Once a month, DIY media makers gather in Los Angeles to watch a collection of five-minute TV shows they've made in their spare time. It's called Channel 101, but you won't find it on TV; it's an underground event that's been going on since 2003 and today boasts a nationwide fan base.
Known for its offbeat humor, Channel 101's alumni have gone on to work for well-known comedy productions like Saturday Night Live, Adult Swim and the humor website Funny or Die. But unlike its well-funded counterparts, Channel 101 shows are often filmed in backyards, small apartments and even convenience stores.
Where Chipmunks Are Played By Iguanas
At a recent Channel 101 screening at Los Angeles' Downtown Independent theater, a packed audience samples the latest episodes of Channel 101's DIY shows.
One of those shows, Everything, includes a live-action riff on Alvin and the Chipmunks, except the chipmunks are played by iguanas. The show gets a lot of laughs from the mostly 20-something crowd and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone texting — after all, the filmmaker could easily be sitting right next to him.
Another show being screened that night is Gigglers, a sitcom about two crash-landed alien girls whose only form of communication is giggling. If it sounds out there, that's because it is.
Gigglers was submitted by Nico Colaleo and Kali Fontecchio. Fontecchio has been attending Channel 101 screenings since August 2010.
"This is actually the first screening where I actually have a show in the lineup, so it's very exciting," Fontecchio says. "You're actually in a room full of your peers who all make shows exactly like you do and [whom] you respect on a very high level."
Handycams And The Beginning Of Channel 101
Fontecchio has good reason to be excited about her Channel 101 debut. Today, the two guys who started 101 have successful careers in television; Dan Harmon is the creator of the sitcom Community, and Rob Schrab directs series like Parks and Recreation.
The two friends moved to Los Angeles together from Wisconsin over 10 years ago. Harmon says the spark for 101 came while they were writing a TV pilot directed by Ben Stiller.
"Ben Stiller gave Rob one of these new Sony Handycams," Harmon says. "It was an incredible explosion for us and it coincided with our first huge, gigantic professional failure."
The Stiller pilot never aired, but Harmon and Schrab started making Handycam shorts just to make each other laugh. Soon, they were throwing parties where their friends would share their own shorts. And, in an era before YouTube, those parties soon outgrew the living rooms where they began, so they moved on to bigger venues.
According to Schrab, their agent soon pushed them to be more selective with what was screened.
"Because there were ones that were 15 minutes long that were just awful," he says, "just really terrible."
But they didn't want to have to decide what was good and what wasn't.
"We've already learned that the geniuses of yesterday are the tyrants of today and we've suffered that fate," Harmon says. As he puts it, they were afraid to be the ones to make the brutal cuts and wanted to pass that responsibility on to someone they could trust. "So Rob said, 'What if we put the audience in charge?' "
Channel 101 is a democracy where the audience votes. Of the 10 shows that screen, only five make the cut to return the next month. That kind of rejection is familiar to Brenan Campbell, who began submitting to 101 — and getting rejected again and again — while he still lived in Indiana.
"It's really brutal; you get rejected a lot," Campbell says. "And I think that really helps people who are selling real TV shows and working in the industry because you get so used to rejection, you're immune to it after a while."
In a way, the rejection is a rite of passage. After the show, everyone gathers on the roof of the movie theater to celebrate — or soften the blow.
That's the secret sauce of Channel 101; anything goes and it's OK to fall flat on your face because the rest of the comedy nerds and film freaks in the not-quite-secret club will be waiting for you afterward, ready to see what you cook up next.
Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstyle, a project of Youth Radio. You can see a collection of Channel 101 alumni at turnstylenews.com.