NBC has the Super Bowl this year. What can I say? It likes cheating.
“Of course the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you–if you don’t play, you can’t win.”
Several months ago, I was one of many aspiring comedic writers across the country to participate in a contest called “NBC Playground.” In theory, it sounded fantastic: NBC wanted to give a shot to, in their own words, “(Writers) beyond the traditional talent labs of film schools and NY/LA comedy clubs.” To those of us who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to pursue our comedy dreams in NY or LA, the contest seemed like manna from the gods: Finally, someone in power wasn’t willing to assume that every person with a sense of humor flocked to these cities at age 18 like a salmon returning home to spawn. To say the least, it was refreshing.
Though I figured the odds of being selected as a finalist for the competition were slim, I still gave it a shot, submitting both a filmed pitch for a sitcom I came up with along with a video that showed a performance of some previously written work. Let me pause to say here that, for a contest so hellbent on seeking “grassroots” talent, not many people have the time or means to film professionally lit and edited footage using a camera that costs several thousand dollars. I make my own hours and have a friend who put a lot of money into video equipment so he could film himself performing puppetry. This bears repeating: I was able to enter contest that ostensibly sought the comedy of folks from all walks of life only because I’m unwed and childless in my 30s (giving me the hours needed to script, film and edit said footage), create my own work schedule and have a puppet-crazed friend who happens to own a wealth of expensive camera and lighting equipment. Yes, what a wide swath of Americana my story typifies.
NBC posted the list of its ten finalists for the Playground contest last week. Tell me if you can spot a problem:
Click the photo for a larger image if you have blind little mole eyes like I do.
For a grassroots initiative seeking voices from outside the usual NY/LA scene, that’s a lot of folks from NY and LA. But hey, maybe they’re just regular people who happen to live in those cities yet have totally normal jobs. I mean, I can’t get mad if a hilarious dude who happens to work construction for a living in Brooklyn finally got his big break, right? So let’s see what everyday people outside of the NY/LA comedy scene managed to get their big break via this contest.
First up, we have Jeff Galante. Who, apparently, is not a trash collector at all, but a teacher at the Groundlings School. You know, that unknown theater troop that counts Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Will Forte, Kathy Griffin, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Parnell, Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wig among its alums. I know what we’re all thinking: Will that place ever get a break?
Next up is Tyler Hall, who hails from NYC, meaning that at least he can’t be part of the LA-based Groundlings. No, instead, Tyler is a sketch writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade. That world-renowned theater has only produced Adam McKay, Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz among its most-famous graduates. Compared to The Groundlings, they’re practically a farm team.
And it goes on. Melissa Hunter is an actress associated with Above Average, the online video wing of Broadway Video, responsible for little-known NBC programs like Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers. Avery Lee is a Second City Graduate, while his writing partner, Bobby Richards, is still actively part of it. Second City, as you might know, was the source of nearly all of SNL’s early talent, boasting the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Eugene Levy, Shelly Long, Jim Belushi (nobody’s perfect) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus among its ranks. Kassia Miller is with the UCB and Jameel Saleem currently writes for ABC.
I’m not indicting the talents of those selected as finalists: I’m sure they’re all as capable as anyone else selected by NBC to work with it over the years. My only question, though, is this: Why was it necessary to sell a load of goods about wanting to see what the rest of the country had to offer comedically when your selections came from the same sources you’ve used over the past several decades?
I would imagine anyone not affiliated with a comedy theater who entered this contest feels a bit like a Rooney Rule interviewee right about now. For those of you that don’t know, the Rooney Rule in professional football mandates that a minority candidate be interviewed for any open head coaching position in the league. Which sounds nice in theory, but, in practice, translates to a black guy who knows he isn’t getting the job being flown out to whatever team has to interview him to satisfy the rule, going through a completely cursory interview and then being flown home before they pick the white guy that the entire league knew they wanted to hire a week ago.
Why did NBC feel the need to Rooney Rule the comedic talent of this country? In order to compete in this contest, the average person would have had to devote giant swaths of their scant free time or even skip work to find the hours necessary to produce the contest-necessitated material. Not to mention filming said material would have required the rental of expensive film equipment as well as the hiring of individuals trained to use it. Then, after all of that, you’re looking at the purchasing of expensive video editing software or the rental of that equipment as well. I cannot reiterate what a time-and-money-consuming effort all of this is. Had I gone through all that only to learn I had no chance of winning to begin with, I would have been livid. The irony is that this would all make for a really funny sitcom episode, but, because I don’t have five years of Groundlings training under my belt, NBC would never let me write it for them.
Think what NBC did was unfair? Tweet any of the fine comedic talent pictured here and let them know using the #NBCPlayground hashtag. And also shoot a Tweet to Jennifer Salke (@JSalke), the person in charge of this farce.