Kulap Vilaysack at the 2017 ATX Television Festival

Kulap Vilaysack on Seeso’s ‘Bajillion Dollar Propertie$’ and Being a First-Time Showrunner [Exclusive Interview]

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Creating a show isn’t easy. Successfully pitching it to a network is even harder — particularly when you don’t have any screenwriting credits to your name.

Being named the sole showrunner in this type of situation? Basically unheard of.

But for the immensely talented multihyphenate Kulap Vilaysack, it was basically a given that she would head Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ once it landed on Seeso.

I had the chance to speak with Vilaysack while at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas, where Vilaysack was promoting her hit comedy streaming series. We spoke about the genesis of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, her background in comedy, and her upcoming, long in-development passion project.

For Vilaysack, Bajillion was a long time coming. The Upright Citizen’s Brigade veteran initially began developing the series years ago with Comedy Bang! Bang!, the production company started by her husband, Scott Aukerman, and David Jargowsky.

The comedian-actor had been stewing about this idea “for a while” when she pitched it to Paramount Television, who loved it. The series was backburnered for a period of time while Vilaysack was busy with another project, but eventually Paramount came around and resurrected it, bringing in Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant of Reno 911! fame.

“Then we, as a group — basically a caravan — went and pitched it. It was like two days of pitching it to various places. Two people really wanted it. And then Seeso just gave the best [pitch]. I pitched them and they pitched us. It was just sort of like the best home for it. Also, they ordered two seasons right off the bat,” Vilaysack explained.

“I really love the passion of Evan Shapiro and Dan Kerstetter. And I really love the vision for Seeso.”

For Seeso — a new network which was described to Vilaysack as “a really specialized, tastemaker type, situation” — Vilaysack’s show idea fit perfectly with the plans they had in mind.

It was Lennon who first brought up the topic of who would be showrunner. “Tom Lennon said ‘Well, you’ll showrun it, right?”’ and I was like, ‘Yes, I will!’ […] I’m really grateful for Tom to have empowered me in that moment.”

But Vilaysack quickly realized she had an innate knack for the multitude of responsibilities that come along with being a showrunner — plus, she absolutely loved it.

“I do have a knack for working with people — managing people. I just do. A bunch of odd jobs I did really helped with this. And I really love showrunning, I love all the departments, I love interacting with everybody, I love being an individual within a group,” she explained.

“It’s important to me that it’s a great work environment. Anything I can do to create an environment where people can be their best and I can be my best, it’s amazing — it’s fun. Selfishly, that’s when I work my best, when it’s fun and collaborative.”

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Unsurprisingly, the idea for Bajillion originated with the Bravo and HGTV reality shows that it so clearly spoofs. But Vilaysack’s appreciation for those series is 100% a “love watch,” not a hate watch in the slightest. Though she was “a little late” in the Million Dollar Listing world, she quickly grew to love the show and its never-ending drama — which is rife for parody.

“You’re seeing them sell homes. And then you see them in their personal lives, and what they’re trying to do,” Vilaysack explained. “These realtors, they’re my Housewives.”

Apparently, at least a few of the real people that Bajillion is parodying appreciate the humor — Madison Hildebrand of Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles was the monologist for a UCB improv show with Bajillion‘s cast, the week of the show’s launch.

Vilaysack, who has had plenty of experiencing as an actor on the sets of traditional half-hour scripted comedies, was influenced by her improv background when it came to her own show. Bajillion is semi-scripted. The writer-creator explained in detail what that means when it comes to production.

BAJILLION DOLLAR PROPERTIE$ -- Pictured: "Bajillion Dollar Properties" Key Art -- (Photo by: NBCUniversal)
“Bajillion Dollar Properties” Key Art — (Photo by: NBCUniversal)

“[We have] scripted outlines. So, there will be a premise, you’ll know who you are, who I am, we’ll give you a character description. Let’s say you’re a guest star. And then we’ll have all of the props, and we’ll have the beats of the scene, the signposts, the roadmap, if you will,” she said.

“Then we’ll have for each of those beats, for each of those signposts, we’ll have suggested dialogue, and you can use it or not use it. And we’ll have an ending. And that can change. So you never have to improvise plot, you can just have fun knowing where you need to go.”

