Pilot Error Revisited: GIANTS OF RADIO (2008)
Several years ago, when I was a contributor to the sadly now-defunct website Antenna Free TV, I created a column called Pilot Error, where I looked back at TV pilots that never actually made it to series. When the site came to a conclusion, so did the column, but thanks to the kindness of the other folks involved with AFT (it was very much a collaborative effort), I’m able to bring them back to life here on Substack.
GIANTS OF RADIO (2008)
Starring: Joel McHale, Missy Pyle, Danny Pudi, Phil Hendrie, Jordan Black, Matt Corboy
When I went out to the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills this summer, it was with a mission: to make as much of my time as possible and do as many interviews as I possibly could. As such, I tried to attend every panel or event with an eye on at least one or two folks for this feature. One of those folks was Jason Winer, whose name you may recognize from his work on Modern Family but which can soon be seen in the credits of CBS’s new sitcom The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
When I went up to him to ask him about his 2008 pilot Giants of Radio, I admit that I did so mostly just because it had starred Joel McHale, but I soon discovered that there was far more to the story than just the dude from The Soup. After Winer told me his tale, I decided to reach out to some of the show’s other cast members as well, and the next thing I knew, I had the makings of an oral history. Mind you, I’m not 100% sure Giants of Radio necessarily needed an oral history, but it’s far too late to worry about that now, so…anyway, just read the damned thing, would you? Don’t make me feel like I’ve wasted my time. It’s entertaining. I swear!
Jason Winer (writer / director / “Jeremy Bryant”): Giants of Radio really kick-started my career, in spite of the fact that it could be technically classified as a failed pilot. It came into existence in a really unusual way. The first thing I ever directed was a short film called The Adventures of Big Handsome Guy and his Little Friend.
Matt Corboy (“Flip”): I was in The Adventures of Big Handsome Guy and his Little Friend. I mean, it was a very small part—I basically just helped him out with that—but I remember him saying something like, “Dude, thanks for helping me out with this. You’re obviously one of my best friends. I just hope that we’ll work together again soon.”
Jason Winer: We sold that short film to FOX, who then developed it into a very expensive, extravagant pilot based on the short film. When all was said and done, though, they put the two side by side, and they liked my inexpensive short film better than the extravagant pilot they made from it. And it therefore didn’t get picked up, but out of that came the idea that they should’ve let me direct it. They felt that the missing element was me directing. I don’t happen to agree, honestly. I think the director did a good job. I think the system sometimes messes stuff up as they ‘develop’ it. And you can write that I put air quotes around ‘develop.’ [Laughs.]
Matt Corboy: I was living with Jason at the time. I think I was just coming off of being on The Shield, and he was transitioning from acting to directing, and then he got this deal with FOX.
Jason Winer: The studio came to me and said, “We want to give you some money to direct something else. If you have another idea, we feel that developing the short film into the pilot was a success that got very close to going to the air, so…go make another short film.” And I was, like, “Well, you guys messed up the first one! I don’t want to make another short film, I want to make a pilot. I want to make the whole thing!” And they said, “Well, we’re not giving you enough money to make a whole pilot.” I said, “Well, how much are you giving me?” They said, “Nothing. 150 grand.” I had just made my first short film, which was 15 minutes long, for 20 grand! [Laughs.] So to me, that was a lot of money! I felt like if I could make a 15-minute film for 20 grand, I could make 22 minutes for 150. The president of 20th Century Fox told me in no uncertain terms that they wanted a 10-minute pilot presentation, and there was no way that what I could do could complete with the three million dollar pilots of the world, “so don’t do the whole thing.”
Matt Corboy: And so Jason, being Jason, he said, “Okay, I’ll go make a teaser for you,” and he shot a full-length scripted pilot from beginning to end, completely edited, with music and sound, for a 150 thousand dollars.
Jason Winer: I decided to take her words as a challenge rather than a mandate, and I went out and, unbeknownst to them, shot the whole pilot and delivered the whole thing.
Jordan Black (“Chauncey Fletcher”): Hey, it worked out for him.
Matt Corboy: I think they gave the same deal to a couple of other people—I’m pretty sure Richie Keen, who was a friend of Jason’s, also got it—and as I understand it, everybody else shot a very beautiful teaser for their idea for a show, and then Jason walked in and said, “Oh, here’s Giants of Radio.” And they were, like, “What is this?” And he said, “It’s my finished pilot!” I think everyone was sort of floored.
Jason Winer: The studio, they just really weren’t paying attention, so most people in the company were delighted and surprised that I’d put together the whole pilot. Because it was such a small amount of money, I put the cast together myself.
