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Were he alive today, it’s not farfetched to imagine Dante reserving a circle in his inferno for television executives. Reliably insipid and remorselessly cynical, our august cultural arbiters are guilty of several lifetimes’ worth of air pollution. Perhaps the sins of omission are worse than those of commission. As if foisting such ignominies as the reality TV boom and the Olsen twins on the public were not enough, the suits are guilty of repeatedly cutting down brilliant comic talent that deserves an audience — and whose audience deserves them.
Where, as they say, is the outrage? Something is seriously wrong when bright comedic minds like Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow, and Robert Smigel are routinely passed over for the likes of Jim Belushi and Evan Marriott. And this during what CBS head honcho Leslie Moonves calls “a rather fallow period” for television comedies. More than 100 pilots for new shows are made every year; only a fraction get picked up by the networks. The ones that make it are generally tired, witless retreads fashioned to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Among those consigned to undeserved oblivion are, unsurprisingly, the funniest, most original shows that could’ve been.
Don’t take my word for it. Like some avenging angel, Un-Cabaret, an L.A.-based underground comedy group, has swooped in and rescued some of these forgotten shows from the purgatory of focus-group ignorance. Packaging the pilots together, Un-Cabaret, along with humor site Modern Humorist, is now taking this unruly exhibition to theaters across the country to alert us to what we’ve been missing, and perhaps rouse a narcotized public to revolt. That you have to go to the theater to catch some of the year’s best TV is the only indictment you need against the clueless networks.
The Other Network, as the traveling series is called, is basically a rotating collection of pilots configured differently at each stop. In D.C., where the series begins its tour at Visions Cinema on 14 February, eight pilots split into two anthologies are featured. Each pilot is set up by a crudely videotaped introductory spiel by its creator, a good idea, since watching stand-alone shows strung together without context might be disorienting.
Not that there are jarring shifts in sensibility between the pilots. The shows on display seem to have sprung from a single consciousness. Celebrity kitsch, pomo hipness, transgressive glee, and a gift for the absurd bind them together. It’s a brand of humor that has certainly been around for a long time — these are the offspring of Monty Python and David Letterman and the Lorne Michaels comedy machine. That these pilots are still considered not ready for primetime says a lot about the culture and its gatekeepers.
Of the eight pilots I saw, the most surprising reject was Ben Stiller’s Heat Vision & Jack. The show stars Jack Black as Jack Austin, a former NASA astronaut who develops super intelligence during a freak space mishap. Accompanied by Heat Vision, his talking motorcycle (voiced by the inimitable Owen Wilson), Jack is on the run from NASA operative/Hollywood villain Ron Silver (played by Silver, of course). For all its oddness, Heat Vision is a polished, accessible lark, which makes its scotching a puzzler. Typically, Fox waits for a 13-episode run before axing something this good.
Such was the fate of Stiller’s own eponymous sketch show for Fox from the early 1990s, which naturally won an Emmy after cancellation. The Ben Stiller Show may have been smothered in the crib, but its alumni have moved on to tilt at new windmills. A veteran of the networks’ war on creativity, Stiller mastermind (and Larry Sanders Show writer) Judd Apatow is represented in The Other Network by two sitcoms, at once a badge of honor and a mark of defeat.
The third of what he dubs his “trilogy of failure” (after the short-lived Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), North Hollywood is a nimble slacker sitcom about struggling actors in L.A. Less conceptually bold than the other shows in the series, the pilot does serve as a showcase for the brilliant Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live), and offers us a glimpse of what could’ve been a Judge Reinhold comeback. (He plays himself, with aplomb.) Poehler also lights up Apatow’s second, less successful entry, Sick in the Head. Thoroughly conventional, this comedy about a young psychiatrist (David Krumholtz) is burdened with a stillborn premise and an overactive laugh track.
Another Ben Stiller Show alumnus, Bob Odenkirk looks understandably glum in the intro for his rejected pilot, Next!. As unflaggingly inventive as anything on primetime, Next! seems offbeat enough to attract a devoted following and mainstream enough to stick at Fox. The fact that it’s a notch below Mr. Show, Odenkirk’s cult series on HBO, says less about him than the narrower parameters of network TV. Next! makes the unfortunate decision of cutting back and forth between sketches, rather than letting them run from start to finish. Regardless, what’s here is choice. Highlights include a parody of Inside the Actor’s Studio with a Teutonic twist, a hiphop music video in honor of 9/11, and a recurring bit with Zach Galifianakis as an inept lounge piano player.
