Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NYTVF ’09: Late Show

Want to direct an independent feature film? Just assemble a skeleton crew and max out your credit cards. Granted it might be difficult, but it is within the realm of possibility. Independent television production is a different story. Sure there are web-based portals, but like it or not, credibility for hour-long dramas and half hour sitcoms remains contingent on placement with the networks or major cable players.

The New York Television Festival was created to address this situation, offering a venue to showcase aspiring television program developers. Acting something like an IFP for television, the NYTVF sponsors independent pilot competitions and offers fellowships to emerging creators. You might not necessarily see this year’s competing pilots on television, but you could see future projects from the talent that produced them. Past NYTVF alumnus have developed pilots and even sold series to outlets like Fox, Spike, and A&E.

As a big television industry gathering, NYTVF is also an opportunity to spotlight major network premieres and tap leading figures for panels and seminars. Tuesday night it was the Late Show with David Letterman writers taking the stage at the Times Center, to discuss professional comedy writing in all its unvarnished glory.

Moderated by SNL’s Jason Sudeikis, the representatives of the Letterman writing staff gave a general overview of their daily routine, but most of the program was dedicated to war stories. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix’s name did come up. Evidently, he was always a little tightly wound when he came on the show. When asked, essentially their response to uproar caused by the sexually suggestive joke made at the expense of Sarah Palin’s under-age daughter was Dave’s apologies made for good television.

Describing the fluidity of the show, head-writers (and brothers) Jason and Eric Stangel explained they often wrote new material on-the-fly during tapings, based on Letterman’s off-hand remarks. As fellow writer Bill Scheft put it: “one man’s aside is another man’s order.” One writer ended the evening using a jazz analogy to evoke the give-and-take process between Letterman’s improvising, the responses of his guests, and their scripted material, which was cool, if largely unappreciated by his colleagues.

NYTVF’s next network premiere will be ABC’s Flashforward tomorrow night. Their pilot screenings continue throughout the festival at New World Stages (free and open to the public), with the winners announced on Saturday night (9/26).