April 1, 2015.
It is a sad day for the citizens of Champaign-Urbana, especially the ones who watch TV. After more than a year of hopeful speculation followed by a couple of months of troubling rumors, it would appear that a proposed series based in part on the life of one of C-U’s favorite sons will not be happening after all.
We are sorry to report that Lil Ebert will not be coming to the airwaves next season.
This is not wholly unexpected. Certainly for every show currently on television, there are a dozen pilots that failed to make it on the air. And, given the irreconcilable differences that split the show’s creative team in the later stages of development, this end was perhaps predestined.
Still, this is disappointing news. The obvious losers, of course, are the writers, actors, and crew—all of whom carried high hopes for the artistic endeavor, not to mention the prospect of prolonged employment. But this particular misfortune also befalls the audience — including this community — none of whom will ever get to see what might have been.
This has happened before with proposed television series, of course. The streets of Hollywood are littered with the corpses of TV pilots that seemed promising at first but ultimately failed to be picked up by the network. These failed pilots range from apparent slam-dunks like Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop series (passed on by CBS last fall) to pretty understandable passes like All My Babies’ Mamas, a reality show for Oxygen starring rapper Shawty Lo and, well, all his babies’ mamas.
We’ll never get the chance to find out what sort of show Lil Ebert might have been, but any speculation would surely depend upon which version of the show had ultimately been accepted by the network.
There was the original concept, the brainchild of producer Navin Johnson (Sally’s Snake, Celebrity Random Drug Test), in which an animated, six-year-old version of beloved film critic Roger Ebert would criticize his kindergarten classmates, their classroom presentations, and school plays. This idea was immediately deemed too mean-spirited, and Johnson soon reimagined the show as an animated “Lil Ebert” delivering reviews of fictional films. This, too, was nixed — in this case for being too similar to the brilliant but short-lived Jon Lovitz vehicle The Critic. From there the idea languished until Johnson teamed up with indie film wunderkind Irwin Fletcher (The Astronaut Pineapple Club), who breathed new life into the project.
Fletcher’s notion was to couple the animated Lil Ebert character with a live-action environment, similar to Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” video with MC Skat Kat. This iteration also met with skepticism from executives who found the proposal too “high-concept,” since the tiny cartoon critic would interact with his surroundings and be accepted by his flesh-and-blood peers. So one last tweak was made, making Lil Ebert the “imaginary friend” of an aspiring young filmmaker named Ned. As the erstwhile director struggled to write and direct his independent films, Lil Ebert would be there as a sort of editorial Jiminy Cricket, discussing the good and bad points of film.
This last change to the original formula — making Lil Ebert a fantasy sidekick rather than a protagonist — was too much for Johnson, who departed the project shortly after actor Justin Long signed on to play Ned. Fletcher forged ahead on his own, securing funding for a pilot episode and its necessary animation through Kickstarter. All of this was for naught, however, when talks with Fox finally broke down.
Only one episode of Lil Ebert (with unfinished animation) exists, but it may never see the light of day. A combination of unsubstantiated ownership over the title, final authorship of the pilot script, and network restrictions have kept the episode from being shown even on YouTube. Rumors of a “black-market” video abound, but its existence has proven nearly impossible to authenticate. Indeed very little exists to serve as testament to this enterprise, save for a few concept sketches of the Lil Ebert character (by Jeff Slater, illustrator of the Bear Says Hi books, see below) and Justin Long’s surprisingly emotional account of the ordeal on The Nerdist podcast.
It is always a shame to see good ideas fall flat, and it is harder still when one’s hometown heroes are part of the deal. One can only hope that Fletcher and Slater will be able to find another outlet for the character.
Editor’s note: Navin Johnson and Irwin Fletcher declined comment for this article, as did MC Skat Kat.