Talking with IFC’s SVP of Original Programming Debbie DeMontreux about ‘Portlandia’, ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Turning IFC into a Comedy Nerd Paradise

Gatekeepers is an interview series, in which we speak with the people who work in the business of comedy.

I doubt anyone watching The Henry Rollins Show in 2007 would’ve expected the next few years of IFC’s history to go as it did. Starting in 2009 they started acquiring the shows most beloved by comedy nerds. And when you’re airing shows like Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, The Larry Sanders Show, Mr. Show, and others your original programming will begin reflect that. With The Increasingly Poor Decision of Todd Margaret, Portlandia, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and more in the works IFC has become home to some of the most dynamic new comedy series on television.

And Debbie DeMontreux has overseen all of this as IFC’s Senior Vice President of Original Programming and is as excited about these shows as you are. When she started in television in the late-80s, IFC wasn’t the home of alternative comedy – it wasn’t even national televised. I got a chance to speak to Debbie about how she got where she is today, helping to evolve IFC, and what she looks for in comedy.

Can you tell me what your title is and what you do over at IFC?

Sure, my title is Senior Vice President of Original Programming. I oversee the development and production of original series.

So how long have you been at IFC and can you tell me a little bit about your past inside the company and how you got your current position?

I’ve actually been with the company since its inception in 1994. Previously IFC was owned by Cablevision but we split off from the company and formed AMC Networks. Previous to IFC, I was at Bravo since 1988, so I’m actually celebrating my 24th year, believe it or not. [Laughs] Not in this capacity, obviously. I was brought up in Long Island and it was a local company then and it was meant to only be a part time job the summer after I graduated from high school and I just stayed. I commuted; I went to Hofstra University and studied drama and through the years, kind of rose through the ranks and ended up in a development role at Bravo and that morphed into this position at IFC. IFC and Bravo were sister networks a long time ago. Where IFC currently is, just from a personal point, is very gratifying and its just been amazing to have been a part of its growth.

When did you know that you wanted to work in entertainment in general?

I wanted to be an actor and this was really just a job for me and I really credit Jonathan Searing, he’s the president of IFC Entertainment, and he took me under his wing and told me, “Look, if this acting thing doesn’t work out, you should really try production”, which I hadn’t considered. I kind of credit him with that because I hadn’t really thought about it, so I took this Production Assistant position and it kind of grew on me. Production is just such an amazing life and thing to be a part of. To sit and watch all of television being made is such an exciting thing. It was like a bug that I caught. And luckily the company really embraced my vision to want to continue down that path. I can’t take credit for the start of my career but I can for where we are now. It’s very much an evolution that I’m very proud of.

Did you have an interest in comedy when you were younger?

Oh yeah, yeah. I was a big TV watcher very early on. I have this funny story that I’ve never really told anybody: One of my early memories of my obsession with TV was in 5th or 6th grade, whenever you’re old enough to have to do book reports, I was given a book report to do on Thomas Jefferson. And I hated school, hated history, and I worked very hard and I did this beautiful drawing as a title page with Thomas Jefferson on the cover and very proudly turned it in. And when I got it back I got a really low grade, like a C or a C+, and I remember being so crestfallen about it, like: “I put so much work into this, how did I get such a bad grade?” When I opened up the report I realized for the entire thing I had referenced Thomas Jefferson as George Jefferson. [Laughs] I think that was sign of the times because comedy in general has always been something that I’ve loved.

Can you think of any comedians or people that you remember really liking?

I remember discovering Kids in The Hall in college, they used to have re-runs on USA if I recall. I was a big In Living Color fan. I loved sketch comedy. I watched SNL every weekend. I remember the sketch groups was where I most gravitated towards

So when did IFC start doing original programming in a big way? And when was the first big comedy show that you did?