Matt Corboy: It’s really funny, because it all goes back to years before, when I performed at Improv Olympic on a team called Brand X…and our team was Jason Winer, myself, Joel McHale, Oscar Nunez from The Office, and then a couple of other guys: Reagan Burns, who’s on a television show now called Dog with a Blog, and Shane Nickerson, who’s been writing and producing for Rob Drydek. So we all had performed for years before, and Jason was, like, “Listen, who can I call who can knock this show out of the park?” And he called upon all of us. But, of course, he had a casting session as well, and that’s where he found Danny Pudi, who is awesome.
Jason Winer: Joel McHale and Danny Pudi were both in it, along with Missy Pyle. Oh, and legendary radio personality Phil Hendrie played a character that I had written just for him.
Phil Hendrie: I was contacted through my manager at the time by Jason and his manager. I had just finished my stint at Premiere Radio, where I was doing a syndicated show, and they were talking about an improv or lightly-scripted series about a radio station and the antics therein. They wanted to cast me as a blowhard conservative type who eventually, because of how bad his show was, starts doing these character voices and starts creating these fake callers to get calls. So it was kind of the story of Phil Hendrie, minus the blowhard conservative. [Laughs.] But it was an opportunity to go in and out of characters as well as to comedically perform the role of a guy working at a radio station like that. I like that, and the fact that it was going to be heavy on improv. That kind of played to where my strengths are, and they had other actors that were strong in the same way.
Matt Corboy: I remember he really wanted Phil Hendrie. Jason was a big sports radio nut, so he went and found Phil Hendrie and offered him the part. He was, like, “Dude, this is a nothing deal, I can’t really pay you much, but this is what we’re doing,” and Phil was all for it, y’know, the idea of bringing radio into TV. And, dude, Phil Hendrie is as cool as heck. I actually wasn’t that familiar with him, but Jason was so excited. He’s, like, “Dude! We got Phil Hendrie!” And my first question was, “Dude! Who is Phil Hendrie?” [Laughs.] He said, “Look him up!” So I did.
Jordan Black: Oh, that’s so funny, because I am such a huge Phil Hendrie fan, and I was before that, so I was so incredibly psyched that I was going to get to work with him. And what was crazy to me was when I got to talk to him—and I’m a fan, so I’m talking to him about his work and his radio show—and he was just so, like, blasé about it. I was, like, “I don’t think he knows what a big deal he is!” [Laughs.] I don’t know if he was humble or if it’s just because he goes into his little studio, does his radio show, and goes home, so he doesn’t know how much he’s worshipped by people in comedy. I mean, seriously, I felt like he didn’t know what I was talking about when I was asking him about his show. Maybe he really is just that humble, but it seemed like he just didn’t realize how much people love him.
Phil Hendrie: Some people have heard me on the radio, some people haven’t. It was like that then, and that’s still the case now. I still have people who are fans of mine who come up to me and say, “I tell as many people as I can about your show, and some people are, like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that guy,’ and some people are, like, ‘Who?’” It’s just the nature of the kind of show I do. It’s so weird that it’s hard for radio to promote it.
Matt Corboy: I didn’t know Jordan (Black) all that well, but I knew he was a Groundling, and I knew a lot of my friends were friends with him, and, dude, he’s such a good guy.
Jordan Black: I met Jason when he was working on the movie You, Me & Dupree. He had a small part in the movie, but the directors, the Russo brothers, saw a short film that Jason had done, and they hired him to do a behind-the-scenes “The Making of You, Me & Dupree,” except it was a fake one. I went in for an audition to play one of the Russo brothers. [Laughs.] So Jason cast me, and I got hired to play Joe Russo, and he played Anthony Russo. It was during the last week of them filming the movie, and we just shot what we could whenever we could and got whatever we could get for this fake making-of, which was supposed to be on the DVD but never actually ended up getting on there. But, anyway, that’s how I met Jason, and I guess he liked my work and liked working with me.
Giants of Radio came along about a year after You, Me & Dupree, and he just called me and asked if I’d play this part, and I agreed that I would. I was paid…something. A stipend. [Laughs.] I’ve been paid less, and I’ve been paid more. I’ve been paid nothing at all before for things like this. But in Jason’s defense, we did get paid a bit of a gratuity. I knew he didn’t have any money for the project, though, and he made it really easy. They shot it over a weekend—Saturday and Sunday—so it wasn’t like they were asking you to miss out on working somewhere else. And, look, in my career, I’m used to working on people’s side projects and stuff like that. I’ve always done that, and I always enjoy helping my friends with their projects. And it ended up paying off big dividends for me, ultimately, so it was worth it.
Matt Corboy: Missy Pyle was also in the pilot, and she’s great, too. She’s another one where it’s, like, I’ve known Missy for a decade, and so has Jason. Everyone was so cool on that show. I’m telling you, man, the set was…it’s, like, there wasn’t a turd in the bunch, y’know? It was a set of working actors, most of whom already happened to be friendly with each other, and the ones that didn’t know each other before that, they quickly became friends.
