Entertainment

'Undergrads' Bombed in the US. 20 Years Later, It's Making a Comeback, Thanks to Canada

Creator Pete Williams on why his cult classic animated series failed on MTV, and how Canadian fans gave the show a second life.
June 26, 2020, 9:00am
Undergrads
The 'Undergrads' kids. Image via Pete Williams.

It was 1997 and Pete Williams, 18, had just entered an animation contest his mom told him about. He figured he might get a free T-shirt out of it as a consolation prize. Williams pitched a cartoon version of his life, starring caricatures of himself and three of his childhood friends. He fixed everyone up with new names, exaggerated their personalities, and threw in their best inside jokes—not realizing they’d later be quoted all over the world. Williams just wrote what he knew. He didn’t have a clue then, but he’d captured turn of the millennium college zeitgeist in amber with that pitch. He called it The Click.

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Williams won the contest, scored a development deal for a TV show, and spent the summer after freshman year working at MTV Animation on the pilot.

“It was mind-blowing,” Williams, now 41, said. “I’m right in the middle of my second semester and I’ve just been told I get the chance to develop a TV show. It was like winning the lottery. It was a life-changing moment.”

Along the way, the show’s name changed, Good Charlotte recorded its theme song, and Williams met his future wife, a production assistant working with him. Things looked so bright he Zuckerberged out of NYU halfway through sophomore year.

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Pete Williams during the his 'Undergrads' years. Photo supplied

In the spring of 2001 the show, now called Undergrads, premiered on MTV in the same time slot as The Simpsons. Its 13 episodes were playfully raunchy and overwhelmingly nerdy, threaded with sincerity, and stuffed with quotable lines. But it wasn’t a hit with xennials, who were smothered then by the vulgar cynicism of adult animation’s new guard. Williams’ self-insert, Nitz, was a shy everyman who was nervous about drinking and hadn’t lost his virginity yet. He couldn’t stand up to the then-edginess of South Park and Family Guy, didn't have the chops for Simpsons-esque social commentary, and had to grapple with real life, unlike galaxy-hopping Futurama.

“By the third episode, it was no longer in that prime-time slot,” Williams said. “It wasn’t easy to find where they shifted it to—it wasn’t advertised on the channel. Every week it’s getting harder and harder to find my own show. By the sixth episode, I could no longer find it on the channel. They just stopped airing it.”

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That manoeuvre is on the death certificate of so many other one-season wonders of the time, shows like Undeclared, Freaks and Geeks, and Firefly that never had a chance to build an audience initially because of unpredictable or inauspicious airings.

The station never called, so Williams only realized he was out of a job when his MTV key card stopped working. He reached out to a producer for clarity and was told to file for unemployment. He did.

“I was devastated,” Williams said. “I thought I would spend the next three years working on this, at least. I had to give up my apartment in New York, move back in with my parents, sort of crawl in a hole, and lick my wounds.” The network started systematically shutting down MTV Animation. Undergrads, Clone High, Station Zero, and Downtown, the station’s best and brightest shows that era, all get canned after their inaugural seasons—despite Downtown getting a Primetime Emmy nomination.

But Undergrads and Clone High had something their contemporaries didn’t—they were co-produced by Canadian studios. They both stayed on the air up north and became enduring hits, longstanding staples of the late-night Teletoon rerun circuit. This was the fuel for Williams’ almost 20-year-long campaign to bring Undergrads back, an underdog odyssey of failures, setbacks, and near-misses that finally clawed its way to success.

The closest Undergrads ever got to an official renewal was in 2004. Canadian studio Decode Entertainment was ready to pony up the cash to make a second season for Teletoon, but before Williams could get to work, he said MTV spiked the offer. People wanted reality shows, the station reasoned. They wanted Date My Mom, The Real Orange County—never mind that Undergrads, the nigh-biography of millions of older millennials, was more real than those shows could ever be.

“Decode couldn’t fund the show on its own without a U.S. broadcaster,” Williams said. “MTV certainly didn’t want to be that broadcaster, but it wouldn’t relinquish the rights so we could find someone else either.”

Williams and his brother started shopping spec scripts, complete with their own animated trailers, around Hollywood. They earned a living selling them, but not a single one was produced. Years went by. Williams co-founded a visual effects studio that now makes hologram-like “digital decorations” used in haunted houses, newscasts, and even an aquarium in New Zealand.

