My Journey by Donna Karan

Let’s face it: We live in a society that has an addiction to watching the three-ring circus that is celebrity culture. Maybe it all started in the early 2000s with the now-forgotten Paris Hilton, or maybe it started long before that, but either way, we can’t get enough of that sweet Hollywood juice with a bitter Kardashian chaser.

Now, if you’re a fan of live sketch comedy and also happen to be in on the latest Hollywood gossip, then you really need to make seeing TMI Hollywood at the ACME Comedy Theatre a top priority. Each week, this talented group puts on a show that features various scenes poking fun at all the latest in Hollywood news. No celebrity goes unpunished with this group, and no ridiculous news story goes unnoticed.

The writers of the show have no problem writing in a scene hours before showtime if a great (read: ridiculous) news story hits, which is one of many reasons why this show is so much fun to watch; you really don’t know how it’s all going to play out. A new celebrity guest is featured every week, which adds a little spice to this already unpredictable show.

We were fortunate enough to go check it out, and were pleasantly surprised at how funny the writing was, how well the actors pulled off scenes that can change at the last minute, and how hard we laughed throughout the evening. No, not every single joke hit, and not every single thing went smoothly, but that was part of the fun. When I say you don’t know what’s going to happen next, I truly mean that. This is not a show that has the luxury of being rehearsed down to the detail, nor is it a show that has a consistent formula – and that is exactly why I plan on going back for more.

Check out my chat with Executive Producer and Head Writer Peter Aiello. We talk about how this show came to be, and how he puts it together each week.

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Photography by Bill Kelly

Marie Tabela: How did you get the idea for TMI Hollywood?

Peter Aiello: Well, I came out to LA six years ago, and my girlfriend at the time had started taking classes at Second City in Hollywood, and she took a sketch writing class. She wasn’t very good at it, so she asked me if I would help her. I had been accepted into a program at UCLA for a longer, night-time version of their screenwriting program. It was funny because I hadn’t been in school for nearly 20 years at that point, but that’s why we came out here. I had been writing in class, she was having problems with sketch writing, so she asked me to help her.

She found that on anything I would write, she’d get good responses. Anytime she wrote on her own, she’d get very bad responses. I began to write more with her, and eventually the teacher of that class was directing a show at Second City called “Second City This Week,” which was a political sketch comedy show that was the same format as TMI Hollywood. It had a different guest every week, and the material was different each week, but the main difference was that it was very politically based. It was very left based, so every sketch was basically that the Democrats were weak and the Republicans were clueless. He asked her if she’d want to write for the show, thinking she had been writing all this great material. She hadn’t been telling him that I was helping her. All of a sudden, I got drafted into writing material for her for a show that I had nothing to do with, and I had never really written sketch comedy at that point.

After a couple of months of doing it, I went to see one of the shows and it was my first time seeing something I had written be performed in front of an audience. Just seeing the audience and making them laugh gave me a real kick out of it. Eventually, I told her, “Look, I’ll write with you, but I want credit. It can be both of our material.” So it eventually went from that to me writing by myself and by the time the show ended a year and a half later, I was one of the three head writers on the show.

That show ended and Second City asked me and two other writers if we’d be interested in doing something else there. The first thought was to continue what we had already been doing, but we were kind of burnt out on doing political information. You can only say the same things over and over so many times before they get boring. Actually, I don’t even remember how it came about, but someone said, “Hey, we’re in Hollywood, we should parody celebrity culture.” It was kind of a response to all of the hard news we had been dealing with for so long.

I think that it was also partially a response to the fact that we look at these people that are “celebrities” and realize they’re in a very precious place; they’ve been very lucky to get where they are because talent doesn’t mean anything anymore. Talent is about 10 percent; 90 percent is your image and how people perceive you. You see some of these people like Lindsey Lohan and the Kardashians who do everything in their power to offset the fact that they’ve been lucky enough to get this far. That was the genesis of where the show came from.

In the process of trying to figure out how to do it, my partner Tim said we should turn it into a parody of TMZ, and the name TMI came from there. So essentially, that’s a very long answer to a very short question. We just don’t really like the people who are considered celebrities, I guess!

MT: I love that you acknowledge that and do a TMZ spinoff.

