The 2012 Chicago Comedy TV Pilot Competition, now in its sixth year, gets under way this weekend. Of the finalists to be screened Friday, the strongest entry may also have the toughest time gaining traction with the jury panel, which includes talent agents as well as directors of development at CBS, Fox and Comedy Central.
"Funemployed" (which started as a web series in 2009 and is now in its third season) stars Chicago actor Ted Evans as a recent college grad suffering lousy job prospects and a group of idiot roommates who stoop to impressively harebrained levels in an attempt to scare up rent money.
Sound familiar? As it happens, MTV is currently in town shooting a new scripted series based on a like-minded premise: "Underemployed," from Emmy-nominated writer Craig Wright. It's also set in Chicago and will debut this fall.
The recession has been uniquely unkind to America's young 20-somethings and it was only a matter of time before the phenomenon begat its own subgenre (see also: HBO's"Girls"and Comedy Central's"Workaholics").
But the "Funemployed"/"Underemployed" dynamic is especially tricky, at least for the makers of "Funemployed." No matter how good their show is (and it is good; check out episodes at funemployedchicago.com), will a major network want to invest time and money in a show that bears so many similarities to MTV's newest venture?
Maybe. The odds are against it, but let's hope the judging panel gives the makers of "Funemployed" a closer look regardless. Created by Michael Lippert, it ticks off all the right boxes. Evans is likable in the role, and the group scenes with his buddies (boneheads who also happen to recycle; a great detail) have an agreeably lived-in feel. The show is especially well-edited (the pacing is spot-on, a quality the other three entries lack) and it uses cutaways and flashbacks in ways that legitimately raise the comedic stakes.
The writing also has its moments. "I just had my Wii stolen, OK, one of the only important things in my life right now besides high-speed Internet pornography," Evans informs one of his roommates with an indignant petulance that helps sells the line. And like "Workaholics" (which co-stars Evanston native Anders Holm) it hits that all-important dumb-and-drunken sweet spot. Let the puke jokes and chug-offs begin.
Also screening in the competition is "The Club," a slice-of-life about disgruntled country club restaurant workers that brings to mind the cater waiter milieu of Showtime's "Party Down." The pilot drags, but the premise has potential. (Shot in the suburbs, it is the least Chicago-looking of the pilots in competition.) "DearWolfe" suffers from glacial pacing as well, but I like the idea behind the concept, which centers on a dysfunctional Chicago rock band.
Fans of the very funny long-running local improv show "Pimprov" will recognize the stars of "Fools Goal," which features Marz Timms and Keith Smitherman as a pair of knucklehead wannabe comedians. The pilot, alas, doesn't have much visual style to it, nor does it fully establish a world in which these characters live (let alone spotlight just how funny Timms and Smitherman actually are when they have the right setup).
That said, you never know who will catch the eye of the jury. The networks take these festivals seriously; earlier this year, a group of Chicagoans won a development deal with Comedy Central based on a short pilot they submitted to a competition organized by the network along with the New York Television Festival.
Development deals don't guarantee that a show will ever make it to air. And the Chicago festival has yet to produce a winner with proven results. (Last year's winners have been developing their show for HBO GO, but it is unclear where that currently stands.) That said, the fest remains one of the few annual events that brings Hollywood decision-makers to Chicago while also giving audiences a true sense of the kind of sitcom ideas Chicagoans are generating.
The Chicago Comedy TV Pilot Competition will screen the four finalists 7 p.m. Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Go to witsendshorts.com.
A Chicago actor returns
Steppenwolf founder Terry Kinney, long based out of New York, returns to town this summer for a recurring role on the new Fox drama "The Mob Doctor," which will start shooting at Chicago Studio City later this month. Kinney plays an unsavory member of a local organized crime family. "The Mob Doctor" (which also co-stars Evanston native Zach Gilford, of"Friday Night Lights" fame) debuts Sept. 17 and will air at 8 p.m. Mondays.
The theater collective known as Drinking & Writing celebrates its 10-year anniversary Friday with a pub crawl/screening of "The Western Ave. Project," which follows writer-performers Sean Benjamin and Steve Mosqueda as they walk the length of Western Ave. in four days — north from 119th Street to Howard —stopping at every bar along the way to have a beer. The film will be screened on a party bus that re-creates that marathon pub crawl. Go to drinkingandwriting.com.
Austin's famed Alamo Drafthouse — the idiosyncratic arthouse cinema that made news last year after kicking out an audience member who refused to stop texting — brings its exploitation movie series, dubbed Cinemapocalypse, to the Music Box Theatre this weekend. The lineup includes 1982's "Lady Terminator," 1979's "Tourist Trap," 1982's "Vice Squad" and 1987's "Miami Connection." Go to musicboxtheatre.com.