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Glee Pilot Oral History, Part 4: The Premiere

Glee Pilot Oral History, Part 4: The Premiere

Chris Colfer Glee

With the pilot episode in the can, the cast and crew spent the first half of 2009 filming the first 13 episodes of Glee in a media bubble. Then it was time for the world to see what they’d been working on. 

Fox debated slotting the show as a midseason replacement in the spring, but instead took a gamble: The network would air the show once, following the 2009 American Idol finale in May, and then properly launch the show in September after a summer of hype that included having the pilot up on every digital platform available. It was a gamble that paid off. In no time at all, Glee went from a novel new TV idea to a global phenomenon, and changed the life of its cast and crew.

READ | PART 1: Casting Call | PART 2: The Rehearsal | PART 3: On Set

Zach Woodlee (Choreographer): The first time we showed a test group, I remember that was so scary. It was in North Hollywood, and you're behind a two-way mirror. They have three televisions set up high. Ryan, myself, and a couple other people are back there. Everyone has this dial, and there's two colored lines for male and female. They turn it up when they like it, and down when they don't. To have your work judged immediately in front of you, and they don't know you're there, is so scary. That was the most fearful time during that pilot process. Being a fly on the wall and watching people judge your work.

Lea Michele:I watched the pilot with Ryan for the first time in the editors suite a few weeks after we finished filming. Just me and Ryan. It was amazing.

Chris Colfer: After we wrapped the pilot, I went to visit Lea and Jenna in New York (it was my first trip there). Lea had a "secret" copy and we must've watched it a hundred times. There is nothing worse than seeing yourself on camera for the first time. It took a few viewings for me to focus on anything else. We got chills every time we heard the opening notes of "Don't Stop Believin' ". Still do actually.

Jenna Ushkowitz: We watched it at Lea's house, where she was living at the time. We had done American Idol I think that day, where we sit in the audience and they promote it. We went to Lea's house to watch it, and then we saw it on iTunes immediately after. We were all together. It was special because the world was seeing it, but Lea and I had seen it 35 times before.

Lou Eyrich (Costume Designer): We all cried. We were screaming, laughing, clapping and crying. It was truly one of those pilots that was so special to be a part of it. As we were shooting it I kept thinking, Something is going to happen here. I didn't know how big it would be. To see iTunes the next day and "Don't Stop Believin' " is on top of the charts, it's just another piece that none of us saw coming.

Stephen Tobolowsky:My first reaction when I saw the show was I didn't know what the world's reaction was going to be, but I was enormously proud. We watched it on set while we were filming another episode. The feeling I had from the first reading was not ruined by Ryan or anybody else. You never have any control at the way the world sees it. You roll the dice and you get lucky, Glee rolled the dice and got lucky. It's very hard to get lucky with something that's bad, but it's very possible to do something good and get overlooked. But if you do something that's not good, it's hard to get lucky and become a huge hit.

Kevin McHale:Ryan and Brad had done other TV shows, but for us we didn't know what was good and what wasn't. The first time I saw it I thought it was great, but I remember we'd all sit around together and be like, "Do you think people will like this?" I remember Cory and I sidebarred and were like: "It can go either one of two ways, it will either come and out and be really big, or people won't get it and will flop immediately." It came out and kind of did neither. It premiered, and it did well. At that time a lot more people watched television, so 15 million people watched it, but at the time -- because I'm the ratings whore -- we technically didn't. American Idol did 20 million, we did maybe half of that. But when it came back in the fall we did OK.

Even when we got to the music part, Columbia used to send me our sales chart every week. It wasn't a huge massive rating success from the get-go. I think when people look back they think it was, but it wasn't. It wasn't until we came back for the back nine that it really became a ratings success. Word of mouth really did do a huge thing. Granted, they were promoting the shit out of it. I remember thinking at the time, this is the greatest marketing campaign since Obama got in office. The few who did start watching at the start told their friends and their family, and that's why our demographic was all over the place. Everybody watched it. When we came back to start filming the back nine, we at that point knew we were doing something people were actually watching, as opposed to the first 13 when we were in a vacuum.

Woodlee:We were out front of this restaurant, I think it was right after the pilot aired. Chris was nervous about the gay thing. He wasn't particularly out, and he didn't know what it would be like to have to take on the responsibility of this gay persona, and how many people it would actually affect. It was really sweet. His character changed I think a lot of culture: "Chris Culture." [Laughs] I do commend him, it was a brave thing. He dove into that character. I remember his fears in that. We all had fears on what would be judged and what would be accepted.

