NBC’s Top-Secret Show

Once upon a time, three struggling, fresh-faced, young New York City comedians found themselves getting sick of the struggling, fresh-faced,

Once upon a time, three struggling, fresh-faced, young New York City comedians found themselves getting sick of the struggling, fresh-faced, young New York City comedian grind. So they decided- what else? -to make a television show.

But where to make it? First, the struggling young comic trio-Andrew Tavani, David Rubin and Kevin Miller-considered doing a show together in a comedy club, or renting a space somewhere. That was going to cost $$$, though. And these were some broke-ass comics.

Then Mr. Tavani had an idea. He and Mr. Miller worked as blazer-wearing pages at the NBC Studios in 30 Rockefeller Center. Each day, for a fat $10 an hour, they led tours of Peacock-besotted fanny packers around the corridors of shows like Saturday Night Live, Conan O’Brien and Today .

Mr. Tavani remembered that the NBC studios tour also stopped someplace else: a miniature news studio on the ninth floor, where tourists from Dubuque and Florence could wedge behind a desk and drawl like Tom Brokaw, or stand in front of a weather map and jiggle like Al Roker.

So one day, Mr. Tavani, Mr. Rubin and Mr. Miller paid a li’l scouting visit to the li’l news studio.

“It blew my mind,” Mr. Rubin said. “It was like, ‘This is it.’ We just had to figure out how to do it.”

They figured it out. After securing an O.K. from NBC’s retail operation, which oversees the studio tour, Mr. Rubin, now 26, Mr. Tavani, also 26, and Mr. Miller, 25, took over the ninth-floor NBC studio-right above Studio 8H, home to Saturday Night Liv e-and filmed their own original comedy television program. They called it The Anti-Show . Starting in the summer of 2001, they filmed The Anti-Show in 30 Rock five times, over the course of roughly one year.

Though it cost about $80 an episode, this was no half-baked, hack-orrific comic television show. It was live, and they screwed up here and there, but Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller had a script, a producer, a crew of camera operators, a makeup person, cue-card holders and even a comic buddy to warm up the audience.

Yup-they had an audience. For each show, the comics brought in their own hand-picked audience of more than 40 people up to the ninth floor.

Then-and it’s not clear how much the suits at NBC knew about this part-they put it on local television. Mr. Rubin’s, Mr. Tavani’s and Mr. Miller’s show, filmed live before a studio audience on NBC property in the most famous broadcasting building in the world, has been running on Manhattan public-access TV for more than a year.

They were three young nobodies, serious about comedy, playing around in Uncle Milty’s, John Belushi’s and Conan O’Brien’s glorious attic.

This is how they did it.

“I wasn’t born into a family where my dad was well-connected in the industry and can get me something,” Andrew Tavani said. “I have nothing, I began with nothing, and I have to try to create opportunity. If I can do that, great. If not, I still have what I was born with: nothing .”

It was an early Sunday afternoon in November, and Mr. Tavani and Mr. Rubin sat in a crimson-couched Starbucks in the concourse level of Rockefeller Center. Travelers swarmed about, many of them clutching Peacock-logoed bags from the nearby NBC Experience Store.

“I’ll never come into this building and not feel a little weird,” the affable Mr. Rubin said. Brown-haired and broad-shouldered, he had lately been sleeping on a friend’s couch. The night before, he’d schlepped out to New Jersey to do stand-up at a club. He earned $150-not a bad payday.

Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller met in the summer of 2000 at the Comedy Cellar, the smoky ha-ha cave in Greenwich Village. They loved the business and the clubs, but the young men were close in age and they commiserated over the hostilities new comics were forced to endure: weird times, weirder crowds, terrible money, seeing schmucks they didn’t like blow up, get huge.

There had to be something better, they thought-a better way to show off their talent and get huge other than waiting until 1:30 a.m. for a 10-minute slot. They met a few times for drinks-and then in an empty conference room at NBC that the pages used, brainstorming ideas to get themselves noticed.

Pretty much from the start, they knew they wanted to do a show. Develop a funny show with original humor, they thought, and it would get noticed by somebody. And then- success ! Fortune ! No more $0 nights in clubs!

The first idea Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller kicked around was a parody of a morning-TV program. They’d have a Matt Lauer-type guy and a Katie Couric-type woman and a phony weatherman and stuff.

Ackkk . They moved on.

The next idea was the genesis of what would become The Anti-Show: a comedy news program with the three comics serving as anchors, live and taped humor segments, and audience participation. It would make fun of news, late-night comedy and television in general. As for influences, it would be a little The Daily Show, a little SNL “Weekend Update,” a little Letterman and a little-or a lot, they hoped-of Messrs. Rubin, Tavani and Miller’s own original stamp.

