With TV Fame Elusive, Video-Series Creators Seek Success Online
By BRIAN RAFTERY
Chris Tallman is not the kind of actor one could easily imagine as a swaggering, lady-killing television star. With a sensibly square haircut, khaki-clad fashion sense and a beer-built physique that betray his Milwaukee roots, Mr. Tallman seems more likely to play a love-starved sidekick than a leading man. Even one of his best friends says that the idea of Mr. Tallman landing his own high-adventure network show “would be against natural laws, for justifiable reasons.”
Yet last year, Mr. Tallman not only got a starring role – as the vengeful hero of a time-traveling sci-fi series, “Time Belt,” which lasted eight episodes – but also co-starred with Jack Black, and even got a few onscreen make-out sessions.
“Time Belt” is one of the many satirical shows to make it on the lineup of Channel 101, a Web site whose programming team consists mainly of a no-mercy audience that meets monthly in Los Angeles. The brainchild of the writers Rob Schrab, 35, and Dan Harmon, 32, Channel 101 is part creative kaffeeklatsch, part group therapy for the showbiz-frustrated. It is meant to remove the obstacles and distractions of big-budget productions – agents, executives, ample catering budgets – yet retain a level of quality control.
The procedure is simple enough. Participants have to submit a five-minute digital video of their series, and if it is good enough, it battles it out at a monthly get-together at CineSpace, a West Hollywood bar and screening room. Each month, the audience votes on which five shows – both brand-new and returning – get to stay on the Channel 101 Web site. With audiences and prestige growing (Mr. Black and Drew Carey have made appearances on Channel 101 shows), a New York City spinoff, Channel 102, began earlier this year.
The cable network FX once commissioned a Channel 101 pilot featuring Mr. Black, but it was never broadcast. Now, the only way to produce segments for Channel 101, or to watch them, is on its Web site, or at the monthly screening sessions.
“In order to get involved, you have no choice but to admit that the most important thing in the world for you is to entertain an audience,” Mr. Harmon said. “Because that’s all you’re going to get out of this.” That, and perhaps the chance to sit a few tables from Kato Kaelin.
The Channel 101 project was born of frustration. In 1999, Mr. Schrab and Mr. Harmon, friends from Milwaukee, wrote “Heat Vision and Jack,” a Fox pilot directed by Ben Stiller and starring Mr. Black as a motorcycle-riding genius. It was “The Six Million Dollar Man” meets “Knight Rider,” and though the pilot perfectly played up Mr. Black’s goofball likability years before “School of Rock,” Fox did not pick up the show. Its co-creators were devastated and hit a creative lull.
“We were damaged goods,” Mr. Schrab said. “We skyrocketed so quickly, we didn’t realize how lucky we were.” The duo pitched several similar shows but were repeatedly rejected. “Channel 101 is us recovering from that,” he said.
It is also an antidote to the terrifying pilot season happening in Hollywood, an annual pre-spring ritual that is a notoriously tense time. For actors, it is a time of awkward competition, as friends go up against friends for that potentially career-defining gig; for writers and producers, it is a soul-draining process of watching your beloved ideas shot down or stalled. “Stoplights and banana peels,” is Mr. Harmon’s description.
Mr. Schrab said the site receives an average of 30 submissions a month, and about 7 of them are put into competition. Several of the winning and losing short films are archived on the series’s Web site, www.channel101.com. Many entries follow similar themes: fake movie trailers are prevalent, as are pop-culture sendups that Mr. Harmon refers to as “Naughty Yankovics,” in which a beloved series is satirized in the extreme, like “Straight Eye for the Queer Guy.” Other submissions, Mr. Harmon said, are of the “Wayne’s World” variety, in which “there’s invariably a stuffed animal of some kind that’s really profane.”
What does make it past the judges are shows like “House of Cosbys,” an animated program featuring a household stuffed with Bill Cosby clones, or “The ‘Bu,” a sendup of “The O.C.” that occasionally features a boozy teenage puppet. But no show better summarizes the potential of Channel 101 than “Time Belt,” Mr. Tallman’s attempt at a Dr. Who-like fantasy series. With dinosaurs, Nazi babes and an 18th-century Parisian villain named Montague, “Time Belt” plays like a comic-book serial, and each episode ends with a cliffhanger. It is potentially campy, but Mr. Tallman, who wrote, directed and co-produced the show, took it very seriously.
“With Channel 101, you have to treat every episode as your last episode,” Mr. Tallman said from his home in Los Angeles, just a few hours before a pilot audition. “And for people who submit, a lot of times that’s a big mistake they make.”
“If you have any cool ideas,” he observed, “you put them in your first episode. And if you’re lucky enough to get picked up, then you have to come up with more cool ideas.”
“Time Belt” probably won’t be competing against ABC’s “Lost” anytime soon, but it has given Mr. Tallman more exposure and improved his confidence in his real-life acting gigs (he has a recurring role on Comedy Central’s “Reno 911”).
In fact, with the Los Angeles audiences swelling to nearly 300 attendees each month, Channel 101 has the potential to kick-start some careers. It is already responsible for helping Mr. Schrab and Mr. Harmon out of their post-”Heat Vision” funk. “Monster House,” an animated comedy they wrote and which is being produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, is to be released next year.
The New York City-based Channel 102 does not have quite the following of its Los Angeles counterpart yet, but at its second gathering, held earlier this month on the Lower East Side, a group of about 100 revelers crowded into the back of the Parkside Lounge, voting on shows like “Jesus Christ Supercop,” “Locked in a Closet” and “Lightning Brains.”
The show had as its host a writer for VH1, Tony Carnevale. Mr. Carnevale, 28, had approached Mr. Harmon and Mr. Schrab last fall about an East Coast version of Channel 101, and drew on his friends from the comedy troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade to submit tapes (many of the faces on screen were in the crowd, and can be seen on the program’s site, www.channel102.net).
There have been no big names in attendance yet, which is fine by Mr. Carnevale, who wants the show to remain relatively low key for now. But he may not be able to keep it that way for long. The next event is scheduled for Monday night in the more spacious Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea.
“I wanted to give New York a chance to develop its own style,” he said, adding, “I expect my role to be sort of thankless, and I’m O.K. with that because I didn’t come up with the idea, so I can’t expect fame and fortune.”
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company——-