Jordan Black: Missy Pyle is a friend now, but I think I met her on Giants of Radio. In fact, it’s funny, because I’ve since done a bunch of episodes of Community, so I see Joel and Danny from time to time now, but…I feel like I might’ve crossed paths with Danny, because he and I had the same agent at the time. For the most part, though, I didn’t really know anyone besides Jason. But we all sort of bonded over that weekend.
Matt Corboy: I don’t want to say it was behind the scenes of a radio station, like WKRP in Cincinnati and Newsradio mostly were. I mean, itwas sort of like that, but they also wanted to bring in the actual radio shows they were doing, too, so it was sort of a unique show in that way. You know how Howard Stern shows the video of his radio show? Part of Giants of Radio was that you’d get to follow these personalities on air. It was really fun shooting that.
Jordan Black: The idea was that you’d see them doing the shows, and then because of that, you’d get to know the cast better. It was kind of like Taxi: that was a show about taxi drivers, but it was also about what was going on in the garage and the relationships between the characters.
Phil Hendrie: Each of the principal characters would’ve had their own shows. Missy Pyle came in for a couple of days’ shooting, and she had a sex talk show, and Jason, I think, did a sports show, and then I did what I did, and each character had large segments of their radio show presented…and all of them were really funny, as I remember, but especially Missy’s. I remember there was a scene where somebody inadvertently opens the door to the general manager’s office—that was Joel—and she’s spanking him. She has his pants down and she’s swatting his ass or something.
Jason’s character was kind of a dorky guy, and he falls for some chick, played by Jackie Tohn, so there was that little subplot going on. And my character got drunk and had to spend the night at somebody’s house, and they’re trying to protect my reputation. Oh, and then Jordan’s character had a lot of scenes in there where…he was kind of the go-to guy whenever there was a disaster looming. He always had the answers. And then he got really tight with the GM, Joel’s character, and they started doing all of these soul-brother handshakes and shit. [Laughs.] There was some pretty funny improv in there, I think.
Matt Corboy: I was basically offered the role of Flip, and Scoot was played by my friend Kevin Linehan. He and I went to college together. Flip and Scoot were the omnipresent yes men in the office, and Jason was, like, “These characters are largely unscripted, but, basically, no matter what Joel says, you agree with it and one-up it.” So it was like this ultimate frat-guy with his minions around him. “Yeah, that’s a great idea, we should do that. And you know what else we should do…” And then we’d add more onto it. Flip and Scoot were going to be in every episode, they were always going to be around, but as I was talking to Jason, I was, like, “This is an interesting job title these guys have. They’re in their mid-30s, and they just stop whatever they’re doing and work for this guy who has this conglomerate radio corporation? Where did they come from? What did they do before this?”
So with Jason’s permission, I actually wrote and directed a little five-minute piece called The Adventures of Flip and Scoot, using the same director of photography who shot the show, David Jones. It was kind of in the vein of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and it basically showed what Flip and Scoot were doing before they got this job and how they got this job, and it just showed that, basically, one of them’s a trust-fund kid, and he’s going to lose his money unless he gets a job, so his uncle hooks him up with this radio station, he brings along his best friend Scoot, and they actually have to buy suits, because neither of ‘em own one, then there’s a scene where they’re on the golf course betting with each other when they get the call that they’ve got the job.. You know how The Office had its web series, The Accountants? My idea was to pitch The Adventures ofFlip and Scoot to Jason as the web series for Giants of Radio. But, alas, it never came to be.
Jordan Black: I played Chauncey Fletcher, and in the pilot, he’s this guy who Joel McHale’s character discovered in, like, an airport bar and gets to chatting with him and loves him and his personality, so he hires him to the on-air partner for Jeremy, Jason’s character. So he goes from having his own sports show to having a partner, which is something that he was not prepared for. But my character was basically just this guy who loves life, and he’s got this saying: “Flow with the go!” [Laughs.] He’s, like, “Wherever life takes you, go for it, man! Just enjoy life!” But then you also find out in the pilot that it can also cause huge problems in your life when you “flow with the go”…like, say, not having any place to live in the city because you weren’t planning to be working at this radio station. It was a really fun part for me. I’d never gotten to play a part like that before, and I loved it. It was so much fun. We shot it over two days, and it was just great.
Matt Corboy: Jason’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s so calm and fun, and because he’s an actor, he’ll throw out lines that he’s sort of improvised in his head as you’re saying things, so it kind of gets everyone’s juices flowing. It was a really fun set.
