‘Let’s Make a Deal’ meets ‘Gong Show’ at NATPE

TV hopefuls air series ideas at pitchfest


The Monday night ‘Pitch me!’ session was vulgar, cruel, enlightening and hilarious. In short, it was a microcosm of NATPE itself.

The quasi-gameshow, in which fledgling producers pitched series concepts to four judges, was described by host Chuck Woolery as a cross between ” ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ and ‘Love Connection,’ and an ugly child comes out of it, believe me.”

“This is a really tough room!” sighed Steve in the middle of describing a reality show that would explore topics “like the evolution of Astroturf.”

After his three minutes were up, judge Ken Solomon gasped, “You gotta have an original idea — think about it — that people wanna watch!”

Universal TV/USA Net’s Solomon and fellow NATPE board member Mark Itkin of the William Morris Agency last year hatched the idea, while NATPE seminars coordinator Tim Alexander came up with the gameshow format.

Hopefuls began arriving pre-dawn Monday at the Hilton Riverside Hotel, and the first 50 gave a one-minute pitch to two screening judges in the afternoon.

All 50 returned at 9 p.m., where 15 were called onstage, with a giant gong looming as an ever-present threat.

The judges were urged to “Squeeze your glutes!” by buff and blonde Sherry, a Chattanooga native, who was offering “Sherry’s Country Cardio.”

“Is it a strip show?” asked Itkin. No, Sheri replied primly, the hosts will wear workout clothes, but it would run five days a week.

Yvette, who described herself as a Memphis “TV personality,” brought along a huge painting and background music to set the mood for her proposed children’s show about the Manners Fairy from Planet Etiquette.

Sam, who said he is currently living at Universal Studios Florida, wore buckskins and a coonskin cap to describe his miniseries about frontier explorers.

After each pitch, the judges offered smart comments both on the material and the presentation. Sinclair’s Bill Butler got boos when he correctly observed that this is an industry and “Our business is not to make your dreams come true.”

But dreams came true for Richard Willis Jr., the eventual winner, who immediately won over the crowd by singing the first two lines of his pitch: “If I could be my own boss/Then I would be Diana Ross!”

Willis — whom Woolery presumptuously described as “a large, gay, black man” — proposed a sitcom about two homosexuals who are stuck in a 1970s time warp as they host a gourmet cooking show. He described it as ” ‘Men on Film’ meets ‘Bosom Buddies’ meets ‘The Brady Bunch’ movie — the first one — meets ‘Laverne & Shirley.’ ”

Earlier that afternoon, seminars coordinator Alexander had mused to Variety, “We don’t want this to become ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ I don’t want to have fun at anyone’s expense.”

But the road to NATPE is paved with good intentions and, as any performer knows, audiences take on a life of their own. Monday night’s SRO crowd of 600 was boisterous and unforgiving, which fueled the presentation of some, but unnerved others.

Thirty seconds into her spiel about a music-interview series, a woman named Natasha suddenly exclaimed “Um, um, oh shit, I’m going blank.”

However, the hecklers were immediately hushed by one of the evening’s two runners-up, who invoked the names of Martin Luther King Jr., Steven Biko and the Berrigan brothers as she launched into her pitch for a docu series about dissidents.

Proposing “American Soap Box,” the other runner-up deadpanned, “It’s Charles Kuralt rear-ends Art Linkletter.” The series, he explained, would take “John & Joanne & Mohammed Q. Public,” put them on camera and prove that “you can suck 15 minutes of fame out of that person.”

Early in the evening, judge Andy Friendly said his company King World is “looking for those great concepts that are one in a million, but admitted, “We haven’t gone with any outside pitch in a long time. But it can happen!”

At the wrap of the 90-minute sesh, last year’s winner, Henry Woodman, came onstage and bragged vaguely that in the past year he’s met some great people “and we hope to go into production in either May or June.”

So hope springs eternal.

Unfortunately, nobody thought to pitch the logical series that was right in front of them: a gameshow where contestants tout series ideas. “Pitch Me!,” the syndie strip. It’s surefire.

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