Off With the Show

Austin Stories was every network’s dream: cheap to produce, highly rated, and critically acclaimed. So why did MTV pull the plug?

BRAD “CHIP” POPE is sitting on his sagging couch in the tiny Austin apartment he shares with his brother, Scott. It’s just after ten on a Sunday night, and he is looking for something good on television. Austin Stories, the half-hour sitcom he appeared in last year, used to be on MTV about this time, but not anymore. Instead, the network is running a call-in show called Loveline. When one of the guests, a fresh-faced phone-sex operator, starts getting philosophical, Chip winces.

On June 1, 29-year-old Chip and his co-stars, 28-year-old Laura House and 30-year-old Howard Kremer, were officially notified that Austin Stories had been canceled after just one season. They were kind of expecting it, though the rest of us might not have been. After all, the show had great press: It was heralded as “an amiable, unslick alternative to conventional sitcoms” by the New York Times and “subversive and hysterical” by USA Today. Several sources say they were told that MTV president Judy McGrath “loved” it. And industry executives say the ratings were solid if not stunning. (Although MTV won’t release specific figures, a September 10, 1997, memo from the network’s research department describes Austin Stories  as “the highest-rated new show premiere this year among shows that had no initial history with the viewer.”)

Conceived in the vein of Slacker and Reality Bites, two movies that firmly positioned Texas as a playground for middle-class somnambulists, Austin Stories was a character-driven ensemble in which the principals—all stand-up comedians in real life—played ne’er-do-well versions of themselves. Howard, the best actor of the bunch, was barely capable of surviving the cruel nine-to-five world; many of the episodes had him in half-assed schemes to make money, like the time he pilfered the free maps from the Austin Visitors Center and sold them to elderly tourists in front of the Capitol. The hapless Chip lived with his ex-girlfriend—never seen but always heard in a sexual frenzy in her bedroom down the hall—and couldn’t hold down a single counter job. The most put-upon of the group was Laura, a reporter at an alternative weekly modeled after the Austin Chronicle. (After her house is burgled in one episode, the police inquire about her insurance. “What planet are you on?” she says. “I can barely afford my stuff, let alone insure it.”) If Austin Stories was an exaggerated portrayal of its namesake city—“People were saying, ‘Hey, that doesn’t represent Austin. You’re making it look like a place where nobody works and nobody is intelligent,’” Howard recalls—so was Dallas, another cartoonish postcard of Texas culture that sold itself as more or less reality-based.

So why did MTV pull the plug? Executives at the network refused to be interviewed for this story, but theories abound as to the reason for the show’s demise. Perhaps it was about money. Howard and Chip’s manager, Jed Weitzman of Hollywood powerhouse Brillstein-Grey, says he had recently negotiated a better deal for the stars for the second season: $10,000 per episode, compared with the $2,000 per episode they got the first season. “That’s unheard of at MTV,” Weitzman says. “They were going to be the third-highest-paid people in the history of the network to do a series there.”

Perhaps it was about the writing, which the network didn’t love. Granted, a few episodes were flat at times, but the problems were nothing unusual for a first-season sitcom. “Even though there were some moments in the last couple of shows that were uneven,” says James Jones, the avuncular creator of Austin Stories (and the producer of the critically acclaimed Ben Stiller Show ), “when you compare it overall to other shows on TV, it was really well written.” As he correctly notes, Austin Stories had just three or four full-time writers, whereas a show like Seinfeld had ten or more. And he says that because Austin Stories, like Seinfeld, was unconventional, all parties explicitly understood that it would need a couple of seasons to catch on.

But more likely, the demise of Austin Stories was a classic case of network television politics; it had less to do with Austin Stories  itself than with power plays in the back corridors of MTV.

Everyone agrees that the show had great promise in the beginning. Back in 1994, Laura, Chip, and Howard were working the comedy circuit in Austin—Laura was also teaching seventh grade—and MTV was thinking about doing a new image campaign. Jones, who had a production deal with the network, and Lisa Berger, an executive in talent development, visited eight cities to check out the young talent. They liked Laura, Chip, and Howard and a fourth comedian, Johnny Hardwick, enough to pay them $1,000 each to come up with some ideas. So they taped some bits on Hardwick’s video camera and sent it to Los Angeles. If they were really good, they figured, they might do as well as Donal Logue, who got his break playing a deranged cabdriver in MTV promotional spots and went on to land roles in the movie Jerry Maguire and on the TV shows The X-Files and The Practice.

MTV initially passed on what they sent, but a year and a half later, in the summer of 1996, they suddenly heard from Berger, who had been promoted to head of development. During a retreat, network executives had taken a second look at their tape. Maybe they could develop some interstitial spots or even a half-hour series. (“They’re real loose over there,” Howard says.) By that time, Hardwick had taken a job as a writer and cast member of King of the Hill, but the other three were available and interested. After shooting the pilot, they showed it to MTV, which asked for thirteen episodes. Low pay aside, the network cut itself quite a deal: MTV could rerun Austin Stories  into oblivion without paying the cast the residual fees that are standard elsewhere on TV. (Welcome to basic cable.) “We had very little to bargain with,” Chip says. “It’s not like

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