I believe in free beer. I believe this very, very deeply. I believe this as deeply as some people believe in Jesus or Xenu. It is my right, nay, my duty as a citizen of Los Angeles to consume as much free beer as humanly possible, so as a general rule, I will attend any event sponsored by a beer company with zeal and diligence.
With this in mind, I attended the Budweiser-sponsored inaugural Independent Television Festival at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood and caught a smattering of independently produced pilots over the course of three days. While not exactly a star-studded event, it did provide me with countless bottles of beer, a few meals, and a newfound appreciation of the network system.
A proper Red Carpet Gala kicked off the festival, complete with the ass-sniffing that makes Los Angeles turn. The un-famous had a designated swath of carpet about the size of an ice cream truck on which to display the poses that they had been practicing in the mirror since childhood. A Z-list actress barked into her phone, “Babe! Can it wait? I’m on the carpet!” Another, vaguely familiar actor, swirled his baby in the air while scanning for a photographer to capture this display of ardent parental love.
The ITV Fest was birthed by A.J. Tesler, a 25-year-old actor best known for a couple of episodes of Gilmore Girls in order to provide an a showcase for pilots produced out of the studio system. He was inspired in part by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a show created and written by its actors that got its home on FX with a pilot shot on a camcorder.
Tesler, apparently the owner of a huge pair of brass balls, first shot two different pilots on his own dime and then created a festival to showcase them, pitching in his own money to make it happen. He’s on to something with the festival idea; and the timing is perfect. With high-quality camcorders and professional editing software now available to any wannabe with an itch to create a TV show, frustrated unemployed actors can create their own vehicles.
Recent events have primed network executives for accepting a more democratic model of television creation. Public displays of network idiocy, like the cancellation of Family Guy which had the potential to be a big hit when not inhibited by the marketing doofs at Fox, have created opportunities for non-traditional avenues onto television. The WB passed on Nobody’s Watching, which has since gone on to be watched nearly half a million times on YouTube. Recently NBC, eager to get somebody, anybody, to watch their network, decided to order a few scripts of Nobody’s Watching. It will likely be a mid-season replacement for whatever mediocre three-camera sitcom tanks first.
The internet now serves to call out television on every one of its teeny tiny mistakes such as the suspiciously modern washer and dryer in Lost’s hatch or inconsistencies in Buffy’s stunt double’s breast size. It’s catching the big mistakes too, like passing on Heat Vision and Jack,, a 1999 pilot starring then semi-unknowns Jack Black and Owen Wilson that has now been viewed on YouTube over 340,000 times. Networks do a great job of selecting programming, except when it comes to the coveted 18-25 demographic, particularly the fellas. The Internet, however, is excellent at providing entertainment for this abstruse swath of the population. Ergo, the networks are finding sites like YouTube and MySpace indispensable for figuring out how to tap the ass of the most desirable demographic in America.
I know that Los Angeles is full of untapped talent that, if used properly, can prevent anything like Joey from ever happening again. However, I was disappointed with most of the shows screened at ITV Fest. I don’t think being derivative is death to a TV show, but I expected outsiders to bring something new to the table. Most of the shows I saw were either shitty versions of existing TV shows or well-done shows that are exactly like what would be produced in the studio system.
Tesler created, wrote, and directed Saves the Day, a sitcom pilot about a smart-ass high school kid who “saves the day” every week with the help of a motley gang of friends. I too once enjoyed Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, (synchronize watches!) but I can’t see any reason why we need a new, unfunny version. And no, making Parker black is not a big enough change to necessitate a new show. Just no. Please don’t tarnish my good memories of those terrible shirts.
His second pilot, co-created with Tesler’s fiancé, actress Jenny Starnes, and is almost as terrible. Reno 911 is funny because the people who make it are really, really hilarious; best of the best; champions of comedy. Not just anyone can do an improvised comedy well. There’s nothing wrong with the scenario of a clueless mayoral candidate and his crackpot team fumbling a campaign, but there’s also nothing wrong with writing some jokes in when they don’t occur under improvisational terms. Then there’s just being funny in the first place.
However, Tesler is involved in a third pilot that is actually pretty good. Almost Funny, written by comedian Dan Levy and festival co-organizer Steve Basilone, follows Levy as he does stand-up comedy in crappy locales. The premise seems flat, but it was well written and funny. A.J. Tesler stars as R.J. Tesler, a shitty comedian. He, um, plays the part well, showing that the ability to provide me with ample free beer and bottles of Costco-brand waters does not necessarily coincide with the ability to create great TV.
After enjoying the beer soaked company of Charlie Getter and Chad Xavier at the opening Gala, I was excited to see their pilot, Promosexual. It’s home improvement “reality” show starring sculptor slash fame-whore, Marque Cornblatt, that follows the basic format of any home improvement show, but adds and unneeded false reality show motif. The first problem is that Cornblatt’s renovations involve dumpster-diving and as little actual purchasing as possible. I love this, but advertisers will hate it.
The second problem is that it is a scripted show performed by non-actors that is meant to appear as reality. They pretend that the recipient of their renovations is unwilling, and that they must break into his apartment and then they pretend that they found a huge sex toy in his home. This is all overlaying a fake conflict with the show’s producer and Cornblatt’s struggles while creating and promoting the show. Deconstructionism is awesome, but not when it gets in the way of me learning how to make a rad fish tank mirror.
It was purely by accident that I caught the screening of Meet Tom Kramer, a reality show that follows a formerly-successful rehab patient as he tries to seeks out other men with his name to find out who is by meeting who he is not. It’s similar to Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days, but hysterically funny. Tom Kramer, once the youngest member of the Directors Guild and now a gentile residing in a Hassidic sober living facility in Los Angeles, manages to pull off self-deprecating and misanthropic humor while being downright cuddly.
Once I was several beers down drunk-bitch creek, I happened to meet the director of Meet Tom Kramer, Rachael Pihlaja, “Seriously. No, no, no seriously,” I slurred on her, “Can you, like, sell the show to some network? I like, really think Tom Kramer is awesome.” Clearly impressed with my eloquence and the brilliance of my scheme to sell the show that she had come to the festival to sell, she offered to do her best. However, neither she nor I had seen any of the much mythologized programming executives at the festival. Rumor has it that folks from NBC, CBS, MTV and Comedy Central were present, but I was never able to visually confirm this.
I wanted the point of ITV Fest to be the unveiling of creativity that had been previously smothered by humorless network execs, but the real point was young, un-employed actors making lousy showcases for their undeveloped, but not non-existent, talents. I’m not certain that Tesler achieved much more than getting me drunk in exchange for seeing his name in pixels, as print media wouldn’t touch this Z-list affair with a pole. While watching the shows I lamented the lack of professional editing that resulted in miserably slow-paced comedy, directing that could get me involved in character-motivated dramas, and ideas that will be sustainable over many seasons. As much as I love the idea of indie, these are things that are purchased with money or earned with experience.
If the Emmys are the red haired stepchild of the Oscars, then the ITV Fest is the retarded second-cousin of Sundance. I love what Tesler and company are trying to do and I think that the shoddiness of most of the shows at the first ITV Fest merely provide a lot of room for improvement for future festivals. Next year I would like to see more innovative shows, decent editing, and a better beer sponsor. And if the festival wants to get into the big leagues, I would like to suggest they recruit either a heartier domestic like Fat Tire or a solid foreign lager like Spaten. Budweiser is for amateurs.