It’s Wednesday night in the Golden Age of Television and we’re at Largo at the Coronet, the comedy club on La Cienega, to see the prime-time lineup of an alternate reality. Onstage a dozen actors sit in a line reading, cold, the pilot episode of a show that never got made. Raised in Captivity is a comedy about a girl who grew up acting in her parents’ successful children’s show and is now struggling to make a living in the outside world. Before the reading, Ben Acker and Ben Blacker tell the audience about how they produced the pilot for USA during the network’s half-hour-comedy fever a few years ago. “We developed this show; we really loved this show,” says Blacker, who is tall and thin. Acker is even taller, and bearded. Together they look like what history tells us a comedy duo should look like. “It was The New Girl before The New Girl was on.” (The two are familiar with the stage; they created The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a live modern version of old-timey radio.) After months and multiple rewrites, USA killed the deal when its fever broke. “It’s network whims—that’s been the lesson,” says Blacker. “Everything is out of your control.”
The show lives for about 22 minutes here as the actors (including talent from Thrilling Adventure) give it a table read, without the table, in front of a packed house. The reading’s purpose isn’t to generate interest in the pilot, though. It isn’t to roast a rotten concept, either. It’s a wake for the passing of an idea—ideas, actually, since Raised in Captivity is one of a trio of scripts being presented on this May night at the first public L.A. performance of what’s being called Dead Pilots Society.
Dead Pilots Society is the creation of Andrew Reich, a TV writer for 21 years who lived through the last great era of network sitcoms and saw many seemingly worthy projects, his and others’, killed along the way. He directed an improv group at Yale, moved to L.A. with friends, and was writing scripts in the mid-’90s with Ted Cohen when a Simpsons spec script of theirs landed them an agent. Reich guesses that about a dozen of his own pilots were bought and snuffed out before going to series. “We’ve been through a lot of pilots,” he says. Reich and Cohen were executive producers on Friends, which led to jobs on shows like Worst Week and Rules of Engagement. Before going their separate ways, the pair wrote a script a couple of years ago about two women who grudgingly become friends after they discover that their husbands are having an affair with each other. The pilot was cruising along until NBC fired the executive pushing it forward at around the time Reich and Cohen learned that their former Friends boss, Marta Kaufmann, was producing Grace and Frankie, a Netflix show with the same premise. Their pilot was killed. This stung. Coming off of Friends, a series that had inspired spin-offs and hairstyles, Reich was accustomed to projects succeeding. “I never even got to hear it read out loud,” he says.
In May 2015, he put together a live reading of his pilot and two others with actors and friends, a private event at the offices of the production company Arts and Sciences. “We got a taco cart, got a bunch of beer, invited 30, 40 friends,” he says. “I think everyone had a great time. It was really cathartic, in a way, to hear the scripts read and hear them get laughs.” Later people came up to Reich. “It was so good. Does it make you sad that it’s not happening?” they asked. It didn’t. But Reich began working with Blacker to find scripts and actors, and every so often a trio of dead pilots would appear and disappear in the production company conference room. They’ve resurrected 15 dead pilots so far, including the ones presented at Largo in the first of a semiregular live thing. Dead Pilots Society became, as of mid-September, a podcast on Maximum Fun, too.
Two of the three elements that seem essential for success as an artist are: 1) optimism in the face of 2) repeated failure. Before a network rolls out its handful of new series for a given season, it has already ordered dozens of pilots—maybe even a hundred—that have been winnowed down from several hundred pitches. And of the handful of pilots that make it on air, only a few will survive. As for the concepts that don’t make it that far, the reasons for rejection are many: Someone quits or gets fired, or networks decide to chase another trend, or it’s a budget issue, or a project like it already came out, or some combination thereof. Dead Pilots Society tries to account for a fraction of the 90 percent of pilots that never leave the page.
In that way, it smacks of industry heresy: None may speaketh of that which hath not been smiled upon by the studio gods, etcetera. But Reich’s idea isn’t to by pass the system. “As soon as I started doing this, people would say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, maybe it will lead to one of these pilots getting re vived,’” Reich says. “But I feel like if I was doing this for that reason, I’d just be setting myself up for even more disappointment, because I know that the odds of that are so long.” This would be the third element of the artistic life: brutal honesty about one’s intentions.
