WASHINGTON — Have you ever looked around your workplace and said to yourself, “Man, this would make a hilarious TV show?”
That’s exactly what happened to Chris Petlak, who was working at Chicago radio station WTMX 101.9 The Mix when he and his creative pal Jim Kozyra realized it was the perfect sitcom setting.
“There’s a lot of very great characters that can come out of a radio station … guests that come through [and] you have to be a particular type of person to work overnights,” Petlak told WTOP.
So they created a bunch of three-minute episodes of “The Jamz” — shot at the radio station — and pitched it at the 2014 New York Television Festival (NYTVF), where it was chosen to become the first program produced by NYTVF Productions and funded and distributed worldwide by The Orchard.
Set at the fictional 101.7 THE JAMZ, the No. 1 music station in Chicago, the show opens with the retirement of the station’s famous, longtime morning show host. This leaves a coveted vacancy sought by two ambitious but bumbling overnight DJs, Jay Jay (Petlak) and Fitzy (Kozyra).
“Our heroes quickly try to find their way into the morning slot despite their own incompetence,” Kozyra said. “It’s Jay-Jay, Chris’ character, trying as hard as he can to keep the show on the rails, and Fitzy, my character, literally with the attention span of a flea just taking the show off the rails.”
“It’s got an ‘Office’ vibe, ‘Parks and Rec’ dysfunction,” Kozyra said. “This is a weird one: I would say it gives ‘The West Wing’ a run for its money as far as words per page. Sorkin-speed. It’s rain-paced, baby. It is fast, fast, fast, fast, fast. I think we do about 34-35 pages in about 23-24 minutes.”
Only a pair of ambitious funnymen could pull off such an achievement.
The duo came up separately on the Chicago creative scene, as Petlak studied acting and writing at Illinois State University, while Kozyra attended Dominican University. Their worlds collided upon doing a stand-up routine at the Metropolis Performing Arts Center in suburban Chicago.
“We were doing an improv parody of ‘Twilight,'” Petlak said. “I was Jacob the Werewolf.”
“I was the vampire,” Kozyra said.
But the fangirl audience wasn’t divided into “Team Petlak” and “Team Kozyra.”
“Most of the audience was on Team Why Are You Making Fun of the [Movies]?” Kozyra joked.
“This happened at the peak hotness of the ‘Twilight’ series,” Petlak added. “We’re doing this in the suburbs of Chicago and the audience night after night is 15-year-old girls thinking this is going to be a show about ‘Twilight,’ not recognizing it was going to be a show that was going to destroy ‘Twilight.'”
Within the first five seconds of the routine, the “Twilight” diehards in the audience quickly realized that it was a mockery, as Kozyra emerged in a ridiculous wig and Petlak took the stage shirtless.
“The second I took my shirt off, the audience was [deflated]. I would say that my body type is ‘melted candle.’ That’s what I would describe it as,” Petlak joked.
“I would second that,” Kozyra joked.
Despite the crushed dreams of the “Twilight” audience, a new comedy combo was born.
“We always joke about this, in the movie ‘Step Brothers,’ where they [say], ‘Did we just become best friends?!?’ That’s pretty much what happened,” Petlak said. “We had this desire to do more.”
“We wanted to figure out a way to do a web series together because we had really good chemistry on stage,” Kozyra said.
That’s when they turned their attention to Petlak’s radio station, which provided a unique setting that set their show apart from other “starving-artist” web series.
“Every actor wants to do a web series about a struggling actor where it’s the actor in their apartment and going to their crappy job and they’re getting dumped by their crappy girlfriend,” Kozyra said. “With five rewrites of taking this apartment and turning it into a radio booth, we ended up not only making it original, but also placing it in a soundproof room, which helped our sound and audio.”
Indeed, the radio booth provided the perfect shooting location for this shoestring operation. The duo shot 20 three-minute episodes on a Canon 5D Mark 2, while plugging the booth’s existing microphones into a Zoom recorder and aiming a pair of Menards work lights at the white ceiling.
“The show is two guys in a chair that don’t really move, the ceiling is reflective so you have naturally-diffused light and we’re filming on what is meant to be a photography camera, so you get that great depth of field and sharp picture. It looks incredibly professional with minimal effort,” Kozyra said.
“I think the two biggest things that stand out in independent film … are sound and lighting. Those are the two hardest things sometimes to tackle,” Petlak said. “You could have the greatest camera in the world, but if the room’s lit poorly and I can’t hear you, then suddenly no one’s paying attention.”