PA: If there’s one moment that encompasses everything for us and is our one proud-ish moment, I’d say it was about a year into the show when we had a scout from “America’s Got Talent” who came to see us. After the show, they introduced themselves, and said that “America’s Got Talent” was considering the idea of adding sketch comedy into their program, and that they had been in different parts of the country and were interested in having us audition for the show. It was a private audition where we wouldn’t have to wait in line, and they wanted to know if we were interested. Of course we said yes, and we went to the audition.

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Photography by Bill Kelly

Being the people that we are, we did three sketches that mocked NBC. One was worse than the next. What was so fun about it is that the first people we auditioned for were line producers from the show and they loved it and said, “Don’t leave, we want to introduce you to the executive producers of the show and the people from NBC.” We waited around and the NBC people loved us, the people from “America’s Got Talent” loved us, and then we got a call maybe two or three days later that it was all but a done deal, and that we’d be on the show. It was all very exciting and about two weeks later we got a call that they sent the tape to the NBC people in New York and they hated it. They wanted to know where we got off thinking it’d be funny to come in and make fun of the network. And in some weird way, that was sort of a badge of honor. Because it was like, well, I guess we’re doing exactly what we set out to do!

Yes, we want to succeed, but at the same time, I really don’t want to do it for the wrong reasons. We’ve been really lucky that we’ve been able to do this for as long as we have and not be coerced into trying to change it. We’ve had people come to us and say we should soften this or that, or go in a different direction, that we’d get more attention if we did. We listened to some of that, because when we started, it was more of an old boys club and the material was more toward frat boy humor and more on the misogynist side. But if you look at it now, a lot of the lead roles are more female based. We try to be a lot more aware of the fact that we’re actually adults.

MT: I don’t think you have to lose that too much. I loved the sketch where she was going to throw herself off a cruise ship for fame and her husband died lighting his fart on fire.

PA: That was a great sketch. That was my partner Tim’s sketch. If you look at the stuff that the media seems to be so interested in showing, I mean, not to politicize anything but the reason Donald Trump is so successful is not because he might be a good politician, but because he’s been on TV for a long time and knows how to work media people. It’s whatever the media pays attention to. It’s sad for some people but it gives us material.

MT: That’s true. Every time I turn on the news lately, there’s a new story involving a bear, whether it’s an attack or someone finding one raiding their fridge, there’s always bear news. I don’t know if it’s happening more, or if there’s just more attention on it because it’s a current media trend.

PA: I think you might be right about the trending. I’m stuck in this bubble where we’ve been doing this so long that I can look back and say we did two or three bear sketches about two years ago, so there had to be some reason those stories were popular. I remember there was a story in Jersey about a bear that was living behind a 7-Eleven, and that got a lot of news for about two weeks. So I think if something really works, and then another comes out a year later, it’s like, “Oh, it’s an oldie but goodie! Let’s throw it back out there!” Thankfully for us, those are the things we are able to feed off of.

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Photography by Bill Kelly

MT: What have been some of your challenges with the show?

PA: When I came out here, I had no working knowledge of entertainment at all. My background was in marketing. I ran nightclubs in New York. I did everything from restaurants to nightclubs back east. When I got here, I didn’t understand the politics of being here. The first day I was in class at UCLA, I met two other guys in the class and they were both from the East Coast. One was from Boston and one was from Philadelphia. They took a liking to me and the first thing they told me is that the thing you have to learn about LA is it’s completely different from the East Coast. If you’re on the East Coast, and you don’t like someone, you say, “Hey man, I don’t like you.” Out here if you don’t like someone, you say to them, “I love your work.” As insane as that sounded when I first heard it, I have learned over the last six years how incredibly true that is. You have conversations with people all the time, and you hear stories and have people telling you things that are completely untrue. It’s a juggle.

We have 52 actors in our cast and 20 something writers. It took me a long time to learn that you have to temper how you say things to certain people. If an actor is completely unprepared for a show and they get on stage and don’t know any of their lines, to me, you go to them and say, “What was wrong? Why didn’t you know the material?” but you can’t say that here. You have to say, “Well, that’s okay, you had an off night.” No! You didn’t have an off night! You were unprepared! My biggest challenge is how to find the balance between those two things.

