BURBANK, CA—Now What?, an ABC sitcom making its debut next week, was created for struggling stand-up comic Warren Morris out of pity, sources at ABC Comedy Development said Monday.
"Warren's long since paid his dues, and this is probably the only opportunity he'll get," programming executive Denise Scudder said. "Though his jokes aren't particularly funny, he is hard-working and likable. I thought, 'What the hell? Let's throw him a bone.'"
Now What? will star Morris, 42, as Warren Barber, a video editor at a small Midwestern production company. Barber, who dreams of seeing his own film ideas produced one day, is a good-natured but absent-minded everyman whose misadventures inspire varied reactions in assorted coworkers and friends, as well as his ever-skeptical wife, played by Kathy Griffin.
A nationally touring comic since 1990, Morris has spent the past 14 years performing in such venues as Cockamamie's in Beloit, WI, and Laffghanistan in Erie, PA. In spite of years of experience in comedy, the heavy-set, balding Michigan native has remained on the fringes of the entertainment industry.
"Morris landed a half-hour special on Comedy Central in 1997, but the break didn't lead to anything bigger," Morris' booking agent Karla Hoffman said. "If he's known for anything, it's his material about compulsive eating and girlfriends who are smarter than him. Even if audiences don't remember Warren's name later, they usually laugh when he says, 'Must... stop' and 'Um, I don't think so, honey.'"
A July 2003 appearance at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal marked a turning point in Morris' career. One of 27 comedians showcased in the festival's Club Series, Morris and his slightly offbeat act caught the attention of Scudder and ABC talent coordinator Tamara Felbet.
"While not laugh-out-loud funny, Warren had a familiar presence," Felbet said. "A lot of people relate to his sort of harmless-slob image. He had a joke about buying new underwear instead of doing laundry and one about how, instead of washing a spoon, he ate his Ben & Jerry's with a pair of take-out chopsticks. That's exactly the kind of observational humor that's perfect for filling 22 minutes."
"We're always on the lookout for fresh new talent, but a lot of the acts we saw in Montreal were a little too weird," Felbet continued. "And, unlike a lot of the comics there, Warren seemed like a really nice guy. He sorta reminded me of my brother."
Within a week of his Montreal appearance, Morris signed a talent deal with the network. After passing on a pitch for a half-hour series that would have starred Morris as a parking-enforcement officer raising a tart-tongued 8-year-old daughter, ABC executives greenlighted the Now What? pilot in December 2003.
Morris has spent this year writing and acting in the show's first 13 episodes.
"I don't think folks realize what goes into producing a sitcom," Morris said. "I'm used to spending long, hard hours on the road, honing my material. But I really poured my heart and soul into this show. I feel like I've been given this incredible chance to grow artistically and comedically. Things are finally turning around for me."
ABC primetime entertainment president Stephen McPherson said he's "glad the network helped [Warren] out."
"[Warren] seems really great," McPherson said. "Now, the show is a different matter. There's no way it'll make it to November sweeps, much less February. I figure we'll run the first episode and get marginal numbers in the overnights. Then, after the figures drop in the second and third weeks, we'll put it on indefinite hiatus and burn off the leftover episodes during summer. It may seem odd to order 13 episodes when we'll probably air fewer than six, but [Warren]'s a decent guy. He deserves a break."
Scudder said that, even though its run will be brief, the sitcom will help Morris' career.
"Warren will have to go back to stand-up, but he'll get to play slightly better venues," Scudder said. "Maybe he'll even go on Best Week Ever a few times, or get one-time appearances on other sitcoms. At least he'll be known as 'that comedian who used to have his own show.' That's a lot better than not being known at all."
Added Scudder: "If nothing else, the show put some rent money in Warren's pocket and secured him an entry on the Internet Movie Database."
Now What? will make its debut on ABC on Sept. 15 at 8:30 p.m. EST. Two weeks later, it will move to Tuesdays at 9, before moving to Saturdays at 9:30. For information on additional moves Now What? will make before its inevitable cancellation, visit ABC.com.