Why DIY comedy is no joke to TV network scouts. The people have spoken — they want better TV, and they're making it themselves at festivals, on the Internet, and even with the help of a reality show

By Scott Brown
Updated July 27, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
Television Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Situation: Comedy

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Everyone knows the story of the plucky independent filmmaker, the Average Joe Auteur lifted from obscurity by a maxed-out credit card and a dream. Emerging from Nowheresville, USA, he shot his film guerrilla-style, brought it to market via independent film festivals (most notably Sundance, which EW cosponsors), and transformed the walled city of Hollywood into a great American meritocracy.

That was the romance (though not always the reality) of indie film — but it stopped at the big screen. Outside of local cable access, the idea of an independent TV producer simply hasn’t materialized.

Until now.

In the past two years, several of TV’s comedy giants (Friends, Frasier, Sex and the City, Everybody Loves Raymond) have left the schedule — and so far, most of the replacements have been lackluster. Viewership continues to fracture across the countless fault lines of a thousand-channel universe. But amid all this turmoil and the much-heralded ”comedy crisis,” there are signs that people are thinking outside the idiot box: NBC and Bravo have created a televised talent search for comedy writers; uncensored webcast sitcoms, untouched by the dreaded development process, are becoming the popular new outlet for would-be TV creators; and the first independent TV festival will open in New York this fall. Coincidence — or a sign of nascent change in the TV industry?

No coincidence at all, says Jane Francis, senior VP of fox21, a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox Television created last year to farm the untapped visions of off-kilter and agentless writers. ”There’s a lot more room on TV for creators, and there’s a lot of space to fill,” she says, noting that new digital video technology allows people to shoot pilots in their backyards without ever stepping into a studio. ”A lot of people are relying on what they can do [themselves], instead of relying on the pitch process. The pitch process is being shaken.”

And when a Will & Grace star feels those tremors, you know that there must be a seismic shift occurring. Sean Hayes and producing partner Todd Milliner’s brainstorming led to Bravo’s Situation: Comedy (premiering July 26 at 8 p.m.), a small-screen version of the screenwriting and directing contest Project Greenlight. The show — in which contestants vie for a chance to get their sitcom pilots produced — is the first real attempt to solicit TV ideas from the average citizen.

”It certainly came at a time when the networks are having trouble with comedy,” says NBC Universal Cable chief Jeff Gaspin. ”So I thought exploring the process of how it’s made could be interesting to the audience and to studio executives.”

It turned out to be a hotter concept than even its creators expected. ”We thought we’d get about 2,500 [submissions],” recalls Milliner. ”We ended up getting 10,000.” The pair say they were surprised by the quality of the scripts — at both ends of the spectrum. Says Hayes, ”Todd read one about talking lasagna.”

”Living, breathing lasagna,” confirms Milliner. ”The best one that we couldn’t use was called The Lamp Butler. It was about a banker’s lamp that was also a butler. It was written so well that I think someone was just f —ing with us. This butler had so many levels. And it was a lamp!”

Over the course of Situation‘s eight episodes, five teams pitch their ideas to NBC suits; the execs select two, which are shot and aired on Bravo. Viewers decide (via Internet voting) which writing team will get $25,000, an agent, and possibly a slot on NBC’s schedule. But ”grassroots” doesn’t always mean edgy: Without giving anything away, we can tell you that Situation‘s two final scripts don’t exactly rock the sitcom universe — which is fine with Hayes and Milliner.

”We don’t think the traditional sitcom is broken. We just thought there were no good ones,” says Milliner. ”We wanted to change the way we find new sitcoms. Now it’s up to America to tell NBC which one they should pick up.”

Episode Recaps

Of course, scary things can happen when you leave things up to America. (Consider: Still Standing averages 10 million viewers. Arrested Development — 5.9 million.) ”Yeah,” says Hayes, ”but you know what’s even scarier? Leaving things up to a network.”

Situation: Comedy

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