TV

The Tale Of A Dashed TV Pilot Dream And What It Can Teach You About Life

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When I was 10 years old I skipped my Nana’s birthday party to watch the conclusion of a two-part episode of Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts titled “Budnick Loves Dina.” The episode revolved around Camp Anawanna’s ginger bad boy Bobby Budnick developing romantic feelings for resident It Girl Dina Alexander. Grandmothers turn 67 every day, but the Budnick/Dina cliffhanger was like the moon landing for fans of young adult camp-based hijinks.

My devotion to television intensified with age. Having a cruddy day? Your old pal television is like, “Hey, friend. Wine up, pajama out, and allow me to help you ignore that never-ending whack-a-mole of frustration known as your day job with sexy doctors, quippy cops, and Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster.”

At 24, the age where optimism fizzles from your soul like you just won a soda and Pop Rocks guzzling contest, I decided I would move to New York and become a television writer. I whipped up an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia spec and experienced minor success when my script made the top 5 percent of a network fellowship competition. I assumed, like a stone cold dunce, that my invitation behind the velvet rope of Hollywood was a year away. Maybe two.

Eight years later — after writing 14 more pilots, hundreds of sketches, and in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours of blog posts — I, an unrepped writer, was miraculously afforded the opportunity to turn my half-hour comedy script into a 22-minute pilot. How does one achieve such a rare opportunity without the last name Wolf, Rhimes, or Murphy? One word, three syllables: blackmail.

Kidding.

Murder.

Double kidding.

Is This The Hill You Want To Die On?

In 2014, I won the FOX-New York Television Festival Comedy Script Competition. First prize was the opportunity to develop the winning script into a pilot presentation. The development team consisted of two members of the NYTVF team as well as Jonathan Stern and Keith Quinn from the production company Abominable Pictures. If you’re a fan of comedy, you’re likely familiar with Abominable’s prodigious résumé, which includes Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later and Childrens Hospital.

Developing a project you feel so personally invested in with a group of professionals can be a tightrope act for even the nimblest of writers. Going into my first development meeting I thought, “Sure, it could use a few punch-ups, but this script is pretty much ready to go!” while the development team (correctly) thought, “What an a-okay first draft!”

I tried to be deferential while staying true to my *eye roll alert* vision for the script. The phrase “Is this the hill you want to die on?” became one of my guiding principals. Do I really want to waste all my creative capital defending a throwaway “Air Bud playing blackjack” joke?

The answer, quite obviously, was yes.

Thankfully, both the NYTVF and Abominable teams were gracious and incisive collaborators. I always felt that despite my dearth of experience, my opinion was acknowledged and respected, and the finished project was substantially better in large part to their guidance and expertise. Six months and copious amounts of rewrites later, my 35-page script was trimmed down to a svelte 23 pages to accommodate our two-day shoot schedule. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Let’s find out!

Just Like An Episode Of Entourage

Some 3,000 miles later I found myself in Los Angeles, or as I refer to it: The place where Boy Meets World was filmed. We had two days of various pre-production activities scheduled and while my stomach was doing somersaults regarding our forthcoming shoot, I was also on red alert because I wasn’t going to know anyone on the tech scout.

When I first arrived, I was less affable human being and more Teddy Ruxpin doll left out in the sun over Labor Day weekend — words were coming out of my mouth, but I wasn’t making much sense. Thankfully, two producers from Abominable, Khoby Rowe and Dave Soldinger, helped break the ice by inviting me into a conversation about the film Encino Man, which I assume happens on the reg in Los Angeles. My anxiety slowly began to wither away since discussing Pauly Shore’s oeuvre is like sweet, sweet verbal Xanax to me.

Through the duration of my trip, Khoby and Dave went above and beyond to make me feel as though l had worked at Abominable for years, a trait shared by everyone under the Abominable umbrella. When we worked out of Abominable’s workplace, they insisted that I move into their personal office for the week. At one point, Rob Corddry even popped in to chat about fantasy football. It was just like an episode of Entourage, if Entourage had been written by Splitsider.

