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The funniest show (not) on TV

Recently I was driving home one evening and a local radio talk show here in Los Angeles was bemoaning the disappearance of the "situation comedy" from the lineups of the major US TV networks. Most adults remember the golden age of the TV sitcom, and classics like Taxi, Cheers, Roseanne, Cosby, Family Ties, Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld. With seminal 90's sitcoms like "That 70's show", "Friends", "Will and Grace" and "Everybody loves Raymond" calling it quits, and with the failure of critic favorite "Arrested Development", the number of sitcoms on the air and the ratings of the few that are left, are at a historic nadir.

Anyone who doesn't see the connection between an increase in internet use and the decrease in television viewership is in serious denial. A recent Jupiter Research report found that people who have an Internet connection spend as much time online as they do watching TV. This trend, when considered along with the rapid adoption of Digital video recorders like Tivo, signals the death knell of the golden age of network television -- and an end to the era when consumers would revolve their weekly schedules around their favorite "must see" shows.

Which brings me to consideration of "The funniest show (not) on TV". It's a situation comedy of sorts, although its not really a series at all. It's on a network which isn't really a network. It has no budget, no production company, no promotion, sponsors, and during its entire one year run, faced cancellation on a monthly basis, based on the direct input of those who had watched its most recent episode. Could this be the future of TV?

I'll return to this question in a moment, but first let me talk about the show itself. Each episode relates an untold "Behind the music-esq" story that is part of the larger history of a hitherto unrecognized genre of music known to its cult-like devotees as "smoooooth" rock. Although the show doesn't use the term "Adult Contemporary", most of the characters in the series are based on leading figures in the AC radio category exemplified by the emergence of VH1. I use the term "based" loosely, because the characters are named after the real musicians and songwriters whose songs are depicted in the episodes. For example, if the show has "lead characters" they would have to be the characters named "Kenny Loggins" and "Michael McDonald." Loggins begins his career as a defender of the genre, as in an early episode where he and Michael McDonald team up to defend the ethos of "Smooooth" against antagonistic east coast interlopers "Hall and Oates".

The Hall and Oates challenge culminates in a "sing off" that ends tragically, leading to a character arc involving McDonald and his emotional and philosophical connection to "Smooth Rock." In another episode Loggins finds himself tempted away from the "smoooth" by "hard rocker" Steve Perry of Journey, setting him in conflict with his old friend and conspirator McDonald. That conflict eventually intertwines the two with libidinous members of Toto, an angry Michael Jackson backed by possessed metal head Eddie Van Halen, and a slew of other well known and not so well known characters all of who exist in the show's smoggy circa 1980-'s Los Angeles parallel universe.

Channel101At this point I guess I can let the cat out of the bag, and telll you that the title of the show is (and was) "Yacht Rock." "Yacht Rock's" genius is that it is both a winking inside joke only truly appreciable to aficionados of 70's AM and 80's FM pop, and yet at the same time hilariously accessible thanks to the inclusion of many instantly recognizable songs which provide the launch points for each episode. Largely via word of mouth, "Yacht Rock" spread across the internet, finding favor with DJ's across the country who talked about it and linked to the website of its "network", Los Angeles based Over the space of a year the show has become such an underground phenomenon, that the Title has become synonymous with an entire genre of music, and has been adopted by club DJ's for "Yacht Rock" theme nights. is the brainchild of a couple of TV writer/producers named Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Their Ben Stiller directed pilot "Heat Vision and Jack" for Fox TV wasn't picked up, despite the fact that it starred two up and coming comedic actors named Jack Black and Owen Wilson. Licking their wounds after the experience, they began to make digital shorts, mostly as a way of amusing each other, which blossomed into screenings for friends, many of which are active in the LA improv comedy scene. The screenings metamorphosed into an informal festival, and eventually was born. As a way of separating the chaff from the wheat, Schrab came up with the idea of a fictitious network, capable of running at most, five series at a time. Episodes of each series are around five minutes in length. Anyone can submit a pilot, but only those deemed worthy by a panel comprised of current series creators gets an airing at the monthly screening. The audience votes for its favorites, and the five highest rated shows remain on the network.

