Lost among the slew of high-profile broadcast comedy pilots this season were two low-budget pilots/presentations created by and starring up-and-coming comedians of diverse background few had heard of: Cristela Alonzo and Jerrod Carmichael. Ten days before the start of the upfronts, many of those big-budget, big-name pilots have fallen by the wayside. But the Alonzo and Carmichael projects are still standing. Both have exceeded expectations, both have been very well received and both are in contention for a series pickup.
Alonzo’s semi-autobiographical Cristela, from 20th TV and studio-based 21 Laps/Adelstein, has been a true Cinderella story. It was sold to ABC last summer with penalty. But with several high-profile multi-camera sitcoms landing pilot orders at the network, including two from 20th TV — The Winklers starring Henry Winkler, and the untitled Kevin Hart project — Cristela didn’t make the cut. However, the producers, who also are behind ABC’s Last Man Standing, and 20th TV took the $500,000 penalty, a fraction of what a normal pilot costs, and used it to budget a presentation with ABC’s blessing (the network called it “proof of concept”). Cristela ended up filming a full-length pilot on the stage of Last Man Standing using that sitcom’s crew, led by director/co-exec producer John Pasquin, with two days of rehearsal and prep time, doing the blocking in a windowless room using paper plates and metal chairs. Cristela, originally not even budgeted to get a testing, tested through the roof, with Alonzo, who has no previous acting experience, scoring higher than Allen, New Girl’s Zooey Deschanel and The Crazy Ones’ Robin Williams. What’s more, Cristela, which Alonzo co-wrote with Kevin Hench, has emerged as 20th TV’s unlikely strongest multi-camera contender at ABC, with Winklers all but dead and the Kevin Hart comedy losing ground, possibly to the other ABC black family comedy pilot, the Anthony Anderson project, which the network owns.
Over at NBC, we have young comedian Carmichael also toplining his first pilot, a lower-budget autobiographical presentation. It was cast and shot under the radar but the finished product has gotten a lot of attention at the network. (Actually, the network is high on two of its multi-camera projects, Carmichael and pilot One Big Happy). Also helping Carmichael’s cause is great timing: During network screenings last week, his first HBO stand-up special was announced, directed by none other than Spike Lee and with Funny or Die producing. And just as NBC is making series pickups, Carmichael’s first movie, Neighbors, opens Friday and is expected to make a splash. All of a sudden, Carmichael is not just an up-and-comer, he is a star on the rise.
We’ll find out in the next few days whether Alonzo and Carmichael will make it to the schedule for next season. Regardless, what they proved is that in the age of highly packaged, big-budget, star-driven projects, comedy talent still can shine on a shoestring budget. I don’t expect the networks to start slashing their comedy pilot budgets to $500,000 anytime soon, but the success of projects like Cristela and Jerrod Carmichael should encourage nets to take more out-of-the box choices on the comedy side and give up-and-comers hope that they too could break into the big leagues even if the odds are stacked against them. Hollywood loves underdog stories…