Channel 101: Dan Harmon’s Short Film Festival That Defined A Decade Of Comedy

How a rejected pilot and a screening of 'Jaws 4' inspired an entire generation of early internet filmmakers.
Channel 101: Dan Harmon’s Short Film Festival That Defined A Decade Of Comedy

Here’s a fun alt-comedy trivia question – what do Jack Black, Tommy Wiseau, Tim & Eric, Kato Kaelin, Sarah Silverman, The Lonely Island, Jimmy Kimmel, and Flavor Flav all have in common? Answer: they appeared in comedic short films for Channel 101, a monthly film festival in Los Angeles created by prolific TV showrunner Dan Harmon and comic book creator Rob Schrab. 

Since the turn of the millenium, Channel 101 has been a platform for the most innovative comedians in Hollywood to test their weirdest, most juvenile, and most ambitiously silly projects in a unique, audience-empowered setting. The festival’s illustrious alumni list is a cross-section of the most important comedy acts of the 2000’s, and the submissions from those early years of the project that survive online serve as a time capsule of the tone and sensibilities that defined a decade of wild and imaginative alternative humor .

JD Ryznar, Hunter D. Stair, David B. Lyons

We could provide context for this, but we choose not to

According to the Channel 101 website, the story of the festival begins in 1999 when, “After creating Heat Vision and Jack for the FOX network, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab are banished from legitimate television.” The pilot, which has since become a cult hit, featured Jack Black playing Jack Austin, a former astronaut who, after being exposed to dangerous levels of solar energy, developed super intelligence. Jack rides the talking motorcycle Heat Vision, voiced by Owen Wilson, as the two roam the country solving paranormal mysteries and evading an evil NASA assassin sent to steal Jack’s supercharged brain.

The failed pilot contained many of the prototypical elements that are now closely associated with both Harmon and Channel 101. The episode opens on a self-referential note, with director Ben Stiller talking directly into the camera about the cancellation of his critically acclaimed and commercially doomed self-titled sketch show before launching into the silly sci-fi escapades that, much like The Ben Stiller Show, would not be fully appreciated until after the target audience passed on the project. Although Heat Vision and Jack predated the official start of Channel 101 by a few years, the spirit of the pilot formed the basis of Channel 101’s ethos of creator-driven, risk-taking wackiness. 

One night in 2001, Rob Schrab invited his friends over to watch the catastrophic cash-grab sequel Jaws 4 in his living room and asked them to bring creative “predictions” of the film’s plot to be presented in a pre-screening showcase. The resulting poetry, puppet shows, and mixtapes gave Dan the idea to reprise the event on a larger scale with a different theme each night, and, thus, the festival was born.

By 2003, the festival, temporarily named the “Super Midnight Movie Show”, had developed a devoted following and a strong stable of filmmakers who were all vying for spots on the monthly program. The growth of the show had far exceeded the parameters of the original idea – let alone the capacity of the shifting venues – which forced Harmon and Schrab to change the format in order to both accommodate the increasingly long list of applicant filmmakers and preserve the quality of the featured humor.

Starting that year, the festival was renamed “Channel 101” and the structure was changed to be “a living, autonomous, untelevised TV network, powered not by promise of reward to the artist, but by the artist's desire to reward the audience.” Ten five-minute “pilots” were presented to an audience who would vote for their favorite five entries to continue on for a second episode at the next month’s show, giving the patrons “a chance to sit in the worn-out chair of the fat network exec, drunk on the blood of lowly artists whose right to exist is given in exchange for their ability to nourish.”

Channel 101 was, and continues to be, a pressure-free platform for aspiring film and television writers and directors to make mistakes, to get messy, and to create something novel and unencumbered. During those early years, the festival was a petri dish for artists who would go on to be some of the most popular comedians of their generation. 

One trio in particular used the success of their Channel 101 projects to prove to television executives and tastemakers that their specific style of comedy was ready for some of entertainment's biggest stages  – The Lonely Island had one of the first bona fide hits of the festival when, in 2003, they premiered “The ‘Bu”, a parody of Fox’s The O.C., which was released to a massively positive response from the Channel 101 voters and enjoyed an impressive eight episode run.

Another highlight of the early Channel 101 years was Justin Roiland’s animated series “House of Cosbys” from 2005, which followed a Bill Cosby superfan and mad scientist who, using one of the comedy legend and horrible monster’s hairs, cloned a small army of Cosby clones, each with their own distinct attributes. Cosby’s lawyers shut down the show with a cease and desist letter, probably because they had a lot more time on their hands pre-2014.

Justin Roiland's submission to the festival marked the first meeting of him and Dan Harmon, which began the creative collaboration that would eventually lead to the creation of Rick & Morty many years later.

One final series that is worth emphasizing is the bizarre mockumentary “Yacht Rock”, which followed the fictional lives of late-70’s to early-80’s soft rock superstars Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, and Donald Fagen, among others. “Yacht Rock” ran for ten episodes from 2005 to 2006 before it was finally voted off the network, but its creators J. D. Ryznar, Hunter D. Stair, and Lane Farnham created two final episodes independently to give their fanbase the conclusion they deserved.

The number of amazing pilots that made it onto Channel 101’s programming is simply too large to give every show the appreciation it deserves. Big name comedians like Bob Odenkirk, Drew Carrey, and Aziz Ansari have all appeared in videos, among countless other celebrities and creators. Just about every great LA based comedian of the 2000’s at one point tried something weird, uncomfortable, and amazing in a Channel 101 video -- the festival was a cultural hub, free from naysayers and gatekeepers like the ignorant Fox executives who dared to cancel Heat Vision and Jack with only an audience to appease.

In 2007, Harmon and Schrab briefly adapted their guerilla TV network into a short-lived VH1 show called Acceptable.TV, which ran in a similar format to the live show and featured some of their favorite festival submissions.

Channel 101 came about right at the beginning of the internet content boom, just before the emergence of YouTube, and it was the perfect platform for those proto-viral videos to find a real-life audience and for artists to use the festival as a stepping stone on the path to mainstream success. It was, and is, a pure creative space for comedic filmmakers to make mistakes, to fail, and to find their voice. Long before monetization was even a possibility for this style of low budget, short-runtime comedy, Channel 101 stood as a non-profit bastion of comedic freedom and experimentation.

The festival continues to this day, albeit with less involvement from Harmon and Schrab. Anyone interested in living out their fantasy of being a Roman Emperor at a gladiator fight is welcome to attend one of their free monthly showings at The Downtown Independent in Los Angeles and decide which pilots will live or die.

Top Image: Vanity Card Productions

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