The Curious Case of...
Nobody's Watching

Derrick: This is a message for all of you TV networks. Lately, your sitcoms suck.

Will: They suck! I mean, come on! According to Jim?

Derrick: Awful. Good Morning, Miami.

Will: Goodnight, funny.

Derrick: And Yes, Dear, excuse me. [picks up dog] Rufus, I'm very upset with you! You Yes, Deared all over the carpet!

Network television is a fickle being, one that has now hydrophobed itself into dehydration. It's a legacy vessel they continue to let run the trade routes out of nostalgia until they eventually one day dock it and call it a day, and don't blame technology for it. This is the networks' doing.

Derrick and Will go to Hollywood...

And that? Is what we're here to discuss. Nobody's Watching. The nature of the beast once lead to a comedy from the minds of 2000s TV's biggest juggernauts withering into complete obscurity despite an incredibly positive cult reception on the early era of YouTube. Indeed, after NBC had their way, nobody was watching. Worse yet, the pilot nearly became lost media—and parts of its run are. Step into my time machine to gawk at a bizarre little fixture of my early YouTube viewing habits...

The story behind Nobody's Watching

Nobody's Watching was a casualty of the way network TV pilots are normally picked up. Bill Lawrence is a name you might recognize if you're familiar with 90s and 2000s TV comedies. He's the mind behind Scrubs, one of the minds behind Spin City, and one of the writers behind Friends, The Nanny, and Boy Meets World, among others. The dude's got a rap sheet. I'll let this New York Times article about the pilot set the stage from here:

The man at the center of the story is Bill Lawrence, creator of "Spin City" and "Scrubs." Mr. Lawrence knows how insane the television business can be. For example, for a few years after "Scrubs" made its debut on NBC in 2001, all Mr. Lawrence heard from network executives was that the show would never be a hit because it was a single-camera filmed comedy. Only multi-camera taped comedies worked, he was told.

In the last two years Mr. Lawrence said, he has gotten into arguments with network program chiefs who have told him, "The multi-camera comedy genre is dead."

Both stances struck Mr. Lawrence as ridiculous. "The challenge," he said in a telephone interview, "was to reinvent the genre."

That was the goal of "Nobody's Watching," which Mr. Lawrence conceived with two writing partners, Garrett Donovan and Neil Goldman, who had both worked on the Fox animated comedy "Family Guy."

So the project of a man with one of the most fondly remembered 2000s comedies under his belt was being co-written by a team who'd also worked on Family Guy and Community. While NBC (who ran Scrubs) were the true owners of the project, it was being shipped to The WB (now The CW?) as they were considered a more "youth" network, and anything new and different will automatically be a hit with the youths. (I mean...I loved it when I was little, but I don't think I'm the average viewer.)

Beyond the writers, though, Bill needed leads for his premise and found them in Taran Killam (who at that point was an alumni of The Amanda Show and Mad TV) and Paul Campbell (whose biggest project up to that point was playing Billy Keikeya on Battlestar Galactica). The two came from largely improv backgrounds and, much like Derrick and Will respectively, actually became quick friends while working on it.

Derrick and Will

The premise

Okay, so what's Nobody's Watching actually about? Here's the premise: two dorks out of a town of 6,000 in Ohio ship a tape of themselves lambasting the current crop of garbage sitcoms off to all the TV networks (a move of titanium balls), and the WB shows up at their mini-mart to call their bluff. The two are carted off to Los Angeles, told to make a sitcom by the (fictional) WB boss himself, and even offered help by a few castaways just trying to make it in the business.

Thing is, he has zero intention of actually letting them air their idea. Their entire operation is on camera for the world to see, and the big boss wants conflict and he wants sex appeal. The sitcom is not the show. The battles between Derrick, Will, and their new, easily dumped friends in Hollywood are the show.

The failure

Now, looking back, this is the kind of thing that'd soar to life on AMC, Netflix, or some premium-rate network that specializes in subversion and deconstruction-type shows. But alas, then the screeners got their hands on it. Now, if you're unfamiliar with how TV pilots are made and picked up, assuming a show isn't basically written for the hell of it (a "spec pilot"), a network will take ideas from a whole bunch of potential showrunners and commission a few dozen of them to be turned into "pilots", or sample episodes. They get made super cheaply, they get screened for test audiences, and whichever perform best tend to be the ones that get picked up for the upcoming prime time season.

In Nobody's Watching's case, the test audience got confused as to the premise and the WB passed on the show. The thing was for dead, essentially, and believe it or not, this fate befalls many potential shows in the industry. Assuming the idea even gets an ear from the networks, a pilot is then written, it gets made, people act in it, the thing gets edited, and then they try it with as close to a "real life" audience as possible. And all that hard work often dies right then and there. It's not that potential audiences couldn't get the show, only that these screeners didn't.

