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redeyechicago.com

One night, six TV comedy pilots from Chicago

Local TV pilots hope to take off at N.Y. festival

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

5:03 PM CDT, October 13, 2013

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Yes, you could watch several of the Chicago comedy pilots selected for this year's New York Television Festival on the web for free, without going to the Music Box Theatre Tuesday night to see all six of them.

But where's the communal experience in that?

And, yes, you could go to the festival later this month and see them there, plus 41 other chosen pilots competing to win prizes and the attention of TV-industry types.

But that would cost you $350, before hotel and airfare, and you would have to spend time in the company of TV-industry types.

So, really, you're left with Tyler Smith's clever idea to package the six Chicago entries as a one-night, $5 cinematic experience, set to start at 9:30 p.m. at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave.

Among the other benefits:

• Being able to say you've seen something designed for the small screen (television) or even the very small screen (smartphone) on the big screen.

• Popcorn (small fee).

• And, especially, getting a taste of what Smith, a writer of one of the pilots and actor in two of them, says is a burgeoning Chicago pilot-making scene.

"We thought we had a unique opportunity," said Smith, part of the improv troupe Claymore Productions. "There's this unprecedented amount of (Chicago) pilots accepted for the festival …. Outside of New York and L.A., the third largest representation is from Chicago. It's kind of a big deal."

The shows range from "Exquisite Corpse," Claymore's borderline-surrealist sketch collection, to "The Startup," a fairly traditional workplace comedy set at a tech company that has more success than work ethic.

What they demonstrate, collectively, is that people in the city's improv and filmmaking communities are taking full advantage of how affordable it has become to make good-quality video.

A lot of the projects were shot using the video setting on what used to be thought of as still cameras — higher-end Nikons, in particular, Smith said.

The "Exquisite Corpse" pilot cost about $300 to make, he said, mostly in shooting permits and costume rental.

That amount, of course, assumes the donation of time and energy by not only the actors but the technical people involved, from directors of photography to crew to graphic artists (the title credits for this group of shows is especially impressive).

And pilots are a particularly attractive medium for creators because of their combination of shorter time commitment and reasonable chance of reward. The Oct. 21-26 festival — which had some 3,000 submissions in its main, independent pilot competition and offers as prizes various TV development deals — places a 22-minute time limit on submissions, a time borrowed from the network standard for how long a half-hour show takes without commercials.

Here are some quick notes on the six shows:

"Date of the Month Club": A single woman getting desperate challenges herself to go on a new date every month in this concept by Ben Fast and Blythe Haaga. The characters are well-observed and the situations rarely go where you expect them to in the five short vignettes. In the lead role, Holly Laurent, from the current Second City mainstage show "Let Them Eat Chaos," brings brass and vulnerability.

"Exquisite Corpse": Smith and his collaborators developed their pilot by culling some of the best of their improv show of the same name, then working through it to make it fit the pilot's format. The boisterous, sometimes absurdist bits — including ones about guys who bought a bar together, a pair of brothers dedicated to suede and a homicidal janitor — connect with clever, unexpected transitions: from punching an eagle (don't ask) to stuffing a turkey, for example. And then the bits come back to meet each other again, in the style of HBO's "Mr. Show."

"Family Heirloom": A brother and sister struggle to save their family antique shop, failing in part because the sister is the softest of touches, with a very weak grasp of history (she thinks the Holocaust was in the 1970s). Played in a style that seems determinedly arch, the show from local improv performers Jeff Murdoch and Jo Scott features a common problem, even in pilots that make it to network: lots of broad jokes about body parts — a symptom, perhaps, of working hard to get attention right away. "Family Heirloom," though, gets great mileage out of what it contends is a fine line between "homeless" and "intern," and it has a story to build on, including the rival antique shop owner in the same neighborhood.

"Hank Frisco: Galaxy Defender": Set in the distant future, this show posits a bravado-stuffed title character who has to venture into the galaxy to find "gray matter" to save a dying planet Earth, accompanied by a human sidekick and a sassy robot. As Frisco, local actor Scott Cupper has just the right gleam in his eye as he blunders on with confidence that is unearned yet, somehow, rewarded. The unapologetic "Plan 9 from Outer Space" production values — the spaceship is a car wrapped in silver — give it shaggy-dog charm. And the writing is sharp and sly. Part of an existing web series first posted in 2010, this comes from four employees of the Chicago film equipment house Zacuto.

"The Laces": In this collection of sketches featuring women from the Chicago improv scene, a kickboxing class becomes a confessional, park birds seem to taunt a woman eating lunch and a game of engagement-story one-upswomanship gets progressively darker and funnier. Not all the physical comedy works, but there is a superbly written (and played) monologue about a cocaine addict-turned-self-help-author. "I used to be anorexic, but now I'm vegan. It's different" is just one of the fine lines Chelsea Devantez delivers.

"The Startup": Ambitious, well-imagined, and well-played, "The Startup" gives us what seems like the coolest workplace ever but could also be interpreted with this phrase, from the show's Facebook page: "Hell has a ping pong table." Nerdologues members Kevin Walsh and John Thibodeaux created the show about an 18-year-old who struck it big with his Karate Cats app and now runs a company churning out seemingly endless money-making twists on that concept, including, in the pilot, Karate Cats Shark Week. A mostly keen satire of tech culture, it has as its core a loving/envious/taunting relationship between the young genius (Gary Richardson) and his 30-year-old brother (Thibodeaux).

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson