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How Web Series Have Widened TV's Talent Pool

We talk with the teams behind Comedy Central and HBO's comedies about the challenges of adapting a web series and why more TV networks are looking online for unique talent.

by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya
Dec 13 2016, 5:03pm

Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

In 2010, Comedy Central put Workaholics into development after executive Walter Newman saw a series of comedy videos posted on YouTube by Mail Order Comedy, a sketch group starring Adam DeVine, Blake Anderson, and Anders Holm. Drawing on the same fast and loose humor of their sketches, DeVine, Anderson, and Holm worked with Comedy Central to mold their comedy into the more structured and narrative form of Workaholics, now in its seventh and final season.

Three years later, Comedy Central brought the hilarious and strange Funny or Die web series Drunk History to television. Shortly after, Broad City premiered on Comedy Central. The scripted comedy about two best friends vaping and zig-zagging their way through life in New York City became a quick critical smash. But it didn't come out of nowhere. Co-creators and stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer independently produced Broad City as a short-form web series from 2009 to 2011, working their connections in the improv world of Upright Citizens Brigade to land top-notch talent despite working on a shoestring budget.

"They were cajoling people to do that web series for nothing, unless you count bagels," Comedy Central president Kent Alterman joked. Amy Poehler appeared in the web series and then went on to become an executive producer of the TV series.

For networks, the appeal of picking up an existing web series seems obvious: The project comes with a built-in fan base. It's tested material. But at Comedy Central, that's not really the focus. As Alterman explained, it's less about views and more about the individuals. With Broad City, Glazer and Jacobson brought talent, ambition, and work ethic. "It's easy to take a risk with them," Alterman said. "Not only are they funny, but they're smart as shit. Their producorial minds were as compelling to us as their on-screen talent."

Original comedy made for the web has expanded Comedy Central's talent pool. In addition to looking for talent in live sketch and stand-up shows, the network set its sights on YouTube, Funny or Die, and other online video platforms for comedy that it could turn into something bigger. The decision to bring the oddball Funny or Die series Drunk History to the network was built on the same foundation as the Broad City pickup: talent and ideas. Jeremy Konner and Derek Waters had a clear vision for their show. Alterman said they not only seemed to have a strong grasp on how a pilot for the series would go but also what the show might look like in later seasons.

Alia Shawkat as Alexander Hamilton in 'Drunk History.' Courtesy of Comedy Central

As Derek Waters put it, Drunk History—a show in which people drunkenly attempt to retell stories from history that are then played out by reenactors lip-dubbing the drunken ramblings—would have been a tough concept to pitch without having anything to show for it. "I don't think I would have been able to sell the show if I didn't have it online," Waters told me on the phone. "It's not an idea that you can really explain. You have to show what the hell you're talking about." From the creator perspective, making a web series can provide a more tangible, developed pitch. When Waters started out making Drunk History for Funny or Die, he just went to his friends and asked them what story from history they think needs to be told. He let them choose their own stories and do their own research. Every episode featured just one retelling. At Comedy Central, Drunk History has a whole team of researchers, and Waters has to be more selective about the stories they tell, building three-act episodes around themes and places.

Now in its fourth season on Comedy Central, Drunk History has managed to evolve into something greater while maintaining the core elements that originally made it compelling. The show nabbed Lin-Manuel Miranda for a Hamilton-centric episode and added an onslaught of notable guests to its roster, including Taylor Schilling, Elizabeth Olsen, Billie Joe Armstrong, Ben Folds, and even pro-fighter-turned-actress Ronda Rousey.

Drunk History's transition from web to television, however, wasn't without its difficulties: "There were times when they didn't want the name to be Drunk History ," Waters said. "I still can't believe we got away with it, having the word 'drunk' on television, but I'm a stubborn comedy snob and refused to change the title, and I'm very thankful that they trusted it." But it kept its name, and it kept its signature look, too. The intentionally low-budget aesthetic of the reenactments didn't become more polished when the show jumped to television. If anything, a bigger budget just meant the show could build better bad set pieces, buy more bad wigs, and get trickier with the editing magic.

By focusing on creators who are writer-producer-actor triple threats, Comedy Central ensures that it's bringing in people who know their ideas inside out

Comedy Central's trust in its creators' visions allowed Drunk History, Workaholics, and Broad City to transition from web shorts into longer-form television series with bigger budgets—but without losing their initial appeal. By focusing on creators who are writer-producer-actor triple threats, Comedy Central ensures that it's bringing in people who know their ideas inside out. Broad City 's webisodes provided a clear and concise summary of what Glazer and Jacobson offered on and off camera; Drunk History 's online shorts showed off the subtle structure and organization Waters and Konner put behind their seemingly sloppy show; Mail Order Comedy sold the Workaholics team as the brash weirdos they are.

Since Broad City, Comedy Central has become a leading force in multi-platform development and online innovation. The network not only looks to the web for new talent, but also develops in-house projects online with the eventual goal of transitioning them to the "linear lineup," dressed-up network-speak for "television." Scripted buddy comedy series Idiotsitter and Ari Shaffir's storytelling show This Is Not Happening both premiered on the network's digital platform before moving to television.

