A TV show's Net video resurrectionBy Bill Carter
Mon Jul 03 14:19:28 PDT 2006
For television writers and producers it has always been about getting your show on the air.
These days? Not so much.
At the moment the most talked-about situation comedy in the United States isn't on television at all. It's on your computer, though, and you can find it on www.youtube.com, where thousands of videos of all levels of quality are posted every day.
A comedy called--with intended irony, but not in the way that it has worked out--"Nobody's Watching" has been available on YouTube for about two weeks. As of Sunday it had been downloaded more than 300,000 times by a growing legion of fans.
Most remarkable of all, the talk that the show has generated has already caught the ears of executives at several networks, some of whom are wondering if maybe this is a virus they might enjoy getting infected with.
"Nobody's Watching" seems to be another example of a story that the Internet world loves: the power of the amateur over the professionals. It is also the story of "viral video," which is what YouTube is all about. People post a snippet of self-made video, and word spreads about how funny, shocking, stupid or embarrassing it is.
The real market for "funny"
But the big story behind "Nobody's Watching" is that a sitcom left for dead 18 months ago may actually spring back to life--on actual television--because its creators were too passionate about it to let it die, and because it really might be funnier than most everything else that is passing for comedy on television these days.
The man at the center of the story is Bill Lawrence, creator of "Spin City" and "Scrubs." Lawrence knows how insane the television business can be. For example, for a few years after "Scrubs" made its debut on NBC in 2001, all Lawrence heard from network executives was that the show would never be a hit because it was a single-camera filmed comedy. Only multi-camera taped comedies worked, he was told.
In the last two years Lawrence said, he has gotten into arguments with network program chiefs who have told him, "The multi-camera comedy genre is dead."
Both stances struck Lawrence as ridiculous. "The challenge," he said in a telephone interview, "was to reinvent the genre."
That was the goal of "Nobody's Watching," which Lawrence conceived with two writing partners, Garrett Donovan and Neil Goldman, who had both worked on the Fox animated comedy "Family Guy."
Their thought was that most traditional sitcoms had begun failing not because of form but because of quality: they were all bad. And so they created a couple of characters, Derek and Will, from Ohio, who believed the same thing, and they decided to let them try to make a show of their own.
Fake reality premise
The gimmick is that the two characters come to California to make their own sitcom, but at the same time they are doing it in the form of a fake reality show conceived by some fictional network executives. The studio behind the (real) project was NBC Universal Television, so NBC had first crack at the show. But Lawrence said that it was clear from the start that NBC's programming boss, Kevin Reilly, though he liked the freshness of the idea, did not think it was appropriate for NBC.
So it wound up on the development slate of the WB network. That seemed a hospitable place because WB was youth oriented, and "Nobody's Watching" was a show definitely aimed at young viewers. Lawrence said all the younger executives at that network loved the show.
The show was cast with an eye toward keeping it fresh and innovative. The two leads, Taran Killam and Paul Campbell, had extensive improvisational backgrounds. Lawrence said he insisted they become inseparable for weeks leading up to shooting the pilot, and the actors indeed became fast friends.
The other important characters included a network boss named Jeff Tucker. (Lawrence credited Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of the NBC Universal Television Group, with being such a sport that he told them he didn't mind if they used his actual name.)
The pilot, which appears intact on YouTube, pulls no punches in disparaging sitcoms the creators clearly believe have damaged the genre. By name, "According to Jim," "Coach" and "Yes, Dear," among others, are mocked by the characters.
Lawrence acknowledged that that had caused a bit of a rift between him and Greg Garcia, creator of "Yes, Dear," though he said he loved and respected Garcia's newer comedy, "My Name Is Earl," which is shown on NBC.
All went well with "Nobody's Watching" until the testing phase. Then, Lawrence said, he and his partners journeyed to a "sweaty test-screening room" in the San Fernando Valley where issues were raised by the screeners about whether the premise was confusing. That seemed to Lawrence to be the unspoken concern of WB executives, although once it was spoken, the test audiences seemed to glom onto it.
Still, those young executives at WB encouraged him the show was a sure thing. Lawrence left for New York in May 2005, ready to hear "Nobody's Watching" announced on the WB schedule. "I was not in the business to fly to New York to feel like an idiot," he said. But that's what happened. WB passed on the show.
Now his precious baby was labeled a loser. "Who was going to pick up a show that the lowly WB had rejected?" Lawrence said. He and his partners pestered their agents to try to find it a home, only to have the agents begin to beg them not to make them mortify themselves that way.
In the eyes of everyone who counted, as Angela Bromstad, the head of the NBC Universal studio, put it, "It was essentially a dead project."
Lawrence resisted that fate, but he knew he could not hold onto his cast members very long. If they got other offers, they would be gone. Paul Adelstein, who played Jeff Tucker, was hired as a semi-regular on the Fox series "Prison Break."
Dead no longer means dead?
The earth began to move just a few weeks ago. That's when Lawrence heard that the pilot had somehow made its way onto YouTube. He said he knows who posted the video but will not reveal the name because it looks as if it turned out to be a major favor.
In the first week that "Nobody's Watching" appeared on YouTube, it was not a featured video and attracted only about 4,000 viewings. But the reaction was powerfully positive from those who saw it, prompting the site to begin featuring it. Then the viewings exploded.
Even television executives have been downloading it. Bromstad said that the Comedy Central channel called last week and asked for a DVD of the pilot, and that ABC had also expressed interest.
But NBC retains a first shot at the show. Lawrence said that Reilly had called from his vacation in Mexico last week and said he wanted to take another look. The show's offbeat characters and rapid-fire dialogue might make it an ideal partner for another comedy on NBC, Bromstad said, a show the network has struggled to find a match for: Lawrence's "Scrubs."
Could it happen? Could a dead network show be revived because of the power of individuals supporting it on the Internet?
Bromstad was cautious in her prediction. "I think it will be interesting to find out," she said.
Lawrence said he believed this was exactly the kind of development that television needed to break all kinds of hidebound traditions, including presumptions about what people will and won't watch as comedy, and decisions that are made based on small organized focus groups.
"This is so much a better way to see if people are going to respond to a show," he said.
Of course even if a network does want to take a chance on "Nobody's Watching," there is still that issue of keeping the cast together. And Adelstein is already gone, right?
"We're hoping he gets killed off this season on 'Prison Break,'" Lawrence said. Adelstein plays a special agent on that series.
What Lawrence really wants right now is for so many people to start talking about his comedy pilot now featured on YouTube that some network executive will decide, "Now I can pick this up and I won't look dumb."