Early series included Harmon's Computerman, co-starring Jack Black. Then a trio of young DV creaters made it onto the Channel101 primetime lineup with a series titled the 'Bu'. The same trio were hired by Saturday Night Live, and their Channel101 style digital shorts featuring the performing member of the Trio Andy Samberg, began to attract a lot of attention, in particular their Rap satires "Lazy Sunday" and "Hey Natalie". While Samberg is undoubtably Channel101's best known home grown alum, it was the controversy around another series that jump started Channel101 into the realm of viral trendsetter. The "House of Cosbys" was an animated series with an amusing premise involving a man who manages to clone a family of Bill Cosbys, each of which, not unlike the seven dwarves, is dominated by a singular character trait. After four popular episodes on Channel101, series creator Justin Roiland received a cease and desist from lawyers representing Cosby, and although the series clearly satirizes a public figure who has been satirized on mainstream TV repeatedly over the years, it's sad but understandable that Roiland didn't want to risk his financial well being in a legal battle with someone with the financial resources of Cosby. The battle over the House of Cosby episodes did however pave the way for the notoriety of "Yacht Rock" (and for trivia lovers, Roiland plays Christopher Cross in several episodes.) While many of the series on Channel101 are decidedly lowbrow, "Yacht Rock" is one of the few that was able to for the most part take the high road. It's pretty difficult to grab an audience's attention and make a comic impression in so little time and on a shoestring budget, and not resort to a few crude but effective jokes. It's fair to say that a significant portion of Channel101's episodes are unapologetically crude, befitting the anti-establishment origins of the network, it's DIY ethic, and the focus of its originators on the creation of shorts that are raw and unadulterated, and as antithetical as possible to the comedies that make it through the filters of the media conglomerates which control for the most part, what we see on TV and in Movie Theaters.

What's increasingly obvious is that the established rules that govern how, when and where we consume entertainment, are changing at an incredible rate, and it is inevitable that in the near future Internet TV will be a viable alternative to the status quo, offering more intimate creative visions than we could ever expect to see on network TV. Perhaps this explains the seeming disappearance of the sitcom. The creative adulteration inherent to network TV just isn't palatable to a generation raised on the moral wild west of the internet, where anything short of complete and total free speech is simply unacceptable. I think Channel101's Rob Harmon got it right in his public response to the Cosby cease and desist letters when he wrote:

"The actions of Cosby's legal team are somewhat laughable, somewhat sad and ultimately symbolic of a quantum shift in the business of entertainment: The internet is breaking a zillion dollar pinata, free candy is flying everywhere and the candy companies are understandably upset. You can't control digital information the way you can control radios, television and movies. Lawyers threatening web sites, the FCC clamoring to regulate cable, record labels making speeches about mp3s: I hear it all as a death rattle. They have my sympathy but not my respect."

What the future holds is always an uncertain thing, but I'd be willing to bet that it won't be too long before we see someone launch the next hit sitcom entirely from the Internet. As networks begrudgingly partner with Itunes, it won't be long before we see a show that bypasses the broadcast networks entirely, as we become increasingly wired, and our televisions and computers continue to merge and interconnect. is certainly a pioneer, although there was an entire wave of failed companies that came before it, during the Internet Boom (I even worked for one). Unlike most of those companies, Channel101 is focused entirely on the creative possibilities. I have a feeling in five years time people will look back on "webseries" like "Yacht Rock" as a turning point. And don't be surprised to see people like Harmon, Schrab, JD Ryznar & Hunter Stair (Yacht Rock's creators), and Roiland emerge as commercial rainmakers in the new entertainment world order. Even now, Harmon and Schrab have an animated feature film coming out and a series in development with VH-1. And did I mention, after a year's worth of ten episodes, "Yacht Rock" was finally can cancelled? Roll with the changes guys, there's an audience out there who can't wait to see what you do next.

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