The comic creativity and ideal location created a perfect storm that rocked the 2014 New York Television Festival, which was hosting a pilot pitch competition.
“We took five or six of the shorts and strung them together and submitted them,” Petlak said. “That year, 2014, the Orchard Go Project was offering a development deal through The Orchard and through the New York Television Festival, who was going to be starting a production arm.”
Kozyra admits he didn’t read the fine print and had no idea about the magnitude of the pitch.
“I didn’t realize that The Orchard was doing this until after the meeting,” Kozyra admitted. “The guys we met with were super chill … so I’m pitching this to The Orchard and it wasn’t until after the fact that I talked to Chris and he was like, ‘That’s the big one. That’s the big thing.’ And I was like, ‘Oh.'”
It was a blessing in disguise, as Kozyra was far less nervous in making the pitch.
Meanwhile, Petlak thinks the show’s short, episodic format helped their case.
“One of our strengths was because of the format we pitched,” Petlak said. “We took three-minute shorts … as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s film our own 22-minute pilot and show them what it would look like.’ The advantage to that was … it becomes much more of a dialogue. As opposed to ‘This is what I liked and this is what I didn’t like,’ the conversation was more, ‘What if you did this? Or did that?'”
Wouldn’t you know it? Their tiny little show was chosen as the winner. From there, they spent the end of 2014 through the spring of 2015 writing four official half-hour episodes. The NYTVF brought in some festival alums to help, including writers Jo Scott and Jeff Murdoch, and director Ted Tremper.
“Terence Gray and Ian Thake were the two [producers] who really helped us develop the story … gave us notes on our first drafts, told us the things they thought would play, the things they thought wouldn’t play,” Kozyra said. “They said, ‘We are going to hire the production crew, we are going to get you guys set up,’ and they were from the word ‘go’ adamant that this thing would film in Chicago.”
The shoot lasted 12 days, consisting mostly of overnights from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Each episode’s script ran roughly 32 pages, making for a very ambitious page count per day. The longest shooting day was 17 pages; the shortest was 12 pages. Usually productions are lucky to shoot four pages a day.
As for the cast, the NYTVF brought in Kathy Najimy, who starred in “Sister Act” (1992) and “Hocus Pocus” (1993) and also voiced Peggy Hill in the animated TV comedy “King of the Hill” (1997). The web series also stars Dave Pasquesi (“Veep”) and Michael Patrick Thornton (“Private Practice”), but it was ironically a local TV talent, Tamberla Perry, who impressed Kozyra’s mother the most.
“Tamberla Perry for five years would pull the lotto numbers midday on Channel 9,” Kozyra said. “I’m explaining to my mom that Kathy Najimy is in this, I’m explaining who Dave Pasquesi is, who Michael Patrick Thornton is … then casually dropped ‘Tamberla Perry.’ … My mom, who’s a compulsive gambler and plays the lotto, was like, ‘Oh my! Tamberla Perry! How did you get Tamberla Perry?!'”
Still, the secret scene-stealer might be Rammel Chan as the station’s mute intern.
“We wrote him to not say anything, but he’s absurdly hilarious,” Petlak said, laughing.
“We’re editing it, we’re going through, so we’ve seen this show into the ground. On the seventh and eighth watch, we’re seeing things that he’s doing for the first time in the background, in the deep background, and we’re like, ‘What is Rammel doing?’ Then you’re like, ‘That is hilarious!'”
Petlak and Kozyra are crossing their fingers hoping viewers will also demand repeat viewings.
“We are both optimistic and hopeful that we can get a second season of this show somewhere, that it’ll find its home,” Kozyra said.
After making its world premiere on April 4 at Chicago’s historic Logan Theatre — including a Q&A moderated by Eric Ferguson, host of Chicago’s actual No. 1 morning show — “The Jamz” became available on iTunes a few weeks ago and, as of this week, is now also streaming on Netflix.
Why should we binge? Both creators have different reasons.
“What else are you doing? What are you doing? There’s four episodes, they’re 25 minutes each, that’s 100 minutes. … So what’re you doing for 100 minutes? What else you gonna watch?” Kozyra joked.
Petlak is far more introspective.
“I think you’ll really connect with the characters,” Petlak said. “It’s two people who really feel and believe that they deserve more, and they can do better and they can do more, and they just need someone to look at them and say, ‘Oh yeah, those guys are alright.'”