There’s no substitute for hard work. That’s true in anything, whether you’re cooking a grilled cheese, creating a sitcom, or underwriting an insurance policy. Bill Weiner: High School Guidance Counselor creator Patrick Michalak knows that all too well –better than most in fact — because he works at an insurance underwriting company and creates comedy. Working a day job while writing and producing the kind of series he’s managed here is a pretty huge accomplishment. It’s also surprising given the fact that the insurance business probably isn’t a hotbed of comedic talent. (I’m guessing about that and I may be wrong, but I doubt it.) Michalak’s tenacity and passion are inspiring on their own. The fact that he’s talented is icing, and boy is it tasty! I was lucky enough to speak with Patrick and celebrated indie director Jack Newell about just how tasty both Patrick and Bill Weiner truly are!
How did you get started in comedy?
Patrick: I was a business major in college and I ended up taking a couple short story classes that I really loved. Then I took writing classes at Second City and I.O. and did some shows that ran in Donny’s Skybox, one of Second City’s stages. That’s where I ended up meeting Jack and we talked about how we wanted to make something that had a little bit of a longer of a shelf life instead of just a 7-8 week run, so we got into doing video content and online content.
Jack: I went to college for film and near the end of my college time, my teachers suggested that I take improv classes, so I took some classes and that’s where I ended up meeting Patrick and realized that I wasn’t really good at improv. But I did realize that I was good at directing and I really enjoyed it. I’ve done a couple of projects, some comedy and some short film. I did a feature length comedy called Close Quarters, which is almost 100% improvised, and that came out last year. I’ve also done a couple of series and I work on a couple of sketch comedy things when I’m not doing feature film work.
Pat, what made you move away from your business training? That’s interesting.
Patrick: Well I still have a day job underwriting insurance, but it was that short story class. I took it randomly and I ended up really loving it. It changed my life. So I’ve been working on writing ever since.
I love that. What was the inspiration for this series?
Patrick: It came from wanting to work with Bill Arnett and Jack. We had done a short film previously where Bill had a small part and Jack directed and they were both so great to work with that I wanted to do something with them again. I didn’t know Bill personally, but I basically kind of just wrote this series idea on spec hoping that if it was something they were into they would do it, and it turned out that both Bill and Jack were into it and we were able to make it happen.
Jack: I think a lot of it is Bill is a really funny dude and it was just trying to create something that would allow him to shine. And in addition to being really funny, I feel like he’s under the radar, people don’t know about him and he should be more well known than he is. He just needed an opportunity to show. That’s where the idea of Bill Weiner came from—just put Bill in front of a camera and let people see how funny Bill is.
How much of this was scripted and how much of this was Bill just riffing?
Jack: I would say 95% is scripted, it’s pretty close. We would use improvisation in the rehearsal process to try and make it feel like when you were coming in to a scene you were coming in right in the middle of a conversation. There are a couple of lines that are ad-libbed, but it’s pretty true to the script.
Patrick: Basically I wanted to put together a script that worked but also left it open for the actors to improvise and bring their own things to it. Some of my favorite jokes and bits are things that they came up with.
What was your budget?
Patrick: The budget was really tiny; it was basically something that I paid for myself. It was less than $1,000 for the 3 episodes that we did.
How are you guys looking to market the series?
Patrick: That’s a great question; right now we’re obviously kind of leveraging the different social networks that we have as much as we can. It’s been out for a week and already all three videos have about 1,000 views. We’re definitely looking for other outlets and opportunities.
Jack: You know how Beyonce just dropped her new album and all her videos at once? We did the same thing for Bill Weiner. Like the way Netflix does it. When we had done this show the first time around, as a pilot, we were looking at each episode and thinking we’re gonna finish this one and then get started on episode 2 and then finish that and get started on episode 3, and this time we’re living in this brand new world. People love to binge watch, so we thought, “Let’s just put them all up and people will watch them.” And they have and it’s basically coming out to the same number of views, which I think is really interesting.
Yeah appointment viewing doesn’t work anymore for this new generation of TV and digital viewers.
Jack: And I think it’s really great. I think it presents a ton of opportunities and challenges for writers and creators. I feel like you can get away with less exposition in the web, just doing stuff that’s funny and people will gravitate towards it. You don’t even need to set it up. You don’t need to recap anything for them.
What advice do you have for people who want to make their own web series?
Patrick: Quite honestly I don’t know if I’m in a position to give much advice on that. I think: just do something that you’re excited and passionate about and make it happen. You can do it.
Jack: Yeah you just gotta do it. You’ll find your audience; you just gotta keep pushing it. Even if you put it up initially and don’t get the views that you want, you just have to keep pushing at it.
Pat, do people at the insurance company that you work for know that you do comedy in your spare time?
Patrick: Yeah they do and they’re all pretty cool about it.
What’s next for each of you, collaboratively or in the next phase of your individual comedy careers?
Jack: I’m working on my second feature length film that I wrote, produced, and directed called Open Tables. We’re in post-production right now. We’re hoping it get it out spring of next year and show it at some festivals. And then, for this series, I think we’re gonna explore it and write it some more. I’d love to do more of these, we just have to wait and see what the reaction to these is.
Pat, I can’t tell you how much I laud your devotion to doing this in your off time. It’s really cool and you’ve gotta keep with it. You’re a talented dude. Jack you’re talented too, but this is your full time job, so I won’t compliment you as much.
Jack: What’s great when you work with Pat is you can feel all of his excitement. His spirit is just so infectious.
And heeeeere are your three reasons to watch:
3. Douchebag lead
Episode #1: 2nd First Impression
Despite episode lengths that push the envelope for digital audience engagement—and the lack of any huge set pieces—the snappy dialogue kept me engaged all the way through. Ugh, that sounds so reviewy.
Episode #2: Nickels
A series about a high school guidance counselor isn’t a novel or particularly sexy idea, but that doesn’t matter because Bill Weiner’s execution was great. We need to spend less time thinking of out-of-the-box ideas and more time thinking about how inside-the-box ideas can be reinvented or brought to the next level creatively.
Episode #3: Black Magic
While it’s undeniable that our series lead channels bits of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott, the idea of arrogant, narcissistic characters in positions of (relative) power never stops being funny and this project’s variations on that archetype are spot on.