We Like Short Shorts! Online Comedy That Keeps it Simple (and Stupid)
On the set with the pioneers of short-attention-span theater
Why funny is deadly serious: Read guest editor Patton Oswalt’s introduction to SPIN’s first ever “Funny” Issue, plus the full Das Racist cover story and our feature on comedy’s punk genuises Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster of The Best Show on WFMU.
For two like-minded upstart online-video ventures, the secret ?to comedy success is: Keep it simple and stupid
Video by the NY Frequency
Sunday, August 28, 2011, 11:00 a.m. There is a man drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon through a straw at an oversize dinner table. He is shirtless and going bald. At least, he is trying to go bald. Paul Prado has a thick head of dark brown hair that, in this stifling heat, is thwarting the makeup artist’s attempts to get the rubber cap to stay in place.
It’s a typical Sunday morning at the 5 Second Films house in Silver Lake. While their neighbors in Los Angeles’ boho-hipster haven sleep off hangovers in air-conditioned bliss, the dozen twentysomethings gathered here are either sweating out last night’s booze or are busy replenishing it. The empty silver cans are already adding up, a dot-to-dot tracing the collective’s frenetic moves through the cluttered rooms. The big 1914 residence is home to four of the crew, and serves as a messy museum of 5SF lore where props and gags (a plush Alf doll here, a portrait of Sean Connery there) have merged permanently with mismatched thrift-shop décor.
The goal, as on every Sunday, is to shoot five of the comedic shorts that will be edited down to, yes, five seconds apiece — and run each weekday on 5secondfilms.com. Their motto: “Wasting your time, but not very much.”
11:34 a.m. In the kitchen, a handful of 5SFers prep for a sketch about a cannibalistic hillbilly jug band. Ben Gigli — tall, blond, handsome — has changed into jean cutoffs and a sleeveless denim jacket, and he looks ?ridiculous, like the hockey-loving spawn of the construction worker from the Village People and Point Break‘s Patrick Swayze. He’s booed out of the room for being “too pretty for an inbred.”
In dingy long johns bought from an army surplus that morning, Jon Salmon is deemed sufficiently hillbilly-esque, but there’s still a problem: The outfit is see-through and he’s wearing modern-looking boxers. Someone yells, “Cock sock!” and the others pick up the chant. Salmon follows Gigli back to wardrobe. This is how decisions are made: through a combination of inspired groupthink and peer pressure — quickly.
Though the group’s collegiate roots show, most of the core members are gainfully employed in the film industry — writers, editors, cinematographers, prop guys, fledgling actors — but they have a larger objective in mind. Web series. Sketch shows. Sitcoms. Commercials. Movies.
“Our ad revenue from YouTube and our site covers our costs, but it’d be kinda pathetic if we split that pie up ten different ways,” says Brian Firenzi, 26, who dreamt up 5SF as a freshman at the University of Southern California’s film school. “We decided 5SF would be a calling card for our brand of humor and proof that we’re hard workers. Our consistency is key. We haven’t missed a single day in three years, and that’s a huge reason we’ve cultivated any sort of fan base.”
In truth, it’s paid off. Their home page gets five million views a month. They’ve got 52 million YouTube plays to date. Adult Swim has shown interest, they’ve created content for Intel and eTextbook provider CourseSmart, and they’re currently working on a viral campaign for Red Bull. Fans such as Juliette Lewis and Peter Stormare (and our esteemed guest editor Patton Oswalt) have donated their services.
12:03 p.m. The country bumpkins are jamming while bespectacled editor/actor Michael E. Peter times the scene with a stopwatch. “Cut that in half,” he says, crouched at the open end of the detached garage. The peeling paint and dirty slats outside belie what actually goes on here: This is the 5SF green-screen studio, storage facility (lined with milk crates full of gear), and costume department (the racks have been rolled out into the yard). Across the crabgrass and mottled lawn is another small building: a turn-of-the-century outhouse now packed with wigs, masks, and fake weapons — their prop house.
12:13 p.m. Back in the sweltering dining room, Prado has decided to shave his head for his five seconds of fame — he’s to spoof Citizen Kane‘s titular mad millionaire in an absurd short called “Roseburger” — and the others are loudly objecting. It’s not worth it, they say. You have job interviews, they say. We’ll save this one for a cooler day, they say. “It’d be better for the article,” I say. Then, Peter runs into the room. “Paul, everyone’s gonna try to talk you out of this,” he grins. “So I’m here, on record, to say go for it.” Just like that, they all reverse their votes. “Well, it is hot out,” someone meekly. Bzzzzzzzzz.
