Imagine persuading a television network to go ahead with a 13-part series on the basis of a single 12-minute script. No pilot -- just the words on the page.
Preposterous? Not so. That's precisely how comic actor Lee Smart, an alumnus of Toronto's Second City, sold The 5th Quadrant, his satiric riff on paranormal shows such as The Twilight Zone (premiering tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET on the Comedy Network).
This remarkable coup clearly needs some explanation. Fortunately, it's simple.
First of all, there is Smart, who was one of Second City's ablest and most literate clowns for the best part of the past three years.
Second of all, there is his co-producer, Steve Smith, who is also the man behind The Red Green Show. The latter may not be everybody's cup of funny, but it sure does play in Peoria: five television seasons on the CBC, a ton of foreign sales, and now, a Red Green feature film. So don't argue with Steve Smith.
But let's rewind Quadrant's history reel for a minute. Smart -- who is -- has written some sketches for Red Green (one of which was nominated for a Gemini). Smith, bound last January for one of those marathon pitching conventions in Las Vegas, asks Smart if he has any series ideas in the laptop. What a coincidence, says Smart, who has in mind a Twilight Zone sitcom.
Too expensive, Smith says, after reading the treatment. Remember where you live. Any proposal costing $100,000 an episode or more is guaranteed to die the death of a thousand gratuitous compliments.
Smith suggests retooling it as a parody, taking aim at Bill Curtis's Investigative Reports. Smart drafts the 12-minute sample segment. Smith pitches it to the Comedy Network. A few days later, he sends Smart an e-mail: The good news is they want it. The bad news is they want 13 episodes, shooting to begin this summer.
"No one was more surprised than me," Smart said the other day. "I thought we might get to do a pilot. But 13? I hadn't even fleshed out the idea."
The news arrived at a particularly momentous time: Smart and his partner, Second City director Lindsay Leese, had just welcomed their first child. "So there were all these things I had never done before."
In The 5th Quadrant, Smart produces (with Steve Smith), writes, directs and performs the lead role of Garland Freewin, the show's host and chief investigator. The self-contradictory series name, which Smart coined, both captures and satirizes the paranormal world's sense of the bizarre.
"I had always loved the sinister, parallel universe, nebulous Cold-Warish, creeping paranoia of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone," Smart explains. As a kind of homage, all the character names in his series are taken from Twilight Zone episodes.
Among the "cases" probed: a man crippled by the human involuntary invisibility syndrome; the mysterious goat-sucking chupacabras of Puerto Rico; and a man who has recurring nightmares of the desert (this one requires Freewin to enter the victim's subconscious, à la Being John Malkovich). Like The Simpsons, of which he is a great fan, Smart tries to bury as many small, subtle jokes as possible.
Smart plays Freewin as straight-laced television host, using the script to signal the humour. It's a more confined role than he was accustomed to at Second City, where his elastic physical features and ability to inhabit a broad spectrum of strange characters were among the troupe's major assets.
In many respects, Lee Julian Smart's comedy career is a complete accident. Now 36, he was born in Nottingham, England, and grew up in Toronto, the only son of an Irish mother and Jamaican father, a contract mining engineer.
When Smart was 8, the family spent a year and a half in Liberia. When they returned to Canada in 1976, his parents' marriage ended, and Smart has not seen or spoken with his father since.
A bookish child -- "a geek," he confesses" -- Smart spent hours poring over an encyclopedia, Bible stories and, later, the dictionary. He spent hours more absorbing pop culture, and "used to fantasize about about being on television."
His isolation was sad, he says. Still, the result is that he's one of the best-read comedians around. The learning is reflected in his scripts for The 5th Quadrant, notable for their sophisticated command of the language.
Smart spent two years studying drama at the University of Toronto, but became disenchanted with its academic approach. Then, taking a marketing degree from Sheridan College, he started working for Financial Life, an insurance company, as a $22,000-a-year claims processor, a job he regarded as "death itself."
And there he might have stayed but for a friend who dragged him one Sunday to see a Second City comedy workshop. Smart was so impressed that he immediately started taking classes.
It was Colin Mochrie ( Whose Line Is It Anyway?) who first admitted Smart to SC's ranks -- by which time his insurance overseers had detected his lack of enthusiasm for shuffling paper, and fired him.
Looking ahead, Smart would consider a move to the United States, "if the benefits outweighed the kind of uprooting you'd have to do." But he's principally happy to have discovered his life's purpose. If he hadn't dropped in on the Second City workshop, "I'd probably have lived a life of quiet desperation. A lot of people are faced with two roads and end up choosing the safest. It's stable but not quite actualized. I feel very lucky to have found it, and to have been helped along by losing my job."
Smart's emergence as the TV star he always wanted to be is almost other-worldly -- the sort of strange twist that calls for Garland Freewin's acute powers of investigation.