After spending seven years as Toofer on the beloved comedy “30 Rock,” Keith Powell is no stranger to the Emmys scene. “I loved going to all those awards shows, because we did that show in kind of a bubble. We didn’t know if anyone was listening or paying attention,” he told Indiewire. “But in talking to people who’d seen the show, there was a respect for the artistry. There was a respect for the skill that it took to navigate a show like that through the network waters.”
This year, Powell is looking forward to the Emmys again — in a different capacity. And he’s using comedy superstars Tina Fey and Louis CK as inspiration.
Since the end of his dearly departed NBC sitcom, Powell has kept busy with a variety of roles across film and television. But last year, the actor also began releasing his own independent web series, “Keith Broke His Leg.” Entirely self-funded, the show is a semi-fictionalized look at his own life and experiences, which Powell meticulously and patiently recounted (as he described in a guest post for Indiewire last fall).
“Keith Broke His Leg” built a healthy following on social media due to Powell’s diligence and the show’s unique charm. But the idea of it being a potential Emmys contender didn’t occur to Powell until the Television Academy announced the expansion of the short-form series awards category. Under the new rules, shows under 15 minutes an episode are now eligible for awards across four different categories, including outstanding actor and actress. As the awards are open to shows distributed via television or digitally, it’s a potential game-changer for anyone creating web original content.
Deciding to submit wasn’t an instantaneous decision for Powell. “I really hesitated,” he said, “but I felt like for this opportunity it was just such a better way to get the show in front of everybody, so that the show could really have some serious consideration by a wider audience, and that people would not just dismiss it as a web series. It became important to go out for it and get support behind it.”
A major reason for that hesitation? He’d be paying the submission fees himself. To submit “KBHL” for consideration, as listed in the official Emmys rulebook, Powell paid the Academy $425 for “individual achievement” consideration, plus $425 for producing consideration. (It would have been $200 more, but as an Academy member, he had one free entry to apply to the entry fee.) In addition, he sent in two FYC videos for acting, one for himself and one for co-star (and real-life wife) Jill Knox, which meant an additional $400 — making a grand total of $1250.
And that’s the limit for his Emmy budget: “We didn’t do other FYC things, like mailers, special events and ads in Emmy Magazine because it was too expensive,” he said.
It’s the campaigning, Powell said, where the costs become “astronomical” (as major networks and studios often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on promoting their shows to the voting bodies). Instead, Powell is engaging in grassroots outreach on Twitter (and, yes, reaching out to members of the press) to get people interested in the show.
The whole point, after all, is simply to get out the word about “KBHL” — a strategy he learned from his experiences on “30 Rock.” “What Tina and Robert [Carlock] taught me is that all you can do is your best work for yourself, and then talk about it to as many people as will listen,” he said. “That was the campaign they always ran and that’s why the show was successful. They were doing work that they loved to do, and they tried to get the show in front of as many people as possible.”
Another influence is Louis C.K., who produced the Steve Buscemi-starring series “Horace and Pete” independently this spring, and is submitting it for Emmys consideration as a drama, facing off with established Academy favorites like “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey.”
“Louis C.K. is such a tremendous inspiration for me,” Powell said, “because he understands the indie spirit of getting your voice out there and making sure as many people as possible can hear you.”
While Powell feels that “Horace and Pete” has revolutionized the industry, proving that it’s now possible for an artist to speak directly to their audience, he noted that “what Louis C.K. has found out is that it’s incredibly expensive to do, and takes a lot of sacrifices and takes a lot of screaming at the top of your lungs to try to get people to watch it.”
It’s a scenario that clearly feels familiar to Powell, who created “Keith Broke His Leg” to truly express his own point-of-view, and now spends countless hours personally reaching out to people in support of the show.
So far, there have been 10 episodes of the series, and Powell has completed two more, which he’ll release soon. He’s also hoping to do a second season, with outside funding of some sort, before the end of the year. And he’s been very happy with the responses he’s gotten, including an out-of-the-blue email from Pamela Adlon (a frequent Louis CK collaborator) praising the show. “I really love ‘Keith Broke His Leg,'” she told him. “Please keep doing it.”
And that’s what matters to Powell — the fact that people are watching. “You don’t do it for the awards,” he said, “but it’s a way to get the show to a wider audience.”
What would a nomination mean to him, should it come together? “It would help validate the reason I did the show in the first place,” he said. “Which is that I have a voice, and I don’t feel like my voice gets heard, because I’m a minority, but I am not a stereotype of a minority,” he said. “I wanted to release a show so I could point to it and say ‘this is how I feel, this is how I think, about art and the world.’ And I wanted people to respect it.
“To be nominated for an Emmy would the tangible version of that. I wouldn’t just have anecdotes of how the show has touched people — this would be proof that the show is out there in the world and people are seeing it, and that the story that I’m telling resonates.”
“Keith Broke His Leg” Season 1 is available now on Vimeo.
READ MORE: ’30 Rock’ Star Keith Powell’s Secret to Making a Great Series On a Tiny Budget