002, FX has been known as the home of uncompromisingly dark, unsettling dramas, from the 9/11-scarred Rescue Me to the short-lived Iraq-war series Over There to the batshit crazy antics of Ryan Murphy's Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story. But while the drama strands of FX's DNA remain strong, the cabler has now become just as known for its ambitious half-hour comedies: The expansion really began in 2005, with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (apologies to 2000's Son of the Beach), and now the network also has Louie, Wilfred, Archer, and The League. Now, as Louie and Wilfred return for new seasons tonight, FX is throwing a new, seemingly bizarre ingredient into its successful comedy recipe: Charlie Sheen, who stars in the very un-FX multi-camera comedy Anger Management. So we took the opportunity to call FX president John Landgraf to give us his four rules for building a comedy brand, and then explain to us just how the hell Charlie Sheen fits into that.

1. Don’t Interfere
Talk to most network showrunners (and even some on cable), and the biggest gripe you'll hear — usually in private — is that execs insert themselves into the story process far too often. By contrast, Landgraf and his small team of execs are known for going light on notes. Landgraf says this philosophy is rooted in his pre-FX days, when he was partnered with Danny DeVito in the production company Jersey Television. "I made nine pilots and five series as an executive producer at Jersey, and only one of those was successful commercially," he says. The show was Comedy Central's Reno 911. "It most closely resembled the creative intent of the people who made it, and it was modified the least through the process," he recounts. "That was an epiphany for me ... If you're going to hire creative people, then you should let them do their thing as much as possible and interfere as little as possible."

2. Keep It Cheap
Of course, one of the reasons Comedy Central was willing to be so hands off in the production of Reno was that Jersey produced the show for a relative pittance and kept costs under control for the show's life span. (Well, except for the lavish spending on Lieutenant Dangle's short-shorts.) "Because we were financially responsible, [Comedy Central] gave us a lot of input ... [and] allowed us a lot of creative freedom," Landgraf says. Once he made the leap to network exec, he kept budgets tight and didn't pay producers and (most) talent excessive upfront fees. Instead, starting with the writers-producers-stars of It's Always Sunny, he worked out deals in which talent took less money upfront in exchange for much bigger paydays in the future, should the show get to syndication. (Season one of Sunny cost barely $500,000 an episode, about one third the price tag for a typical network sitcom at the time.) This was key when it came to deciding Sunny's fate early in its run, when ratings were small. "It was a really close call renewing it for seasons two and three," Landgraf says, but because the production costs were so low, FX could afford to be patient.

3. Own Your Own Shows
Cutting out the middleman, Landgraf decided FX would produce as many of its comedies as possible rather than buy them from an outside studio, the way CBS buys all of its Chuck Lorre shows from Warner Bros. TV. Early on, this was a big risk: Had Sunny never grown into a hit, FX would've been on the hook for nearly twice as much in losses than if it had simply licensed a show from a big studio. But acting as producer and network gave FX more control over its shows, while also ensuring that the network would get to keep the potentially lucrative backend revenue from DVD sales and syndication. "If you own your shows, you're in two businesses at once," Landgraf says.

4. Laugh When Nobody Else Is Laughing
Imitation is the sincerest form of television, with network suits seemingly constantly looking over at their rivals (and their own schedules) to see what's clicking with audiences ... so that they can then do more of them. But when FX delved into comedy, "everyone else was chasing the gold ring of The Shield and The Sopranos," Landgraff recalls. "And comedy on the broadcast networks, except for CBS, was fairly moribund." FX never stopped producing dramas, but by jumping into half-hours when nobody else was willing, it got ahead of the current glut of half-hours and established itself as a big player in TV comedy. "If you just follow the herd, you get small losses, and small wins."

So there you have it, an effective recipe for making a brand known for smart, unique, and edgy comedies! Which all makes sense — if you ignore the approaching gin-blossomed shadow of Charlie Sheen, whose new show, Anger Management, seems to be the antithesis of an FX sitcom: It's as traditional as they come, with its four cameras, studio audience, and showrunner Bruce Helford, a veteran of The Drew Carey Show, George Lopez, and Freddie.

But, wait: There's a fifth rule.

5. You Can't Make New Shows Without Money
"My job is to make a really, really profitable and popular business," says Landgraf, who predicts, as he has elsewhere, that Anger will debut to a bigger audience than any other FX comedy series (Wilfred, which bowed last year to 2.6 million viewers, currently holds the record). FX also landed the show for what Landgraf descibes as a "ridiculously low price," thus minimizing losses if the show tanks post-premiere, or maximizing revenue if it takes off. (Anger is owned and produced by Lionsgate Television, but FX's deal with that company, as well as with distrubutor Debmar-Mercury, allows the network to share in any backend profits the show makes if and when episodes are sold internationally and to local TV stations in the U.S.)

As for the skeptics who worry that the formulaic Management will sully FX's envelope-pushing image, he points out that while Sheen's show may be airing in prime time and is being promoted alongside signature formula-defying shows such as Louie, it should actually be compared to the more conventional theatrical movies and Two and a Half Men reruns that comprise the bulk of FX's daily lineup. "For any basic cable network, even for premium cable networks, acquired programming is a significant part of what they do." Landgraf explains. "If you looked at HBO's acquired programming, as much is spent on that as is spent on originals. And there's already a big difference on our air between Kung Fu Panda and Wilfred or between How I Met Your Mother and Louie." While the episodes of Anger haven't aired anywhere else, FX had almost as much to do with its development as it did with HIMYM. Indeed, Landgraf gave a thumbs-up to Anger's first batch of ten episodes before a pilot script was written (though he and his exec team did have conversations with Helford before and during actual production of the show). And because 100 episodes of Anger will be produced in about three years if the show's first ten episodes succeed, FX could quickly have enough episodes of the show to strip across its schedule five nights per week, supplying a ready-made replacement for aging repeats of Two and a Half Men and HIMYM.

Landgraf shrugs off the idea of Anger "tarnishing the brand," noting that most people don't see his network through the prism of any single series. "If we gathered all the people who watch every single FX show, we could probably fit them in a studio," he says. "Most people watch one, two, three, maybe four of our shows. For someone like me, who's very ambitious and even fussy about the brand, I've never viewed it through a prism of haughtiness ... Will I confuse the viewer or somehow lose focus? I literally have not an ounce of worry about that ... I put this show in the same realm as putting a guy in a dog suit on to TV. It falls into the same bucket."

He's also not interested in FX being a niche network, as perhaps AMC might have been if it had only aired Mad Men and not found The Walking Dead. His goal is actually to become something akin to what NBC was during its glory days in the eighties and early nineties: home to some of the best-reviewed and most-watched shows on TV, which weren't necessarily the same ones. This way the mass hits will drive viewers to the more experimental shows … or at least subsidize them. "My role at this network is to try to recruit as many people as I can to a brand I hope and believe stands for quality," Landgraf says. "And I look at this as an opportunity to put a really high-rated show on Thursday and to use it to drive more sampling into Louie and Wilfred. If I'm right on this bet, it will allow us to broaden the network. To the extent that I'm successful in that, I'm able to get a lot of support for experimentation and creative freedom from my bosses."

Photo: FX