And then the rebirth (for ten minutes)

this is part 3 of a pilot produced for the WB by the writers of Scrubs and Family Guy.  it's very funny, very different, and deserves to be seen by all. they picked up "twins" instead of this

Now, a funny little spanner sprouted up right around the time Nobody's Watching was in development. Ya might've heard of it: YouTube. Bill himself anonymously uploaded the pilot in three parts (remember, YouTube limited video lengths back then!) to a channel called "impytherap" on June 9, 2006, where, whoops! It turns out there was an audience for it after all. While the videos are gone now, thanks to the magic of the Wayback Machine, we can see the exact view counts of each of the parts:

So yeah, somebody indeed was watching.

At the time, Nobody's Watching ended up with a ton of organic buzz thanks to the pilot's surprise success. Industry gremlins all wondered in unison if this was to be the future of media: the screeners be damned, and the industry comes right to the audience for what lives and dies on their screens. (Spoiler alert: it was not.) Nevertheless, while NBC were receptive to the pilot's second life online, the show still wasn't about to be given a slot on actual TV. Instead, a series of what were very charitably called "webisodes" were produced riffing current TV shows and early YouTube staples. Beyond that, NBC quietly waved away the pilot, letting Taran and Paul's contracts expire with no further word on the series.

In a phone interview Monday, Lawrence said the actor's contracts expire at the end of February. He's not making Internet videos for the show's Web site anymore because, "If I kept doing it and nothing happens, I'd have to kill myself."

The impytherap channel quietly shut down sometime in the 2010s (here's an archive), taking all of the Nobody's Watching material with it. Nearly all the videos by that point had six-figure view counts, some in the multiple millions of views. No one seemed to notice, and now, looking up Nobody's Watching on Google instead mostly pops up some ridiculously pretentious-looking Brazilian drama about an actor nobody watched instead.

The plot of Nobody's Watching

Now, you can watch the pilot for yourself on YouTube, thanks to some kind soul who reuploaded it after impytherap went dark. It's only about a half hour long (as I believe this was taken from either the Dailymotion upload or had its three parts stitched back together and an extra layer of re-encoding vaseline smeared on top for good measure...), but in case you like reading and stills instead, I gotcha covered.

Derrick and Will talking to Jeff Tucker

After Derrick and Will arrive in Hollywood, they're greeted on a soundstage by Jeff Tucker, the head of the WB, and two of his underlings: Roy Ingold, his camera shy "creative VP", and "Jill Something", his assistant whose last name he can't quite remember. Derrick and Will tell their story, of Will being the "studly jock type" and Derrick being "indoorsy", but united over classic sitcoms. A highly receptive Tucker offers them a reality TV show based around writing their very own sitcom. They live and work on a couple classic sitcom sets, and are either filmed by a multi-camera video crew on the soundstage or followed by a second crew around the WB lot.

After enjoying the amenities for a while, Derrick goes to Tucker to ask where to start on their project. He suggests hiring a second-in-command with some experience in the business, presumably expecting himself to be chosen. Instead, Jill hops at the opportunity, looking to "make it" and seeing the sitcom as her way of getting a foot in the door. Derrick and Tucker both take her less than seriously, but Will immediately welcomes her aboard.

Will hiring Jill

Derrick takes a walk and returns on the office set, where an entire studio audience is waiting for him. The duo take turns playing with the audience for a brief moment until it becomes clear that Will is properly deferring to Jill, something that confuses and slightly offends Derrick. A small battle of the egos takes over, and Will runs off to find that Tucker took his earlier suggestion to use an empty section of the WB soundstage for a recreation of the Friends Central Perk set seriously—complete with a Gunther behind the pastry counter! Alas, Jill does not find the shenanigans quite as appealing, and after brushing off Gunther and referring to the sitcom as "our project", Derrick drags Will off to a lot bathroom (with hidden cameras, naturally) to discuss her muscling in quite coldly on their work.

Derrick and Will in the bathroom

Watching the hidden cameras from his office, Tucker is displeased with the lack of marketable conflict and sex appeal ("This is our version of must-see TV, a grown man washing his feet...") and invites Derrick into his office for a chat about the sitcom. Looking to shake things up, he lies to Derrick about pulling the plug on the entire operation, hinting at Will being the problem. Derrick, panicked, offers to stay on the project without Will, and Tucker having gotten what he wants, cuts Derrick loose instead.