Jillian Bell and Charlotte Newhouse in 'Idiotsitter. Courtesy of Comedy Central

Developed under CC: Studios (originally the network's separate digital production studio before all digital and multi-platform content was folded into the rest of Comedy Central's development team), Idiotsitter is created and written by its stars, Charlotte Newhouse and Workaholics' Jillian Bell. Like Glazer and Jacobson, they came up in the improv world together, and the show, which returns for its second season in 2017, thrives on their chemistry. Again, the network invested in the individuals. Newhouse and Bell admitted that one of the challenges in transitioning from making the Idiotsitter shorts on the web to making the more traditionally structured series was that it wasn't just the two of them anymore. "We had great writers for our first season, but also, Charlotte and I share a brain," Bell explained.

The transition from online to television meant more writers, a longer production period, and just overall more pieces to figure out. The internet remains a place for experimentation and risks, and both Newhouse and Bell noted that they were able to get away with a bit more on the web. Transitioning to television involved reeling in some of the show's wackiness and making sure that their story was more grounded. But as with Broad City, Comedy Central made it a priority to preserve what made the show great in the first place: the interplay between its leads. Even with changes to the creative process, Idiotsitter's new home in the linear lineup didn't radically change the show's core.

Some networks use social media to engage with viewers of their existing shows, but Comedy Central is taking its social media initiatives one step further by using social platforms to develop new series.

Social media also presents new avenues for web-to-television development. Some networks use social media to engage with viewers of their existing shows, but Comedy Central is taking its social media initiatives one step further by using social platforms to develop new series. A script deal born from a Snapchat series sounds like a bad joke about Peak TV gone too far, but Comedy Central has turned it into a reality, ordering a new TV show starring comedian James Davis, who is also creator and executive producer. The new series is based on Swag-A-Saurus, Davis's Snapchat series where he breaks down modern slang. We can expect more of that innovation soon, according to Alterman, who said Comedy Central is now focusing more on how to tailor content to specific platforms—like Snapchat and Instagram—and seeing where it goes from there.

Other networks are following suit and also looking to the web for new series and talent. The CW has used its separate streaming service, CW Seed, to debut web series like Husbands. The romantic comedy was independently produced for two seasons and aired via web syndication on YouTube, Roku, Blip, and other online platforms before CW Seed produced a six-episode third season. CW Seed has also debuted original digital series like I Ship It and the DC universe extension series Vixen. But so far, the network has kept CW Seed completely separate from CW proper, opting not to marry its online content with its linear lineup. The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, however, does have roots online: Rachel Bloom's musical shorts for YouTube are every bit as hilarious and biting as her series, an early glimpse at how well she meshes her musical talent with her specific sense of humor.

Hannibal Burress and Ben Sinclair in 'High Maintenance.' Courtesy of HBO

Another network, HBO, has taken the plunge into plucking series from the web. In 2015, HBO picked up High Maintenance, another weed-infused web series set in New York City. Created by Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, High Maintenance released 19 shorts on Vimeo from 2012 to 2015. Sinclair and Blichfeld mined the New York talent pool for impressive emerging actors and managed to make High Maintenance for less than $1,000 per episode. The six-episode season that aired on HBO this fall featured longer self-contained stories, but it held onto the show's dreamy, organic essence.

As with Comedy Central, at HBO, it's all about the talent. In fact, according to Nina Rosenstein, executive vice president of HBO Programming, HBO doesn't distinguish between web series and non-web series. "Like all our programming decisions, we are looking for a distinct point of view and a good story," Rosenstein explained in an email to me. "Though it originated as a web series, I feel High Maintenance delivers on HBO's implicit promise of giving our subscribers something you can't see anywhere else. The bet was really on Ben and Katja and that bet paid off."

Unlike Comedy Central, HBO has the benefit of being a premium-television network that doesn't have to adhere to strict time constraints to accommodate commercials. Whereas web series have to be reworked to fit a more fixed length at Comedy Central, HBO has more flexibility when it comes to time frame. "If the story you want to tell requires 33 minutes... great," Rosenstein wrote. "If next week it is 24 minutes... fine. That freedom is creatively liberating."

Yvonne Orji and Issa Rae in 'Insecure.' Courtesy of HBO

Sinclair and Blichfeld aren't the only online creators HBO has bet on in the past year. While not the same show as Awkward Black Girl, HBO's new scripted comedy Insecure is built on the early online success of its star and creator Issa Rae. Awkward Black Girl showed what Rae could do with very little money and resources. Now, with an HBO budget, she has crafted one of the best shows of 2016. Rae herself is a vocal proponent of creating for the web, which is in many ways a more accessible avenue for emerging creators trying to get their foot in the door.

Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people underrepresented by mainstream media are writing themselves in by creating web shows. Gente-fied, an upcoming web series executive produced by America Ferrera, will explore the lives of young Latinxs in the gentrifying LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The Emmy-nominated web series Her Story is co-written by and stars Jen Richards, a trans woman, and focuses on a group of queer and trans characters. Pharrell Williams's i am OTHER YouTube channel, which became the home of Awkward Black Girl during its second season, continues to be a hub for online content made by people of color.

Web series can be a calling card for new creators, and they also allow for more experimentation since they don't have to fit the more structured mold of television. The complicated, long process of pitching a television series means "untested" talent often gets left out. Networks keep taking bets on the same people, contributing to the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the television creator landscape. In the 2015–2016 television season, one out of every five creator credits went to men. Self-produced web series have opened up the pitch door a little more. And it's a global movement, too. Web series made in India provide new opportunities for creators to tell women-centric stories. That risk-taking, experimental environment that allowed all these burgeoning creators with shows on big networks like Comedy Central and HBO to establish their voice and garner their initial followings continues to churn out new talent all the time. More networks should be tapping into this diverse talent pool for fresh and unconventional ideas and individuals.

Follow Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya on Twitter.

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