Channel 101: The Web’s Island for Television’s Misfit Toys - Small Screen Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Matthew DeMello

The cast of Fantasy Metal, a recent successful internet television series featured on Channel 101 New York. Photo courtesy of Channel 101 New York.

Two nights ago in the back-room theater of a posh restaurant and club in Tribeca, New York City, a vibrant gathering of old friends and film makers assembled, as they have every month for some years now, to showcase their creations– brand new, freshly-shot short films like this one.

That video is the first episode in a series called Fantasy Metal that debuted its second webisode at the Friday night premier. The event was hosted by Channel 101 New York, an “online television station”  that organizes these showcases every month in a contest format. After these “show pilots” are publicly viewed, audience members are given ballots and instructed to vote for their five favorite shorts. With enough votes, the five videos with the most votes will be turned into a webseries posted on Channel 101’s website. At the next month’s showcase, the latest episode of the winning series will be up for resubmission– and if the audience continues to approve of their contribution, the series will continue.

For those twenty-to-thirty-something children of television aching for their off-beat, creative visions to be appreciated by a niche market of other TV non-purists, the venue is a godsend.

“Channel 101 NY is the best way to take any crazy idea you may have for a show and get it out there in front of an audience and meet other like-minded people in the underground comedy and filmmaking community,” says Dan Ospal, creator of the hilarious Acting Reel Master Database — a film shot on no more than $100 in production costs.

The rules for submissions to Channel 101 are pretty simple and center around keeping things short. How short? To the burgeoning comedians and restless creatives of the internet TV channel, brevity is everything, which means all submissions must be no longer than five minutes. For some, that challenge becomes it’s own reward.

“If you’re a great writer, you can develop fully realized characters in five minutes,” says Channel 101 veteran Jeremy Westphal.  “The time restraints teach you about what’s important — cutting the fat down to the absolute essentials, between moving your plot along and making your funniest jokes.”

Westphal’s first submission to Channel 101 was a series called Scissor Cop, an efficient parody of ’80s cop shows with an absurdist twist (in that the macho detective lead character prefers to perform all of his duties while running with scissors).

According to Chris Prine, who also helped Westphal bring Scissor Cop to small and moderately sized screens across the Internet, the film demonstrates the two distinct categories of successful Channel 101 shows, namely: “The genre that’s built on DIY and is funny because you don’t have the money to make credible looking effects and the ones you devise with your budget look ridiculous; and then there are those videos that are parodies of normal television and need the budgeted effects to pull off the joke.”

The exemplary Fantasy Metal strikes a perfect balance in between the two polarities– requiring only affordable special effects to tell quite a zany story, and letting none of the Final Cut polish take away the punch of the low-brow humor.

“Everyone [in Channel 101] is in each other’s stuff, everyone helps each other out,” says Dan McNamara, creator of Fantasy Metal who articulates how Channel 101 has provided a unique, community-based and unpretentious environment for his work and that of others.

“There are guys who work for 30 Rock here and all these people who work in the television want to do is to make their own work. They want to keep creating their own stuff and they can only do it on a low budget,” McNamara continues. “These people have an independent, creative streak and there really isn’t an outlet for it besides Channel 101.”

Though Channel 101 proves to be an efficient venue for talented entertainers to build a resume, network television executives may not be actively recruiting from their ranks. However, as McNamara points out, the creators and stars of the station’s most successful shows have ended up on TV somehow. His own viral video, Redeeming Rainbow, was a finalist for Comedy Central’s Test Pilot Competition in 2007.

Even for Channel 101 contributors who haven’t yet broken TV’s glass ceiling, their desire to create despite the rejection from the almighty tube stands at the heart of the station’s origins.

Channel 101 was created in LA as the brain child of Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, a pair who crafted numerous widely acclaimed comic book series throughout the 90s along with few short-lived television shows for the Fox network.  After seeing their TV star burn out faster than they had hoped, the pair stumbled on an intriguing concept proceeding “an innocent lunchtime discussion to rent a bad film.”

That bad film was Jaws 4 and that idea was to have their friends attending the living room movie night to submit predictions for the film’s plot in the form of whatever medium they so chose. Several puppet shows, poems, and “mix tapes” (whatever those are) later and Schrab unveiled his response: a short film adaptation featuring his own penis playing the role of Jaws.

Their tradition of make-your-own-movie-night continued and eventually evolved into a showcase of short films all with a similar ethos to Schrab’s crudely chuckle-worthy short (no pun intended). Not before long, the audience and number of participants became too large of Schrab’s living room. Schrab and Harmon decided to move their minuscule fest of short films to a small, local cinema, and rename it The Super Midnight Movie Show.

After a minor disagreement with the management of the movie theater (Harmon asked one of the employees why she was “being such a cunt”), The Super Midnight Movie Show ended up being a short lived effort, much to the dismay of its creators and growing fanbase.  However, the setback gave the team time to re-evaluate their format. One of the flaws of  The Super Midnight Movie Show was that it was becoming too big for its britches. If the monthly events were to responsibly prosper, time limitations and an eliminations process for submissions were needed to ensure the show wouldn’t go on forever.

For the dilemma of eliminating submissions, Schrab then devised a uniquely democratic solution: instead of accepting the uncomfortable responsibility of playing TV exec and rejecting their friends’ work themselves, why not have the audience make these decisions? With that thought, Channel 101 was born.

New York City-native Tony Carnevale soon caught wind of the idea and proposed bringing Channel 101 to the east coast. With the blessings of Schrab and Horman, then-titled Channel 102 launched in February 2005, holding their first few screenings and competitions at New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Memorable shorts like Scissor Cop and Carnevale’s own Purgatory debuted during this early period before Channel 101 New York would migrate to, according to website manager and frequent show creator Ed Mundy, “larger venues more conducive to hanging out and grabbing a few drinks after the show.”

These days, Channel 101 can be found in their Tribeca nook where this month the new pilots showcase was hosted in their annual partnership with the New York Television Festival. As for the future, Mundy and others feel optimistic while harboring no over-arching ambitions, as that would counter the station’s spirit of making their contributions fun work for on-the-side.

“We spend our weekends shooting videos it’s fun and better than making commercials,” says Mundy. “We’re in no hurry to have this get any larger or at any faster rate than what it has been. But hey, it’d be nice.”

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