They kicked around possible locations. They considered the Comedy Cellar. But that was problematic-money, space, money, logistics, money .

“Then it dawned on me,” Mr. Tavani said. “The last stop of the NBC tour was this fake studio. They have a news desk, they have a green screen where they do the weather, they have two cameras in there-it’s like a Fisher-Price type of studio. It’s the one place where people can take pictures. It’s like a big finish: It’s supposed to be funny, you can do some sound effects, people laugh, usually a kid will get up and do the weather.”

NBC called the studio “Mini-Control.”

Mini-Control was pretty much perfect for what Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller wanted to do. Better yet, there were bench seats for the butts of a real live audience!

But upon closer inspection, they found there were some problems. The cameras didn’t exactly work the way they needed them to. The lights were too bright and close.

“There were technical concerns, whether or not we could do it,” Mr. Tavani said.

But off and on over several months, the comics-who now had another NBC page, David Gelles, serving as their producer-planned their show. They wrote scripts and ran ideas and maxed out their credit cards buying digital cameras.

Then, nearly seven months after they came up with the idea, they were ready. There were rehearsals in Mini-Control, and then a date set for the first taping: Saturday, March 24, 2001. Saturday Night Live would be “dark” that night, closed for production.

There was still a lingering question. As Mr. Tavani said: “How the hell were we going to get an audience in there?”

Impressively, they got the nod from NBC. Mr. Tavani explained the group’s desire to do a live show to a colleague who, at the time, worked in NBC’s retail division. Mr. Tavani said the colleague went to his boss and came back with a thumbs-up-and a stern warning. “Just don’t fuck anything up. If you damage anything, you are responsible,” Mr. Tavani remembered his friend saying.

Now they needed an audience. They sent out an e-mail to friends inviting them to a taping-they called it “Project X”-and telling them that if they came, they needed to RSVP and then arrive at the NBC Studios entrance in Rockefeller Center the night of March 24 and have identification ready.

“You needed identification,” Mr. Rubin said.

“If you were not on the list, you wouldn’t get in,” Mr. Tavani added.

The night of the show, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Rubin said, they presented the NBC security downstairs with a list of names of people who had RSVP’d to their e-mail. “We submitted a list and said, ‘Look, we’re just having a little thing upstairs,” Mr. Tavani said.

The guests had no problem. A lot of them were impressed. “I felt like some kind of V.I.P.,” said Peter Silverman, a friend of Mr. Rubin’s who attended several Anti-Show tapings and also did a segment for the show. It all went so seamlessly that NBC security even called upstairs to Mini-Control a few times to ask about letting people in who weren’t on the list, Mr. Rubin said.

Once inside, The Anti-Show gang pretty much had the run of the ninth floor, where a fishbowl window at one end oversees the rafters of the SNL studios and photographs of network stars hang everywhere. (Rosie O’Donnell’s show used to be taped up there, too; now it’s The Caroline Rhea Show .)

It was like getting the keys to a late-night-comedy Ferrari.

“It was a Saturday night when SNL wasn’t on. It was dead around here,” Mr. Tavani said.

Though Mr. Tavani, Mr. Rubin, Mr. Miller and their producer, Mr. Gelles, were neophytes, they took pains to make The Anti-Show seem like a legit, professional network-television program. They had everything: their own cameras, crew, a makeup artist (the lights in Mini-Control were brutal, Mr. Rubin said) and a comedian to get the crowd excited before the main event began. They even utilized a nearby room where SNL puts its overflow audience as a dressing area.

The floor tingled with a little nervousness. Even though they had permission to use the space, the Anti-Show gang still felt they could wind up in trouble somehow, that NBC might pull the plug if it knew the extent of what they were doing. Mr. Tavani said he didn’t worry about it much, though he said he always feared each Anti-Show taping could be “the last.” Mr. Rubin, a stranger to NBC, said he always felt that the network didn’t really know exactly what they were up to, and constantly worried about getting shut down. (Mr. Miller-who works at Saturday Night Live as a writer’s assistant-and Mr. Gelles, who works at MSNBC’s Donahue show, did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Mike Singer, the comedian who served as one of The Anti-Show ‘s warm-up comics and has also appeared in several on-air segments, said there was a funny, sneaking-around-in-the-office quality to the proceedings.

“It was so clandestine, you felt like you were doing something bad,” Mr. Singer said. “There was also the element of, ‘Oh, what if they catch me now?’ Just going to the bathroom or to get a soda, you had to pretend you belonged there. And you didn’t.

“It was almost like an undercover operation,” Mr. Singer said. (The Anti-Show guys did make sure to cover up any NBC logos in Mini-Control prior to taping.)

