About a year ago, I had a meeting with a production company, who wanted me to host a show for them. The concept was simple, I thought it had the potential to be incredibly funny, and I really liked the people I met with.
“I can’t just be a host, though,” I explained. “I’ve been producing Tabletop for two seasons, and if I’m going to be the public face of a show, I need to have a hand in its creative direction. I want to write for it, and I need to be a producer.” Over the last couple of years, I’ve done more and more work off camera, and I’ve learned a lot about how shows come together and develop in the writer’s room and the editing bay. I love being an actor on camera, but it feels very much like I’m doing a small part of the overall production. If I was going to host a show, and if I was going to be the face of that show, I needed to do more than just stand in front of the camera and read lines. I wanted to help make the show.
“Of course,” the head of the company said to me, like I’d just told him that I’d need to breathe air during production. “We want to do this together.”
That was all I needed to hear. We agreed on the general idea, and spent the next several months working out the specific details of the show. About six months later, we went to the network to pitch it.
Pitching a show to a network is weird. You take your creative team to their offices, and then you sit across from a bunch of executives and tell them why they should buy your show. It’s sort of like an audition, but instead of just giving a performance, there’s an intense Q&A after (and sometimes during), and you have to be able to think quickly, and be prepared for anything. It could be very stressful, but this particular meeting wasn’t stressful for me, at all. I believed in the concept of the show, and I knew that it could be really cool if the network would trust our ideas and let us make it.
The pitch meeting went very well, and it turns out that the network trusted our ideas, and pay for us to make a pilot.
“Did you want to make a pilot that we could air, or would you prefer to do a non-airable pilot?” The head guy asked us.
“We’d much prefer to make something that doesn’t have to go on the air,” I said, “so we can show you all the different concepts and pieces.”
“Okay,” he said, “go and make your best pilot, and we won’t worry about putting it on the air.”
I couldn’t believe how … well, easy the whole thing was. Unlike auditions, where I often feel like the other people in the room are sitting back and just waiting for me to leave, the network executives I met with that day last year were engaged, enthusiastic, interested, and seemed genuinely excited about the show. As the creative team — now my creative team — and I walked out of the building, one of them said to me, “that’s the best pitch meeting I’ve ever been part of.”
“Really?” I said. This guy’s done hundreds of pitch meetings.
“Yeah. You did great.”
“I guess it’s easy when you really believe in something and are excited about it, huh?”
“I guess it is!”
Another few months went by, and we continued to work on the show, refining it and pitching ideas to each other. We hired some great writers and segment producers, and spent lots of time making each other laugh, finding out what bits worked and didn’t, and trying to come up with a name for the show (that turned out to be the hardest part of the whole process).
Then, about three weeks before we were going to shoot our pilot, disaster struck: the network executive who green lit the project was out, and our show was probably gone with him.
In the entertainment industry, it’s not uncommon for executives to move around, but when that happens, any projects they had approved are always killed. The reasoning goes that the new person who takes over won’t want to keep any of the old person’s projects, because they don’t want the old person to get any credit for anything. Lots of really great projects have died this way over the years, and I was pretty sure that my show would join them.
I called the production company, and asked if we were finished before we had even really started.
“No! The network loves you and loves this idea,” he said, “and the new guy is apparently a fan of your work, so we’re still on target to make the pilot.”
I couldn’t believe it. It spoke volumes about the new guy’s character and confidence, and it said something pretty good about our idea, too.
Do you remember the day photoshopwilwheaton.tumblr.com was born, the day I took a stupid picture of myself and said that I was working in front of a green screen all day? That was the day we filmed our pilot.
It felt so weird to feel a mixture of excitement and nervousness as I walked into the stage and met the crew. I feel so comfortable with my Tabletop crew, and I know the crew at The Big Bang Theory so well, to meet and work with a crew I would probably only see for one day was a new experience for me. Would they like the show as much as we did? Would they laugh at our jokes? What would I do if they didn’t? In the fifty or so steps it took me to get from the stage door to my mark, the magnitude of what we were doing — the culmination of months of hard work — and what was at stake for us threatened to paralyze me. When I got to my mark, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that a lot of smart and funny people had helped get me to that very moment. I told the familiar voices of Self Doubt and You Really Suck, Wheaton, to shut up and let me do my work. I looked up at the camera and said, “Hi, I’m Wil Wheaton, and this is The Wil Wheaton Project.”
Just like that, all the nerves and doubts went away. I didn’t think about all the risks and all the ways I could screw up. I just had fun doing the work we’d written. I made the crew laugh over and over again, I amused myself, and I made the writers and producers laugh. We shot hours of stuff, knowing that it would get cut down to just 21 minutes, and by the end of the day I was creatively, emotionally, and physically exhausted. It felt great.
On my way to my dressing room, one of the network executives who had come to the set to watch stopped me. She told me how much she loved it, how funny she thought it was, how much she liked me as the host, and that she wanted to get it on the air right away.
“Thank you,” I said, unsure how much salt I should be using to season the effusive praise, “I had a lot of fun, and I’m really glad you liked it.”
“Well I loved it, and I hope that we get to do this together for years.” She said it with so much kindness and sincerity, I put my mental salt shaker away without using a single grain.
Imagine a montage here, of editing and more editing and even more editing. Imagine that the camera dollies across a room filled with network people, their faces illuminated by the flicker of a television that we can’t see. Some of them are laughing, others are stoic, most of them are smiling. We get the impression that they like what they see. Now we cut to me doing various things, like walking my dogs, homebrewing beer, doing some Rocky-like training for some reason. Days and then weeks go by on a superimposed page-a-day calendar. the pages fly off while I call and email my production company to find out if we’ve been picked up. The camera cuts to a time lapse shot, high over Hollywood, as the sun tracks across the sky, the traffic ebbs and flows, and city comes alive at night. That shot has nothing at all to do with the narrative, really, I just think it looks cool. The montage ends as I pick up my phone to make one more call.
