I started this column at Tilzy.tv that explores how the sitcom is being affected/transformed by the Internet, and I thought I’d excerpt them here as well.
And any suggestions for shows I’m missing, please send em here, woo!
It’s heartening to see a new longer-form sitdotcom hit the virtual universe, especially one that’s actually watchable and rather charming. Though not breakthrough in most ways, Inconvenient Molly represents the rare web serial more interested in taking its time and developing real characters, rather than relying on “the quick-laugh,” copious pop culture references, parody and the like.
But one has to ask whether there’s something about how we watch video on the web that puts longer shows like these at an immediate disadvantage. We’ve all been guilty of using certain compound buzzwords like “web-friendly” and “youtube-esque” to describe successful Internet TV, yet it’s shows like Molly, which seem to break a lot of these rules, that force me to reclassify my judgments as prejudgments. Perhaps this “shorter + faster = better” sentiment is simply undue prejudice, a relic from the older days of shabby web connections, less user-friendly compression modes, and fewer portable video players.
Inconvenient Molly follows Molly Brooks, a former child-star forced by her parents to go to college (lame!) but now trying to make it again as an actress. Molly hired a director named Lisa, perhaps from craigslist, to make a documentary about her plunge back into show business. The show itself is this documentary, more or less unedited, although I wish it were a bit messier and choppier. And as in Clark and Michael (Tilzy.TV page) and other documentary-style sitdotcoms, the camera is itself character. Molly takes this even further, as the cameraperson actually has a name, Lisa, and a face, as she does on-camera testimonials.
The pilot episode is about 13 minutes long, and definitely feels like it can be a little shorter and tighter, but creator Jeremy Robbins tells me that he considered the pilot as a “double episode” designed to introduce the characters and that subsequent episodes will be about 8 minutes long. Eli Clark, who deftly plays Molly, is also a co-creator.
Sometimes it feels like every hour or so another NY/LA-based comedian releases his/her own web show, usually featuring his/her name in the title, along with the word “show” or some derivative thereof. There’s the Maria Bamford Show on Superdeluxe, of course, David Wain’s Stella-like, Wainy Days exclusive to MyDamnChannel, Andrea Rosen’s self-described “intimate and somewhat creepy Web series,” Standrea, also on SuperDeluxe, just to name a few.
And not only are the titles of these series getting more creative, but the shows themselves are mostly enjoyable, with clever, offbeat writing, lots of deadpan humor, all in short web-friendly spurts. So it appears that the recent scramble for comic talent by sites like Superdeluxe, MyDamnChannel, Crackle, and FunnyorDie, is proving mutually beneficial – comics get a relatively hassle-free space to experiment with sitcom forms perhaps not yet ready for Adult Swim or Comedy Central, while these sites get quality shows with recognizable names to feature on their homepages.
Today, I thought I’d discuss a super-niche subsection of this welcome phenomenon: the NY-based-comedian fake-talk-show, particularly Chelsea Paretti’s new All My Exes, and Michael Showalter’s The Michael Showalter Showalter, both of which represent inexpensive and creative twists on the sitcom, that seem at home on the web.
Quarterlife, a new dramatic sitdotcom created by Emmy winners Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (Thirtysomething, My So-Called-Life, Blood Mountain) dubs itself as, “the first Internet series that could just as easily be a film or a television show – it’s smart, funny, emotional…real.” “Hmm?” I think to myself, not entirely sure why this statement makes me feel uneasy inside, yet feeling uneasy nonetheless, I click to play the trailer.
Wow. It seems as though some young twenty-something-artist-girl (Dylan Krieger, no less), who can’t help but tell the truth (it’s a fetish or something) has been blabbing about her friends all over the World Wide Web, but then she tries to play dumb about it! “You know damn well what I’m talking about – you put my face all over the freakin’ net!” her blond friend reminds her. Yep, pretty real. I guess.
