How the creatives behind a Boston ‘reality sitcom’ made it to TV, got screwed, and fought back
If we listed every last extremely gifted New England creative who made some kind of cameo appearance on “Quiet Desperation,” even with a Twitter bio-length description of their comedy and musical accomplishments, there would be little room left for much else. In its 55 episode, five-year stretch from 2009 to 2014, the homegrown “reality sitcom” was fueled by jokes and raw charisma from in excess of 300 Boston characters, each one eons more unique than the deepest personalities on modern network television.
All of the above considered, as the crew—led by Allston multi-talent Rob Potylo, along with directors Erik Angra and Steve Onderick—secured a legitimate deal to air “Quiet D” on the local network myTV, then subsequently on Boston’s CBS affiliate for actual money, it was a significant moment of pride for struggling musicians and comics, artists, cellar dwellars, and fantastic weirdos galore.
So when the paying network cut its contract with the “Quiet D” creators for apparently baloney reasons, the news came as a massive punt upon innumerable crotches. But it didn’t come as a surprise, since Potylo’s seeming plight is notoriously, and sure as hell not at all gloriously, that of the quintessential tortured bohemian Bostonian, last seen being gentrified beyond the ’burbs in the final episodes of the series.
This kind of tragic story isn’t supposed to end with Potylo winning. And the adventure isn’t over yet. In any case, we thought the saga of the “Quiet D” team’s fight with CBS could serve as some proper inspiration for enduring artists everywhere. To that end, we asked Angra and Potylo how they accomplished the unthinkable and beat a major corporate media behemoth into submission.
Last time we caught up with you, you had a great television show that had finally gotten a break on a local television station, but then you and your gang of miscreants had your hearts ripped promptly out of your chest. All this time later, how do you recall what went down?
EA: Looking back at what happened, I’m really glad it went down the way it did. CBS agreed to air our show locally, we signed an agreement, we were told to have a pilot ready by a certain date, we complied, and out of the blue they pulled their support and broke the contract, leaving us with months of expenses and work down the drain, not to mention the sponsors we had arranged.
Without CBS clearly breaking their agreement [the network told us] in no uncertain terms that they felt our political agenda (in general, not even on the show they watched) was too far left for them to even consider doing business with us. It was disheartening, but something, deep down, we both knew. I think we were hoping it would fly under the radar, and our show would be broadcast for what it was. That maybe the station actually cared about the artistic value of what we were showcasing—a way to feature many local artists on a larger medium. Of course, we learned that this was not the case. Once the executives started to go into our web videos, especially Rob protesting at Occupy, it clearly soured them to doing any business with us.
This was made clear in the letters sent to me by their legal counsel during negotiations. In a way, it felt vindicating, to finally hear what we suspected all along; local stations did not want to engage with the community in anything other than a commercial manner. Honestly, I think it was arrogant and idiotic, the way they broke contract. I bet they never suspected a group of local artists to actually sue them. It was a huge learning experience for me, and I think it really proves that the little guy can win. We cannot allow media conglomerates to try and stampede the rights of local artists.
RP: This was our second time trying to get “Quiet D” on television. They aired 10 episodes on [then-local Fox affiliate] myTV. This time around I was the point person talking to my38 … Which is CBS, who bought myTV. We signed a deal with them to air four-to-six episodes at 12:30 pm on Sunday afternoons after “Phantom Gourmet,” 15 commercials a week, and featured on the CBS/WBZ website.
Their salespeople loved the show. It was a toned-down version that was more documentary than mockumentary, and showcased the struggles of being artists in Boston—without the F Word. We pitched it as a “‘Chronicle’ for hipsters.” After the higher-ups saw the online version, in particular the ‘McRib Is Back’ bit with confused anti-abortionists at the DNC, and also our marijuana humor, they quickly denied what they signed was a contract. I was crushed … But they did sign a contract. We got a wonderful lawyer, and fought to a settlement.
Do you complain about this stuff while you are drunk at parties?
EA: It was always on the tip of my tongue. Once news broke about what happened, many local artists called, and boycotted the station in support of our show. That was truly humbling, to see the scene in Boston come together in such a way, even only for a moment. So of course we would talk about it, and be asked about it often. There was not much gossip to talk about though—once the lawyers get involved it becomes very dry, with long time spans waiting for responses or crafting legal documents. Not too exciting, but that was how we ultimately settled.