You learn that everything you hear isn’t always true. If I told you how many meetings you’d have with management people or people from agencies, you wouldn’t believe it. We’ve never had to reach out to anyone to represent the show, and maybe that’s because we always have some form of celebrity guest, so they bring their management and agency people, or someone from the cast has someone show up. In the last four years I’ve probably had 25 lunches and another 10 or 15 meetings who say, “This is the best idea in the world, we could have you on Comedy Central in six months,” and they all lead to very little. It has nothing to do with whether what you’re doing is good or not – they always sell you the bigger and better deal. If they just come and say, “You’re good, let’s get it out there and see what we can do,” no one will want to work with them, so they come say, “I’m going to make you a millionaire!” because they have to sell you the bigger and better deal.

So that’s the hardest part, learning the difference between the truth and the hype. It sucks because you always want to be excited when someone calls and tells you you’re the next big thing, because you want to believe that. If you don’t believe it yourself, then you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But it does come down to realizing that most of the people you’re talking to really don’t know what they’re saying half the time.

MT: What is the process for getting each week ready for the show?

PA: It’s a seven day thing. As soon as one show is over, we throw it out and get ready for the next week the following day with our writers meeting. It’s a weeklong process. We’ll get to the weekend and all of a sudden some of the material kind of starts getting discombobulated. Different visions start affecting it, so that can be a problem because you don’t have all the time you want to hone it. The actors are all working day jobs, and the writers are finding time in their week to write the material.

I’m the only one who does this full time. I quit my job two years ago to focus completely on this. You don’t have the kind of time frame you’d like to get everything polished. This week we have four or five sketches with eight or nine parts, so you don’t have the time to organize those nine people to make sure it’s perfect, so you Scotch tape it and hope that it comes out the way you kind of want it to.

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Photography by Bill Kelly

MT: That’s what’s cool about it though. You’re on the edge of your seat because you really don’t know what’s going to happen next.

PA: Because of the actors we have, we’re able to write the show all the way up to two hours beforehand. There have been things that have happened in the last three years where there was a reason to write something into the show right beforehand. We’ll run backstage and be like, “Here, just run the lines right now and do a basic setup with you standing here and you standing here,” and we’ll put things on stage that haven’t even been rehearsed. We’ve been really lucky that because we have the kind of actors we have, and that the few of us who write the material are pretty quick on our feet, we’ve been able to get that out there.

On SNL they have the cue cards, and I’ve been asked before why we don’t have them, but I just think it’s one of those badge of honor things again where we’ve done it so many times our way and we’ve never had to do it the other. I’m sure it would be better in some ways if we did have them, but I’ve watched SNL so many times where when someone doesn’t really know what they’re doing, you can see them reading off the cue cards, and it completely interrupts the flow of it.

MT: That’s part of the fun though, to see how it ends up. High risk, high reward.

PA: Oh yeah, and I’ve always been one of those people that never liked having a job where you knew when everything was going to happen. At 9 you sit down, at noon you have lunch, at 3 you have a break and so on. My day starts and ends in a question mark every week. I have no idea Monday what I’m going to write until we sit down with all the writers. I don’t know what I’m going to write until I know what they’re going to write. Then when those lights come up at 8 p.m., I have no idea what you’re going to see on stage. I have a good idea, but we’ve had some interesting moments in all the years of doing this! But that’s the fun part about it, and it’s a kick for the ones who come to see us on a regular basis. In some weird way, it’s no different than watching a sporting event, because you really don’t know the outcome until it’s over.

Sketch comedy is the perfect medium for the world of today with social media and everything else. No one wants a full story, they want the sound bytes. We create the sound bytes. Anyone who is actually talented in LA hates the people who are successful because again, there’s a big line of difference between talent and success. A lot of people cross the line and are talented people who are successful, but a big portion of them are successful just because they’re successful. I love to get more people to see us who have always felt that way but didn’t know there was a voice for it. We like being the voice for that group of people in Hollywood that isn’t waiting to leave the room to tell everyone how bad they think you are – we’ll tell you to your face! (laughing)

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Photography by Bill Kelly

TMI Hollywood shows are every Sunday night (with one Sunday off per month, so check the site for details). Doors open at 7:30, show starts at 8 p.m., laughs continue way past curtain call.

ACME Comedy Theatre Hollywood
135 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles
tmihollywood.com

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