The Makings of a TV Show: How ‘Server Life’ Happened

Christopher Karr

 

When we left New York in the winter of 2012, we were determined to retire from the depraved carnival that is the service industry. With a combined twenty years experience, we quit our restaurant jobs, convinced we had put in our time and were ready to move on. What we were ready to move on to, we didn’t know. But I knew for a fact that if I continued working as a server in Bronxville, I might never stop.

 

The bistro where I worked for five years was so charming, so well-run, and so consistently busy that I could’ve melted comfortably into waiting tables for the rest of my life, eventually becoming assistant manager, then general manager, then co-owner of my own location. But I couldn’t allow myself to lose sight of the reason I began working in restaurants to begin with: I needed to support my daily addiction to writing.

 

When I was in high school, I discovered a book by David Mamet called True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, and a quote from this book has haunted me since the moment I read it: “Those with ‘something to fall back on’ invariably fall back on it. They intended to all along. That is why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently.” This is why I’ve never taken the nine-to-five job. Working in a restaurant is the perfect gig for those with high ambitions and nothing to fall back on. But after eight years of waiting tables, I felt that enough was enough. Alex, my girlfriend and co-collaborator of seven years, felt the same.

 

Alex and I essentially knew three things: we didn’t want to live in New York, we didn’t want to wait tables, and we were hopelessly creative types destined to accomplish something significant, or, failing that, at least something artistically fulfilling. With that belief and a Honda packed with essentials (including our housecat), we travelled the country to explore our options.

 

A city with an improv community was essential for both of us. She wanted to keep acting, and I wanted to keep watching because I knew that when the time came to collaborate with actors, the improv community would be the first place to look.  Alex had been studying and performing at the People’s Improv Theater in New York City for several years, and fell in love with this make-it-up-as-you-go style of acting. “I felt like I was late to the party,” she said. “I felt like I found a bunch of weirdos like me who were all sort of after the same goal.”

 

Improvisers tend to be united in their collective sense of irreverence for traditional scripted theater. The narrative thread of an improv show is noticeably thinner than the spine of a play. This sacrifice is an attempt by the performers to connect with the audience in a more immediate way. The experience of watching actors play outrageous scenes with conviction, inventing everything on the spot, allowing for accidents, slips, asides, and sudden discoveries makes traditional theater seem tame, dusty, and outdated.

 

When we came to Austin, we learned the city had five improv theaters and a community of over a thousand. Austin offered nearly everything we wanted, so we temporarily stayed with a generous family friend and went about deciding how we were going to make a living. Alex and I kidded ourselves about finding completely different jobs. We knew what realistically lay ahead for us if we wanted to make ends meet while pursuing our mutual artistic passions. There was no way around it: we would have to get serving jobs again.

 

 

By January, we were hired together at a magnificently garish, privately-owned restaurant that was once accurately described on Yelp as “Christmas plus Applebee’s times a thousand.” Then we worked together at a gluten-free bistro in a suburb outside of Austin. Willie Nelson and his wife Annie were regulars, always demonstrating exactly how perfect guests behave: they were polite, courteous, kind, easy going, and always tipped one hundred percent minimum. The bistro eventually closed. Alex was hired at a tapas and wine bar downtown, while I unwittingly offered my services to an Italian restaurant that remained, for the most part, deserted.

 

We couldn’t stop discussing and impersonating our co-workers, our managers, and the eclectic array of customers we encountered on a daily basis. Our shared experience in the Austin service industry had a distinct you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up quality. We marveled at the fact that the so-called characters we worked with were just as archetypal as they were individual; archetypes that every restaurant has: the girl who can’t get it together and is always late; the general manager who’s almost never there; the server who gets promoted to manager and suddenly forgets what it’s like to be a server; the server who’s been doing it for years and cannot contain his or her boiling rage, the list goes on.

 

Our endless conversations about these characters led us to creating a gallery around Christmas of 2013. We drew stick figures on pages from a sketch pad, wrote basic descriptors, and posted them on the wall above our TV. For months our living room looked like an eight-year-old was trying to solve a crime scene. We’d look at the stick figures and consider how they might interact with each other. We would come home from work every night, regroup, and share stories from the insane shifts we managed to make it through.

 

About nine months later, we had written the first four episodes of a TV show called “Server Life.” We had no idea how or where or with whom we would shoot it but the story we wanted to tell was coming into focus and we knew we needed to tell it in Austin. It’s still surprising to me that a city as kaleidoscopic as Austin hasn’t been represented in any real capacity on TV. We wanted to recreate the experience of certain attitudes and worldviews typical of this idiosyncratic city often described as the Blue Dot in the Red Sea, a town perfectly suited for Millennials.