During this exchange, Will goes wandering the WB lot to find a sad, soaking wet, recently fired WB gift shop employee named Mandy. Mandy immediately tells Will of her troubles in L.A., moving there for an "insecure, needy carjacker", having no friends, and the aforementioned firing (over a set of Smallville boxers, no less!). Will, being the guy he is, immediately offers her a job, which she tentatively goes along with. (Fittingly, this was the first role of the real life actress, Mircea Monroe.)

Mandy after getting caught in the sprinklers

The day cuts along to the living room set, where Jill immediately, gleefully tells Derrick of the new girl Will hired, expecting him to be upset. Instead, a freshly-dressed Mandy in a very low-cut top (naturally a Tucker job, and one Ingold chalks up to his fondness for prostitutes) wanders onto the set with a tape in her hand. Derrick and Mandy immediately hit it off, and riding high on the feeling in the room, Derrick proudly announces their need to stick together against the WB executives. He then slots the tape into the TV on set and finds his admission of being perfectly okay to go on without Will staring back at him.

Will stumbling around the set achily

Will is devastated by the news. As much as Derrick tries to talk his way out of it, Will storms off, once again wandering the WB lot by his lonesome. There, he stumbles across a group of TV dads (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air's Uncle Phil, Happy Days' Howard Cunningham, and Will's favorite, Dr. Seaver from Growing Pains), the sight of which takes the fatherless Will by storm. All three are rather cold, aloof, and uncomfortable with the attention ("I have a taser," goes Tom Bosley). The former two immediately leave for Celebrity Jeopardy!, and Will tries in vain to open up to Dr. Seaver, who only becomes interested when Will mentions the live studio audience kicking around the soundstage.

Will's surrogate TV dads

Meanwhile, Derrick sits around the office set with Jill and Mandy, down without Will's accompaniment. Mandy tries to console him, opening up about the mistakes she's made in getting to that point and admitting nothing's ever come easy for her. Jill, being Jill, immediately takes Mandy's hypersexualized outfit to task, asking the audience who would buy her a car in exchange for five minutes with her tiddies. Mandy runs off, and Derrick finally strikes back at Jill, making it abundantly clear how replaceable she very much is and storming off to the lot bathroom once more. Meanwhile, Tucker once again tries to meddle in the cast by getting Mandy to play kissy-face with Will ("the boyishly handsome one") despite her interest in Derrick.

Mandy in her...tasteful attire, as provided by Jeff Tucker

While Dr. Seaver performs for the studio audience, Jill and Will talk about the events of the day on the side. She tries to convince Will to make up with his close friend ("It's what I would do if I had a friend I was that close to...I don't have one...but I've always wished I did."), and Will soon joins Derrick in "privacy". While Derrick is clearly remorseful, he's not quite able to open up to Will's satisfaction; in response, he drags him back out to the office set to apologize in front of the audience.

"That is not the show! THIS is the show."

The curtain's pulled back at last as Tucker and Ingold watch over the set from Tucker's office TV. Ingold, incredulous, takes Tucker to task about his constant meddling, to which Tucker proclaims, emphatically, that he doesn't care if they ever come up with a decent sitcom, so long as the drama keeps working and he's getting plenty of conflict for his cameras. Derrick, at the last moment, finally breaks open to Will, apologizing and putting it out in the open that he needs Will a whole lot more than Will needs him. The two reunite happily and convince Jill and Mandy to stay a while longer, realizing that Tucker's rules (for curfew, but also much of anything) don't matter whatsoever as long as the audience likes what they're up to. Ingold and Tucker watch on from their TV, Ingold smug over their realization, and Tucker somewhat thwarted.

The four sitting around with beers in hand

In the final scene, as they sit around with beers in hand, they note how bizarre it is to have the packed studio audience watching them do much of nothing. Derrick proclaims they just have to pretend like nobody's watching, which Will thinks is an excellent name for their sitcom, much to Derrick's chagrin. The announcer cuts in to announce what's up next week on Nobody's Watching, namely Tucker's attempts to inject diversity into the cast by letting Derrick and Will pick from a gigantic pool of nonwhite office managers, and Derrick and Mandy's makeout sessions in the lot bathroom, all while that eternal Scrubs favorite (and Cammy favorite!), "Camera One" by the Josh Joplin Group, hangs in the background.

Come on, I had to end on this one.

And what of the webisodes?

I've been hinting at it, but really, the webisodes are only a loss from a lost media perspective, not really from a creative perspective. They don't match the tone of the show at all, nor do Derrick and Will's personalities ever really come into play. They're essentially improvised skits that could've been done by anyone with a MiniDV camera in 2006. In other words, they fit early YouTube just fine.