Niche is a word that’s thrown around a lot when “talking Web 2.0,” particularly concerning new web series offerings. Next New Networks, for example, has been creating web communities based around everything from comic book fans and car enthusiasts to amateur fashion designers and brides. In other words, micro-audiences that you might think are too small to base an entire network around using the old television model, yet now seem to be thriving on the web.
Even The Wall Street Journal agrees that, “niche Web programs like “Geek” [Geek Entertainment TV ]…are attracting the attention of some big marketers. While their audiences are tiny…their viewers are loyal.”
But what about comedy? Can a funny web show also be “niche” or is that just a euphemism for it being too narrowly focused and filled with one too many private-jokes? Sure, you could argue that Clark and Michael’s (Tilzy.TV page) awkward dynamic and unpredictable improvisation might only be appealing to a limited fan base, but the show still hits too close to mainstream. Music has obscure genres like New-Wave-Black-Metal-Punk and Afro-beat-Psychedelic-Glam – can internet comedy?
Consider Channel101’s (Tilzy.TV page) new ultra-dry comedy Cautionary Tales of Swords, one of the nichiest show out there right now. Swords’ narrator and hero is Trip Fisk, a one-eyed, wife-beater-wearing elderly man with luxuriously long-flowing white hair, and, undoubtedly, the worst foul mouth in the county.
Two Sundays ago I was watching highlights from the latest Democratic presidential debate on ABCNews.com, but after viewing about two clips, I nearly gave up in frustration. The reason: between each brief highlight clip lasting no more than 2-3 minutes, I was forced to sit through the same minute-or-so-long ad about new drunk-driving regulations. Yeah I thought the ad itself was pretty uninformative, but what really annoyed me was that constant feeling of helplessness, being forced to sit through the same ad every few minutes, unable to click away, just to get to the next clip.
It all goes back to what Jamison wrote about earlier, that when we watch video on our computers, we’re usually “sitting up” as opposed to “leaning back” when watching TV, and what I take away most from this distinction is that we demand much more control over what we watch on the Internet and how we watch it. We may have multiple browser tabs open, we’re reading a description underneath the video while shuffling through user comments and sifting through related links, etc.
And this is why those ABC ads felt so intrusive; as if someone suddenly grabbed the keyboard and mouse out of my hands and was like, “Here, watch this, over and over again!” As if somehow ABC violated the unwritten Internet code: you never grab.
You sort of have to love Planet Unicorn – a silly animated web series about a gay kid from the year 2117, who finds a magic lamp and wishes into existence a bright pink planet full of effeminate unicorns, one of which happens to be named Tom Cruise (no relation).
Sure it’s not pushing the sitdotcom genre significantly forward, but it’s a friendly reminder that quick, quirky and well-polished shows can excel on the web, when they’d probably never see the light of plasma screens on TV.
User comments and video responses directly influence the life of one young man in this series where viewers and star are “connected.”
If we’re talking about sitdotcoms that were born on the web, have flourished on the web, and are so inseparably linked to the web that they could not function in a different medium, then we have to talk about ichannel.
Imagine waking up one day with the feeling that you’re being watched. Slowly you discover that wherever you go, there’s a hidden camera following you, quietly judging you, and you can’t escape its discerning eye. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there sits a handheld PDA displaying the words: you are now connected. Well, this is the world of ichannel, a highly innovative and collaborative web sitcom that launched about 8 months ago and is now on its 19th episode.
The story revolves around “I,” the nameless, unwilling star of a rogue video blog about his life. True this may seem like a Truman Show/Ed-TV clone, but Craig DiFolco, ichannel’s writer and director, has successfully built upon these static works of fiction and brought this 1984-esque genre into the fast-paced, interactive world of the web. Yes, it’s still fiction, but it’s definitely not static.
“If Jesus wrote a sitdotcom,” as Maria Bamford might ask her mom, “What sitdotcom would it be?” Well lately–with an influx of theocentric web shows hitting the digital market–that answer is becoming slightly more obvious. It’d probably be based in some sort of white-collar work environment with a God-like authority figure who’s none-too business savvy.