We’ve been making originals for quite a while. But I think that the shift toward creating and really having a stake in comedy programming was probably three years ago or so when we acquired all these amazing alternative series like: Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and Mr. Show. All of these amazing shows. And even though we’d made many comedies beforehand, I think we were just in an experimental state of seeing what worked. When these shows came to the network and really started resonating with the audience, it was very much an inspiration for my team and me to follow in the footsteps of what these shows represent in the comedy world. These shows all had an alternative, unique voice. And born from IFC taking that turn was getting in touch with David Cross and Will Arnett and getting The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and Portlandia, which has become a really big hit for us. We’ve been making originals for a long time; I cant even remember the first few we were making but we had The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman with Laura Kitelinger back in 2005, I want to say. I think definitely with the success of Portlandia and all of these new shows we’re planning to roll out, it really feels like now is the coming out party for IFC in the space.

Was there one moment when you thought, “This is really taking off. This is going to be something?”

I would be lying to say that I had it all worked out in my head. I didn’t. Portlandia was this little show that we took a chance on. Very soon after it premiered – right after The Onion News Network, which was one of our bigger shows  – we saw that it was resonating with our audience and that it was really showing traction. Then we knew that we really had something special here. You look at Portlandia and it’s sketch but it’s really a sketch show like no other. It’s sketch but it’s also a character study baked into this location and they’re like short films in a way. It’s a very unique offering. When it took off that’s when we said, “This is something that is obviously resonating and this is something that fills a void of some kind. In a market place that we can work in, it fills this certain kind of specificity, fresh, unique, independent, if you will, perspective.” Since then we’ve just been trying to do more of the same and really embracing the unique comedic voices that we’ve come to house here.

What are you looking for in new shows and if you’re looking for talent what types of things are you looking for?

We’re looking to make alternative comedy and when we say that we mean it in every sense of the word. We’re looking to make shows that are alternative and that you can’t find in the mainstream. Our tag line is “always on, slightly off” and that really does serve as a programming filter for us. We’ve heard and seen a lot of pitches that could be great but could fit anywhere. When it does feel like it has that slightly off, left of center, point of view is when it’s right for us. We’ve also become a home for a lot of new, unique comedians. Not that they’re new to comedy but they’ve yet to have a platform for their brand of comedy. And if you look at some of the people that are on our air, there’s Fred and Carrie obviously and David Cross, but we just announced we’re doing a show with Marc Maron, who’s amazing, Scott Aukerman, and Reggie Watts, all of these people are kind of left of center, they’re not for everybody. But when they’re not for everybody, they’re perfect for us.

What is the scouting process like? What are you guys doing to find new talent? I talked to Scott and he said you guys were pretty forward about trying to talk to him. What are you doing to find those next original voices?

That’s such a great question. They really come in so many different ways. The way that Scott found us is he just came in to have a meeting with Dan Pasternack, our head of Development, and me. He and Dan had a previous relationship. I didn’t really know of Scott but we had a great meeting. I hadn’t really heard his podcast, so I did some homework. He had this great show that he had been doing for a long time, he was also one of the writers on Mr. Show, and was the co-creator of Between Two Ferns, so I was really intrigued by a lot of the things that he had created. We started with baby steps with him; we gave him 90 seconds to introduce all of the series that we had in his Comedy Bang! Bang! voice. It was an interstitial piece used to link the series and he had all these great guests who were either involved with the show or were just big fans. Through that process we thought, “This guy is great. He’s got this great point of view, this great roster of friends that will just come in and shoot the shit with him.” So, we gave him a pilot and that pilot was amazing. It was all within a matter of 18 months. It went by really, really quickly but when we know that something is right and special we move really quickly. And in the case of Scott and actually in the case of all of these shows we are trying to embrace the vision and brand of comedy that these people are already known for. It’s not like, “Come to IFC and be on this show we’re working on,” it’s “Come to IFC, we love what you do, we love what you’re working on, come do that for us.” I think a lot of the shows that are on our slate now and are soon to come and it’s kind of amazing the great art that comes out of people that are kind of left alone to do what they do best.

When I spoke to Scott Aukerman, he basically said the same thing, that he was really surprised how easy it was. How important is it for the network to empower its creatives and make sure that the show is very true to their vision?