Here's a list of all the webisodes that were made, in order, and if any reuploads exist, I'll link them. (I only remember a few, so forgive my lapsed memory...)

There's one additional webisode that actually got removed during the initial run, that being a "Nobody's Watching Music Video". If Derrick and Will in jeans and jackets (and occasionally naked) dicking around to stock music sounds uproarious, you're in luck, this one got preserved on someone else's channel.

Where I come in (and what I think about it now that I'm not 8 years old anymore...)

I was bizarrely obsessed with Nobody's Watching when I was tiny. I was a very early adopter of YouTube, watching videos in 2006 (barely even 7!) and making my first account on June 3, 2007. Between the everpresent Guitar Hero customs and Pac-Man and stop motion stuff, Nobody's Watching fell into my lap somehow. A lot of kids (at least, my generation...) liked to watch TV; I wanted to make TV, and seeing all the sets and behind the scenes stuff struck me as kinda fantastic. I kinda knew what was going on, but it was second fiddle to my own weird, spergy obsessions with what it was made of.

Going back and watching it again as a 21-year-old, there's obviously a lot more going on. Parts of the dialogue that virgin ears and underdeveloped brains couldn't quite make out are more clear, naturally, but the subtleties of Tucker trying to fuck with the proceedings really stand out now. There's the sitcom Derrick and Will are working on on the most base level, then there's the "real life" in-show escapades of Derrick and Will a level above, and then there's Tucker playing with real life people in order to wring good reality TV out of them. And of course, Tucker himself is part of their show! So the show isn't just Derrick, Will, Mandy, and Jill doing their thing—it's all that, plus Tucker as an in-universe character trying to affect what's going on like a puppetmaster standing over his office TV. (And then the show we're watching here in reality as the top layer.)

It perfectly blurs the line between a showrunner that affects a piece of fiction and a showrunner that affects a piece of reality. And as someone who's still got Pennyverse floating around in his life with ideas of real life websites blurring the line between what exists in their world and what exists in our world—I think that's just awesome.

Will acting like King Kong

The pilot isn't without its flaws, naturally. If you're expecting it to be as conked out as Scrubs or as raucous as Family Guy—it's not. Parts are intentionally goofy, but most of its humor comes from the subtle snipes at network TV and the nature of the business, leaving the humor feeling a bit disjointed in the process. As a drama, the "real life" bits aren't as heavy or believable as they probably should be. Tucker ships in a tape of Derrick professing his ability to work on the show concept without Will, who immediately takes it as betrayal, but I'd be more confused than anything else. Yet, Will never actually asks for context; an interrogation that could justify their falling out never happens. He just leaves. I think a bit more meat in an hour-long format would've worked a lot better.

Ultimately, this is a pilot. This is technically a prototype, something we weren't meant to see and thus probably isn't worth the nitpicking that you'd award an actual show with these issues. This was meant to prep the stage for a series, and likely, a proper actual first episode. If they took what happened in it, fleshed it out a little more, and stretched it to an hour in length, yeah, it'd be proper brilliance. As it is now, it's just a bit undercooked. Still a whole lot better than most of what passes for TV shows, but not quite where it should be, necessarily. (Of course, this is also old and will never see a proper run in our lives, so perhaps it's all a moot point. Still, I think it's worth a ramble.)

I do wonder if the premise would work better as a movie, some longer, one-off piece of media that could comfortably explore its themes and satisfyingly wrap up the story of Derrick and Will trying to bring a good sitcom to air. Its structure might very well be one of the issues with it, as it's still structured and toned like a sitcom, while also trying to take on a reality TV voice in spots, while also having a bit of mockumentary around the edges. I can confidently say I've never seen anything like it, but I also can't comfortably describe it.

If it were a proper two hour dramedy of Derrick and Will torn between trying to work in Tucker's funbox and avoiding it outright, making the best show they can all the while, I think that'd be a fantastic watch and would probably be hailed as a brilliant commentary on how out-of-touch ad executive businessmen try to get the highest ROI by fucking with a good thing. But alas, TV doesn't quite hold the reins anymore. Reality TV is much less a going concern than it was. The pilot is approaching the age to vote, and it's basically a long-forgotten curiosity now, a fun relic of its era. It's the story of how a genre-bending pilot then bent the medium in its quest to survive, seemed as if it'd escape the atmosphere, and then plummeted back to earth.

Yeah, how'd that one go?

And hey, at least Derrick and Will popped up on Scrubs for funsies afterwards.

This page last updated February 20, 2021.

"Camera one closes in, the soundtrack starts, the scene're playing you now..."