“So, it’s been a long time and we haven’t heard anything,” I say to my executive producer, “should I just assume that it didn’t work out?”
“What do you mean?” He says. “They picked us up for 12 episodes. We’re in pre-production!”
“Nobody told you?”
I recalled the last conversation I’d had with the head of the company, a week before. I replayed it, and realized that I’d misunderstood him.
“The last I heard was that they liked it, but I thought that they hadn’t given us the official pick up.”
“Oh no. They love us. They love you!”
I felt this strange mixture of excitement and embarrassment, wrapped up in a blanket of silly.
“I have to say, this is the strangest way I’ve ever found out that something I did got picked up by the network.” I laughed, and we made plans to meet so we could discuss the writers and producers we’d bring on for the full three month production process (and hopefully years more, if the network likes us enough to keep us going.)
I hung up my phone, and then it hit me. I mean, it really hit me: the show we’d worked almost a year to make, the show that I’d thought was dead but wasn’t more than once, was actually going to happen. For at least twelve weeks this summer, I’d be hosting a weekly show on television, and I’d get to help write and produce it.
I whooped and hollered and ran around my house, while my dogs tried to figure out why I had the zoomies hours before they usually got them at 5:30pm every day.
Imagine another montage that serves to pass some more time, and ends with us having a meeting with the new guy at the network. Probably include another one of those time lapse shots of a city at night that I think are so cool, but this time a couple of thunderstorms blow over, because those look really neat in time lapse.
“I have to tell you,” the new guy says to us, “that a lot of people have tried to crack this particular nut, and nobody has ever been able to make the show you brought us work.”
We wait for him to continue, and he does, “But this is the funniest pilot in this genre that I’ve ever seen. You guys did a great job!”
I exhale, and thank him. We spend about an hour with him and the rest of his team, making sure we all know exactly what the show is going to be. We talk about what worked and what didn’t work in the pilot, discover that we all agree on those points (a huge bonus for all of us, because it means we see the show the same way), and by the time we’re finished we’re all excited to get the show on the air.
We’re not going to do another montage, because I have to publish this in fifteen minutes and I don’t have time. Let’s just do a simple time cut to me, sitting in my office wearing my Captain Kirk pajamas, writing this out. Marlowe is sleeping underneath my desk, and Seamus is quietly grumbling at me from the couch behind me, because they should have been given their breakfast an hour ago, but I’ve been writing nonstop since I woke up.
This is the part where I finally stop describing the process of creating this show and bringing it to life, and actually tell you what it is, and where and when you can see it.
The show will be on the network formerly known as Sci-Fi, and it is called The Wil Wheaton Project. It premieres on May 27th at 10pm.
The Wil Wheaton Project is a weekly roundup of the things I love on television and on the Internet, with commentary and jokes, and the occasional visit from interesting people who make those things happen. It’s sort of like Talk Soup for geeks, with a heavy focus on those hilariously bad paranormal reality shows (in fact, that’s where the whole thing started a year ago, but as we worked on the show more and more, we discovered that there were lots of scripted paranormal shows that provided a ton of comedic material. When we expanded to cover the scripted shows, we discovered that nobody was doing a show like this that was just focused on the genre shows that nerds like us love, and we decided that we’d make that show because of reasons.)
The official network announcement will be coming out a little later this morning, but I’ll put a little bit of it here, because I can:
Syfy has greenlit the 12-episode summer series, The Wil Wheaton Project (working title), a weekly topical comedy show hosted by actor and champion of geek culture Wil Wheaton. The 30-minute show will offer a funny, fast-paced exploration and celebration of science fiction and genre entertainment. The series premieres Tuesday, May 27 at 10PM ET/PT on Syfy.
Each week, Wil provides his insider point-of-view, sense of humor and expertise as he dissects the week’s most popular and trending topics across sci-fi film, television and pop culture, as well as video games, viral videos and news. Wil is on his feet for the rapid-fire half hour, delivering sharp, straight-to-camera commentary as he riffs his way through content clips. The result is a fun appreciation for all things science fiction.
I really love that I get to be part of something that brings Science Fiction back to Syfy, and if I read correctly between the lines during our meetings with the Syfy executives, this is just the beginning of the network formerly known as Sci-Fi returning to its science fiction roots, which is awesome. Developing the show has been incredibly fun, and like I wrote last week, when I met the full staff of writers and producers, I was floored by how talented and funny they are. We’re going to make something that I just know you’re going to love, and I hope that so many people love it, we’ll get to make it for years to come.
If you have questions about the show, the process of bringing it to television, or anything related to it, ask them here and I’ll do my best to answer all of them.
UPDATE: A couple FAQs have emerged, so let me answer them.
Q: Will this be online?
A: I don’t know, but I hope so. I’m pushing everyone who will listen to me to put episodes online, but ultimately that isn’t my decision.
Q: Will this air in [country that is not the US]?
A: I don’t know, but I hope so. That’s a decision that the network will make.
Q: Will this mean no more Tabletop?
A: No! I made sure that everyone knew I’d be doing Tabletop, and I made sure that my contract included language that would guarantee my ability and availability to make Tabletop.
Q: When will you know if you get more then twelve episodes?
A: I think we’d know about halfway through the summer, but I can’t say for sure. I’m pretty sure that if enough people watch and like the show, the network will order more episodes.