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'SNL' adds LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones to writing staff

More signs of progress at Saturday Night Live: EW has confirmed that the sketch show has added comedians LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones to its writing staff. Their hiring comes two days after SNL announced that New York-based comedian Sasheer Zamata will be the show’s newest featured player. All three women are black — a rarity for SNL, which has featured just four black female cast members in its 39-year history. The Hollywood Reporter first reported the news.

Tookes (pictured at right), a former news reporter, was one of the 11 black women who auditioned for SNL during a secret showcase held in Los Angeles last December. She’s trained at Improv Olympic’s iO West theater. A character reel posted on YouTube shows her performing impressions of celebrities like Oprah, Paula Deen, and Nicki Minaj.

Jones is a veteran comedian and actress who has opened for Jamie Foxx and appeared on programs including Showtime at the Apollo, Chelsea Lately, Mind of MenciaGirlfriends, and Problem Child, an hour-long Showtime special. She auditioned at SNL‘s secret New York showcase in December.

Though the show currently has no plans to feature Tookes or Jones onscreen, that could easily change: Several past cast members, including Jason Sudeikis and Tina Fey, started out as writers before transitioning to on-camera work. And just this year, longtime writer Mike O’Brien was brought into the show’s cast as a featured player.

Hulu's original programming slate includes Casey Wilson comedy, new season of 'The Awesomes'

Hulu’s originals lineup for the new year, announced this morning, is an amalgam both old favorites and a few new shows, with offerings like a Real Housewives parody starring Casey Wilson (watch EW’s exclusive debut of Hulu’s Hotwives of Orlando trailer), the second season of Seth Meyers’ The Awesomes, and the second season of Chris O’Dowd’s semi-autobiographical comedy Moone Boy.

“What I love about [our slate] is the diversity of the high-quality content that is there,” Charlotte Koh, head of development, tells EW. “I think that we’re doing the continued mission of bringing a great variety of carefully selected, hand-picked shows from all over the world in lots of different genres and I think that represents the fact that we have a sophisticated, curious audience that wants to try out television that feels distinctive.”

The launch of a supernatural comedy called Deadbeat, starring Tyler Labine (Reaper) and So You Think You Can Dance host Cat Deeley — Hulu’s first co-production with Lionsgate — and a second season of Hulu’s East Los High were also among the projects announced. Their full slate is detailed below. READ FULL STORY

Fox orders Rainn Wilson drama 'Backstrom'

Fox has ordered 13 episodes of Backstrom, a one-hour drama based on novelist Leif G.W. Persson’s hit series of books of the same name that will star Rainn Wilson. Created and executive-produced by Hart Hanson (Bones), the series centers on Det. Everett Backstrom, an offensive, irascible detective, as he tries, and fails, to change his self-destructive behavior.

The drama was originally developed at CBS but the network passed on it for fall.

“Hart Hanson and Rainn Wilson are the perfect combination of creative vision and on-screen talent to bring this one-of-a-kind character and story like Backstrom to Fox,” said Kevin Reilly, Fox Chairman of Entertainment, in a statement. “I’ve been in business with Hart for a long time, and not only does he have a rare gift for infusing darker themes with relatable humor, he’s one of the best showrunners out there today. Together with Rainn – who absolutely nails this role and makes it a classic FOX character – I think we’ve got something really special here.”

FX orders Denis Leary comedy pilot, 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll'

Denis Leary could be coming back to FX, this time in a half-hour comedy which he is writing and producing.

The network announced its reunion with the star today for a pilot titled Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, which was written by and stars the former Rescue Me star. READ FULL STORY

'Being Mary Jane': Gabrielle Union on her racy new BET series and auditioning for 'Scandal'

Four million viewers got a taste of BET’s first hour-long drama series Being Mary Jane, from Girlfriends creators Salim and Mara Brock Akil, last summer with a TV movie. Now Gabrielle Union returns on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. for Jane‘s first full season as the titular Atlanta news anchor who struggles with her loved ones (including a friend who tries to kill herself), romance (she’s torn between a married suitor and a playboy), and career (contending with journalistic ethics in the face of a Katrina-like disaster). Not exactly lightweight fare.

