How “The Jamz” Creators Met

Forming a web series known as “The Jamz” was not exactly what Jim Kozyra and Chris Petlak  first thought of when they met in 2010 while performing in an improvised parody of the “Twilight” saga at the Metropolis Theater in suburban Chicago.

Mostly the audience was  14 to 15-year-old girls who were expecting it to be “Twilight,” and it was not “Twilight,” Petlak said.  “I would come out in cut-off jean shorts and take my shirt off and, like, major disappointment across the room.”

The tweens may have been disappointed, but Kozyra and Petlak weren’t.  They discovered they had great chemistry on stage and formed a partnership.  Petlak had cut his teeth as a standup after studying acting and writing at Illinois State University, and Kozyra had followed his undergraduate studies at Dominican University with completing improv and writing programs at Chicago’s esteemed comedy centers Second City, iO , and the Annoyance Theatre.  In a tale as old as the Internet, Kozyra and Petlak decided to create a web series.

The Inspirations and Challenges Behind “The Jamz”

They drew inspiration for the web series from Chris’s job in radio to create The Jamz,  a show in which they played as late night radio co-hosts.  They raised $5,000 on Kickstarter, shot twenty episodes, and rolled them out one per week of the web series for the better part of 2012.

But they struggled to find an audience for “The Jamz.”

“We did not get our viral hit,” Kozyra said.

Instead, the episodes sat on the Internet’s proverbial shelf, collecting dust and few views.  But Kozyra believed that he and Petlak had created something of value.  People just needed to see it.

The deadline to submit to the 2014 New York Television Festival (NYTVF) was just 72 hours away.  Kozyra booked it to the post office and shelled out fourteen bucks for an overnight stamp.

That fourteen dollars paid off:

Getting To Work

Kozyra and Petlak won a festival award that guaranteed NYTVF Productions and The Orchard would co-produce a television series based on their webisodes.  And, not even just a pilot episode.  The deal provided the budget to shoot four 30-minute episodes for “The Jamz” that would then be shopped to networks.

Kozyra and Petlak got right to work.  In their series, they’d only created and played two characters—Jay-Jay (Petlak) and Fitzy (Kozyra).  They could now expand the world these radio hosts inhabited by adding their boss, co-workers, significant others, their not-so-significant others, and a mute intern. 

“You really, really, really, really have to make sure every person is important, every character is important, every character is a role you’d want to play,” Kozyra said.

“Every actor in our show is funny and every character in our show contributes laughs,” Petlak said.

The Innovation of Layered Comedic Roles

Kozyra and Petlak’s commitment to creating killer layered roles—particularly for female characters—represents a major shift from older sitcoms like “Home Improvement” that were built around a stand-up comedian meant to shoulder most of the comedic burden.  Characters supported the stand-up, often getting laughs by reacting to the comedian rather than being funny in their own right.  The comedy was slower, employing the predictability of a set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline cadence.

But that’s changed.  Single-camera comedies like “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” put you in the characters’ offices.  You don’t watch them like the audience of a play would in multi-camera shows like “Friends” or “The Big Bang Theory.”  And it’s not just the star of the show you’re waiting to enter the room so you can laugh. “Parks and Recreation” may have been developed as a starring vehicle for the hilarious Amy Poehler, but she’s not the only one making your sides hurt—all her character’s co-workers are hilarious.

Comedy and Characters for “The Jamz”

Petlak and Kozyra, chasing the fast-paced structure of “30 Rock” and the layered comedy of “Arrested Development,” favored a single-camera approach that gave every character a chance to shine.

Those characters include Jay-Jay and Fitzy’s boss Dan (Kathy Najimy), a woman who likes them even though they’re idiots; Kasey (David Pasquesi), the selfish king of morning radio whose approval everyone seeks and nobody gets; Stanton (Michael Patrick Thornton), the surly, depressed ad man; Geena, a total kiss ass and our protagonists’ nemesis; and Intern, whose workplace maltreatment is encapsulated by the fact that he doesn’t even get a name.