 

 

We wanted to show one week in the life of a server in Austin. An authentic and unconventional depiction of what it’s like to wait tables is curiously missing from the world of digital entertainment. There was the short-lived but rather well done “Party Down” on Starz (which, strictly speaking, isn’t about working in restaurants) and a mixed bag of movies like “Waiting...” (2005) and “The Slammin’ Salmon” (2009), both of which have merit and some zinging observations, but they don’t really depict the kind of restaurant world either of us recognize. The gross-out, gag-oriented hijinks are bland, familiar and obvious, and you get the unmistakable sense that the creators hadn’t really spent much time working in restaurants. For me, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974) and some sequences from “Frankie and Johnny” (1991) come closer to depicting server life than anything that’s come since: bawdy, brazen, lewd, hard-bitten, nutty, whip-smart, emotional, hectic, a bit desperate and even a little sad. And these two films do an excellent job of depicting the life part of server life.

 

Despite these and a few other footnote-sized exceptions, whenever restaurants are depicted onscreen the focus is either on the kitchen or the customers. And while there are countless restaurant scenes in TV shows and movies, the server is either offscreen and or reduced to a rude, incompetent pest.

 

We wanted to tell a story about the withering frustrations of working in restaurants. Which is to say, our initial goal wasn’t solely to entertain. We had, and have, genuine animosity to express. Our goal was to tell the truth, and in doing so we avoided what I think is the first amateur pit fall in modern comedy: the anguished desperation of needing to be liked. We don’t care much about being liked. And the utterly redeeming surprise about the truth is that it’s often funny.

 

Alex and I had many conversations about tone, and about how grounded the world of the show should be. We wanted to create something offbeat, aggressive, and curious. We developed the technique for using fantasies to illustrate how the server really feels, even going as far as removing a guest’s eyeball with a corkscrew, in an attempt to illustrate the helplessness and despair of serving an insufferable customer who cannot be appeased. Our goal was to put a mirror in the faces of those poor souls who make a habit of misbehaving in restaurants, and teach them a lesson. There’s the cliche notion that if everyone worked at least one year in a restaurant, it would actually make them empathize and understand the constant challenge of interacting with people (customers, co-workers, management) who flummox a stunningly simple process. This show is our attempt to put the viewer through the server’s experience.

 

As we were writing the first four scripts, Alex was taking classes and acting in shows at the Institution. So we frequented all the improv theaters in search of outstanding actors to cast. Brandon Martin was the first improviser I connected with. I saw him pitch a show at the Institution, but we’d never really spoken until I literally ran into him on the street downtown and got caught up in a conversation that led to meeting up for coffee.

 

 

He told me about growing up in Midland and how he had just returned from Chicago. Brandon relocated there to study improv where the modern phenomenon began. “I was on the Second City hype train for sure,” he said. But Brandon felt at odds with the punishing weather, and returned to Austin after a year. “It was the worst winter Chicago had in about forty years and it was devastating mentally,” he said, and I could relate, having initially left New York for the same reason. He told me about a few projects he was working on, and I told him about “Server Life.” Once I finished my spiel, he asked what plans I had for funding it. He said he had a friend who might be able to help. This is how I met Patrick Edward Corrigan, our executive producer on the first two episodes.

 

But before I met Eddie, we had to cast about twenty different roles for the pilot, find a location, get a camera, lights, and sound equipment, and create a sane shooting schedule that harmonized the availability of everyone involved — all of which, when considered holistically, seemed laughably implausible.

 

Alex and I began meeting up with some of our favorite actors. There were a few restaurants in town where we knew the management, so we’d go to a secluded corner around closing time and I’d fork up a Sony handicam on a wobbly tripod and record scenes Alex improvised with Brandon or Ted Meredith (Dean on the show) or Will Cleveland (Jeremy) or Chuy Zarate (Pepe). Then we’d come home, cut the footage, and incorporate some of the ideas they generated into the script. After a few test footage outings, we knew we’d found some of the best improvisers in Austin, and we had to capture their lightning in the bottle of our show.

 

But when it came to finding a location, we were stumped. We mentioned our situation to a co-worker, who suggested we contact the chef of No Va on Rainey Street. When I met the chef, I told him the budget for our show was thinner than a shoestring — which was an extremely optimistic perspective because the actual budget we had at that point was nonexistent. We may have been able to scrape together a hundred bucks. I told the chef we were a very small crew, we stick to the schedule, and we just want to make a really funny show about working in restaurants. “As far as I’m concerned,” the chef said. “You can do anything you want except paint the walls.”