It’s news in itself that three web shows have arrived at relatively the same time, all of which feature God and/or heavenly beings in office-like workspaces, yet the bigger news might be that they’re all well made made and actually pretty funny.
Each episode of the new British web sitcom Where are the Joneses? ends with the words: “With Special Thanks to the Where are the Joneses? Community” and for the first time, it actually feels like users have a stake in the universe of an online, scripted show. And surprise, it’s still really funny.
Released daily and running about 3 minutes each, episodes revolve around Dawn, a slightly ditzy yet determined woman who just found out that she was “the product of sperm donation,” and has thus decided to chase down all of her 27 brothers and sisters who were also spawned from this same busy gentlemen.
Once in a while, you’re roaming the web, seemingly aimlessly, jumping from brower tab to browser tab, thinking, “Why did I just watch that mini-documentary on Chinese gold farmers?“ “Why am I wasting my time watching other people waste theirs?” when suddenly you’re hit smack in the face by the power of the Internet. You know, you find something that makes your eyes get real wide and you start to see the future. How some ridiculous thought (who came up with the microwave?), some notion that seems crazy and out-of-the-question at this very moment will be completely commonplace in fifty years time, or so.
I found this Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk by Jonathan Harris, a Brooklyn-based artist/computer programmer, whose “programs scour the Internet for unfiltered content, which his beautiful interfaces then organize to create coherence from the chaos.” The one program that caught my eye, “We FeelFine,” collects sentences that include the words, “I feel” from blogs all over the Internet, and presents them in various ways that help represent how the world at a particular moment is feeling.
What The Maria Bamford Show exemplifies is how a single creative actor with an intentionally make-shift set and standard equipment, can create a thoroughly funny, enjoyable sitcom. There are characters you sincerely care about, and humor that seems more tangible because its crafted from Bamford’s insecurities, rather than some superficial or contrived plot twist.
Many of the jokes stem not only from the characters themselves, but also from how Maria chooses to act out the characters, what she chooses to exaggerate. In a Mother’s Day episode, Bamford tells her mom, “Thanks for letting me do less than accurate and highly embellished portrayals of you.” In another sketch she pokes fun at how her father always coughs and makes loud, throaty sounds before he speaks. Both instances are funny statements on how children see their parents (my Dad sneezes louder than God, btw).
The new CBS web-exclusive series, Clark and Michael (Tilzy.TV page) has received some considerable praise from around the blogosphere. It’s highly recommended by Steve Bryant and Laughing Squid, the Collider calls it “bits of comedy gold”, and Karina Longworth says, “it’s funnier than 90 percent of the intentionally funny videos on the internet.”
Yes, it is that good. But it’s interesting to note that Longworth ended her positive analysis with a single criticism: “If there’s one fatal flaw here, it’s that the show’s pace is too slow for its distribution context. If CBS is smart, they’ll hire a kid from YouTube to cut the remaining episodes…”
I’ve felt for a while that the sitcom has needed a jumpstart, and many television shows have certainly been revving the engine in the past few years to push the genre further. Curb Your Enthusiasm combined the tightly-woven plot lines of Seinfeld with the cinema-verite camera-work and spontaneous dialogue we’ve grown accustomed to from the influx of reality television. The Office used a documentary-structure that allowed for humor to originate out of what the characters didn’t want us to see on camera.
Still, I’ve always hoped that the vastness and relative freedom of the web would help to accelerate this process: more shows, more experimentation with producers less beholden to ratings and advertisers.
A year ago I had very little to talk about. The transition from user-generated, youtube-esque videos to more story-driven webisodics was just taking shape (i.e. Lonelygirl15, Something to Be Desired) yet lately new web-exclusive serials spring up almost daily on sites like DotComedy, Super Deluxe, and Funny or Die.
So I’ll be examining whether this influx of new web sitcoms – or “sit-dot-coms” as my friend Eddie ingeniously coined – will indeed push the genre further or whether producers will simply try to do on the Internet what’s already been done on TV (Should we be nervous that both sites mentioned above were created by television entities?).