“Just let it happen. The best things come when you just let it happen.”
It’s something many ultra-creative people say as they sip their beers and bask in a glow that seems as accidental as it is divine. They never set out to be awesome. It just turned out that way. “Just let it happen.” I wish I could! I wish I had that kind of peace of mind, but I don’t. I want it to happen now. NOW! FASTER! FASTER!
That’s why I’m envious of people like Ben Warheit.
Creator of Broadway Video’s Above Average channel’s refreshingly offbeat animated series Waco Valley, Warheit didn’t set out to become master of the comedic universe. He set out to learn, to experiment, while he paid his rent studying drug addicts and doodling in his spare time. His humor wasn’t rushed, it was cultivated and aged, warped in the best ways and his series is hilarious evidence of the whole free-range process.
Want to know how Ben “just let it happen”? It’s all here, people. It’s all here.
What did you do before Waco Valley?
I came to the city about three years ago because I wanted to start taking classes at UCB and I started subletting with the hope of getting a job. At that point, I had just enough money to stay for a couple of months. I eventually got a position at Columbia, working in their addiction labs, with addicts—way different than what I’m doing now. We were doing research on experimental pharmaceutical drugs. Doing research was a little bit slower than I hoped it would be and I had my own office with no windows so I just ended up doodling a lot. That’s how I started drawing stuff for Post-Its, my website. I started drawing stuff and sending it to my friends and started a Tumblr. At that point, I drew a couple of Dinosaurs, just like comics, and The Daily What picked up on a few of them and that got my follower count on Tumblr higher. Then I got laid off. They said that they were making cuts and the lab was getting cut but I don’t know if that’s true. They always were in support of the fact that I did comedy, it wasn’t a humorless place but it was very scientific. It wasn’t my calling. I then went on unemployment and I was able to do stuff that I wanted to do without worrying about finances. I started interning with Landline [TV], back when they were still together, and they approached me about wanting to collaborate on something. That ended up being Waco Valley. We went to LA and pitched and eventually we pitched it to Broadway Video and they were interested in making it. I’ve been lucky.
It’s a good story and one that seems like it’s really organic.
I never would’ve guessed that any of that stuff would’ve happened. I’ve never considered myself an actual artist. I always liked to draw. I still have the Post-It website and it’s got about 90,000 followers right now.
Talk to me more about where the idea came from because it’s very unique. Where’s the episode structure come from? How did you guys put the pieces together to make the show what it is now?
The genesis for the dinosaur idea came from my Post-It drawings of dinosaurs doing human stuff and one of them was a newscaster. There’s actually a Post-It of it that’s identical to a panel in the first episode where it’s a dinosaur saying, “Back to you Caitlin” on location in front of a car wash. So I fleshed that out into a scene and then into an episode. It was all pretty organic because it came from that same place. It was lucky that all the newscasts fit into that world and also served as great transition because they’re palate cleansers but also jokes, so the action doesn’t stop. It wasn’t something that I had planned but it worked out really nicely.
How did you come upon the cast?
When I was in college I was on my college improv team and we would take trips up to the city and go to UCB to see Stepfathers and Death by Roo Roo so I’d known about Will Hines for a long time. I’d always been a fan of his so, for me, having the opportunity, feeling so like a neophyte in the improv world, feeling like I had the backing of Landline, who are credible, feeling like I had the backing to cast whoever I wanted was really nice. I sort of felt like I could put whoever I wanted in there. And I wanted to get into contact with people I thought were really funny like Jim Santangeli and Will Hines and I didn’t have any reservations about doing that because Landline had such a reputation.
And Judah Friedlander too. You got him in there.
Yeah that was awesome and getting to work with Chris [Hardwick] too, Chris was such a pro. I was giving him directions to get to the studio because I couldn’t be there when they were in the studio but then I listened to it and he just fucking nailed it. He was so good.
What are the one or two things that you would recommend to people looking to differentiate themselves in the web space, a market where everybody’s trying to make content that is view-worthy and funny?
I think people really are drawn to content that speaks as somebody’s own personal, unique view of humor. John Milhiser’s got this new website, Baguette-me-nots. I think that’s right up my alley. I imagine that that will be popular but it’s not yet. It’s quirky, it’s funny, it’s something that people can do. It’s almost like Planking. But it’s also unique; it’s not very commonplace. I think there’s a lot of content out there right now that’s super topical and immediate and relevant and that’s great for going viral and getting popular all of the sudden, but I don’t if know if it’s sustainable. And it can be a little soul sucking. I think that the good stuff is something that’s born out of trying to impress yourself or your best friend, not everybody. And I think that my best work is always when it’s like I’m not trying to think of something that would work well, it’s just when I’m fucking around with my friends.
Coming up with a great idea for your web series is only half the battle. The other half is deciding how to structure your installments. Will they be more like sketches or mini-TV episodes? More focused on quickly heightening jokes or funny narratives? You must decide. You simply must. Unless you’re talking about Waco Valley, in which case a seamless blend of jokiness and narrative humor makes for an impressive anomaly.
Warheit admitted that most of what he finds funny comes from riff sessions with his pals. That personal sensibility is obviously authentic and weird, and Warheit’s not afraid to let his freak flag fly. Waco Valley’s totally uninhibited. That’s why it’s unique and that’s why it packs such a hard punch.
Every web series creator’s thinking one thing: “I hope my idea gets turned into a TV show”, but building a tiny web world that’s textured enough to warrant TV interest is a tall order. Waco Valley’s filled it.
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