But NBC was cool, nobody from the network stopped them, and the first night went almost perfectly. The giddy audience showed up, Mr. Singer warmed them, Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller took their seats behind the Mini-Control desk, and shortly after 10 p.m., the first show began.

“What you are about to see is probably the most groundbreaking show in the history of television,” Mr. Rubin said. “We are at an unused studio at one of the Big Three networks here in New York City. Nobody from the network knows that we’re here-if they did, we’d probably spend the rest of the night in jail.

“With that in mind,” Mr. Rubin continued, “welcome to The Anti-Show .”

In total, Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller (with Mr. Gelles serving as producer) taped four more episodes of The Anti-Show in Mini-Control: in August 2001, in October 2001, and in January and April 2002. They also did a clip show. The shows were stripped down and edited and began airing on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in the fall of 2001.

The program itself is a mix of live and taped bits, and parts of it feel reminiscent of other news-parody shows. The Anti-Show indeed owes a bit of debt to “Weekend Update,” HBO’s Not Necessarily the News, and The Daily Show -and though it’s rough in parts, a lot of it is very original. In The Anti-Show’ s fifth episode, there’s a hilarious on-the-street segment called “The Apartment Hunter,” where an Australian-accented Mr. Miller, mimicking the aggravating Crocodile Hunter , tromps around the Upper West Side nagging people to let him and a cameraman inside their building to view their luxury apartments. (Several agree, but after Mr. Miller starts hamming it up inside their abodes, he gets booted.) There are also jokes on The Anti-Show that now seem strikingly ahead of the curve: Among other prescient gags, there was a “60-Second Debate” (now in fashion on hits like ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption ) and a running spoof of advice schmaltz-kateer Dr. Phil (currently under fierce, similar roasting on the Late Show with David Letterman.)

The Anti-Show also took some pokes at late-night television in general, including NBC’s own Carson Daly and Jay Leno, the latter of whom was ridiculed in a segment where Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller sat in a couch at the NBC Experience Store (where tourists can pretend to be interviewed on the Tonight Show ) and gleefully chatted up the big-jawed host.

“This was hard-core guerrilla comedy,” said Mr. Silverman. “The idea of having it inside the NBC studio, and then rejecting the studio, is just a beautiful concept.”

After the inaugural March 2001 episode, Mr. Rubin, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Miller kept plugging away, making more Anti-Show . Each time, they got it a little better, a little bit more refined. There was another taping in August 2001. Then Sept. 11 happened- and not long after, the anthrax scare at NBC News. Mr. Tavani himself briefly worried that he’d become infected with anthrax-he suddenly found himself with a black splotch on his stomach-but it turned out to be nothing. The show went on.

“It’s almost like they were a bunch of kids who found a fort and played television, to show there was another way to do things,” said Mike Singer. “And the show is funny, to boot. It’s kind of like doing something naughty and having a good time while you are doing it, and hoping something great happens.”

Of course, Mr. Rubin and Mr. Tavani said, they’d like something greater to happen. From the time they taped their first show, the Anti-Show gang have tried to get the show-business community to notice. They sent the tape to NBC late-night honcho Rick Ludwin. Nuthin’ . They sent it to Comedy Central and HBO. Bupkes . They sent it to Showtime, and though Showtime brought them in for a meeting, to date they haven’t gotten a deal.

“I have handed copies to people on the subway, ” said Mr. Tavani, who has since left NBC and worked as a production assistant for a string of TV shows, like ESPN’s Two Minute Drill, Politically Incorrect, The Colin Quinn Show and the creepy psychic hit Crossing Over . “I’m just trying to get a buzz going, if you know what I mean.”

Some of the executive feedback has been positive, Mr. Rubin said. Some of it hasn’t. He and Mr. Tavani admitted to occasional feelings of frustration.

“You’d think we would have been picked up by now,” Mr. Tavani said. “You think someone would have tried to help us out. Sometimes I think it’s us against the world.”

As for NBC, it’s keeping a straight face about The Anti-Show. “We are proud of our pages, and we try to support them in advancing their careers whenever we can,” a network spokesperson said.

Though they haven’t taped an episode since this spring, Mr. Tavani and Mr. Rubin aren’t giving up. Sitting in the bowels of Rockefeller Center the other afternoon, they vowed to trudge on.

“I am so proud of what we have done with the show,” Mr. Rubin said.

They might not blow up and explode huge like Berle or Carson or the Not Ready for Prime Time Players-but for a brief while, a trio of young New York comedians had their own television adventure in 30 Rock.

Said Mr. Rubin: “One day, when I come into this building with my family, I’ll be like, ‘We did some funny stuff here.'”

NBC’s Top-Secret Show