“I’ve shot a lot of stinkers, and you’re just like, ‘Eh,'” admits the star. “But this one, every day I was like, ‘This is so good.'” She adds, “It’s authentic and it’s brutally honest. You’ll see characters that within an episode you may love, you may hate, you may cry with.”

EW talked to Union, who just got engaged to NBA star Dwayne Wade, about playing such a complicated woman and Jane’s many sex scenes.
READ FULL STORY

The biggest TV stories of 2013

It was the mother of all years when it came to major TV stories, which made it difficult to whittle them down for a Top 10. So we went with 15, instead!

In no apparent order (though honestly, does any story top the Duck Dynasty one?) here are the year’s 15 biggest newsmakers.

Phil Robertson on Duck Dynasty. Journalists loved the scandal; it gave us something to write about during the dog days of winter. Conservatives (and A&E) hated it because of claims that Duck Dynasty’s home network was squashing Robertson’s right to speak his mind. Ultimately, the Bible-thumping patriarch prevailed, order was restored, and the DD news cycle became the gift that kept giving long after Christmas Day.

Time Warner Cable makes new deal with Viacom

Time Warner Cable and Viacom announced the multi-year renewal of their distribution agreement Tuesday afternoon in a deal that will for the first time make entertainment network EPIX available to subscribers.

Per the agreement, the addition of EPIX, a hybrid premium cable/satellite TV network and subscription video on demand service, will put over 3,000 titles — like The Hunger Games, Skyfall and World War Z – at the fingertips of TWC customers.

Moreover, the deal extension means Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will continue to offer Viacom staples — Nickelodeon, MTV, VH1, CMT and Comedy Central among them — across all platforms, including the TWC TV app.

“We’re pleased to have reached agreement in advance of our deadline,” TWC executive vice president Melinda Witmer said in a release. “We’re working hard to provide our customers with easier access to the content they love; this agreement will provide a more expansive offering to a wide array of our customers, from parents of young children to comedy and movie lovers and more.”

Additional terms of the agreement — such as the length of the renewal and dollar figures — were not disclosed.

Tina Fey comedy gets pilot order from Fox

Fox has given the official greenlight to a still untitled multi-camera comedy from Tina Fey and fellow 30 Rock alums Matt Hubbard and Robert Carlock, EW has confirmed.

With the official OK given, Fox also confirmed that longtime How I Met Your Mother director, Pam Fryman, is set to direct the pilot, which is about a women’s college that begins accepting men.

This is the same project that back in August received a series commitment from the network.

'Duck Dynasty': Crisis experts weigh in

Crisis experts say A&E should come forward and better address the future of Duck Dynasty, its multi-million franchise that has been in the crosshairs of advocacy groups over anti-gay and racist comments made by family patriarch Phil Robertson.

“A&E did react quickly with the suspension, but it leaves you hanging a bit with what’s next,” says James Bates of Sitrick and Co., a Los Angeles-based crisis firm. “Then the family stood its ground. It looks like they are at an impasse now.”

After Robertson’s quotes about gays and African-Americans went viral, A&E announced that the 67-year-old old star of the net’s most-watched reality show was placed on indefinite hiatus. The statement made no mention of how it will impact the show’s season four return on Jan. 15, though a spokesman has told reporters that Duck Dynasty will return — it just won’t shoot more episodes with Phil Robertson. Nine of the planned 10 episodes have already been filmed and will feature the patriarch.

READ FULL STORY

Katie Couric's talk show ends after two seasons

Katie Couric’s talk show won’t go beyond this season, Disney-ABC announced today.

“While production will continue on Katie through June 2014, we’ve mutually agreed that there will not be a third season of the show,” according to a joint statement. “We’re very proud of everyone’s contributions to making Katie the #1 new syndicated talk show of 2012-2013, and we look forward to the rest of the season.”

The show will end its second season in May.

