Amazon’s Comedy Chief Reveals the One Question That Will End a Pitch Meeting for Him

In our inaugural interview of TheWrap’s new weekly series “Office With a View,” Joe Lewis explains how he hopes to reinvent how we all watch TV

If you want to know what people want to watch, why not just ask the people? Amazon Studios is doing just that by putting the power solely in their viewers’ hands.

“It’s important for us to say we don’t know all the answers,” Joe Lewis told TheWrap in an exclusive interview.

The young hotshot Head of Comedy at Amazon knows what works and what doesn’t work for the online streaming media provider simply because he and his team have perfected listening.

“We just put our pilots out there and let the audience decide,” Lewis said.

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The online company’s latest offering, “Transparent,” debuted its first full season at 12:01 Friday morning. The masses decided that they wanted to watch Jeffrey Tambor as a late-in-life transgender woman when the pilot premiered in February.

Lewis isn’t at all surprised by the show’s early success. “‘Transparent’ wasn’t pitched because something got canceled or because it was pilot season,” Lewis said. “This was deeply personal to Jill Soloway.”

Also read: ‘Transparent’ Review: Jeffrey Tambor Will Break Your Heart in Amazon’s Binge-Worthy Show

Soloway, who created the series, is the type of writer Lewis insists on working with. Without passion, there is no chance for a pickup at Amazon, and Soloway showed that the moment she sat down to pitch Lewis her idea.

Jeffrey Tambor star in 'Transparent' on Amazon

Jeffrey Tambor stars in ‘Transparent’ on Amazon

“I’m looking for something that has a real voice behind it and a real point,” Lewis explained. He describes “Transparent” as a show “decades in the making.”

Believing in your show is an absolute must if you want Lewis and co. to consider your project. “Saying, ‘I don’t know, what do you want it to be’ is the quickest way to end a pitch meeting.”

Take note, hopeful television writers.

Also read: Amazon Provides TV-Sized Budgets as ‘Transparent’ Marks Transition From TV to Online

However, the door of Amazon Studios is an easier one to wedge one’s foot in compared to other networks. Customers are invited to submit their own scripts online. Other users then judge their work to determine what is worthy of getting the greenlight.

When asked just how many online submissions Amazon has received so far, Lewis estimates, “Somewhere in the thousands.”

Amazon produced the pilot for user-submitted “Those Who Can’t” last year. The show came from Denver-based comedy group The Grawlix and featured a trio of high school teachers who team up to teach a bully a lesson.

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While the Amazon audience gives the thumbs up or thumbs down to what they’re watching online, Lewis is still under pressure to pull the final trigger on what gets made and what doesn’t.

“We have to be right most of the time, but it’s been going well so far,” Lewis said.

'Alpha House' on Amazon

‘Alpha House’ on Amazon

“Alpha House,” Amazon’s political-satire comedy that first aired in November 2013, was the site’s first full series order. The comedy, which stars John Goodman, Clark Johnson and Mark Consuelos as U.S. Senators, was renewed for a second season in February, despite being met with mixed reviews from both critics and Amazon users. “Betas,” Amazon’s second series to get a full season order, was not renewed.

Also read: ‘Alpha House’ Creator Garry Trudeau: Political Gridlock Is Good for Comedy

Lewis’ first time playing hitmaker came when he was working in development at Comedy Central and co-created “Tosh.0,” the viral video clip show hosted by comedian Daniel Tosh. The series became a hit for the cable channel and has been renewed for at least an eighth season, keeping it on the air until 2016.

Then after a short stint at 20th Century Fox, Lewis had a premonition of what could become of TV and how people watch it.

“I didn’t have cable but I was watching a lot of streaming TV,” he said. “There was a one in a million chance that I could create a successful TV channel.”

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The stacked odds didn’t stop Lewis. He founded his cloud television network Bark in 2010.

It didn’t last, but when he was offered to join a similar yet much more sizable venture at Amazon, he jumped at the opportunity. Along with Roy Price, the first person hired at Amazon Studios, Lewis works to not only impress his online audience, he has to impress Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon (Getty Images)

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon (Getty Images)

Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, meets with Lewis roughly twice a year to check in on what’s being broadcast on the streaming site. The entrepreneur takes a hands-off approach however, leaving the tough programming decisions to Lewis.

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“He’s very supportive of what we’re doing,” Lewis stated. “We’re not micromanaged. We’re given a lot of leeway and freedom.”