EXCLUSIVE: The network, the studio and the director behind red-hot Modern Family are re-teaming for another family comedy, this time with a workplace twist. ABC has nabbed single-camera half-hour project Sneaky People, from director Jason Winer, writers Josh Bycel and Jonathan Fener and 20th Century Fox TV with a script commitment plus a significant penalty. Sneaky People is described as an unconventional workplace comedy about a dysfunctional family of skilled liars that run a private investigation agency out of their house in Venice. The title has a double meaning. “They’re catching people, and in their world they are also lying about stuff,” Bycel said about the family at the center of the show, which consists of a father, an adult daughter (around 30) and two younger siblings.
The inspiration for the show came from Winer whose mom worked as a private investigator when he was in high school, handling mostly insurance fraud cases. “She was this sweet housewife who was incredibly good at misrepresenting herself when necessary and deceiving people,” Winer said. “And she was almost proud of me when I was attempting any kind of deception.” While Winer’s mom was the inspiration, for the origins of Sneaky People we have to go back almost a year. Because he was away directing his fist feature, Arthur, Winer’s missed the bulk of the broadcast development season and returned to his 20th TV overall deal just as the networks were starting to order pilots. He heard about a 20th comedy script that Fox had passed on, Don’t Trust The Bitch At Apt. 23, written by American Dad executive producer Nahnatchka Khan. Winer loved it and jumped on board, the project was taken out and immediately landed a pilot order at ABC. In May, the pilot was picked up to series titled Apartment 23. Winer loved the experience so much, at the beginning of this development season he asked 20th TV brass to give him other comedy scripts they loved that had gotten a pass from the networks. One of those scripts was Bycel and Fener’s Do-Gooders, based on Bycel’s brief stint working for a non-profit organization. Despite finding some elements in it difficult to sell, “I flipped for it; I loved it,” Winer said. He soon met with Bycel and Fener who, like Khan, both have worked on American Dad with Fener currently serving as a co-executive producer on the Fox animated comedy. “We discovered that we had similar sensibilities and storytelling instincts,” Winer said. The three started discussing possible show ideas when Winer pulled what he calls my “golden boy” — a reference to Jerry Seinfeld’s nickname for his absolute favorite shirt on the hit NBC comedy — the story of his PI mother with a knack for deceiving people.
Bycel and Fener, who have been writing together for 13 years now, had been toying with the idea of doing a family business show for a while, and a few years ago wrote a comedy script about a low-level crook and his son. “We love the idea of passing down the trade and being in business with your family because that can be pretty messy,” Bycel said. The two sparked to the premise of a lying PI family right away. “A workplace comedy about a family of liars — we felt this would be a great backdrop for good family stories and a fresh new way to do a family and a family business show,” Fener said. And then there was the opportunity to work with Winer whose style of shooting they loved. ABC was a natural destination as it has built a successful brand of new generation single-camera family comedies: Modern Family, The Middle, and possibly newcomer Suburgatory. ICM-repped Bycel and Fener worked as a writing team on shows until Bycel left American Dad several years ago to work for the non-profit. He has since served as a co-executive producer on USA’s Psych, executive producer/showrunner on the final season of Scrubs and is now a co-exec producer on ABC’s Happy Endings. Winer, repped by ICM and Mosaic, continues to direct episodes of both Modern Family and Apartment 23. He helmed 3 of the first 5 episodes of Modern Family this season, including the season premiere and last week’s memorable Phil on Wire.