In 2012, Katie took over the General Hospital time slot on the ABC stations. Though its household numbers are decent, the show has become cost-prohibitive. Deadline reports the budget exceeds $30 million a year. The show also suffered when it lost Executive Producer Jeff Zucker to CNN.

Last month, Yahoo announced that Couric will join Yahoo News as a Global Anchor beginning in 2014.

Why CNN is a good fit for Jay Leno

Not surprisingly, a flurry of reports have surfaced that Jay Leno, the reigning King of Late Night, is already fielding inquiries from other networks about doing a new show once Jimmy Fallon succeeds him on The Tonight Show in April. With NBC unlikely to find him another spot — we all remember how that Leno-in-primetime experiment turned out — moving to another network makes sense for the host, and one option in particular could make for an attractive third chapter in his career: CNN.

You haven’t heard? Despite denials from CNN reps, insiders insist that CNN President Jeff Zucker — Leno’s old boss at NBC — met with the 63-year-old comedian about hosting a late-night show for the cable news network. Apparently, this is something that Zucker’s wanted for some time: he’s reportedly been on the lookout for a Daily Show-like program to help shore up their late evening ratings. And the cable network could certainly use a positive headline or two; Zucker and the net have been dogged with poor ratings and lackluster reviews since he took over the news network last year.

Leno would make an ideal addition to CNN, if only because he offers what even Piers Morgan sometimes struggles to achieve: a good interview. Guests have long singled out Leno’s desk to tell all, primarily because the senior comedian queries them in a friendly, non-threatening manner. Who knows what newsmakers he could attract if he were to headline a show on CNN?

Even more important, Leno could come with a strong and dedicated fan base. Season to date, Tonight is off to its biggest start 12 weeks into a new TV season in three years and continues to beat Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman. He’s up 11 percent in 18-49 viewers (with 1.133 million vs. 1.025 million last season) and up 10 percent in total viewers (3.821 million vs. 3.465 million). Tonight has attracted bigger 18-49 audiences than Late Show for the last 56 weeks in a row and topped Kimmel for 45 of their 49 head-to-head weeks. In total viewers, Jay has out-delivered Late Show for 60 weeks in a row and Kimmel for 49 of 49 weeks.

Naturally, NBC has tried to head off any talk that Leno won’t have a home once Fallon succeeds him. “Nothing would make me happier than to find ways to keep him involved with this network. That’s really up to him,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt told The Hollywood Reporter.

This could get interesting again — or not. Thoughts?

'The Normal Heart': Inside Ryan Murphy's HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer's acclaimed play -- EXCLUSIVE

Larry Kramer’s Tony award-winning 1985 play The Normal Heart—which details the ominous spread of HIV/AIDS among a group of gay men in 1980s New York City—is finally getting a movie adaptation on the small screen. Directed by American Horror Story and Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy, Heart will premiere this spring on HBO and features a star-studded cast including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, and Taylor Kitsch (below, in a photo Ruffalo tweeted out this summer). “It’s a movie about AIDS, but it’s also really a civil rights movie,” says Murphy, who worked with Kramer on the script for three years. “I think it’s more timely than ever before. It’s really about the quest to be seen, not as a gay person or a straight person but just a person…. It’s an activist movie that also has a really great love story in it.” Adds the director, “Of everything I’ve done in my career, I think it is the biggest labor of love.” READ FULL STORY

'SNL' to add black female cast member in January

No more wigs and heels for Kenan Thompson!

Early next year, Saturday Night Live will add someone new to its ranks — specifically, its first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph vacated in 2007. (SNL has only featured four African-American women in its entire 39-year history: Yvonne Hudson (1980-81), Danitra Vance (1985-86), Ellen Cleghorne (1991-95) and Rudolph (2000-2007).)

The news comes from straight from executive producer/SNL Czar for Life Lorne Michaels, who told the New York Times that his team has been holding special casting sessions for weeks. The search culminated in an under-the-radar audition for black female comedians held at Los Angeles’s Groundlings Theater last week, at which about a dozen performers were present. READ FULL STORY

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