You’ve been dropped onto a tropical island by a team of powerful doctors who’ve erased your mind and placed it on a memory card. Also, the tropical island is actually a free-roam virtual prison where you are banished until you complete a certain number of good deeds. For some reason, Dril is the king.
This scenario could possibly describe being on Twitter—and it’s also the premise of VIRTUAL PRISON, a pilot on Adult Swim’s “Smalls” channel for digital shorts, created by comedians and writers Derek Estevez-Olsen, Dril, and Pierce Campion. For those living a wholesome life without Twitter, Dril is a mysterious and absurd superuser of the site whose posts and writing style have become comedic shorthand used by politicians, comedians, and reporters across the world.
The three don’t have traditional comedy writing backgrounds, but they have worked together on an Adult Swim project before: An InfoWars spoof called “TruthPoint: Dark Web Rising.” The show, live streamed on YouTube, featured Estevez-Olsen and Dril as a duo of intrepid journalists with Campion making several guest appearances, including one where he explained science and God’s role in the 2020 US election.
In the first few moments of the pilot, it’s apparent that VIRTUAL PRISON originated from the minds of severely logged-on people. The scene is a lo-fi tropical island, where Estevez-Olsen appears after being placed in a coma and connected to what appears to be a deconstructed Nintendo GameCube. His name is now Tommy8772. Campion is Dr. Spackliss, a scientist running the prison, and Dril plays a masked character named Gomer, who sports a motorcycle and a rocket launcher and functions as a type of motivational speaker for Tommy. To free himself from the prison, Tommy must amass “Good Person Points,” which can also be used to purchase items from the Virtual Prison Swag Shop.
During a recent online chat (another type of virtual prison, really) with the trio, Estevez-Olsen claims the group doesn’t think about “online stuff” when conceiving the ideas, despite admitting that “looking at a screen all day for the past 20 years has probably had some kind of effect on my brain.”
VIRTUAL PRISON is a departure from TruthPoint, which was a InfoWars-style program streamed live on the Adult Swim YouTube channel for roughly 40 installments, ending in 2020. The new pilot, by contrast, makes no connections to reality. The VR/hacked-mind setting is recurring in the Adult Swim universe, which the trio have pointed to as inspiration.
As the group cites the surreal videogame-like Adult Swim series Xavier: Renegade Angel and Tim Heidecker’s meta 24 action-parody Decker as influences for VIRTUAL PRISON, Estevez-Olsen explains that the most impactful content on Adult Swim typically is “stuff that isn't just a good joke vehicle, but also telling a story in a way you wouldn't see anywhere else.” An 11-minute Adult Swim short, a hybrid TED Talk-slash-infomercial titled “Live Forever As You Are Now” by comedian Alan Resnick, is better “than any sincere sci-fi tv show or movie from the past 20 years,” Estevez-Olsen said.
Estevez-Olsen explains that in order for VIRTUAL PRISON to become a series, the size of YouTube commenters pleading for a full series needs to reach critical mass—or, the trio needs to convince Adult Swim that the concept has legs. Estevez-Olsen thinks the concept lends itself to expansion. The open-world concept of VIRTUAL PRISON, he said, provides room to develop both the aesthetic and the story. He believes the crew could “do a cool 4 season arc that would absolutely blow 2 Stupid Dogs out of the water.”
If it’s picked up for a series, Campion says that he hopes VIRTUAL PRISON can be the “perfect centrist candidate” between extremely online absurdist humor and late night hosts riffing with Amazon products. “I think it’s probably good to occasionally ask ‘What’s so funny?’ when you have daily wildfires and militarized police ramming down doors,” Campion said. “For some reason, we’re at a point where either everything’s funny or nothing is.”
“I'm not a comedian or performer, and I've never been on stage, and I didn't go to Harvard School of Comedy,” Esteven-Olsen explains while discussing his own comedic instinct. “Sometimes I watch stuff that's supposed to be funny, and I think, ‘Wow, I fucking hate comedy. Comedy sucks ass.’”
Dril did not answer any questions but provided the following anecdote after Estevez-Olsen said VIRTUAL PRISON is meant to be “The Infinite Jest of Adult Swim web serieses”: “when i was told to read Infinite Jest to prepare for the role i accidentally ordered a book called ‘Infinite Zest’ instead. and it was this cook book full of recipes inspired by DFW . So for the first 6 motnhs, i thought the show was going to be about food!!!!” (Dril later clarified that the anecdote was a lie, and apologized.)
Whether it’s picked up or not, VIRTUAL PRISON marks a moment where comedic sensibilities clearly influenced by earlier Adult Swim programming, combined with absurd humor usually found on the internet, is now making its way to the source. Who knows? Maybe it will influence even more unhinged online humorists in the future.
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