Imagine you make a web series with your roommates. It doesn’t go viral, but the people who see it at comedy shows love it, and eventually you find yourself in a position to pitch to TV networks. You get an offer to make a pilot, then a full season. You quit your job, hire your friends, and begin your career of living the dream full-time. That’s where The Dress Up Gang found themselves in 2017 when they and Abso Lutely Productions received a season order of ten half-hour episodes from TBS.
The show was intended to air as part of a new late-night comedy block with Super Deluxe, but in 2018, AT&T bought Time Warner and ultimately decided that Super Deluxe was redundant in the new WarnerMedia lineup and shuttered the company. Although Super Deluxe wasn’t involved with producing The Dress Up Gang, the show no longer fit in the TBS lineup.
Like the original web series, The Dress Up Gang centers on Cory Loykasek and Donny Divanian as roommates with a weirdly paternalistic dynamic. Cory (Loykasek) is crashing on Donny’s (Divanian) couch, but acts like he owns the place. Cory wears sweaters and reading glasses; Donny wears a yellow shirt with his last name on the front in peeling print. Donny is shy but excitable; Cory calls him “sport” and speaks in verdicts and maintains a perpetually disappointed look over his reading glasses.
The series was co-created by director-editor Robb Boardman with Loykasek and Divanian in 2014 after the three friends moved in together in Los Angeles (it was originally titled My Roommate, My Friend). Loykasek and Boardman were high-school buddies and met Divanian in the Bay Area stand-up scene, along with collaborators (and future roommates) Frankie Quinones and Kevin Camia. The show’s cast developed organically; as they made more videos, they involved more comedian pals like Kate Berlant, Brent Weinbach, Chase Bernstein, Christian Duguay, Kirk Fox, and Demorge Brown to play neighbors, friends, doctors, and dates. The web series never gained any kind of viral status — most of the videos didn’t have more than a thousand views — but they were popular when screened live at L.A. stand-up and variety shows like Meltdown, Underbelly, The Super Serious Show, and the Riot LA festival.
In both the web and TV episodes, the show takes place in a heightened version of “L.A. is a small town.” Most episodes don’t leave the apartment setting, but it’s always filled with neighbors and friends hanging out, gossiping, and embarking on low-key adventures. Andie MacDowell plays a version of herself (always referenced by her full name, like Charlie Brown) who happens to live next door. In each episode, Donny and Cory invariably find new ways to disappoint one another, but only so they can ultimately reconnect with some ridiculous heart-to-heart. The show is hard to describe; Strangers with Candy but mellower? With its soft-spoken, dry silliness, the show’s humor feels like a fit for fans of Joe Pera Talks With You or Nathan for You.
By the time TBS pivoted, The Dress Up Gang was already in the final stages of post-production for the full season. The show was pitched to other distributors, but despite screenings at Sundance, nobody was buying, and The Dress Up Gang was over before it started.
This week, the creators decided to take the show off the shelf and uploaded episodes themselves to Vimeo.
So what’s it like to make a full season of the TV show you’ve always wanted to create, then find out none of it will ever air? We spoke with the creators about the twists and turns on their emotional rollercoaster, and why they’ve decided to release the show on their own.
How did you turn the web series into a TV pitch?
Cory Loykasek: Donny got a manager in 2014, that fall, and she started introducing us to different production companies. We met Dave Kneebone [co-founder of Abso Lutely Productions with Tim Heidecker and Eric Warheim] and hit it off, so then we pitched in February or March 2015. We sent three of the webisodes out to a few networks, and then found out there was interest a few months later in doing a pilot presentation.
Donny Divanian: We were stunned.
Robb Boardman: Yeah, it was huge. We were all pretty ecstatic.
CL: TBS made an offer for the pilot presentation. But then it takes awhile to cement that — the lawyers and contracts. I’m driving for Lyft at the time. We’re all just working.
RB: Working at Trader Joe’s.
CL: Every email that comes in, you’re hoping it’s the one. And it just takes months and months and months. But eventually we got green-lit for the pilot presentation.
And that’s exciting, but it’s not life-changing — not yet. You can’t quit your job.