The prize for the best pitch goes to Ricky Blitt’s Becoming Glen. A clever send-up of The Wonder Years, the show is about a successful middle-aged man recounting that magical year when his life changed forever: 1994. Then a raw 32-year-old, Glen (played by Roseanne‘s Johnny Galecki) lives at home with his parents, crippled by anxiety and an uncooperative colon. Delightfully twisted if a bit uneven, Becoming Glen‘s idea of emotional growth is its hero’s landmark decision to use the neighbor’s bathroom when his stomach begins to churn. (Throwaway gags like Galecki picking up a magazine from the coffee table on the way to the can are the stuff that make a cult hit.)
More wholesome and less inspired is Merrill Markoe’s animated The Lewis Lectures. Markoe, one of the geniuses behind Letterman’s show, has kept a low profile in recent years, at least in television. The Lewis of the title is a behemoth of a dog, voiced by Jack Black, who gives Tony Robbins-type seminars to the neighborhood canines. Markoe plays Lewis’s frazzled owner, while Laura Kightlinger (SNL, The Daily Show) is the voice of Lewis’s aloof co-pet. Running a breezy seven minutes, Lewis is a cute trifle — and, considering it was made for the Cartoon Network, a curious reject.
By contrast, you can see why Robert (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) Smigel’s two Other Network entries were swiftly dispatched. The first of the two is the strange Lookwell, an amusing foray into pop culture solipsism that he co-wrote with Conan O’Brien. The show stars Adam West (that’s Batman to the uninitiated) as the star of a 1970s detective show who lives in his little dream world in the 1990s. Essentially a one-joke premise, Lookwell gets a lot of mileage out of West’s uncanny (and borderline unwitting) deadpan. It’s a funny shtick, but you wonder how long they could’ve run with it. The pilot actually aired once on NBC in 1991, but, as Conan once quipped, the ratings “tied with a test pattern they show in Nova Scotia.” (Of interest to indie film buffs: Lookwell features a supporting turn by a young Todd Field.)
If Lookwell is much too slight to last as a show, Saturday TV Funhouse is much too much. The pilot that eventually became the much different TV Funhouse that ran on Comedy Central in 2001, Saturday can best be described as a snuff comedy revue. Masquerading as a Bozo-esque clown program, Smigel and gang invited oblivious families to attend a live taping of their show. Throughout the array of surreal cartoons and lowbrow gags, the audience laughs and claps along uncertainly The pilot keeps you on edge — you keep wondering whether it can sustain such a high-wire act. Jaw-dropping in its audacity, Saturday is by far the most twisted and perverse entry in the lineup. Like much of Smigel’s humor, this is mean, vulgar, and unhinged — not to mention absolutely brilliant.
Trapped in its own head, Saturday TV Funhouse evinces a crackling disdain for mainstream sensibilities, just one of many affinities between the pilots. If The Other Network has a downside, it’s that the brilliance on display is of the same stripe. All achingly hip, the salvaged pilots can be exhausting in their winking superiority. (The never-ending flattery of the audience’s sophistication is almost wearying — almost.) Having seen all eight shows consecutively in a four-hour stretch, I strongly advise seeing the two different programs on separate nights.
Exhibited in this format, the shows can distort one’s standards. The more conventional entries in the program suffer unfairly; stick them in any network’s lineup and they’d be the highlight of the night. All the pilots, to varying degrees, succumb to unevenness, which is not surprising: smoothing out the rough patches and finding a groove is what a limited run is for. Potential rather than polish is what one seeks in these shows.
Alas, the suits have spoken, and they either don’t see it or don’t want it. The artists and the audience suffer for their sins. In a roundtable discussion with other TV executives for the New York Times Magazine, Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, said, “I don’t believe that it’s possible for a Cheers or a Seinfeld, both of which languished in their youth, to happen today…. Comedies take time, and they have to find their voices and get their legs” (3 November 2002). Apparently forgetting that he decides which shows win more time to “find their voices,” Zucker gets at the heart of the problem. Driven by instant gratification and a bottom line ethos, the networks have all but abandoned the cause of great TV comedy.
In such an environment, a network doesn’t develop idiosyncratic, enduring, and intelligent shows — it lucks into one. By consistently ignoring some of the funniest people working today, the networks fail to realize that they can make their own luck. Dreck, unfortunately, is a lot easier: easier to make, easier to pitch, easier to replace. Complicit in all this is the audience, who mindlessly take in what the networks see fit to shovel into our living rooms. Until we become a lot more discerning, things aren’t likely to change. The revolution will not be televised, much less be picked up for a 13-episode deal.