DROP THE PENCIL: Best Week Ever

“DROP THE PENCIL”: BEST WEEK EVER

I was at lunch one day with Gerry Laybourne and a colleague, brainstorming ideas. As was my habit at the time, I pulled out a pencil to sketch out what I thought we were saying. Gerry smiled. “Drop the pencil,” she said. She looked over at my colleague who was far more qualified to do that sketch. 

It took me a while, but I finally learned the lesson. When you’re leading a team, sometimes you just find the best people and let them go. Drop the pencil. Let THEM pick it up. 

Every week on VH1, the Best Week Ever team relied on a group of very smart, funny comics to come in and share their hot takes on the week in pop culture. Sometimes, the things they were talking about had happened just a few hours ago.

The secret to the show, without a doubt, was the casting. Among the comics who showed up in our offices, week after week, were John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, Julie Klausner, Jessi Klein, Jessica St. Clair, Melissa Rauch, Doug Benson, Paul Scheer, Rob Heubel, Aziz Ansari, Paul F. Tompkins… the list goes on. And the credit belongs to Jim Kozloff, our casting director. 

I was also lucky to find some of the funniest pop culture idiot savants in the US to write for the show: Caissie St. Onge, Ann Cohen, Meredith Scardino, Caroline Waxler and, on the blog, Michelle Collins. Yes, I was able to break the “boys club” there. That said, I also had writer Matt Pearl, an unflappable EP in Sean Johnson and producers Brian Saracusa, Kevin Feliz and Tim Golier.

THE BACKSTORY

I don’t know an executive worth their salt who hasn’t, from time to time, gotten caught in a corporate grinder and sent back to the woods to recapture their Mojo.

After my brief stint as head of programming at VH1 was interrupted by a major corporate shakeup, I found myself roaming the halls of MTV Networks, dabbling in learning how to shoot and edit my own digital video, overseeing some shows and attending the random development meeting.

One of the last things I did as head of programming was to greenlight an American version of British series called “I Love The…” My own programming insight was that VH1 should always play the nostalgia card. In 2000, if you did the math, the 30-40 year old audience was going to be nostalgic for the 80s. Michael produced the wildly successful “I Love the 80s,” then “I Love the 70s,” and there were plans for the 90s.

As a joke one day, I said “We should really do ‘I Love Last Week.’” Everyone laughed, and then Shelly Tatro said: “That’s a good idea.”

I followed Michael into his office and asked him: What’s the most money you’d give me for a pilot and I don’t need to meet with anyone but you? He gave me $50K and we made Best Week Ever.

The show would be a fast-moving topical review of pop culture. We were at the height of blogging culture and we wanted to capture that energy on TV. It was “Everything you loved, everything you missed, and everything you want to see again!”

I chose 4th of July week. I knew it would be a slow news week and I never wanted people to attribute a good pilot to the news we covered. We lucked out: The biggest news that happend was that the movie “Bring It On” came out and George W. Bush taunted Iran with the same words. The plan was to open every with a hit song, and that week “Crazy In Love” dropped.

Talk about Minimum Viable Product. We produced the show in a sweltering room in L.A. with a skeleton crew.  We called in favors and were lucky enough to have Bill Nye, Michael Colton and John Aboud, Patton Oswalt, Rachel Harris, Jessi Klein and Eli Roth on the show.

INNOVATING NEW FORMATS

Shows like Best Week Ever live and die on their formats. We had to create things like “In Case You Missed It” to bring the audience back week after week. We had a basic idea of how to do the show from the previous “I Love The” series, but every week was a new attempt to tell the “news” in some kind of odd / funny way.

I’d learned my lesson from Jon Stewart: There was a new generation of performers and writers on this show, and I let them have their way. They surprised me and the audience every week. And I’d learned, from the get go, to be grateful for their work.

LIVE WITH THE HAPPY ACCIDENTS

As I said, this was the peak of the first wave of blogging. I wanted a blog for the writers and producers to use to jot down notes, share them with each other, and maybe provide a place where the audience could see the sausage being made. I didn’t feel like asking the lawyers for permission, so I pulled out my own credit card and used Moveable Type. (YES! Moveable Type… this is gonna date me! By the way — I met up with the the head of tech there, Michael Sippey, when I got to Twitter.)  

The idea was that all of the producers and writers could post things they’d seen or wanted to talk about, and we could all just comment. Which is what we used it for.

After three or four months, we noticed that there were about 100K monthly uniques. Now, this is back in like 2002 – 2003, so that’s a real number then. So the network gave me some money, and we hired Raph Rodriguez and Rojit Singh and the aforementioned Ms. Collins.

Best part: It was like dropping into our meetings. Where our teams were creating the Friday show, the BWE.com team was blogging and creating videos talking about these things (including doing recaps, which became a thing) online.

Best Week Ever was never a runaway ratings sensation (I vaguely remember not shaving for weeks, until we cracked a .5 rating on Friday), but we were an identity and direction for the network. (Along with the “I Love The” franchises.) Until Flava Flav and Brigitte Nielsen hooked up, Love and Hip Hop came on, and then there was a whole new direction. But I’ll let someone else tell that story.

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