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?

August 1998By Comments

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 anyone else was beating down our door to make a show.”

So, more than three years after they were first contacted by MTV, Laura, Chip, and Howard signed contracts without representation. They were thrilled, and why not? The network brought them out to Los Angeles to write, put them in apartments, and rented them cars. “We went to the MTV movie awards,” Chip says. “It was great.”

And then the trouble began. Before the show went into production, MTV brought in a new executive vice president, Brian Graden, who would come to oversee Lisa Berger; as such, he would now be the one making decisions that affected Austin Stories. “That’s when things got real shaky,” Howard says. The premiere came off amid a flurry of promotion, and when USA Today gave the show three and a half stars out of four, the network sent everyone a bottle of champagne—yet almost immediately, according to Jones and the cast members, MTV began cutting back on advertising and often preempted the show without warning. “They never said ‘Austin Stories isn’t airing this week.’” Howard says. “You just turned on the television, and there was some other show on.”

Although Graden never told anyone on the show directly, he made it clear through executive producer Carol Eng that he was dissatisfied with the scripts. “The writing wasn’t weak for the New York Times or anybody else, but it was weak for Graden,” Howard recalls, “so that became the party line.” Tensions escalated when production on the eighth episode shut down for a week while the producers and the network haggled over the script. If it wasn’t fixed, MTV warned, there would be no shoot. All was resolved, but the show was behind schedule and had exhausted its budget, and MTV decided not to shoot a thirteenth episode. The trouble, Jones believes, was that because Graden wasn’t involved in the creation of the show, he had no stake in its success. “Austin Stories was perceived as a Lisa Berger production,” Jones says. “This is all speculation, but he had a certain amount of money to spend, and he had his own pilots he wanted to produce.”

An entertainment executive who has done deals with MTV for ten years believes that the network was undergoing a transformation. While it was airing some non-music shows, its ratings were sagging across the board, and it now wanted to shift back to its musical roots, especially since its sister network, VH1, was doing very nicely with musical programs like Pop-Up Video. “Graden came into a firepit,” says the executive, who asked not to be named. “Austin Stories didn’t get attacked as much as it fell through the cracks. It did moderately well in the ratings—not extraordinarily well, like Beavis and Butt-head—and might have been a critical success, but it didn’t fit into the vision of the channel. What was he supposed to do with a show like that? He had an order to turn around programming. He was just doing his job.”

When shooting wrapped in November, Jones quit and later took a job at Castle Rock Entertainment, and the cast members were left to sit tight until MTV gave them a sign. They were supposed to have been told if they would have a second season by the fifth episode, but well after the final show had aired, they still hadn’t heard. “First it was, ‘We’ll know by the fifth show,’ then by the last, then by Christmas, then by Valentine’s Day,” Laura says. “You go on and live your life in a way, but it was like I had one foot in MTV. I didn’t get a job; I thought I was going to be working. If I had it to do over again, I would say, ‘They haven’t promised me anything’ and just sign up for guitar lessons.”

The cast members suspect that MTV was exercising a clause in their contract that said the network could keep them on a leash until five months after the final episode had aired. Though the eleventh episode had aired in November, MTV held the twelfth and final one until January. “No promotion,” Howard says. “It just came on one day.” Was this part of MTV’s grand plan? “I don’t know if they’re smart enough to have thought that far ahead,” Weitzman says.

In January Graden commissioned a record number of pilots for MTV. At the same time, the network suggested that Laura, Chip, and Howard fly out to Los Angeles and meet a team of new writers for a two-month writing period. Basically, they were in the position of having to repitch their show. “It was like, ‘Even though you’ve made twelve episodes of the show, we’ll find some new writers, and you’ll come out for two months and write three or four scripts to show what this new season is going to be like,’” Howard says. “And since they had problems with the writing, we’ll shore up the problems. ‘And, hey, if this comes out good, we’ll pick up the show.’ The thing is, How do you not know what the show is? We’re not a new show in development.”

A month later, MTV switched gears: The cast members would have two days in L.A. to write two shows. They would each receive $500 for their trouble. “They hired writers without consulting Howard, Chip, or Laura,” Weitzman says. “They sat them in a room with writers they’d never met before. And they would only put them up for two days. It was mind-boggling. Here are three people who’ve done twelve episodes for your network, and I can’t even get you to reimburse them for rental cars?”

“At that point we realized that ultimately their decision was going to have nothing to do with these scripts,” says Howard. “Once [Graden] found out what he was getting back from development, he’d find out if he had enough juice to cancel Austin Stories.

On May 8 the five-month waiting period was over, and things suddenly looked up: MTV gave each of them $5,000 to hold on until the end of the month. “God bless them,” Laura remembers thinking. But it turned out that the money was a parting gift. At the end of the day on June 1, someone from the Business Affairs division of MTV called their agents to say the show would not be picked up. “Nobody deserves to be treated badly,” Weitzman says. “The whole process was one big sign that said ‘We don’t care.’ Quite honestly, I gotta think twice about taking people to MTV again.”

“I would say I have mixed feelings about what they did,” Howard says. “They were the only ones who wanted to do business with us. I’ll always feel appreciative of that because they got us so much exposure, and we were able to parlay that into getting managers and agents. So that’s cool.”

And with that, Austin Stories joined the cult-show graveyard, though the careers of its three stars are far from dead. Howard and Chip have signed on to play Dude One and Dude Two in Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic. Laura has appeared on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend and has plans to do a week of stand-up in Houston with Margaret Cho. They all expect to have to abandon Austin for Los Angeles in the next few months. Work calls. Until then, they can watch Loveline and sleep in.

Cynthia True is writing a biography of the late comedian Bill Hicks for Avon Books.

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