A comedy blogger has unearthed Louis CK's rundown of making TV pilots, posted to Usenet (!) in 2006. Between this fantastic, lengthy document and Lorne Michaels' new interview with Alec Baldwin lie some excellent tips for hacking the Hollywood system, which we've distilled and posted below.
CK posted "the pilot process" to moderated.alt.comedy.standup after he'd secured an HBO deal for the series Lucky Louie but before he went on to widespread acclaim as a stand-up comic and creator of the better-received Louie on FX. In the post, recently re-disocvered by Third Beat, CK outlines the many ways the process of conceiving, pitching, writing, rewriting, casting, producing and endlessly re-pitching a pilot can go fatally wrong. He also makes clear that "every step of the process is an absolute fucking nightmare," as Mirth Magazine put it.
Some of the most revealing parts of the post are CK's little parenthetical asides about how Lucky Louie's network HBO did things differently. It's also especially interesting to read all of CK's warnings about network television today, after he secured a unique deal with FX that lets him route around the many gatekeepers he describes. And the post also calls to mind Saturday Night Live creator Michaels' new interview with SNL perennial Alec Baldwin, in which he explains that the pilot process had a lot to do with why he set up his show the way he did.
Some key hacks from CK and Michaels:
Don't test your show or do market research: You know how Apple is famous for never focus grouping its products? It turns out HBO, foremost beacon of quality television at the moment, works the same way. CK:
I did a pilot at CBS and we had to wait while they tested the show. They do all kinds of screwy marketting experiments and they show the pilot to a test audience. You are given elaborate data according to the test and you often have to re-edit the pilot to adress the testing data. (HBO doesn't test their shows, so i got to skip that this time)
Skip big-name actors: Casting is always a nightmare, involving "thousands of horrible actors" and a small handful of quality casting directors everyone is competing to hire. But the process is apparently much more palatable (and successful) if you don't have to shoehorn in famous people:
Offers are going out to very big named actors, none of which you think fit the parts at all, but you are told they will help your show get on the air..... At one point you're told that your pilot is going to star Brendan Frazier and Jody Foster. At the last minute they both pass and you end up with Kirk Cameron and Shelly Biglachnataps... (In my case, HBO doesn't give a shit about that, so we were able to cast people according to their funninness and acting. Hooray for me)
Sell to a production company affiliated with the network that is also buying the show: Many of the headaches CK describes happen twice: Once when dealing with his production company, and once when dealing with the network. The show creator is basically serving two masters at once. At HBO, CK dealt with HBO and HBO Independant Productions, "which are a lot of the same people."
No upfronts: Networks typically delay their final decisions until "upfronts," where advertisers can buy time up front and where the entertainment press gets worked into a lather. They can be a real waste of evertone's time and energy:
Some people are told the day of the announcement that they are or are not going to series. When I did the pilot at CBS... someone from Warner Brothers called me literally an hour before Les Moonves made his announcement, to say he wouldn't be mentioning "Saint Louie" although we were strong contenders for mid-season (obviously that didn't happen either). HBO doesn't do up-fronts and they don't do marketing research. It's just two people, Carolyn Strauss and Chris Ablrecht, who watch their pilots and then mull it over for a while and then decide.
Do it live: Michaels told Baldwin in a podcast/WNYC interview that he wanted to do SNL because the live aspect of the show would help him bypass the pilot process:
Somewhere in the process of making a pilot, all your most conservative instincts come out... The idea I could do a show in which the audience would see it at the same time as the network was thrilling... I was going to take one last shot at television and see if I could do it the way I wanted to do it.
More context in the audio excerpt above left.
Demand a bag of money and total freedom: A great deal if you can get it. And not many people will be able to. But CK, famously, did, setting up an arrangement with FX in which the network basically hands him a pile of money to write, direct, edit and cast the whole of Louie, soup to nuts. You can read more about the setup in this NY Magazine piece and, if you have the time, hear more about it somewhere in comedian Marc Maron's two-part interview with CK. From NYM:
The president of FX, offered him $250,000 to make a series about his life, a number that included Louis's salary... Landgraf impressed Louis, pitching a model designed to keep shows "pure." "I said, ‘Okay, the only way I'm doing this is if you literally wire the $200K to me and I go to New York and just make it. I don't gotta tell you what it's about. I don't know what it's about.' "
Louis's manager promised he could bump up the number to $350,000, but Landgraf called Louis directly. To get more money, he explained, he'd need to call Rupert Murdoch. And Louis would have to take network notes. "I called my manager and said, ‘Shut your fucking mouth!,' " recalls Louis, laughing.
Sometimes, apparently, the value of not having to take notes on your work is 40 percent of the entire potential budget. Good to know.