On my third day it was finally time to shoot Semi-Charmed Life. Yep. Just like the Third Eye Blind song. “Tubthumping” and “Mr. Jones and Me” just didn’t have the same flare. The show centers around a mildly successful actor, Grover Foster, who loses all his money in a poker game to Topher Grace and is forced to move back home to work for his father, who is now happily married to the girl Grover lost his virginity to at senior prom.

I know what you’re thinking, “Seen it before.” Well, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. Because my sitcom added this little wrinkle: Hilarity ensued.

When I initially won the competition, I had no idea what to expect in terms of actors. “Are we going to hire film students?” is a big dumb thought that rattled around in my big dumb head. But thanks to Abominable’s venerable comedic reputation, we were able to assemble a dream cast. We were fortunate enough to nab Veronica Mars scene stealer Ryan Hansen for Grover as well as You’re the Worst’s Allan McLeod and Master of None star Noël Wells as his friends Nicky and Alex, respectively. Comedic virtuosos Illeana Douglas and John Ennis were cast as Grover’s parents, while the talented trio of Marshall Givens, Stevie Nelson, and Mike Ivy rounded out the ensemble. Also, former Knicks great Patrick Ewing was cast as the gruff but lovable voice of reason, Hampton.

Kidding. Patrick Ewing was unavailable.

Being on set was an incredible learning experience. After the “Wait, real people are going to recite the actual words I wrote?” butterflies flew back to hell, I was able to (somewhat) relax and enjoy the process. The atmosphere was light but professional, which I 100 percent attribute to our intrepid director, Danny Jelinek, whose clear vision and steely resolve set the tone for the shoot.

Shooting 23 pages in two days can be fraught with stress and possible calamities, but Danny and the production team were consistent pillars of stability in a potentially chaotic situation and the actors exceeded even the loftiest of expectations. Their performances inspired me to want to be a better writer. Kinda like the film As Good as it Gets, minus all that pesky dog-napping.

Two days and 23 pages later, we had a finished television pilot.

After Danny yelled cut for the final time, we didn’t all throw our hands in the middle of a pile and yell “Go Bayside!” like on Saved by the Bell — which in an ideal world is how I’d conclude most social interactions — but I still felt… accomplished. Revitalized. For the first time in my life I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I imagine it’s what falling in love or purchasing an expensive mattress would feel like.

Over that five day period, I was so immersed in the pilot that I forgot that it wasn’t my actual life. I don’t live in Los Angeles. I don’t make television shows for a living. It was an anomaly, not the norm. I had reached my professional apex, which meant there was only one possible direction for me to go.

Out Of Sorts

Growing up, my mom had a term she’d use to define the ineffable feeling of random malaise: out of sorts. Initially, when I returned home from L.A. I was riding that sweet, sweet pilot high. Adding to my euphoria was that I had completed two additional pilot scripts while Semi-Charmed Life was in development and both were drawing varying degrees of interest. A friend of mine passed along my comedy script, Zak & Sara, to Comedy Central, and another pilot I wrote, Preston & Mickey, was named a quarterfinalist in the Launch Pad Pilots Competition.

With Semi-Charmed Life (probably) about to be picked up, and Comedy Central (probably) going to offer me a vault of gold coins to breaststroke though Scrooge McDuck-style, and Preston & Mickey (probably) going to win the writing competition, a very real part of me was already lost in reverie about the disarming modesty I’d unleash while captivating the world with my improbable anecdote on Conan.

“Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call me a wunderkind, Conan,” I’d say while giving Andy Richter a jovial pat on the leg as if to say, “We’re equals, now. We’ll probably play racquetball together.” But Andy Richter would have to continue playing racquetball with Will Arnett (I assume). Comedy Central passed, I didn’t win the contest, and weeks turned into months as Semi-Charmed Life remained a television free agent.

Throughout the entire process, I tried to keep my expectations in check. I understood that the odds of receiving a series order were slim. But, optimistically, I was hoping to use the exposure to secure representation or perhaps receive the opportunity to interview for a staff writing position. But for reasons never fully explained to me, the fact that I won the 2014 competition was never formally announced.

Thanks for nothing, renowned entertainment reporter Maria Menounos.