Because the stars of the show are comedy pros and “amazing improvisers,” this set-up doesn’t involve doing a million takes. Vilaysack also noted that doing too many takes causes the humor to eventually “get stale,” and that she relies a lot on story-editing during post-production.

“We’ll also do long 11-minute takes, just to feel it out. We’ll do maybe two, maybe three, sometimes we’ve only done one. And then I cut from it. I put it all together in post-production. It’s very post-heavy on our show.”

Vilaysack is a seasoned comedy actor, with a variety of one-off and minor recurring roles on some of television’s most famous sitcoms like The Office, Reno 911!, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But she was able to easily call to mind her most memorable onset story from one of those guest-starring roles.

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“The very first one that I did was The Office. It was my first role, really — I did like, an infomercial before in terms of paid gigs. Then I got this large part on The Office. That’s insane!”

“But it was this amazing week where I got to work with all these people that I really respect, and it was an episode that Harold Ramis directed. At lunch, Harold was telling stories about Saturday Night Live, and I was pinching myself. It was such an exciting experience,” Vilaysack continued.

Beyond comedy, Vilaysack has a passion project that is much more serious and hits far closer to home — literally. Origin Story, Vilaysack’s documentary, has been in the works for years, on and off.

Origin Story is a very personal documentary about me learning where I come from, and it leads me to going to meet the father I never knew in Laos. And it’s such a passion project, and it’s something that has continued to be life-changing. I worked on it for two years, and then I put it on pause when Bajillion happened. Bajillion seasons one through four basically — I’m just finishing post on Season 4.”

With two mix sessions left for Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ Season 4, Vilaysack plans on turning towards working on finishing Origin Story full-time, with the intention of submitting to Sundance and other film festivals. She described the film as largely done, but still “raw.”

Finishing it, for Vilaysack, is both a necessity — and a bit scary.

“There’s some stuff I still need to film. It’s not like going back to Laos, but it’s doing confessionals like I learned how to do with Bajillion. And a little fourth act stuff, I think. Just to close it out. And restructuring it. There’s still stuff to do, but it’s not major production. It’s really finishing it,” she explained.

“There’s still work to be done though, because when I put it on pause, it was so raw. Everything happened, and I was too angry. And I watch back and I’m like, ‘Oh, I was in a spot!’ and now thankfully, because of Bajillion, I had a little bit of time and a little bit of space. It was a real harrowing journey. It was rough, tough stuff. But I don’t think I can evolve as a person until I finish it. It’s terrifying, I’m scared.”

When asked about her unique journey from being on stage and in front of the camera to behind it, Vilaysack was able to pinpoint the change in her mentality.

“I’d be seeing a movie, and I’d be so jealous that I can’t be in that movie, and then something changed where I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s an amazing actress, I wish I could write the words that she’s saying.’ To clarify it even more: I used to be like, ‘I wish I could say those words.’ Now, it’s like ‘I want to write those words.’ And that was a path that I didn’t know was going to happen.”

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Vilaysack also had some simple but valuable advice for aspiring TV creatives. Much of her advice involves finding yourself a community to spur you on creatively.

“So much of it is just doing and then finding your way. For me I would say, a big part of it is moving to Los Angeles — which, by the way, no small feat. Then, it’s finding a community. For me, it was the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. And that community, and working in that community, I took classes there, I started connecting with people. From that world, so much spawned. It was an amazing time.”

“Comedy’s so much about collaboration. Very rarely is it about just doing stuff in a vacuum,” Vilaysack continued. “Now, you gotta do your work, but it is so much about interaction. For me it was taking classes, it was making connections, performing with each other, it was working on my craft and failing over and over and over again, making a fool out of myself over and over and over again.

“Don’t be precious with your stuff. Make videos, do podcasts — you just have to put in those 10,000 hours, and people have to see it. That’s entertainment.”

Additional reporting by Samantha Coley

Be sure to check out Season 1-3 of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, streaming now on Seeso.

Check out all of our coverage of the ATX Television Festival right here.

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Caralynn Lippo

Caralynn is a freelance writer and editor, but most importantly, she is a diehard TV addict. A few of her current favorites are Mr. Robot, You're the Worst, iZombie, and The Vampire Diaries. She also writes about TV for Romper, The TV Junkies, and TV Fanatic.

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