 

Next, we confirmed the cast for the pilot. We knew we wanted Chuy Zarate to play Pepe, the shifty but charming general manager who’s not the best communicator. I had seen Chuy perform at the Hideout theater, and was floored by how perfectly matched he was for our vision of Pepe. And we didn’t just feel that way about Chuy, but everyone. Ted Meredith is the only actor who can play the lazy, lush bartender. Sydney Huddleston is the only option for Laura, the trainee. Will Cleveland is the only actor who can play Jeremy, the bitchy, sly server who’s probably selling drugs to the staff and the customers. Brandon Martin is the perfect choice for Jared, who’s always dishing it but can’t take it. And Alex, save for the fact that she’s never actually mangled a customer, is Leo.

 

 

In order to secure the budget, I wrote up a proposal and Brandon set up my first meeting with Eddie. We pitched the show, Eddie folded the stapled pages, there was some slightly tense back-and-forth between us all, and we parted ways. Now this is when we had structured a $10,000 budget and our script was about sixty pages. A week or so later, Brandon told me that Eddie would have to pass on it for the time being. At some point Brandon realized it was somehow unclear to Eddie that he (Brandon) would be playing the role of Jared. Once this point was clarified, Eddie said he was good for $3,000. So we cut the script in half — advancing it from epic and endless to pithy and razor-sharp — and readjusted the budget accordingly.

 

There is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to filmmaking because it requires the harmonizing of a variety of elements. Even at the most primitive DIY level, creating narrative digital content is a collaborative, complex process with many moving parts and countless caveats. Alex and I are not inexperienced or even terribly naive when it comes to creative endeavors; we have over four decades combined experience creating and participating in theater.

 

Of course having this background was useful to some degree, but only the impossible experience of life itself can prepare someone for the challenge of shooting an indie TV show, and I think I know why. The most basic problem the artist has to solve is finding a concrete form for an abstract idea. The final form for a novelist is the finished novel; a dancer or actor, the performance; an artist, the painting, and so on. But shooting a TV show or a movie poses a distinctly overwhelming challenge because this translation process must happen at least three times before you arrive at a final result. And, infuriatingly, counterintuitively, every time a concrete product is mined, it transforms itself into another abstraction.

 

So you have an abstract idea, and you turn it into a concrete script. You translate the idea using language, structure, timing, taste, and temperament. As soon as the process of filming begins — the schedule is in place, the crew is assembled and prepared, the location is ready, the set is quiet, sound is rolling, lines are remembered (or not remembered), the lighting is set — the script is an abstraction. It has become, quite literally, something else — it is being translated into footage, or dailies — which, at first, appears to be a fixed, concrete product. But when you watch all the dailies back to back, it’s disheartening to see — so deep into the process — what you’ve essentially accumulated is another abstraction waiting to be translated into a final cut. This is why many films notoriously don’t resemble their original scripts, let alone the initial point of inspiration. Without thorough organization, discipline, and dependable collaborators, shooting something — even on the scale of a 25-minute micro-budget TV pilot — can rapidly devolve into a logistical nightmare. You have to have a flair for planning ahead and anticipating problems.

 

Even though we had a script, a cast, a location, and a budget, we didn’t know how we would film it. We needed a camera, a boom mic, maybe a couple lights. I was tempted to shoot it with a few iPhones and while Alex found the idea intriguing, some cast members hinted this style of shooting may give our show an unwanted stigma of illegitimacy — agree to disagree. Mine and Alex’s shared artistic sensibility is one of deadpan simplicity. We don’t like or shoot sci-fi or fantasy or anything with aliens or superheroes or CGI. We don’t want to blow things up or build giant sets or paint the walls of a location. We’re skeptical of slick technical tricks and meaningless bells and whistles. We’re content people, not form people. We’d rather watch great content than be awed by great form. In the end, the virtues of form only carry the viewer so far. You can shoot in 4K, have excellent sound quality, set-up and fuss with a dozen lights, and color correct every frame till the whole thing looks like a painting, but if the dialogue isn’t good and the acting isn’t good it doesn’t matter. Our goal is to tell the story and tell it well. If we don’t, no amount of cinematic embellishment will fix that.

