EXCLUSIVE: A comedy legend is coming back to television. Carol Burnett is set to topline a multi-camera comedy, which, in a very competitive situation with broadcast and streaming networks bidding, has landed at ABC with a put pilot commitment. On the project, written/executive produced by Michael Saltzman, Burnett is paired with Amy Poehler, one of the brightest current female comedy stars whose careers were influenced by her. Poehler will executive produce through her Paper Kite banner. Universal TV, where Paper Kite is based, is the studio.
The untitled comedy is about a family who gets a chance to buy the house of their dreams — a house they’d never be able to afford under normal circumstances, but is able to under extremely abnormal circumstances. They must live with the current owner, an older actress (Burnett) — until she dies.
Saltzman executive produces with Paper Kite’s Poehler and Brooke Posch, 3 Arts’ Dave Becky and Comedy Dynamics’ Michael Pelmont. The project stems from the new overall deal Poehler’s Paper Kate inked at Uni TV this past summer.
Burnett has earned 22 Emmy nominations, winning six over a span of five decades. Her Carol Burnett Show ran for 11 years, landing a best variety-comedy series Emmy nomination for each of the 11 seasons and winning three times.
This marks a return to multi-camera comedy for Saltzman, who was an executive producer on Murphy Brown and The Naked Truth before segueing to dramas in recent years with stints on AMC’s Mad Men, Hell On Wheels and Halt And Catch Fire.
There is a personal story behind Saltzman’s collaboration with Burnett, and it goes years back, to his start in the business.
“I grew up — like millions of other people — watching The Carol Burnett Show, and idolizing Carol. It wasn’t just the hilarious parodies; her Q&As just showed her to be this warm, funny, relatable person,” he told Deadline. “And then the very first meeting I had when I was trying to break into television as a writer was with Carol, who was exactly the same person in real life as she was on TV. Through an incredible act of kindness and generosity, she gave me my start. In our meeting, Carol offered praise and encouragement, which by itself was amazing, but she then elevated things to a truly surreal level when she presented a check with no contract or conditions. Her only instruction was to write anything — a play, a musical, a TV show, a movie, a poem. It didn’t matter. She just wanted to give someone she believed in their start. (Burnett had shared the story of how an anonymous benefactor helped her get her start with a $1000 check when she was a penniless aspiring actress, and urged her to pass the kindness to another person in need when she’d made it.)
“I’d always wanted to pay her back in some way, and reward the faith she placed in me, but the stars never seemed to align,” Saltzman said. “When I was free she was busy and vice versa.”
The stars finally aligned recently when Saltzman had brunch with Marcia Brandwynne, who used to run Burnett’s production company. “Marcia wanted to know what I was up to, and I told her about an idea I was kicking around based on stories I’d heard about elderly people selling their homes, with the caveat that they sort of came with the house, and be allowed to remain in the home until they died; it’s apparently common in France.” Saltzman said. “Marcia told me to call Carol about it, that it was time for her to return to TV, and that this would be a great way for her to do it. I called Carol, she loved the idea and character I came up with for her, added some hilarious notions of her own, and said she was on board.
“I knew she and Amy had a great love and mutual respect for each other, and suggested taking it to Paper Kite, which Carol agreed would be an ideal pairing. So I met with Amy and Brooke Posch, who runs Paper Kite, and they immediately keyed into the premise, and saw the show and character as a perfect vehicle for Carol.”
Saltzman now will get to write a series that both marks Burnett’s return to TV series and her sitcom-starring debut.
“To be able to provide her with an opportunity to ‘play in the sandbox’ again, as she’s fond of saying, is not only an unbelievable thrill, but a great honor and responsibility,” he said. “She’s not only one of the most brilliant and beloved comediennes to ever appear on television, she’s also a very gifted dramatic actress. So, my goal is to hopefully give her material that will allow her to showcase all her talents and range, and, just as importantly, to create an environment she’ll enjoy and have fun creating and playing in, like she had on her original show. It’s every writer’s dream to write for such a talented and funny actress, and it’s a fulfillment of a lifelong fantasy for me, personally.”
Poehler, along with fellow comedy star and longtime friend and collaborator Tina Fey, presented Burnett with the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award at the SAG Awards earlier this year. In the intro, they talked about the enormous influence Burnett had on them as they grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show every week.
“We watched Carol with our moms, and our moms taught us 90 percent of what we needed to know to be the kind of women that we are today, and the other 10 percent is Carol,” Poehler said. “We love her and we thank her.”
This is a second big sale for Paper Kite under the new Universal TV deal. The company also has a pilot production commitment at NBC for comedy The Baby starring Seann William Scott. It is being written by Craig DiGregorio based an an idea by Scott and Poehler.
Burnett is repped by ICM Partners and Steve Sauer. Saltzman is repped by Scott Schwartz of Vision Art Management and New Wave Entertainment. Poehler is repped by WME, 3 Arts and attorney Warren Dern.