The pilot episode of "Death Lives," a new comedic series that follows the Grim Reaper's transition into modern society once he's retired his scythe, will make its New York premiere at the 2017 North Fork TV Festival on Saturday at 11:30 AM. The pilot was co-written by New York comedians Chris Aurilio and Erick Hellwig, with Aurilio directing the episode, and Hellwig starring as Death.
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Although the friends and former roommates have collaborated on many comedy projects over the years including numerous scripted sketches, they had never endeavored to create a full pilot; but once they landed on the concept for "Death Lives," the duo was hell-bent.
Hellwig's characterization of Death originated through a live show that Aurilio was producing at the People's Improv Theatre, where they both worked and studied. It was a weekly mock talk-show called "Welcome to Hell," where the concept was that the audience was dead, and this was their only entertainment option for all eternity. Someone had volunteered to man the door as the Grim Reaper, but bailed at the last minute. Luckily, Hellwig was in the audience that night.
"Hey, can you throw on this Grim Reaper costume and hand out 'death certificates' to the audience?" Hellwig recalls Aurilio asking him, to which he answered, "Sure, that sounds fun."
"He ran with this idea!" Aurilio said with a laugh. "Erick is a great, very funny actor. Watching him play the Grim Reaper, he would refuse to break at any point. He made that a challenge for himself as an actor, to just be stone-faced."
"I was just watching the way people were feeling with Death being that close to them. It was an interesting kind of persona to take on," Hellwig mused. So after his usher stint in character, Hellwig had a fun idea, and said to Aurilio, "Hey, next time you guys do the show, I want Death to do a bit onstage." Death's first act, per Hellwig's suggestion, was the Grim Reaper trying stand-up for the first time.
"He had this wonderful line," Aurilio reminisced. "He said, the worst part about being Death – in this great voice that he does – is the travel."
PIT audiences loved watching Death try new things each week, like reading poetry, acting Shakespeare, and singing Disney karaoke; so, in January 2016, Aurilio suggested the idea to Hellwig that Death have his own TV show.
"As soon as he said that," Hellwig said, "I had 30 ideas for what he could do in the pilot, what the first season would be about … and we just started writing."
"We stumbled on the story of Death deciding he wants to be human, so he can do more of this stuff," Aurilio said. "And we get to watch this guy who still looks and sounds like Death – he has a skull face, he has this voice, and he's been 'reaping people' for hundreds of millions of years – but now he gets to be a person, and see what it's like to take a class! Go online dating! Run for political office!"
AMONG THE LIVING
Naturally, Death lives at the center of "Death Lives," but the supporting characters are no less engaging. There's Death's narcissistic father, God; his doting mother, Mother Nature; his flamboyant brother, Cupid; his fluffy sister, the Easter Bunny, an actual rabbit who appears to dispense jellybeans from beneath her cotton tail (would that all rabbits had such skills); Laura, a cute girl who might have a thing for Death (played by Hellwig's real-life girlfriend, producer and Nassau County native Elizabeth Galalis); and Garrett, the bumbling new Reaper-in-training.
Hellwig and Aurilio split the writing evenly, working from a shared script on a laptop they'd pass back and forth, often refusing to move forward until they were in full agreement, and using their improv skills to craft organic dialogue.
Their willingness to play and discover proved useful on set as well when, while shooting a scene in Times Square, a street artist volunteered to sketch Hellwig in his Death makeup – a spontaneous moment they were pleased to capture for the pilot. Times Square tourists, however, seemed confused by the Grim Reaper get-up.
"People would approach him thinking he was one of the characters that people take pictures with," said Aurilio.
"Obviously if I wanted people to take photos with me, I wouldn't dress up as most people's worst fear," said Hellwig. "But I loved watching people react in real time to seeing Death. I had people on that day of the shoot who I would connect eyes with who would just turn around and start walking the other direction."
Despite their close friendship, the writers felt they managed to wear their actor-director-BFF hats appropriately. "And that was due to having a great crew with us, which allowed us to just focus on our jobs and be as good as we could be at the one thing we had to do," said Aurilio. The team is planning more collaborations, and has already begun shooting a new project based around sports culture and fan memorabilia.
Aurilio and Hellwig are greatly looking forward to sharing the "Death Lives" pilot with East Enders at the North Fork TV Festival on Saturday, and hope it may lead to the opportunity to share more of Death's zany adventures among the living.
For tickets to the New York premiere, visit www.northfork.tv. Follow @DeathLivesTV on Facebook for project updates and future festival info.