12:46 p.m. Firenzi, makeup artist Sara Reid, and 5SF’s resident brunette Kelsey Gunn are in the garage for the day’s second shoot. They’re dressed in leather and studs, armed with instruments as they mean-mug a croissant that’s perched on a stool beside a tiny guitar (a novelty pen). It’s a simple joke — “You missed band practice again! You’re so flaky… and buttery” — but everyone else lobs a different punch line at the scene, hoping it’ll stick. They riff constantly, endlessly. As if on cue, one of the two house dogs, Cassidy, lets out a huge sigh, and the man behind the camera, Salmon, utters that vital safe word: “Settle.”
1:15 p.m. Prado’s time has come. The crown of his head has been Bic’d clean, the remaining hair sprayed gray. A mustache has been applied and trimmed. He’s wearing a red silk robe and holding an ornate ivory-topped cane. He moves slowly and speaks in a croak. Lee Strasberg would be proud.
The kinetic, chatty Michael Rousselet, who wrote the sketch, lights up a half-smoked cigarette and cackles giddily. “This is what I want them to remember me by. This is my art piece.” He’s joking, but only kinda. The morning has been building to this moment. Everybody crowds around with their beers as Prado leans into a rosebush and utters, “Roseburger,” before biting into a flower-stuffed bun. It’s artfully shot, well acted, and will be edited lovingly. And when all’s said and done, it’ll be over in five seconds.
Got a minute? Sample some 5 Second Films shot during this story, plus new exclusive Puddin’ strips with the 5SF crew.
Continue reading about “Short Shorts” on page 2 >>
2:00 p.m. In a nondescript office building in Santa Monica, there’s a slight sucking sound followed by a small pop — flurrrp! Matt Oswalt, 41, the writer, director, and silent costar of Puddin’ Strip, a daily “live-action, single-panel comic,” just opened his first pudding cup of the day. Every episode since the YouTube series began in February utilizes the same format: Oswalt sits in a corporate break room enjoying his chocolate goop when Eddie Pepitone, a heavy-gutted, 52-year-old seasoned stand-up who calls himself “the Bitter Buddha,” walks in and begins a brusque misanthropic rant.
They’ll soon be shooting an expanded version to pitch to cable networks, described by Oswalt thusly: “Two hateful, curmudgeonly, self-loathing people eking out a shitty existence. It’ll be sad, but truthful and humorous.”
2:20 p.m. “Fuck you, Fonzie!” screams Pepitone as he gives the thin wall behind him a hard pound. On the other side, framed photos of Felicity and TV Guide covers featuring soap opera stars dance on their nails. As it turns out, the set of Puddin’ isn’t a set at all. It’s an actual cubicle-enclosed office dinette complete with Keurig coffeemaker, Krups toaster, and Palmolive-scented air. Cameraman Jamie Moore works at a talent agency here during the week (Oswalt’s big brother is also a client). Like 5SF, Puddin’ is a slightly guerilla affair. Unlike 5SF, Puddin’ is simple, streamlined, and there’s no question who’s in charge.
Eddie Pepitone and Matt Oswalt get comfortable (Photo: Dan Monick)
In between heaping spoonfuls of pudding, Oswalt consults a script, issues orders, directs. They’re already on their second film for the day. Each ranges between 15 seconds and two minutes, and they typically shoot a month’s worth in one four-hour session. Today, the goal is ten episodes.
2:40 p.m. Pepitone is pacing the hall, saying “meth-whore roulette” a dozen different ways. High and silly. Low and sophisticated. With extra emphasis on the “-ette.” Lingering over the hard o in “whore.” He’s an artist, and once they’re rolling, it’s all about clearing a path for his cracked genius.
“To me, this break room is almost the id,” says Pepitone between takes. “Any kind of fucking insanity can happen there. It’s a blank page we can use to explore the reality of the American workforce — the underbelly of the person who is getting underpaid, with no health benefits, who’s losing his shit.”
