Coming off a year that saw his network's viewership rise 21 percent, FX president John Landgraf talked to TheWrap about Russell Brand's stripped down and raw talk show, whether or not working with Charlie Sheen on the upcoming sitcom "Anger Management" is a risky move and the sport he's programming on FX Friday nights.
Did you pause at all when you heard Ryan Murphy's idea for "American Horror Story"? Were you concerned that viewers might not stick with it for a whole season, take the time to find out what it was really about?
No, I really didn't. For whatever reason, with "American Horror Story," I just felt really confident from the beginning that it was going to be very successful. Notwithstanding the fact that I knew it would be polarizing, and some people would get it, and some people won't. Some people would like it, some people wouldn't like it. I just really genuinely believed that an audience would really dig that show.
You have "Anger Management" with Charlie Sheen coming up next summer. "Two and a Half Men" does really well on FX, but just given his personal history in the last year, how much of a risk is it to do this new series with him?
Well, I guess I know what little I know, which is that I've had a couple conversations with Charlie, and conversations with the producers, with Joe Roth and with the folks at Lionsgate, and I think Charlie really, really wants to make a good show.
I think he really, really wants to get back up and prove that he is what he is, which is a really big TV star. We're only licensing the show, so the production challenges of the show, in all aspects, really lie with Lionsgate. But all I can say is I like the show. I really think it's a terrific pitch. Bruce Helford, from what I've seen, I think he and the writers are doing a terrific job on it. And Charlie's a really good actor. I'm quite optimistic that there will be something very entertaining in that show and very good.
You also have a limited series, a late night show, coming up with Russell Brand. It's been described as a talk show, but is it going to be a traditional, late-night talk show?
No, it isn't. I think part of what we've been thinking about in terms of late‑night is, OK, so you have these traditional talk shows, and you have some very good ones, and you have these enormously experienced hosts in Conan and Jay and David Letterman, but the format is a format that's been around now for 50 years. And then you have these topical shows, Colbert and Stewart, that are more topical and more politically oriented.
For me, the fact that Russell is willing to go in front of a live audience and take an enormous amount of risk, do an enormous amount of improvisation and audience interaction, and willing to have a much, much more loosely structured format that requires more of him in the moment, more real‑time presence and improvisation, is great. I mean, it almost is to a talk show what "The Shield" is to a drama.
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(Brand's production partner) Troy Miller has this very nimble setup with 13 cameras that can move anywhere. And it's a rather small audience: it's about 140 people, as many as you can fit on three buses. So, literally, the show can be taped anywhere in the world that Russell is, in any kind of space or venue or auditorium. You pull in a local audience. You can transport the audience in the middle of the show if you want to, because it's relatively small.
I think it's only about what's essential, in a performer who's willing to go out and be present and be topical and be funny and be improvisational, and he's really, really good at this.
And that's for the spring?
Yeah. We're going to launch a half‑dozen episodes in the spring. And then, knock wood, if it works, and we've structured this like a lot of our comedies, so it's quite inexpensive, because we really want to give these things time to grow and time to find an audience. Assuming it goes well and he's happy and we're happy creatively, we could easily turn around another cycle next year. I could see us making six episodes in the spring and then another 13 in the fall.
"Justified" season three premieres on Jan. 17. I've seen the first four episodes that were sent for review, and it promises to be another great season, with more outstanding performances following last year's Emmy-winning performance by Margo Martindale. How involved are you with casting for the network?
Pretty involved in some decisions and not as involved in others. ("Justified" star) Timothy Olyphant's casting was something I was very involved in. Elijah's casting was something I was very involved in. Margo Martindale? Not at all. That was all Graham (Yost, "Justified producer) and his team. And Graham, of course, and his team, the executive producer, would be involved in any decision we've made. I was pretty involved in bringing Glenn Close to "The Shield" and ultimately developing "Damages" for her.
But it's kind of a collective effort. This whole process of making really good television does not work without a great writer and a great actor, and there has to be an almost perfect mesh between the writer and the actor for it to work. Anything less than that doesn't work.
With "Justified," for that show to be as good it is, you had to get both Tim and Walton (Goggins). You had to get two actors that literally feel like they were born to play those roles.
FX had another big success with the fourth season of "Sons of Anarchy," which was one of, if not the, best season of the show so far. But it was also incredibly fast-paced, and so much happened and had changed by the end of the season that the season finale felt like it could have served as a series finale. Was there any concern that (series creator) Kurt Sutter was burning through the storyline too quickly?
No, I really trust him, you know? He's just a really, really bold, but also very skilled storyteller. I knew last year was a very good season, but I think it was frustrating to some people, because it was very widely spread out. It wasn't until it really, really came together, at the end, that you really got the payoff for all of the careful setup that had been done in season three. I think I was a little worried that maybe (viewers) wouldn't stick through all of the setup in seasons three.
Also read: Kurt Sutter on the 'SOA' Season 4 Finale: 'Death Would Have Been Too Easy'
When you have something that's working, you just want to bottle it, you want it to work forever. But audiences get bored, so we encourage our creators to take big risks. And, of course, sometimes we fall on our face, but more often than not, they pull it off.
FX begins airing UFC on Friday nights this month. The sport obviously has a very devoted fan base as it is, but still, it's not football. Is this the thing that will bring it more into the mainstream?
I think the UFC has been becoming more of a mainstream sport. Since the Fertittas (brothers Frank and Lorenzo) and Dana White took it over and started running the league a decade ago, they've done a masterful job of taking it from kind of an underground sport to ‑‑ it's been the fastest‑growing sport in the world for the last decade. It's already a massively important sport with young men.
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Friday nights also tend to be a fairly weak night of the week for us. It can vary from week to week, but overall it's one of our weaker nights. And I think it will be one of our strongest, if not our strongest night, when we have "The Ultimate Fighter" on.
FX has done reality shows — "30 Days" and a few others. Is that something you want to do more of?
Listen, we would never say no to the right series. "The Ultimate Fighter" came to us through this larger (Fox) deal with UFC and to the extent that it's a reality series, I think it's a perfect one for us. There are certain reality series out there, like "Ice Road Truckers" and "Deadliest Catch," that would work really well on our air.
I'm a little dubious that you can make a half‑baked effort to go into a business that is so competitive and expect to succeed. You have to really take seriously the skill and the resources of the channels that are in that business.
You've been very successful at FX with the in-house production of shows like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." How did that model evolve at the network?
I really learned about low-budget production when I was at Jersey (Television), because we produced "Reno 911!" as a negative pickup. Meaning, we started the studio and we took the financial responsibility for it. We shot it down and dirty and very inexpensively. "Reno" was a really, really stripped down production model.
I got to FX, and we licensed "Lucky." We didn't own any piece of "Lucky." We had licensed it for well, well above what I thought we could actually produce and wholly own a comedy show.
Not only were we able to make ("Sunny") so much inexpensively, but we've also been able to be really flexible and generous with the talent as these shows have become successful businesses with valuable back-end rights — DVDs and merchandising and foreign sales and domestic syndication. Then we've been able to step up and be very, very generous to talent.
We start these businesses very, very small in terms of people's compensation. But we pay a lot of money in success.