My friends and I recently shot our own 30-minute TV pilot. For those not well-versed in Hollywood lingo, a “pilot” is a trial episode of a new show. Each year, networks like Fox, NBC and CBS meet with well-known writers who pitch them show ideas. A handful of pilots for new shows are approved, and if any of the finished pilots seem like moneymakers, the network signs them on for a full or partial season of episodes.
I can’t get meetings with TV networks. I’m not a well-known writer. My friends and I don’t even have agents or managers. We have the same amount of clout in show business as old men who mail angry letters to studios over reruns of “NYPD Blue” that they find offensive. In fact, we have less clout than those old men, because elderly people are a huge source of revenue for networks. They’re the only people left on Earth who don’t use DVRs to fast-forward through commercials.
Filming your own TV pilot is the sort of thing you do when you’ve lived in Los Angeles for six years and realized that landing a job as a TV writer is about as likely as winning the Powerball or meeting a Playboy Playmate in the men’s room of a Denny’s restaurant. One day your ten-thousandth “Please stop sending us unsolicited scripts” rejection letter arrives in the mail and you say, “To hell with them. I’m going to film something myself. How hard could it be?” So you write a script, buy a cheap consumer-level HD camera and find filming locations where you’re least likely to get arrested for trespassing or stabbed by hobos.
My friends Matt and Mike and I have all worked lower level “gopher” positions on professional TV pilots, fetching coffee for people and running errands. We’ve watched professionals film things. We’ve also been producing five-minute comedy videos online for years. We figured a pilot of our own would have a level of quality somewhere between old episodes of “Saved by the Bell” and – if we were lucky – that episode of “Diff’rent Strokes” where Dudley gets molested by the bicycle shop owner.
It wasn’t as simple as expected. The first mistake I made was choosing a really complicated subject matter for the script. Our comedy pilot was about a homeless man who comes into an inheritance and must learn to readjust to civilized society. Most sitcoms have two filming locations, maybe three. Ours had ten. Plus two montages with multiple locations each. Basically put, I am an idiot.
My second mistake was choosing to only film on weekends, rather than just taking a few weeks off from work and filming it all at once. When searching for actors or crew members to help with your production, nothing quite intrigues them like the idea of giving up all their weekends for three straight months. We found a few actors willing to help us, but had to play the largest roles ourselves. We had no crew members, so whichever of the three of us weren’t in a scene would work the cameras and sound equipment. In a few scenes where all three of us were on camera at the same time, we would just press the record button and have no one behind the camera.
I don’t know how we managed to get good footage. I don’t know how we survived each shoot. All I know is by the end of our three months of filming, the three of us wanted to murder each other. Here’s a conversation from our first day of filming:
Paul: How was that?
Matt: Good stuff. Let’s film one or two more takes for coverage. This is gonna be really good.
Paul: Awesome! This is going to be a perfect TV show!
And here’s a conversation from our last day of filming:
Paul: That was shitty. Should I do it again?
Matt: I don’t care. I cease to give a flying shit about any of this anymore.
Paul: I don’t care either. Fuck it. And fuck you too, by the way.
Matt: Fuck me? Fuck you, dickface!
Mike: Would both you guys just shut the fuck up already?
Paul: I hope you both die in a car accident on your way home.
The third mistake I made was assuming that at least 15 percent of things would go as planned. I’m not sure what I did to upset the nature of the universe, but we were cursed from the start. It rained endlessly, delaying and halting filming multiple times. Mike collapsed in the middle of one of our shoots, requiring us to call an ambulance. Our lead actress had to fly to New York at the last minute because of a death in the family. One of our actors simply didn’t show up, requiring us to completely change our opening scene with no notice. A hipster who owns a barber shop threatened to call the police on us, leaving us with only one take of a key moment.
But it’s done. Matt is finishing the editing, sound work and removal of the 94 percent of shots in which I accidentally looked into the camera. You’re not supposed to look into the camera. Matt repeatedly told me not to look into the camera. His mentioning it just made me look into the camera more. I am not a skilled actor.
Is our pilot perfect? No, but it turned out well. It will make people laugh. The footage looks good, the performances other than mine are excellent, and even my acting is still slightly better than Jerry Seinfeld, or The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in that horror movie he agreed to do in the late-90s. It works, and that’s more than I can say for “Whitney”, “Are You There, Chelsea” and the generic “I’m a detective who’s really perceptive” shows that will eventually replace them.