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NYTVF: Screenings and a trio of sitcom bigwigs

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 14th 2006 11:09AM
Robert Thompson, Mike Scully, Phil Rosenthal, and Mitch Hurwitz
Because of Tuesday night's festival kickoff party, I decided to sleep in a little yesterday. Because of that, I missed both a morning panel on the value of independent TV production, which included Doug Herzog, the president of Comedy Central. I also missed the screening for the first set of Drama pilots. But I did manage to catch the first batch of Reality pilots, the first batch of Comedy pilots, and a really funny panel discussion about the American family on TV.

Why was the panel hilarious? Because the three people on the panel were executive producers Mitchell Hurwitz of Arrested Development, Phil Rosenthal of Everybody Loves Raymond, and Mike Scully of The Simpsons. So no one was left unscathed joke-wise; even the creator of 7th Heaven was lovingly labeled a "whore."

First, the pilots. I won't review them in-depth here, since we will be doing separate review posts for every category. But, since most of the pilots' creators were there, I managed to ask them a few questions.

In the Reality 1 screening were two shows: On the Block, that follows the action as a house is auctioned off, and On the Set, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at soaps like Guding Light. I'm not sure how the second show is going to proceed, since you can only talk to so many makeup and costuming people. But the first show was interesting, especially, its "star", Providence-area auctioneer George Collias. During the Q&A, producer Matthew Haddad said that George was a friend of his, and kismet was produced when two other producers, Jonathan Wareham, Gwen O'Donnell, said they were looking for an auctioneer for a pilot. Oh, and how did they get the house bidders to feel comfortable on camera? Let's just say the wine you see them drinking wasn't something that's usually served at house auctions.

The Comedy 1 set had three shows: Split The Difference, a hilarious take on the characters, rivalries, and pressures seen at a typical New York ad agency; The Calderons, about a Long Island couple who make ends meet by taking care of special-needs robots; and Temps about two friends who try to disappear into the world of office temp-dom while they pursue their own dreams.

All three used a similar shaky-camera mockumentary format; when asked about why they all used it, each producer said that the format fit their budgets and style. The implication is, of course, that they've all seen The Office and have decided to copy that style. Not so, according to Split producers Joe Narciso and Bruce Hurwit. After the screening they both told me that their intention was to show how a commercial gets made, and they just settled on the ad agency because that's where most of the action was. In fact, Narciso had never even seen The Office and had didn't realize his show's format, complete with "side interviews," was similar to the UK and US hits until he actually saw the show. Needless to say, the format may change if the show gets picked up (and as funny as it was, that's likely).

Outside the screening
See this tiny girl? That's Devin Sanchez, who stars with the man to her left, producer Aaron Neptune, in Temps. It sets up a funny Mutt-and-Jeff situation on the show. They're talking to Dan McNamara (producer/writer) and Nadia Abdelhrman (writer) of The Calderons, which was produced in association with the People's Improv Theater. It was the roughest of the three pilots, but it's "special needs robots" idea had potential. When I asked McNamara in the Q&A where he got the idea for the robots, he tap danced around the answer. But when I followed up with him outside the theater he confirmed that, yes, the robots are substitutes for people with special needs. But they also confirmed that movies like Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included were big influences on them, so they might be laughing at cheesy robots as much as anything else.

Now, on to the panel. From left to right: Mike Scully, Robert Thompson (moderator and the founder of the Center for Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University) Phil Rosenthal, and Mitch Hurwitz. Of course, there was some seriousness in the discussion. Rosenthal, for instance, insisted that American Idol, no matter how FOX promotes it, is the only show on TV that people can watch with the entire family, and that it's no differerent than the old Ted Mack talent show of days gone by (Rosenthal's only 46, but his voice inflection and cultrual references suggest more Jackie Mason than his creative partner, Ray Romano). Scully said that there should be programming that appeals to everyone. And all of them gave good information to the audience on getting into the business. Their view? Get your foot in the door as a low-level employee, like a runner. Write spec scripts, but send a show a spec script from another show. The Internet is big -- Hurwitz said Arrested was the first show where he checked message boards after each epiosode aired -- and it's already getting flooded by potential sitcom creators.

But most of the hour was spent goofing on each other and Professor Thompson. "You're a professor of TV," said Rosenthal. "What do you do, just walk in the classroom and turn the TV on?" When Thompson asked the panel a question about whether today's more complicated shows represent more of a relationship than the one-night stand of traditional sitcoms, Hurwitz responded, "Yeah. We're not your bitch." Scully joked that the Simpsons movie they're producing is just a bunch of old episodes strung together. "You see the credits four times, which is kind of unusual." One of the biggest laughs came when Thompson suggessted to Rosenthal that there were a lot of erection jokes on Raymond, Phil a) asked him for an per-episode recount of those jokes, then b) said that they use terms that the parents understood, but not the kids, "So the erection would go right over their heads."

Good stuff. And I was able to talk to Hurwitz for a couple of minutes, which you will see in a separate post later today.

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Joel, do you have any idea if this was recorded? I would love to hear a podcast of this session. Thanks for the report!

September 14 2006 at 1:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jonathan Toomey

I took classes with Thompson when I was at SU. Reading this sort of freaks me out... he was a great professor though. And yes, in one of the lectures I took, we simply watched TV and talked about it.

September 14 2006 at 1:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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