CL: Right, no. So we spent the whole summer of 2015 writing and preparing for that. We were supposed to shoot in September, but it got pushed to November for some contract thing.
DD: We turned it in at the end of January, I think.
CL: Then they had 12 months from when they said “yes” to the pilot presentation to get back to us whether they wanted to green-light the season. In the meantime, we’re checking emails everyday. We’re broke, wondering Should we work on something else? Should we make more webisodes? It’s paralyzing. I remember July 1 was the day that they would let us know their decision about the season order.
DD: Robb had just gotten married.
CL: Right. And then June 29 is my birthday; we’re supposed to hear back July 1. I was tired of checking my phone constantly, waiting for the email, so I decided to go backpacking with some friends. Left my phone in the car, saying, When I get back, I’ll turn it on, and then I’ll know my future. So then I come back and turn it on and it’s like “They need more time.” [Laughs.]
But finally you did get a series order to make ten half-hour episodes. What was that like?
RB: When we got the call, I remember it not sinking in immediately. Cory was like “Wait, does this mean we can celebrate?” Dave was like, “Yeah. You just sold a show.” [Laughs.]
CL: That was the happiest moment of my life. I called my mom. Then we all went out and had the best dinner and drinks. And existentially, it was huge. I remember sitting at a coffee shop a few days after and looking around and thinking, Fuck. Everyone here wants to pitch a show. The overwhelming odds that are stacked against you … I can’t believe how lucky we got.
DD: It was unbelievable. We weren’t thinking they were gonna do it.
CL: I think [the webseries] had like 2,000 views, tops, but TBS liked it and wanted to bring it to television, which was a bold move. Then, by the time the show was ready to air, the landscape had changed and it was no longer a good fit.
But first you had to start writing the ten episodes.
DD: We overwrote so much. [Laughs.] We wrote two seasons pretty much, almost by accident.
CL: We came up with like four or five seasons of ideas. When we were doing it as a web series, we’d already spent a lot of time on the world-building of it. I like shows where you can kind of escape into it.
What changed going from the web series to the TV show?
CL: Well, getting the paycheck is huge. You’re like, Okay, this is our job. We had a great team, great crew. But we had never been on a real set before, never had an art department. We had to start making all of the decisions ahead of time. That was a challenge.
RB: In the web series, we’d go in with an outline of an idea, shoot a ton of improv, put it together, then think of something better, go back and reshoot it. It was easy because we all lived together.
CL: And just a bunch of things change, like instead of shooting at our real house, we were on a soundstage version.
Really? Having seen the web series and the TV episodes, it looks identical.
DD: Same furniture. Same crown molding. We shot from March 20 to June something. Then we started editing over the summer. We turned it in September, right?
RB: Yeah, but that wasn’t the final cut.
CL: What were we doing in October?
DD: We started doing sound and color in October.
Was this around when you guys did the premiere at Dynasty Typewriter and showed some episodes?
CL: Yeah. We were like, Damn it, we’re gonna have a premiere. You had a huge crew and cast and it just seemed unfair to not have that night and do that. TBS was great about it, and the screening was really fun. And we’re feeling that buzz like, Yeah, I don’t know, that seemed great. But then nothing happened.
When did you find out it wouldn’t be airing after all?
CL: It was November, and we’re in the midst of sound and color. Then we had a call with our agent. They were saying the show might debut around Christmastime.
RB: So we started writing some promo videos for that. We were at Abso [Lutely production offices] when we had the call. We went to the parking lot to get on the phone.
CL: We all went to sit in Robb’s car, talking on speakerphone. They’re like, “Yeah, so we talked to TBS. Things have changed there, and we think they’re not going to air it.”
RB: We’re like “Oh, not going to air it on Christmas Eve?”
CL: “No. Maybe ever.”
RB: “Yeah, just not at all.”
CL: It was an oddly mellow call. We were like “Was that, subtly, the worst news we’ve ever gotten?” [Laughs.]
DD: That first one, though, it wasn’t so certain. It was like, Maybe next year they might air it.