 

 

This is a very difficult point-of-view to express to a cinematographer because their passion, by nature, is form-based. When we initially began our search, we thought we needed a DP who could shoot guerrilla style (though what we actually needed, in retrospect, was a gorilla who could shoot DP-style). So we put an ad on Craig’s List and met with a few DPs. Our DP on the pilot offered to shoot a test scene with us, and that went well enough so we hired him to shoot the pilot. He had two conditions: one, never tell anyone what we paid him, and two, if he happened to land a high-paying corporate gig on any of the days in our shooting schedule, he would have to take it and we would have to cancel our shoot for that day.

 

In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t hired him. Not that our first DP was particularly difficult to work with — he wasn’t. Sure, he had no skills as a script analyst; he fussed with lighting to an absurd, time-wasting extent; he habitually harassed me for more money (that he knew I didn’t have); he did, in fact, miss two days of shooting because of job offers where he was getting paid “so much more;” he had no artistic taste or sensibility — but these qualities are par for the course when it comes to the landscape of cinematographers. In my admittedly limited experience, you can count on at least these five attributes, so you learn to live with them.

 

Still, it’s disheartening to work with a DP who is indifferent, indignant, and distracted. Indifferent about the content being shot, indignant about the low amount of money they’ve agreed to work for, and distracted by formal concerns that ultimately steal time from the actor’s performances. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to the DPs I’ve had the pleasure of working with; we wouldn’t have our show without them. They’ve all been great; they just haven’t been inspired.

 

We shot the pilot, “20% Bitches,” over the course of twelve days in January and February of 2015. We didn’t rehearse with the cast in advance because we wanted the camera to capture the kinetic pulse of the improvisation. During lighting set-ups we would run the scene a few times and make some slight adjustments before rolling. On more than one occasion, a moment consisting of two or three lines in the script would evolve into a two or three minute-long extemporaneous scene.  Alex and I might write a scene with a quick two-line exchange, but we know on the day of filming the actors will keep going beyond the text. The script becomes a springboard for their swan dive. Great improvisers develop a skill for being “in the moment,” which, at the most basic level, is the actor’s challenge. We want to give the cast just enough information to prepare them for “the moment.” Sometimes I feel the lines themselves border on being too much information.

 

Throughout the production I was surprised by how many times someone would tell me what I wanted or “had to do.” The cameraman will say “you’ll probably want an insert” of some moment in the scene. It’s not a bad suggestion, but I already know I won’t use it. Or the DP will tell me “we can’t put the camera there because that breaks the one-eighty rule” — like what jury of what court would indict us because of where I say to put the camera? Or the sound editor tells me that, “usually with slow motion in comedy, you want some slow-mo sounds to go along with it to make it funnier.” Or a filmmaker friend watches half of the final product and says, “the fantasies are confusing because you didn’t use a bright red filter or because they weren’t shot with a fish-eye lens,” or “you can’t have jump cuts in the middle of a scene,” or “you need a montage of close-ups when they’re setting up tables” — the list goes on ad infinitum. The common denominator of all these suggestions is How It’s Been Done Before, and the narrow nature of such comments indicate a sensibility that has little appreciation for a truly original, completely idiosyncratic vision. We aren’t interested in making obvious choices.

 

Once we had all the shots we needed, Alex began the editing process. This is probably where the hardest lessons are learned. Oversights on the day of filming pop up like red flags when you watch the raw footage. You find alarming blunders that you can “cut around” alongside goofs and bloopers that must, for one reason or another, remain onscreen. Slight bloopers of a technical nature don’t really bother us (unless they’re sound related), much in the same way that slips and gaffes made in the course of a live improv show are disregarded out of appreciation for the essence rather than the packaging. Once we locked picture for our final cut, we set about finding the right music. Sticking with the theme of all-female singers, we found a eclectic blend of pop songs spanning from the Fifties to the present day that amplified the rhythm of the narrative and also punctuated many of the underlying jokes.

 

When we released the pilot on Vimeo in June of last year, we got over 1,000 views in the first week. This was surprising even to me because of the narrow segment of the Vimeo market our video fell within. There are countless web series featuring individual episodes that last anywhere between 2-10 minutes; there are also plenty of short films that range from 20-30 minutes; but a show like ours — a 25-minute scripted comedy — doesn’t belong to either category. It’s not a short film and it’s not a five-minute comedy sketch. “Server Life” is an anomaly on Vimeo, but our ultimate goal is a binge-watchable full season on Netflix, FX, or IFC. Until then, Vimeo is the perfect platform.