I think that by the time that we get to series, or even in this case to the pilot, we were so sure about what it was that he did, that we didn’t feel like we needed to strong arm him into any kind of a format. We just wanted to embrace what he was already doing on his podcast. We don’t let the talent just run the network, obviously, but especially in this very populated landscape of television, with 700 channels, we need to figure out a way to stick out and be unique. And one of those ways is to find people who stick out and are unique in what they’re doing. There’s just so much great comedy and we’re trying to turn that into great television.

I’ve seen the first couple episodes and it’s just so Scott, it’s just so different. As a person whose done development for a while, what do you think about it? What’s your reaction to it?

I’m kind of obsessed with it, to be honest with you. [Laughs] One of my favorite workdays is when I have a rough cut that I need to screen for work, and we do give notes, but I’m finding myself watching these cuts again for fun. I will bring them home to my family. I have a seven-year old son and I know that this is not really great for me to admit to but I let him watch it because he has the same kind of humor as I do, kind of sick and twisted. I’m just going to be frank; I’m kind of obsessed with Comedy Bang! Bang!. I’m so proud of it and I really hope that people will appreciate it as much as I do because it’s just a really unique show.

When I was in college and hungover and just sitting on the couch, one of the shows that I really liked to watch was Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I watched that show as an adult and I saw the humor. And this show reminds me very much of that. I just love the idea that there are celebrities that play themselves and celebrities that play characters and they’re creating this kind of surreal world that everybody lives in and it’s very straight and dry. It’s just cool. It’s just cool. I’m really proud of it and I know I shouldn’t say that because I made it. Well, Scott made it.

And actually back to your original question that I know I kind of veered off from. We’ve had people come in with pitches. We found Bunk, the show that’s airing with Bang! Bang!, at the New York Television Festival, which was originally titled Pointless. In some cases we’ve just fallen in love with the talent and just wanted to have a development deal to figure out what we want to do with them if there’s no specific place. We kind of find these things in a lot of different ways.

So one show that you haven’t mentioned, how did Trapped in The Closet happen?

So, Trapped in The Closet I’m also obsessed with. Trapped was an opportunity that came to us 2006/2007 initially and was like, “How can we not do this?” It was just so wild and amazing and hilarious. Now, that was five/six years ago and that was back before IFC was really staking a claim in comedy programming, so when the opportunity came back to us to make more of these, there was no question. I don’t know if R. Kelly would call it a comedy, but it fits within the framework of alternative programming. It’s really out there; it’s really hypnotic and hilarious. I’m so glad we’re doing it.

You’re saying that you love all of these shows but how much of your development roster reflects your sensibility as a comedy fan?

100%. It was a bit of a happy accident. When we acquired those shows that we talked about earlier, I was kind of obsessed with them as well. These shows really do reflect my personal taste. I don’t know if I could have continued working here if we went in a different direction. Honestly. I’m not going to take all the credit for this; I have an amazing development team with Dan Pasternak and Erin Keating who also share very much in the same comedic sensibility. Like I said, all of these shows are shows that I would actually be watching as a TV viewer if I weren’t working here.

So what’s on the horizon for you, where are you guys hoping to be in another two years? Are there any other comedians that you personally would love to work with?

We’ve got the Bunk and Bang! Bang! this year and then we’re just in a constant state of development. Other than the things that we’ve announced like The Marc Maron Show and the animated show called Out There, I cant get too specific, but I can tell you that based on the success that we are experiencing now, I feel like we’ve kind of landed and have found our way. In terms of genre, the Maron show, which will be launching next year, is a more traditional, scripted narrative half-hour. That’ll be a new evolution of the comedy that we have on air now. Portlandia, Todd Margaret, The Onion, Bang! Bang!, Bunk, even though they’re all really different, unique formats they all feel like they fit within the same IFC family portrait, if you will. We just plan to populate that portrait with more people, more comedians, more amazing comedic voices.

Talking with IFC’s SVP of Original Programming Debbie […]