Such honesty, applied to art—This is what the show is, nothing more or less—is well received by an audience raised on DVD extras. For those compelled by the idea of viewing the exposed wiring of a script recital, there are options: From 2011 to April 2016, writer-director Jason Reitman hosted actors doing read-throughs of classic films (and a couple of TV episodes) at LACMA. And in 2005, Franklin Leonard, a film exec at the time, created the Black List, a well-regarded repository of writers and promising unproduced screenplays that, like Dead Pilots, has spawned popular live performances with all-star casts as well as podcasts of table reads.
In fact, Dead Pilots Society isn’t the only Dead Pilots Society. In June 2015, a month after Reich kicked off his project, Jake O’Flaherty, an actor and acting coach, and Bryan Rasmussen, a theater director, launched their own show, unknowingly using the same name at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. It, too, features a trio of productions based on unproduced pilots.
O’Flaherty and Rasmussen’s version evolved over multiple iterations. In 2012, they began doing shows consisting of ten-minute plays by up-and-coming writers. Then they created Hollywood Shorts, a run of shows with TV-writer friends. O’Flaherty invited industry people, which led to several bookings for the actors. It was a showcase. “Hollywood Shorts were thinly veiled versions of what could be shows,” he says. Last year Russ Woody, whose credits include Newhart and Mad About You, mentioned having several pilots that had gone nowhere. Hence Dead Pilots Society. Like Reich and Blacker’s, these performances are minimally set, starring actors from TV shows past and present. Afterward there was pizza and beer; writers and actors mingled with the audience. It ran four consecutive Mondays. O’Flaherty and Rasmussen produced another one last April.
Unlike Reich and Blacker’s, this Dead Pilots Society is not intended as a wake. “The great thing about seeing it live onstage is that it stimulates the imagination for the audience,” O’Flaherty says. “It is for giving new life.” But both tap into an appetite for seeing how stuff gets made (or doesn’t), for what’s behind the complex machinery of entertainment production. The readings end up being stories about the act of scriptwriting as much as they are about leaving the family business or finding out that your husbands are gay. The idea that someone would want to listen to what is meant to be seen, with even the stage instructions read aloud—“Interior: Night” this and “Cut to” that—suggests that these failed or at least not-yet-successful scripts are creating an entertainment subgenre. (A friend of Reich’s told him how excited he was at the prospect of downloading a Dead Pilots podcast and listening to a sitcom on the drive home.) “It’s a tricky thing,” says Blacker. “It’s a public performance, so it’s different from what the filmed show would be. More jokes, bigger laughs tend to play better. Bigger characters tend to play better…. An HBO pilot wouldn’t necessarily read well in a public reading, whereas a multicam comedy plays great because it’s meant to be for an audience.”
You can’t help but look for flaws. You go in thinking it’ll be obvious why the pilot didn’t make it to prime time. Sometimes that’s true, but not always. The audience on the debut night eats up Raised in Captivity and laughs in all the right spots during a reading of Wunderland. Written for Fox two years ago by Amanda Lund and Matt Gourley, it’s about a fictional theme park and the court intrigue surrounding hired princesses. You can see how it might’ve been a good show. You can see how the audience can see how it might’ve been a good show. Their awareness of how strange and cobbled together the whole staged reading is—It shouldn’t be this way—creates the reading’s specialness. Which only partly mitigates the show’s not going on the air. “You’re never surprised when it doesn’t get picked up,” Lund says later. “You’re just disappointed.”
Collectively the two Dead Pilots Societys are a critique of the tastes and preferences of producers and decision makers, the gatekeepers who pass on this stuff. And the Dead Pilots producers end up becoming gatekeepers themselves. “What’s tough is, you don’t want to ask someone for their dead pilot and then not read it,” says Reich, “but there are scripts you get that are not going to read that well in this setting, so this is its own kind of thing.”
Perhaps this is why Reich and Blacker have to go hunting for scripts. “There’s definitely been people I’ve asked,” says Reich, “who are sort of afraid of doing it or are just like, ‘No, I mean, that’s too scary. What if people don’t like it? What if it’s not good?’ ”
He gets it. Reich hasn’t stopped pitching shows of his own. “For me the goal continues to be to create a show that gets on and lasts and makes some kind of mark,” he says.
The kicker here: A producer did approach Reich to ask, in that offhand Hollywood way, how one might make Dead Pilots Society into a TV show. Pause for laughter, applause.