This is their sixth sketch in 20 minutes, having also tackled the subjects of Afghanistan, Jennifer Aniston, sleep apnea, and get-well cards. In this one, Pepitone’s character is to referee the aforementioned game of roulette, and he wants guest star Laura Silverman to help him choose the most slimming pants. They’re supposed to wrap it up by 3:30 p.m. Does the agency even know they’re here? “Yes, but,” Moore confides, “if the CEO knew what we shot here, we probably wouldn’t be able to continue.”
2:56 p.m. Oswalt needs blood, but he can’t get the consistency right. It’s too runny. It won’t stick to anything. Silverman chimes in: “You’ve gotta put some soap in there.” She pulls an industrial-sized bottle of lime-green liquid Palmolive out of a cupboard and mixes it with the red food coloring. It’s perfect.Continue reading about “Short Shorts” on page 3 >>
2:58 p.m. Pepitone is bent over with his pants around his ankles. There’s a pile of broken glass on the table and it’s covered in viscous red gunk. Silverman emerges from behind him clutching an awful-looking shard with a pair of tweezers. “That’s two Yoo-Hoo bottles and still no engagement ring,” she says. As foul as it is, Oswalt is still eating pudding. “Cut! That’s the one. Moving on.”
“I really hope this helps me get on a medical drama,” Silverman deadpans.
3:31 p.m. “I’ve learned to pace myself,” says Oswalt, scraping his fourth cup clean. “I used to eat one with every film — that was a big mistake. Keeping these things so short makes them a real challenge to write, but easy to shoot. It’s what allows us to do it daily, which is important. YouTube has refocused people’s viewing habits, shrunk our attention spans.”
“We’re a dependable product,” says Pepitone. “Funny or Die has become a potpourri of shit — it’s where celebrities go to get street cred. The Internet should be the purview of those who don’t have the luxury of being trumpeted by the studios.”
Rousselet, Ben Gigli, Olivia Taylor Dudley, and Salmon get juggy (Photo: Dan Monick)
4:00 p.m. We migrate 20 miles east to the 5SF house with the Puddin’ crew in tow. While we were gone, they had filmed two more skits with Prado after discovering his uncanny resemblance to a chrome-domed ventriloquist doll they had on hand. Upon arrival, a few of us are rerouted to catch the day’s last shot; we drive 20 minutes into Griffith Park to steal three seconds of face time with a bulldozer.
5:15 p.m. In the car ride back from the construction site that served as the shoot’s location, I ask, “Doesn’t this get exhausting?”
“We’re content creators,” says director/editor Tim Ciancio. He’s wearing a turquoise T-shirt sporting the silhouettes of a few dozen monkeys sitting at typewriters. “We don’t wait for anybody to tell us what to do or how to do it, or to have money. We just make it. It’s like a band. Some people show up late every time, some just wanna hang out, some have the skills, but we’re there every weekend and that’s what matters.”
“It does get exhausting,” says Firenzi. “At the end of the day, the big question is always, ‘When are we gonna grill the food? When is the beer coming?’ It always hits us, but we always get it done and somehow find the energy to do it again the following week.”
6:22 p.m. The answer to Firenzi’s grilling question is thankfully, “Now.” Though Puddin’ and 5SF have admired one another from afar, they’ve never met before today, so Peter’s prepared a feast in honor of the occasion: ribs parboiled in grapefruit juice. Grilled brie with fig jam. Herbed mashed potatoes. Barbecued corn on the cob. New alliances are forged, fake rivalries are proposed, collaborations are discussed. I follow a line of castaway cans into the kitchen and discover Silverman with Prado. She’s bleached his leftover hair into a golden donut and is using food coloring to dye it into a rainbow.
Peter sits down to roll a cigarette and Oswalt picks up on it. “See? It’s the effort. That’s why I like you guys.” Someone asks him where he got the idea for Puddin’. “After college I did a lot of temp work, and people always asked me questions because I was always the new guy. I got bored talking about myself, so I just started making things up. Eddie seemed like the perfect foil. If he had said no, I never would’ve done this. He’s like Don Rickles, but all of his comedy is inward instead of outward.”
Pepitone lets out a fantastic guffaw and, borrowing from Shakespeare, says all that’s left to be said: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
More Laughs From SPIN’s “Funny” Issue:
• Funny Is Deadly Serious: Patton Oswalt Introduces SPIN’s New Issue
• Sons of Anarchy: Why Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster Are Punk Genuises
• We Like Short Shorts! Online Comedy That Keeps It Simple (and Stupid)
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Read the entire November 2011 issue of SPIN.