CL: Yeah, that’s right. It wasn’t like “This show is dead.” But …
DD: “We don’t have an air date. We don’t know when it’s going to air.” In the beginning I was more optimistic. I thought someone would buy it. And then slowly over time it was just like, Oh, nobody is interested.
CL: We’re thinking, Nobody? Not even Gas Station TV or something? But nope.
DD: [Other networks] didn’t want to buy something fully made, I think. They want to develop it themselves.
It’s just frustrating because it’s finished; it’s ready and it’s so funny.
CL: Totally. Thank you. We just didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even know this was a hoop you had to jump through. It’s like a breakup; you feel like you’re being left at the altar, almost. I’d heard about pilots and projects being canceled, but I don’t know if I’d heard of that happening to a season.
I remember there were a number of Seeso shows that were stranded after that collapsed — like a fourth season of Bajillion Dollar Properties was completed, and it took a while for the show to find distribution.
CL: And it’s not just that there isn’t a second season — it’s that no one even sees this two years’ worth of work, longer if you count the web series. Creatively, you get used to funneling all your ideas into this world you’ve built. I noticed, once we’d sat this down for a little bit, I’d think of something funny or interesting, and be like, Fuck, I don’t know what to do with this. That world we’d built isn’t really happening right now.
But wait, I’m skipping something — you guys also got into Sundance?
CL: That was another mini-victory. So that was in November, yeah, and December and January, we’re cutting trailers for episodes that we can post on social media, and we picked the episodes we’re going to screen. Sundance is a big opportunity, so it’s a whole process. So we went, showed the episodes, partied, then came back and we were like, Yeah, still nothing. I don’t know if that’s gonna do anything.
So, what made you decide to post these now?
CL: We were inspired by Vic Berger posting his TBS pilot presentation. Everyone we worked with at TBS and Abso and everybody was truly amazing, and they tried to sell the show, but … nobody’s interested. But all the people that are in it are so funny, and to have this work that’s just sitting there … it just doesn’t feel good. [Laughs.] We just want to share it.
Looking back on the whole thing, do you feel like it was worthwhile despite what happened, or is there a feeling of We should’ve just kept making these on our own?
RB: 90 percent in favor of good experience, 10 percent that’s like, What could we have done differently?
CL: Creatively it was a great experience, and you’re still so appreciative that you got to make it at all. It’s just that the timelines are frustrating. There’s a lot of waiting, and in the end it was a huge bummer for it not to come out like we thought. But then at the same time, every step made sense. Everyone at the network was really supportive and enthusiastic about making the show; we had a lot of people there that were really taking a chance on us. And everyone was helpful in trying to find a new home for the show — it just didn’t find one. It’s just a tough business. I’m glad I didn’t know that in advance, because we got to keep our rose-colored glasses on through most of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Update, February 28: Sadly, the Vimeo uploads of Dress Up Gang episodes have been removed, according to the co-creators:
Update, May 1: In a nice surprise, TBS has decided to release the series after all. Starting today, May 1, all episodes are available on the TBS app and VOD. We reached out to the guys again about the news:
Congratulations!! What happened? What changed?
DD: Thank you so much! We don’t know, but my guess is that our recent video Cute House has something to do with it.
CL: They didn’t say, and I didn’t want to ask. Just went with it. If felt like the energy was there for it. When we posted episodes in February it had life in it. Then we posted a video Cute House that got a million views in a week somehow, so maybe they noticed that. I’d like to think it’s some confluence of karma and good vibes … But it could also just be that they needed content since Hollywood is shut down. In a way it feels like the perfect time to release it. We made a show about friends who love each other, with friends who love each other — I’m excited that maybe it’ll offer some warmth and be a fun refuge amid hard times.
RB: It’s funny — Cute House was the first thing we made after we found out the show wasn’t going to air, then we sat on it for two years, then decided to put it out. It went viral on Facebook, and probably played a part in drawing more attention to the show. I also think your Vulture piece was very helpful in putting it back on the radar. And the fact that people are stuck inside, there’s definitely a demand for new content. It’s probably some combination of those things. At the end of the day, it’s out, and we’re very happy about it. We’ve poured our hearts into this. It’s incredibly exciting that we can finally share it with people and provide a little laughter and levity during this time.