 

When we screened the pilot for our executive producer, Eddie, he appeared to be somewhat flabbergasted by how good it turned out. He singlehandedly funded our second episode and stayed on as an associate producer for episode 3, “Burger Night.” We needed to supplement Eddie’s financial support in order to proceed, so we launched a GoFundMe campaign. In the end, we raised $2,410 (all of which came from a handful of family members and close friends) out of the $4,500 we felt we needed to shoot an episode that took place on a much larger scale than the others. “Burger Night” is one of the busiest nights of the week. We knew we needed many extras, a lot of food (both craft and props), and possibly four days of filming, which is how long it took to shoot episode 2.

 

Not having that extra $2,000 for episode 3 was, of course, a blessing. Sure, we could have used it, but not having it forced us to find creative solutions for logistical problems. We had to keep everything moving at a breakneck pace, and I’m still in awe the crew was able to shoot 8-10 pages each night. That’s nearly fifty scenes in three days.

 

So “Burger Night,” which should have been the most time consuming and most expensive episode, turned out to be our fastest and cheapest. We shot 28 pages in about 24 hours. Our cast included 16 principals, 18 featured actors, and 33 background actors. And our core cast burned through the dialogue and the scenes so effortlessly, that the final running time dropped to under 20 minutes. The rule of thumb with shooting a script is that each page roughly equals one minute of screen time. How we managed to cram a 28-page script into a 20 minute episode, I have no idea. It took Alex about three weeks to edit the picture and mix the sound, at which point we essentially had a final cut.

 

When I compare the experience of shooting episode 3 with filming the pilot, our progress becomes immediately apparent. It took roughly 48 hours (!) over the course of 12 days to shoot the 25 pages of the pilot script; the time spent editing spilled over a month, and that didn’t include sound editing. And we’ve been able to drive our production cost down considerably: we spent every single dime of the initial $3,000 in order to shoot and release the pilot. For “Burger Night,” we spent every single dime of the $2,410 we raised. But we had a cast of 67 actors, compared to the 19 we worked with on the pilot. We plan to shoot episode 4, a bottleneck show with a cast of a dozen, for about $500. Episodes 5-7 will be shot back to back to back by the end of the summer, we will spend the fall editing, and release all three together by the end of 2016. This will complete our long-form portrait of one work week in the lives of these servers, with episode 7 providing a mid-season climax on the dreaded Sunday Brunch.

 

Above all else, there is the unpredictable, but monumentally important, factor of luck. Perhaps “luck” isn’t the right word. Some say Fate. Alex and I tend to say Gifts from the Movie Gods.

 

Here’s an example: we were determined to showcase the diversity of Austin. We had a representation of every kind of Austinite imaginable — except Indian actors. We posted on Craig’s List and acting forums, we reached out to friends and friends of friends, and we asked acquaintances in the community with no acting experience if they wanted to be involved. I harassed our neighbors, I made customers in my restaurant feel uncomfortable by asking if they could do thirty minutes of shooting on a Monday night, I even pestered a Favor delivery guy. All to no avail. For some reason, we could not find Indian actors to appear in episode 3, and this nagged at us. So by the last day of filming, I gave up. I let it go. I firmly decided that I had done my work, I had made every possible effort. I had dedicated my talent, I was sincere and passionate about needing these characters in the episode, and I knew I had literally given it my best effort. I told Alex I’m not going to worry about it anymore. If it’s meant to be, then five Indian actors will show up on set at 7 p.m.

 

By 5 p.m., two Indian actors arrived. They were friends of a crew member who suddenly rediscovered an email I had sent out three weeks prior. About an hour later, two lovely Indian ladies arrived. They dined at a restaurant where a friend of ours served them and asked if they wanted to appear in our show. I was overjoyed, but Alex reminded me that last week, when we shot Will Cleveland’s reverse angle of this scene, he takes an order for “five waters.” Four is great, but we need five. By 7 p.m., we had a fifth. And when all five of them were grouped into the frame, it worked more perfectly than I could have ever imagined. I could not have planned it better.

 

Pure Luck. The impeccable timing of it cannot be accounted for, but I’m thankful for it. And I think I felt free to let go of my fixation at one point because I had faith it would work out. You cannot ignore the absolute necessity and value of pure luck. Like a great improviser, you must be willing to open yourself up to the Unknown. Or, as they say in improv, Follow the Fear.

 

Watch the show: https://vimeo.com/serverlifetv

 

Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a former contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine and a co-creator of “Server Life.” He lives in Austin.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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