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NYTVF: Comedy pilots

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 15th 2006 7:39PM
Split the Difference titleWhat I found interesting about the comedy pilots from the New York Television Festival is how slickly-done most of them were. Of the six pilots in this category -- the largest number of pilots in any category -- four looked like they could air on a network right now. And at least three of them had actors that should be recognizable to regular TV watchers. Of course, high production value doesn't necessarily translate to good comedy. But there were really fun and creative aspects in all the pilots. My reviews are after the jump, and you can watch the pilots on MSN.

A/V ClubA/V Club

Premise of the pilot: Beth is new at Parker Prep Middle School, and in an effort to find people to talk to, she befriends a quirky girl who invites her into the "secret society" of the school's A/V club. Of course, the club is full of folks on the fringes of school's society... and the dean's son. Beth gets inducted on a probationary basis, but gets in hot water when she helps out on rival video projects just so she doesn't offend anyone.

My take: First of all, you have to accept the fact that people in their mid-20s are playing middle school students (one of the A/V Clubbers is played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson of The Class). But once you get past that, you are left with a sweetly funny, slightly exaggerated view of school nerdism. The message is: just because the kids are nerds doesn't mean they don't want friends. The scenes where a video team runs from a chicken patty factory are especially funny. I can definitely see this on either Comedy Central or Bravo.

Split the DifferenceSplit The Difference

Premise of the pilot: Commercials are like sausage; the product looks good, but you don't want to know how they're made. This pilot shows the gritty details; the rivalries, personalities, and pressure-filled fights at the ad agency, the client that doesn't know what he wants, the casting director that asks the guy from Blue's Clues what he's been doing lately right before he auditions to be a fish, etc. All of this is shot in mockumentary format with side interviews.

My take: This is one of three mockumentary-style comedy pilots. Its format, with the partially improvised, natural dialogue, side interviews, and uncomfortable tension, strongly evokes The Office, which is why I asked creators Joe Narciso and Bruce Hurwit about it the other day. But if you don't worry about the similarities, you'll find a lot of laughs. The characters are well thought-out (one of the art directors is obsessed with women named Mary, and another uses a Scottish accent to make him sound more intelligent), and the humor comes out of the characters and situations instead of just from lame one-liners. Again, you may recognize a face or two here, but everyone does a fantastic job. It was my favorite comedy pilot. If they clean up the profanity, it could go on a broadcast network. But as is, it would be perfect for FX.

The CalderonsThe Calderons

Premise of the pilot: Chuck and Patty Calderon live on Long Island, and they're unemployed. Both their jobs have been replaced by robots, and there's no prospect that they're going to get more work. So they accept money from the government in exchange for taking care of two "special needs" robots: a robot toaster that stutters and gives inaccurate weather forecats, and a helper robot who goes into emotional fits from time to time.

My take: Oh, this is a weird one. This is another pilot in mockumentary format, but the format works well here; I'd rather be a fly on the wall in this case, seeing how these people deal with, for instance, the robot being used as a model at an art school. But the focus veers too much from one world to another; the art school and its air-freshener-spraying teacher could be a sitcom by itself. And the feel of the show is a bit too bleak and creepy for most audiences. But it has its moments, and a little tightening and brightening could make this a quirky Comedy Central or IFC hit.

Free Love ForumFree Love Forum

Premise of the pilot: A very surreal sketch show that's built around a group therapy session called the Free Love Forum, led by a man who isn't qualified and doesn't have a clue how much he's hurting his patients.

My take: We've seen stuff like this before, from Stella to The State to the Upright Citizens Brigade. All of them are funny, and none of them last very long. Why? Because you wonder how the writers are going to keep up the pace; it takes a lot of effort to write a sketch where a father and son don't look at each other and speak to each other as if speaking into walkie talkies. Eventually what happens is that the head-scratching stuff overtakes the purely funny stuff and people get turned off. Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of funny material here. And its Kids In The Hall way of tying everything together is done artfully. But I don't see this doing more than the requisite 6-episode Comedy Central run (which is still a pretty good run).

Pizza TimePizza Time

Premise of the pilot: Think 24 with a dash of The Sopranos, but in the pizza business. We follow the delivery staff of Pizza Time, a small-time pizzeria, as they try to preserve its perfect 24-minute delivery record. But they have to deal with a lot of obstacles, including rival giant Pizza Castle, who's horning in on their turf.

My take: With split-screens, countdown clocks, and ominous music, the 24 parallels are not accidental. But that's what makes this my second-favorite pilot. Seeing the various delivery people traversing obstacles and other dangers to make the delivery with the seriousness of Jack Bauer is hilarious. And the scene at Pizza Time itself, whose owner is played by ER's Abraham Benrubi, is also very funny, as he has to deal with a kid's party and the "big sausage" character costume is missing. Very slick production, which makes me think this was a rejected pilot from another network. The only thing I wonder about is how they'd make an entire season (even a 10-episode season) out of this. Do they try to deliver in 24 minutes every week? Or is it more about the turf war? But I can definitely see this somewhere... not sure where right now.


Premise of the pilot: Two friends, one tall and rotund, the other little, work as anonymous New York office temps while trying to figure out what to do with their lives. But when Fran, the little one, gets hired permanently in a diversity move (they think she's a dwarf), she starts to question if her freind Matt shouldn't do the same. Matt, however, wants to keep the dream alive, and soon Fran learns why being permanent is a whole lot different than being a temp.

My take: This is sort of in mockumentary format, but doesn't need to be. The story of the two friends is enough to carry the show without gimmicks. The show kind of reminds me of MTV's old show Austin Stories, showing people who don't know what they want, but they don't want to be part of the machine. The portrait of the clueless and semi-lame office workers -- they like to say "Boo-Ya!" a lot -- is cartoonish but funny. The strength of the show is in the relationship between Fran and Matt, but at first you don't know what their relationship is: are they brother and sister (no, Matt's sister is his temp agency rep... how convenient)? Are they a former couple? How did this little girl and this big guy get to be such close friends? They don't have to give everything away, but the creators, Aaron Neptune (who plays Matt) and Matt Nowosielski, need to reveal a few more relationship details to make this a very strong IFC or Bravo-esque show. (By the way, Devin Sanchez, who plays Fran, is even cuter in person than she is in the show. And she's definitely tiny.)

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Sorry, I was trying to agree with you. It didn't come out quite the way I intended. To me, writing, acting, and directing are the holy trinity and today more than ever they are more important than looking slick and professional because equipment and the like is so cheap and readily available nowadays. Just trying to back you up.

September 16 2006 at 11:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Isn't that what I said, Gavin?

"Of course, high production value doesn't necessarily translate to good comedy."

September 15 2006 at 8:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Production values mean next to nothing these days. Digital media has finally reached the point where amatuer productions can pass for just about anything on TV. What matters more than ever is the writing, acting and directing.

September 15 2006 at 8:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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