This Week In Web Videos: ‘High Maintenance’
Weed humor and Seth Rogen are not inextricably linked after all, and High Maintenance is proof.
Created and written by husband and wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, executive produced by them and Sinclair’s manager, Russell Gregory, and brought to life by a stellar cast and crew, High Maintenance follows a cycling weed man as he makes his deliveries to different New Yorkers in their native habitats. Nuanced in its voyeurism and deft in its subtle comedic breaks, this is more than a funny show. It’s honest and true, unapologetically and consistently straight with no regard for Internet video conventions or goofy stoner genre norms. One might even call it “high art” (sorry, I had to).
Ben, Katja, and Russell were kind enough to give me the scoop on how they brought these wonderful little nugs to life (I know I’m awful).
What were your comedy backgrounds before working on this series?
Ben: I did theater and all that kind of stuff. I came from a more trained actor background and also did some comedy at Oberlin, some Harold team stuff. And then after college I kind of fell out of the improv scene and have been making my own little comedy videos for a while. I started doing commercial content with Diet Mountain Dew and they gave $5,000 per video or something like that. Then I started pushing that content for Current TV. From there, I worked on creating an online video identity. And then I met my wife, Katja — we’re a husband and wife team.
Katja: My comedy background is mostly contained to my casting career, which is now almost a decade long. I started working on some small, independent features where I got to cast local UCB comedians and I got turned on to that vein of people. I started casting for 30 Rock seven years ago have been with that show from beginning to end. I’ve also been a part of casting shows like Parks and Recreation and Community during my tenure at NBC Casting. And then, as Ben described, we got together. He’s a comedic performer and it sort of seemed like the next logical step for me to start creating some content. We had a meeting of the minds and then we made this crazy thing.
Russell: Mine is more boring than theirs. I was an agent for a few years and just recently became a manager but my comedy background is just that I like to laugh and when Ben and Katja came up with this idea it caught my attention.
Where did the idea for High Maintenance come from?
Ben: I can’t really say the exact moment of conception is…remembered, if you know what I mean. [Everyone laughs] We were looking for a project to work on, something that Katja and I could do as a pastime. We thought this idea would be a good vehicle because it allows viewers to go inside people’s apartments which every New Yorker is always curious about. Also, we have friends in LA who are kind of into the weed scene, and the weed web series that we saw over there…I don’t want to say they were adolescent, but I just said they were adolescent. We thought we could do it in a way that actually showed adult New Yorkers who are dealing with the city. We feel that people in New York smoke for many different reasons, whether it’s a city stress or they just like to smoke because it keeps them alive in different ways. We thought it was a different idea so we just went with it.
Katja: We also liked the idea of creating a series where we got to have different cast members in every episode because we know so many talented performers. We’re really big fans of the show Party Down and really liked how every episode of that show took place in a different location and had a pretty extensive guest cast. We were inspired by that model and found a way to modify it into a six-minute digital format.
What made you go for a longer, more narrative series instead of a 2-3 minute, joke-laden kind of thing that’s, frankly, more popular on the web?
Katja: Well, first of all, we weren’t doing this to get eyeballs so we weren’t concerned about people’s attention spans. We did this first and foremost because it was something to work on with our friends and it’s fun. Russell’s our best friend and he’s Ben manager and he had wanted to do something. So that was goal #1, and then, once we started doing it, we realized we had something special with these performers — our strength was really their talent, and we thought it would be more important to focus on being character-driven than joke-driven. The jokes are there but I think the performances are at the forefront. I think you need more time when you put the focus on people.
Ben: I’ll jump in and say the first episode we produced was five minutes and we thought we were really pushing the edge with that time.
Katja: We had originally planned it to be 3 and a half minutes, I think. We thought that’s all people would sit for and that no one would stick around for anything longer.
Ben: Yeah, but we found ourselves enjoying the longer cuts and the few people we sent it to said “we want more” so we just expanded the episodes a little bit while being careful to cut off when the episode was getting to something good.
Katja: We tried to leave people wanting more. And that is a response we get a lot. “Will there be more episodes of this?” We use that as a pass to make these episodes as long as we wanted to.
Russell: Katja and Ben had this great idea to put episodes out in cycles of three because when you do watch a web series, you usually watch a bunch at one time. I thought that releasing them in threes was a really great idea because viewers could sit down and get their fill all at once.
Katja: That’s how we view media, even in television, not just new media. When we get into a new show we want to watch 10 at a time.
Is there a day coming when people are going to fully rely on the web for their content?
Ben: My thoughts are: A generation of very rich people are going to have to move on before everything goes exclusively to the web. There’s a marketing cycle, there are early pioneers, and then latecomers. I think we’re on the very top of that curve and once we get to the bottom of it, we’ll be exclusively Internet.
Russell: But there are a lot of people who get their content off the web exclusively.
Ben: I don’t know man, I don’t know shit about this, we just make our show. [Laughs]
Good answer, who cares? I don’t know. Fuck you, Luke.
Katja: [Laughs] I feel like people have been saying for years that, that’s how it’s going to be yet we’re still looking at ratings for Christ’s sake. I don’t know that we’re close to the web being the popular model but we’re on our way toward it for sure.
What other web series are you into right now? What series inspire you?
Katja: We love Broad City, we love those girls and their sensibility and now they have a TV deal and aren’t doing web stuff anymore but I just loved that they had a voice that was uniquely theirs. I’m really glad for what they’re doing and I’m glad we get to see them on a different platform.
Ben: We also really like, it’s not really a web series, but the digital short form thing called The Boring Life of Jacqueline, which is on HBO.
Katja: We’re obsessed with it.
Ben: Katja and I have watched that many of times and it speaks to us because we kind of like to get a little ugly, not just make jokes but also study some real painful personalities.
Katja: Yeah, that series resonated a lot for us.
What advice do you have for content creators on the web, what kinds of skills and wisdom can you impart?
Katja: Well first, don’t do this unless you have something to say. Work within your resources and don’t discount what’s right around you. You don’t have to have super high production values to have a great web series. You just have to have great performers or fantastic content, which could mean anything from a really good script to a great human story. But, if you work within your limitations and your resources, you could have something really great on your hands. Speak from your own pool of knowledge. Don’t try and please everyone, just do what you know.
Ben: I saw a homeless guy wearing this shirt once that I actually keep remembering. It had a triangle on it and it said “Fast, Cheap, and Good” and then it said “Pick two” and it’s super true. Because we didn’t want to spend a lot of money, things just took a lot of time to incubate, to edit. It was cheaper because I was doing all the editing but it took a long time, like a really long time, but we didn’t stop until it was perfect for us.
Katja: That holds true definitely, that maxim.
Russell: When you like something it makes it so much easier.
Katja: We would be doing something and Russell would ask us if we were having fun and we would say “no” and Russell would tell us to pause and resume when we were ready. That was the right attitude to have; we didn’t work unless we were having fun doing it.
Here are your three reasons to light up and watch, though you can totally enjoy it without lighting anything up and that’s the point.
Episode #1: Stevie
Good jokes aren’t easy to write and I don’t want to make it seem like they are, but funny stories are even tougher and, ultimately, more viscerally impactful.
Episode #3: Jamie
Each episode of High Maintenance tells a story by creating a meticulously oriented visual world. It’s as much about how the characters live as what they say.
Episode #4: Trixie
Every element is relatable and true, for smokers and non-smokers alike. I’ve not seen a web series that provides this level of human access.