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“During all this time, Undergrads was always at the back of my mind,” Williams said. “I was always thinking about how we could bring it back. But it just seemed like one of those pipe dreams that was never going to happen.”

After Williams moved to Toronto with his wife, he caught glimpses of his zombified show on TV here and there. He hoped others were still watching too. To him Undergrads died on MTV, with only the first six episodes ever getting any meaningful airtime.

Meanwhile, I had probably seen all of Undergrads a half dozen times as a pre-teen in the aughts. Williams didn’t know it then, but there were thousands of fans like me out there.

“One of the writers from Undergrads, Josh Cagan, call(ed) me saying someone invited him to come to Calgary for a convention to do a talk about the show,” Williams said. “He asks if myself and the show’s head writer, Andy Rheingold, want to join him. We thought, ‘Sure, what the heck, it’s a free trip to Calgary.’ This is more than 10 years after the show aired, so our expectations were very low about how many people would actually want to hear us talk at this point. But it was a packed house, standing room only—they had to turn people away and extend our panel an extra day.”

Newly motivated, Williams, Rheingold, and Cagan started going after the rights to their show in 2012, but in order to secure them, they had to get through a rolodex of MTV lawyers first.

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“There’s a very, very quick turnaround with employees at Viacom,” Williams said. “One lawyer would be handling our negotiations and next thing you know they’ve left the company. So, we kept getting passed on to new people, and each time that happened we would have to re-explain the whole situation. At that point, MTV didn’t even know they owned Undergrads. It wasn’t even a blip on the radar.”

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Photo of Williams 1997 win. Supplied.

By 2015 the best offer the trio got was the right to make a movie called Undergrads, which could be about college but couldn’t feature any of the names or characters from the original show.

“It was getting more and more frustrating,” Williams said. “We felt like we were so close. It was like a loved one was being held hostage, but instead of getting them back you just get their fingertip in the mail.”

In 2018, after fighting for nearly half his life, Williams finally got the rights to his show. Without studio backing this time, he needed to raise the money to get it off the ground himself. Another six-and-a-half-hour season would be too pricey, but a movie seemed possible. Cautiously optimistic, the team set up a Kickstarter near the end of the year and exceeded their goal of $115,000 by over $30,000 in just over a month.

They are now working on the script, but there was creative tension over how to bring the show back. Williams wanted to keep the hyper-modern approach Undergrads started with—it had all the latest tech and pop culture references circa 2001—and fast-forward 20 years while keeping the characters the same age (The Simpsons model). Other writers wanted to turn Undergrads: The Movie into what the show has become: an early 2000s period piece. It was a choice between alienating new fans and infuriating old ones, as Cagan put it. Williams was outvoted, and they pressed ahead with an Undergrads set in 2001.

The Kickstarter was only designed to cover pre-production costs, so Williams and his team still need a broadcaster and a distributor to take Undergrads to the finish line. They wanted the movie out by 2021, but Williams said a more sober estimate, accounting for the pandemic, could see its release pushed to as late as 2025.

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“All the fans that donated to the campaign, I owe them a movie,” he said. “Even if it takes me the next five years—I hope it doesn’t take that long—they’ll get a movie one way or another.”

For Williams, resurrecting his franchise right meant getting back into his teenage headspace, which he said is marked by a naive courage.

“If I were to enter that same animation contest again today I probably would have spent a lot more time on it agonizing over certain details,” Williams said. “It would have been one of those things that I just over thought and never finished. There’s something to be said for just putting yourself out there and being somewhat fearless. I really didn’t worry about what people would think as much as I do now. There’s a freedom that comes with that.”

Going back there mentally meant dialling back years of growth, back to when Williams and his team were pioneers. It’s hard to imagine now, with our digital Swiss Army Knives keepings us all in constant contact, but the idea of four friends videochatting each other every day (the general premise of Undergrads) was bleeding-edge stuff once upon a time. Before filmbros, gamers, and nerds were culturally ubiquitous, Undergrads made them into main characters. It wasn’t quite ahead of its time; it was the perfect product of its time, a generational livestream now archived. The show was teenage Williams’ story, the story of his friends, his crushes, his anxieties, and no matter how close to that spirit the movie gets (if it gets made), Undergrads will always be underpinned by the story of his adulthood, one of hard-fought victory and determination.

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