Colfer: I think my original contracts say "Artie 2" because the new character hadn't been developed yet. It wasn't until the day I moved to L.A. that I got the first script and saw who Kurt was. I'm from a very conservative area and at the time I was terrified to tell people I was playing a gay character -- most of them didn't find out until the show aired. It's so ironic when I remember how scared I was -- none of those fears would apply today. It was only seven years ago but I think the world was a very different place.

Glee Pilot Cast

Iqbal Theba:I went to Pakistan in December 2009 to visit my family in Karachi. I went to the video and DVD store down the street, and I saw Glee. I thought, Wow, it hasn't even come out on American DVD. It was pirated copies. They had 12 episodes, but we had done 13 at that time. I went to the clerk and asked him, "Where's the 13th episode? I'm curious, I'm a huge fan." He hadn't seen the season, and he said, "The 13th episode airs tonight in the U.S., so you can come back tomorrow, and I'll have it for you." I thought, Well, I'm not getting paid for this one, no residuals. But it was kind of cool to see that it was all the way in my hometown.

Patrick Gallagher:I don't know what the big stars went through, but I had someone say something to me every day for 135 days in a row. It was crazy. I can always tell when they're re-running it, because people will say, "Hey, you're Ken Tanaka," and I'll say, "I was, a long time ago." I saw a girl get out of her mother's car and run across two lanes of traffic, just to say hi. That's dangerous! It wasn't even that I was Ken Tanaka, it was that I was in that show. It's nice to be a part of something like that. In that first year I think that show deserved every award it won.

Ushkowitz: Only the pilot had aired, and we went straight on this mall tour. There were six or seven of us, and I think the first stop was Boston. We all hoped ten people would show up, truly. We get into the mall and we're escorted through the back, and we hear people singing "Don't Stop Believin' ". There must have been 300 or 400 people singing as they were walking into the mall, and we were shell shocked. They had on shirts they'd made, we were beside ourselves. Every stop was bigger and bigger.

McHale:The weird thing was, when the show did come on in September, we were in Australia to promote the show. The pilot had just aired there. We did a mall tour in the US, 10 cities in 12 days. Before every single stop we'd say we hoped there were more people that showed up than there are of us. So 10 or more people. So sometimes it was 300 people, and sometimes it was a thousand. We were amazed anyone would show up. We'd only aired one episode, how could anybody care about us that much?

Colfer:Our trip to Australia was a big turning point. The pilot was a big hit in Australia, so we went down there for some signings and press while the first episodes aired in the States. We came back to a completely different world. Personally, since returning from Australia in 2009, I've never left my house without being recognized. It was the beginning of a new chapter for all of us.

McHale: Even though only one episode had aired in Australia, we did two mall appearances. We were all so excited to even get to go to Australia. I remember the Fox rep told us that they couldn't afford to send us all first class or business, and we'd have to do premium economy. They weren't sure we'd agree to that. I was like, "are you kidding me? First of all, I don't even know what business class is, and second of all I want to go to Australia." I remember telling them, it was the toward the end of the mall tour, to please bring it to everybody's reps. I am sure they'll say yes. No one cares if it's premium economy, we've never even flown premium economy. We showed up in Australia and there were 800 people to see us. I have goosebumps again. It was so surreal. We were excited that anyone at home was watching. For us to be able to go somewhere we've never been and it's so foreign and far away and that they were maybe even more excited than back home.

Tobolowsky:I've been on a lot of shows, and everybody always hopes to create a mosaic of all the characters that are there. Every once in a while, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that was true of Glee. That's happened maybe three times in my career.

Ulrich:It was so exciting to see it get so huge so fast. It wasn't very long before I felt like it was an important show, and it wasn't much longer after that that I felt like it was a global phenomenon. I'm so proud of Glee. I'm so proud of all the kids, I'm so proud of my work, I'm so proud of what it has done for the world.

Colfer:There is something truly magical about the pilot and I think even our harshest critics would agree. Music has always had such a healing quality -- just look at all the songs and musicals that showed up post World War II and the Great Depression. Glee happened to air in the peak of a recession. It was such a terrible time, yet this little television show gave so many people something to sing about -- everyone was united as they rooted for the club of misfits. It was perfect timing.

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