Before ‘Rick and Morty,’ Dan Harmon Tried to Reinvent Acceptable Television with ‘Acceptable.TV’

The idea of entertainment as an entity separate from the internet is one that is for the most part dead. Every movie must have social media tie-ins, every book a video trailer, every TV show a second screen experience. For just a moment, imagine a strange, distant land called “Cable TV in 2007” – a land where the internet is relatively new and remains completely divorced from television, with the exception of some free downloadable desktop backgrounds on the official site. Today we look back at a television show created by a young Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab that emerged from this landscape to tie these two forces together long before it was de rigueur with a little show named Acceptable.TV.

To fully understand Acceptable.TV, you have to travel back in time a little further to a little live show called Channel 101. Created in 2002 by Harmon and Schrab, each month, ten five-minute episodes are screened for an audience who then vote to decide which will return the following month. Over the years, the live show attracted such talent as The Lonely Island and their series The ‘Bu, Jack Black, who starred as the titular Computerman, and Rick and Morty creator Justin Roiland, who arguably made the most famous Channel 101 pilot, House of Cosbys. As of publication, Channel 101 still runs monthly shows in Los Angeles and New York, giving anyone with access to a camera a way to showcase their work.

When an FX pilot version of Channel 101, which was a slightly American Idol-ified version of the usual live show, didn’t move forward in 2004, the show moved away from the idea of celebrity judges and instead latched on to the internet. Rather than ten five-minute pilots, with Acceptable.TV viewers would get five 2.5-minute pilots, and anyone in the world with VH1 and an internet connection could watch the show then log on and vote for their favorite pilot. The top two pilots would air another episode the following week, and three new pilots would be folded in.

The first episode begins with a clean-shaven Dan Harmon and a cast of performers, made up of folks like Jen Kirkman, Justin Roiland, J.D. Ryznar, Chris Romano, Ryan Ridley, DeMorge Brown, and several other folks from the vast stable of Channel 101 performers and creators, presenting the world to Acceptable.TV. The premise of the show is presented succinctly in a title sequence, and before you know it, the show launches into its first pilot: Joke Chasers.

Joke Chasers is a parody of what cheap reality programming looked liked in the early-2000s: a duo tracking down the origins of some mythological Bigfoot or the remaining witnesses of an unsolved cold case and doling out the suspenseful details over the course of one 60-minute episode. In the case of Joke Chasers, two guys, played by Harmon and Rick and Morty writer Ryan Ridley, track down the origins of a joke in which “a black guy, a Chinese guy, and a Polish guy… spend a night in a farmhouse.” Over the course of the episode, they follow the steps of this unlikely trio, locating the very farmhouse where they slept under the same roof as a nymphomaniac farmer’s daughter, the current occupant’s Aunt Tess. Eventually the Joke Chasers get evidence that they’ve found the right spot in a truly moving end to these two and a half minutes.

The next pilot, a parody of the primetime game shows such as Deal or No Deal and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? that were all the rage at the time asks the age-old question: Who Farted? The premise is simple: six ordinary people stand on stage as our host (Harmon) asks a contestant (Brown) to eliminate, one by one those, who he believes didn’t just fart. At each step of the way, the Amp’d mobile phone (product placement – the host tells us “owning one will make you happy”) rings and The Fartmaster calls to offer the contestant money to stop guessing. After two attempts and the offer to pay for a full-ride scholarship for his daughter, our contestant wrongly selects Jen Kirkman dressed as a nurse, who sadly had just farted. Another episode of Who Farted? comes to an end.

The third pilot stars J.D. Ryznar and offers a premise that is pretty clear from the title: Homeless James Bond. Bond is given the mission to stop JoJo, leader of the Homeless Underground, who has amassed an unusually large assortment of bottles and cans. He meets with Q, who gives him the perfect disguise: a clean shirt. But it can only be worn for 20 seconds before it becomes dirty again. He also gives him an ordinary stabbing device that can also unscrew screws! Bond meets up with a young woman by the name of Pussy, infiltrates the base, and is captured by JoJo, who reveals his master plan of banking cans in an effort to no longer be homeless and instead become poor. James uses the screwdriver, rips the tape from the inside of the structure that is labeled “self-destruct,” and saves the day, leaving JoJo and his cans buried under cardboard.

The fourth pilot, The Teensies, is a tear-jerking tale of a family that lives in the walls of a home owned by two burnouts. When the son (Roiland) drags home the remnants of a joint, a family crisis emerges as the father (Ryznar) must confront him about the rules still applying, even while teensie. In the dining room, mother (Jennifer Flack) and daughter (Kirkman) worry about what’s happening in the other room, with the youngest concerned whether or not God can even hear them, due to their teensieness. In the end, the son literally heaves the drugs out of the mouse hole that is their front door, and life for the Teensies returns to normal.

When Acceptable.TV returns from commercial break, Harmon is joined by executive producer Jack Black, who explains how the viewers at home can also have their own pilots shown on television, and then he introduces the first web winner: Anna Manesia. This pilot stars Kate Freund, who accidentally hits Amy Roiland with her car, giving her amnesia. Rather than take her to the hospital, she dresses her up as a robot and has her do dishes for her, despite the protests of her friend (Schrab) and the threats of Anna’s boyfriend (Steve Agee) who is looking for her.

The final Acceptable.TV-produced pilot is an animated short from Justin Roiland entitled Mister Sprinkles. This pilot tells the tale of a Cat in the Hat-like character who only wants to inspire kids to see that the indoors can be fun on rainy days, but instead only seems to inject pure terror into their hearts. He meets with his therapist and when it rains the next day, he attempts to resist the urge to go out but is unable to hold back, with disastrous results.

And with that, the first episode of Acceptable.TV is in the books. If you don’t want a TV series from 11 years ago spoiled for you, stop reading this now:

The show was canceled after eight episodes.

But, more specifically, the two pilots that made it into episode 2 were Homeless James Bond and Mister Sprinkles, with the latter running the table, being the only pilot to last all eight episodes of Acceptable.TV. I am unable to link to just the first episode on YouTube, so instead, enjoy the entire 8 episode opus:

Watching Acceptable.TV a decade after it aired feels like watching a tribute to creativity that was long before its time. We live now in a world where anyone can live broadcast their own television show any time they want online, but with no way to truly only see the quality examples without self-aggregating. With some claiming that Facebook has killed comedy, perhaps it’s time for a new online version of Acceptable.TV to emerge and deliver us quality content from the little guy. As Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon continue to become the NBC, CBS and ABC of our time, it has sadly once again become time to find a new platform for the little guy.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. He also co-writes a weekly newsletter from a secret, world-controlling society.

Before ‘Rick and Morty,’ Dan Harmon Tried to Reinvent […]