RP: If I’m up in Boston of course. It sucks how corporate and conservative the mediums are … TV, radio, print. But artists need exposure. The way to get New England behind an arts scene was to put it in their homes. Mostly Marty Walsh sees the art scene as paintings on a wall. But it’s the comedy, music, acting, painting … it’s everything. To have a funny documentary on the television each week showing New Englanders, our scene, with local sponsors … I think it went a long way in helping a viable alternative arts scene really blossom in Boston.
But there’s a conservative staunch culture that doesn’t really dig the bohemian culture, period … It’s the real basis to why it was so hard to get marijuana legalized to begin with, why our comedians, musicians, and actors have to flee this area or be eccentric weekend warriors. It owns WBZ, ZLX, WAAF, Globe, Herald … everything … with little indie outlets picking up the remains afterwards.
After already being lucky enough to get a break, however short it was, where did you get the audacity to actually hire an attorney and fight them on their level?
EA: I remember coming home that day with Rob and feeling completely disheartened. It truly felt like it was all over. At that time, a friend of ours, who is also a lawyer, gave us the idea to sue them. I didn’t even know that was an option until we realized they had broken a written agreement. I called any friend I knew who was a lawyer, and we had a ‘legal’ party at my place on Comm Ave. After many drinks and lots of debating amongst the lawyers, they all agreed that the contract was a contract, and that CBS was likely breaching it. The next day we called the firm that would soon become our legal saviors.
RP: They were wrong. They signed an agreement. We went into production. We went public about it. Rather than trying to see eye to eye, work things out, build a relationship, they tried to bury it. We had no choice but to fight back. There’s something so sad about the constant censorship and restrictions all these major mediums have over the artist … It’s why most TV sucks shit, why local radio is only Sunday nights, and you get one article a year in the Herald if you play the Brighton Music Hall.
Were there any monumental courtroom scenes? Did Potylo bring his guitar?
EA: The case never came to a trial, although I’m sure it would have been a wacky one. Trials are very expensive, and it’s a 50-50 shot on winning or losing. We were able to settle out of court after some long negotiations.
Did you think that you had any chance of winning? Give us some of the gory details.
EA: I always felt like we had a good chance, once our lawyer agreed to take the case. I learned a lot about contract law, and what kind of money we could actually sue for. It was a journey, but I always felt we would at least get some of our money back. What worried me was how much, and would it be more than what I was spending to fight them. Originally they offered us $10,000, right off the bat, perhaps to just shut us up. At that time, it was tempting, but we were asking for $100,000, and my expenses were close to $10,000 already. It was like they gave us an easy out.
Their lawyers would constantly try and tell us in emails that we did not have an agreement, or that we were not entitled to anything. However, my lawyer was able to clarify how this process works, and continually remind me that we had a good case. Our goal was to flood them with paperwork because we knew their legal costs were 100 times what ours would be. Our lawyer worked at CBS over 20 years ago, so he knew exactly what he was doing. We got them to a point where they would lose more money fighting us than what we were asking to settle upon. That’s how we finally reached an agreement.
What was the outcome?
EA: We ended up settling for under $50,000. Almost meeting in the middle.
What is the future for you guys? Will ‘Quiet D’ rise again?
EA: Right now, I’m focused on my documentary on [recently passed professional wrestling star] Chyna, as well as building a new life in LA. I’m not sure if “Quiet D” will rise again. If it does, it will be on the West Coast, that’s for sure.
RP: Like Erik said we’re pretty balls deep into completing the Chyna documentary. That was our project beyond “Quiet Desperation” … giving our documentary resources to Chyna. Telling her story … That’s another world. “Quiet Desperation” has 55 episodes, 6 seasons, over 300 artists in the comedy, music, performance art fields … Many have gone on to real television credits and glory. We will be continuing to move “Quiet D” into newer exciting directions and opportunities. As it has for me.
Without “Quiet Desperation” I wouldn’t be experiencing all the surreal magic and opportunities I have now.
EA: If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
You can catch up on old ‘Quiet D’ episodes on YouTube, and be sure to check out Potylo’s new album, 14 Ways To Sing Row Row Row Your Boat, on Bandcamp.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.