“The Jamz” opens with Kasey announcing his plans to retire. This throws Jay-Jay  and Fitzy into competition with Geena for Kasey’s prestigious morning slot. Along the way, they navigate professional errors, workplace crushes, and general dysfunction with a whole lot of humor and even some surprising tenderness.

Shadowboxing with the Pen

They compare their comedy writing style for “The Jamz” to shadowboxing:

“It’s sort of like, set-up, jab, jab, jab, hook, punch line,” Kozyra said. “It takes the stress off the punch line.”

Since comedy is so subjective, peppering a script with smaller jokes along the road to a big punch line increases the chances that something will resonate with viewers.

“The Jamz” shot in Chicago, which excited its co-creators: 

“People from other states come here to learn to do comedy, and then have to go to either LA or New York to work,” said Kozyra.  “That’s very weird.”

The Windy City is home to some of the country’s most prestigious improv and comedy training centers.  Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Stephen Colbert, and Steve Carrell all trained at Second City. Then they had to head for the coasts to get paid.  Kozyra and Petlak liked being able to shoot their web series with talented, funny people, no plane trip required.  

“The Jamz” Success

After filming and editing their four episodes, Kozyra and Petlak had to do something even harder: wait.

NYTVF Productions and The Orchard took “The Jamz” to market.  There was a chance no one would buy it, that no one would ever see the product of their hard work, as is the case with so many pilots and creative projects shot on spec.

But this time, “The Jamz” didn’t sit on the shelf: the series debuted on iTunes and began streaming on Netflix in April.

Netflix Landing is a Major Victory

Finding a landing pad at Netflix constitutes a major victory for the independent television model.  The film industry has an established independent infrastructure.  Filmmakers raise capital, shoot movies, get into festivals, and there secure distribution deals all the time.  But television series do not typically follow this path.

Even other web series that have gone on to become television shows. For example, Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” began with a network saying yes.  Shooting a season of episodes without the guarantee of distribution is a big financial risk. However, the success of “The Jamz” shows that it can work, something the NYTVF has been trying to prove since its inception.

Advice on Creating a Web Series

Kozyra encourages young creators hoping to follow in their footsteps to take the oldest advice in the book: write what you know.   

“I think every single struggling actor’s web series is a web series about a struggling actor,” said Kozyra.  “That’s all ours was.  Except we said ‘Let’s be struggling radio guys.’ Or be a struggling astronaut… It’s all the same emotion. Change where you shoot it and all of a sudden your thing looks way more original.”

Petlak encourages creators to look for collaborators in their own community.

“If you are the person that really wants to write and direct this web series, there is someone near you that has always wanted to film one. There is someone near you that wants to run sound on one. [And] there’s someone near you that wants to run lights,” said Petlak. “So network and find those people.”

Invest in Technology

They both agree that investing in a little in technology will go a long way.

“If we can’t see you and we can’t hear you then it doesn’t matter if you have the funniest four human beings in your scene,” said Petlak.

Prioritizing high quality lighting and sound can make a world of difference for your project without breaking the bank.

“That can be as simple as buying a fifty-dollar work light and pointing it up at the ceiling, and spending a hundred dollars on a lavalier microphone,” said Kozyra. “For very little money you can make your thing ninety percent better.”

Looking Hopefully Towards a Second Season

Kozyra and Petlak hope to shoot a second season of “The Jamz,” but that will depend on the reception of Season 1 and, ultimately, funding from a source beyond NYTVF or The Orchard.  They made the initial investment. Now it’s up to Comedy Central, FXX, College Humor, or Hulu to reach into their deeper pockets.

Whenever that happens, Kozyra and Petlak will be ready.

“We have ten episodes ready to go, the next ten for sure,” said Kozyra. “If somebody were to say go on Friday, we would be at work on Monday.”

“Or Sunday night,” said Petlak.