I devolved into a state of listlessness best described as the Garden State soundtrack meets George-Michael being dumped by Ann. I became detached, choosing to hang with my new trinity of best friends booze, self-doubt, and Netflix instead of socializing with the outside world. I used to adeptly navigate conversations toward Semi-Charmed Life, and now I avoided talking about the show altogether, which was a difficult topic to avoid. After incessantly blabbering on and on about it, people wanted to know what the hell happened. Over the last two years, the pilot was easily the most interesting aspect of my life, with the possible exception of the three-week period in which I didn’t know I had shingles.

The show was so much easier to talk about in preproduction. “Yep, I’m making a pilot in Hollywood!” I had said repeatedly while nonchalantly leaning back in my chair channeling the inherent coolness of 1992 Mario Lopez. But now it was real, and the reality was my series probably wasn’t going to be picked up. I didn’t handle this realization like a pro, because, well, there ain’t no sadness like an artist’s sadness cause an artist’s sadness is more insufferable.

Pursuing your dream begins to take on an entirely different shape as you grow older. That wide-eyed naiveté needed to delude yourself into taking the professional road less traveled in your 20s is replaced by the omnipresent whisper of insecurity that accompanies your 30s. The once nebulous haze dissipates bringing you face to face with the painstaking realization that while you were off pouring every fiber of your being into what may very well amount to be a lottery ticket, the aspiration of someday turned into the reality of today.

I found myself in the familiar doldrums of square one, which I could not wrap my brain around. I created an actual television pilot with real celebrities. If that didn’t lead to a staff writing job, what would? I began to think that maybe Semi-Charmed Life was the absolute best I could do and perhaps that just wasn’t good enough. There’s a fine line between optimism and delusion and for the first time in my adult life, I started to consider the very real possibility that my story wouldn’t conclude with “written by Josh Sorokach” in the credits.

I had hit my emotional rock bottom. “Why have thou forsaken me?!” I dramatically cried to the God of Television, who I assumed was Alf creator Paul Fusco. But my prayers to Melmac (Alf’s home planet for those of you with lives) remained unanswered.

Taking Delight In The Unpredictable Delirium

Moments of clarity aren’t as cinematic as we’re led to believe.

In July, I received word that Semi-Charmed Life was unlikely to be picked up. It was also around this time that I finally realized that on the grand spectrum of actual problems, not getting your pilot picked up wasn’t a huge deal.

That realization happened gradually and then abruptly, like falling in love with your best friend or realizing you’ve become exceptionally adept at Skip-It. I was afforded the opportunity to actually live my dream! Who else can say that? Only me and anyone who’s ever laced ’em up for the Harlem Globetrotters. I had failed to grasp that the result doesn’t negate the accomplishment. Journey, destination, etc. You’re smart. You’ve read this far. You get it.

Breaking free from the shackles of self-doubt like the protagonist in a Kelly Clarkson music video, I entered montage mode. I re-engaged with society, took up running, and most importantly got back to writing. I finished two new pilots that I dare say are not too shabby. Or maybe they’re a plate of blistering garbage words. Who knows? The important thing is, I rediscovered my confidence!

Pursuing an artistic endeavor can oftentimes suck. Watching your peers prosper in their adult lives — getting married, creating another human being via sex, using words like “escrow” in a non-improv setting — while you’re stuck at the vocational kids table futilely attempting to fit your square peg of passion into a round hole of financial independence is demoralizing. But while they found joy in stability, you can take delight in the unpredictable delirium that accompanies your journey. Savor the experience of writing those atrocious first drafts, hearing no after no, and being told “not yet.” Adversity sharpens our edges and helps mold rough drafts into polished products. Resiliency isn’t so much taught as it’s learned through a seemingly never-ending cascade of almosts, not quites, and the intoxicating allure of maybe.

Perhaps one week in October is as good as it professionally gets for me, and if that’s the case, I couldn’t have asked for a better adventure. It was the absolute best week of my life. The only thing that I or any of us can really do is to keep at it no matter what. The best advice I ever received on writing was also the most obvious: “Writers write. Every day.” That’s it. It’s as simple and as maddening a rule as there is. We’re all just varying degrees of screwed up people desperately searching for an answer to an impossible question, so we may as well just calm the hell down and embrace the chaos.

Just because you don’t end up marrying Dina Alexander doesn’t mean your time at Camp Anawanna was any less special.

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