Phil Hendrie: It was a lot of fun. And I thought it was a good pilot. I thought it was very funny in parts, and I thought the idea was outstanding and, frankly, still is. I mean, what have we had in the way of radio station sitcoms, really? WKRP in Cincinnati was in ’78, and then we had NewsRadio, but that’s about it. But you’ll notice that television always wants to set something in a radio station. They always want to have a radio station somewhere in the show, they always like to have characters working at a radio station, but they never really do shows about radio, except for those two, so…it’s quite interesting. In fact, thinking about it, television likes to place characters in situations in radio stations more than they do television stations, and it may be because radio stations are far more relatable places. It seems like anyone can go to work for one. [Laughs.] And yet, y’know, radio still has kind of a glamorous side, if you will, or an exciting side to it.
Matt Corboy:It went on to generate this sort of bidding war just based on the idea and the execution and how good it was and Jason’s vision…and, I like to think, the quality of the actors. [Laughs.] But you have to remember that this was before Joel McHale was Joel McHale and before Danny Pudi was Danny Pudi. Anyway, the bidding war sort of just fizzled out. But that happens, you know?
Jordan Black: I guess ABC and CBS were bidding for it, and CBS ended up getting it.
Jason Winer: CBS ended up buying the finished product, didn’t change a frame, and ended up paying a multi-million dollar fee to 20th Century Fox for the right to consider putting it on the air, as if it were a pilot that they made. But it was not. They just bought the finished product wholesale.
Matt Corboy: Some people buy things just so other people don’t get them.
Jason Winer: Look, it was single camera, and at the time, I think 20th was delighted that this thing they made for 150 grand was fetching them several million dollars on the open market. CBS was offering the most money, so they took the money from CBS. They loved the voice, they loved the world, they loved the area, and I think they were eager to be in business with me, but the truth is, CBS was not yet in the business of putting single-camera comedies on the air.
Matt Corboy: I think everyone was disappointed, not only because we thought the show was going to be good, but also because everyone was so much fun to work with. That was one of those where it was, like, “Hollywood is Hollywood, man, and you can never get excited until you cash the check.” But being the fact that it had this bidding war and the fact that we had Jason behind it… You know, he’s so gung-ho, it was, like, “If anyone can do it, he can!” He was our fearless leader. So we were, like, “What do you mean?” He’s, like, “Dude, it’s dead.” We were, like, “WHAT?!? How is that possible?” And then almost instantly after that, Joel McHale and Danny Pudi were snatched up to do Community. I mean, I’m not giving Jason full credit for discovering those guys, but…I’m just saying.
Jordan Black: I’ve been doing this for a long time, so nothing surprises me, but I did learn something from that whole situation. They were putting so much money into that project, between my holding deal, Phil’s holding deal, and whatever deal they made with Jason that I was, like, “Okay, they’re spending a lot of money on this thing!” It was a lot of money to me, but in retrospect it was clearly nothing to them. Yeah, that was a real nice learning experience: I was, like, “Well, they would never pay this kind of money if they were gonna pass! We’re good!” And then it’s, like, “Hey, by the way, they passed.” [Laughs.]
For me personally, though, it was great, because I ended up getting a talent holding deal at ABC and CBS, both of whom were bidding for me. After ABC didn’t get the series, they tried to make a deal with me personally, and that was a bidding war, too...one that I made a nice chunk of change out of. [Laughs.] So even though the show didn’t get picked up, I made some nice money on it, thank God…and I think Phil Hendrie did, too!
Phil Hendrie: Yeah, I remember they picked up my option, Jason’s option, and Jordan’s, so we thought maybe it had a shot. But you never know, man. You never know why they say yes, and you never know why they say no. I was not as surprised as some people, because I’d been through the pilot thing twice as a producer myself, and I got jerked off during that, too. I had a pilot at NBC, and then we had an animated pilot at FOX that everybody said was going to be fantastic, but, nope, it didn’t go, American Dad! went. So I tended then and still tend to now just kind of shrug off any of their excited bullshit until the official word happens…and that’s good advice for anybody. [Laughs.]
Jordan Black: There’s certainly no bitterness. I mean, they didn’t pick it up, but that’s the business we’re in. And at the end of the day, it was a successful pilot, in my opinion, It put me on the map with a lot of people – for years, I went into auditions for television things, and people were, like, “Oh, my God, you were in that great pilot!” – and it gave Jason his directing career.
Jason Winer: All these years later, the seeds that were planted back then are still paying off. Some of those executives who were at CBS then, they’re still with the network now, and they’re the ones who are overseeing the process of The Crazy Ones as I make that for them. Those relationships wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Giants of Radio.
Matt Corboy: My goal in Hollywood has always been to work with my friends. Anytime anybody asks what my goal is in this town, I always say, “To be on an ensemble comedy with my friends.” But it’s hard to do that unless you create a show. And Jason did that. He created a show and put a lot of his friends in it who were and are really talented actors. And, man, it’s still such a bummer that it didn’t go.