Tristram Baumber takes his time.
A big part of comedy is throwing caution to the wind and just producing content, getting out there and “doing it” even if your idea isn’t completely baked. That’s all true, great stuff, and readers of this column know we spend a lot of time talking about the need to pursue passions without self-defeating at the early stages of idea development. That said, the line between cultivating unfettered rawness and creating product that people will actually sit through and enjoy…is OH so very thin. The best creators are able to open the creative flood gates without regard for norms or structure, whittle down their Post-It note ramblings into an interesting, authentic story, and then — and this is the hard part — tinker with that tale until it’s right. The best creators don’t think it terms of time or resume line items or IMDB profiles. They think in terms of quality.
Australian writer Tristram Baumber, the mind behind The Cleanists is a true creator because Tristram Baumber takes his time.
How did you get started in comedy?
Tristram: I’ve kind of done it forever. I’ve always loved writing; I don’t really know when it became comedy. I think there’s a mathematical side to comedy. I read an interview with Jerry Seinfeld where he compared comedy to geometry and said you have to define the three proofs; he called it “the rule of threes.” There’s a particular joy in finding the perfect joke, he believes. I don’t know if I believe that, but there’s something about how you can control it in a way, which is quite satisfying. I think comedy is kind of a nerdy thing in my mind.
It’s inherently nerdy. What are your biggest comedic influences?
Tristram: The TV show Seinfeld is a huge influence, probably more than I recognize. I was growing up when it was on and I just thought, “Wow, that’s possible. You can do that.” Because it was just totally different from everything else that I’d ever seen. And luckily for me Seinfeld was extremely popular in Australia, so I was able to watch it a lot. And then I discovered Larry David, who I really loved. So much of what I loved about Seinfeld is in Curb Your Enthusiasm as well. Another show that I used to watch was The Larry Sanders Show; I remember that because it was totally different. It was on really late at night in Australia and I would just watch it and go, “Wow.”
Do you think that Australians are like the British, in that you more prefer a smarter, under-the-radar style of humor?
Tristram: I think so, yeah. There’s also some really broad stuff that we like, if you’ve seen any of Chris Lilley’s stuff, it’s broad but it’s also very subtle in some ways. There are aspects of the British sensibility but there’s also aspects of the American sensibility. Those probably combine because we watch a lot of American TV. But we also get a lot of British TV shows as well.
Why did you choose to make episodes a little longer form, with both A and B stories as opposed to A-story-only quick hits?
Tristram: Well I’m not a huge fan of web series that are just one scene or someone just talking to the camera. I like them because they’re funny, but I don’t always find them satisfying. I’ve always loved proper dramatic stories; for me the story is really important. I know Dan Harmon, who does Community, he’s really big about story and I love that show. I’ve written proper scripts for TV and sitcoms before and am working on some now, and I really just wanted to make something that didn’t have to go through the system in order to be made. But I still wanted it to be a proper show. I thought “Maybe if I really push it I can get a story in, in 5 minutes.” Something that really inspired me for the web series was Children’s Hospital and NTSF. They manage to pack a real story into only 10 minutes. And I thought, “I can probably do something similar in 5 minutes.”
What was the inspiration for this series? Were you a house cleaner?
Tristram: Well, what happened is I visited an acting school in New Castle, where I’m from, and the actors were putting on plays that they had written. I thought that was really interesting, I didn’t know of any acting school asking their students to develop their own shows and act them. When I saw it, there were some actors who I really liked and that got me thinking about what I could do in order to use them. But I wasn’t sure about time and resources so I decided I was going to make a web series where we’d just shoot in houses, and that’s how I ended up deciding on cleaning. It keeps the people together and all takes place in one location, so it’s very easy to shoot. The idea was mostly based on being practical. One show that really inspired it was the show, Party Down.
How long did it take you to shoot?
Tristram: Well there’s 10 episodes and it’s supposed to be 9 or 10 different houses, but we shot 2 episodes a day and each day was a different house. 5 different locations and 5 different days. We’d shoot one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When I went to edit it, I started to wish I had filmed a little bit more in each place just so I would have some more shots.
Were all 5 locations friend’s houses or did you have to do some location scouting?
Tristram: When we auditioned actors, I took that opportunity to ask if we could film in their house or a friend’s house. Right from the start I was trying to put a feeler out to find houses to shoot in and it worked out for us, we managed to get 5, which is what we needed. I’m not from New Castle so I don’t know a ton of people who would let me use their houses. When you’re doing something so low budget, you have to call in a lot of favors and people kind of get used to it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re gonna need to call in favors.
What was your budget, if you don’t mind me asking?
Tristram: Yeah, well everyone on this was on a deferred payment so if we start making money off of it then everyone will make quite a decent wage. That budget probably ends up quite high because I want to give them good money. But what we actually spent, was not much, like $500? There’s not that much that we needed to spend on it at the end of the day. The equipment came with the camera guy; we had to pay for the cleaner’s shirts, which were like $70. My mom came down and helped me make sandwiches so that the cast and crew would have something to eat. We just did it all on the smell of an oily rag, really.
What’s next for the series in terms of marketing it and getting it sold to a higher level? What’s your plan?
Tristram: We’re just gonna keep pushing people. It’s broadcasting in the UK on a channel over there called Showcase, which is great. They use the episodes as interstitial material and every now and then, they will show it as an hour worth of material. Word is getting out there and that’s pretty great. I just did a Google search yesterday and found a review in Spanish, which I thought was really interesting. We’re also looking to do a second series in the same format, right now we’re trying to find funding for that. If that doesn’t work then we might try some crowd funding. Like maybe a cleaning company could use it as promotional material. We’re looking at a lot of things.
Tell me a little bit about the other project that you’re working on — the pilot.
Tristram: The show I’ve got in development right now is called Timothy and it’s about a highflying financial type who loses all his money and has a break down and has to move back home to Australia with his parents. I guess it’s kind of a dark premise in that way. Although the people that I’ve pitched it to say that it’s “quirky.” It’s set in Wollongong, which is where I grew up actually. It’s a funny name and the name ends up as the butt of a lot of jokes in Australia.
What advice do you have for new creators looking to get into the web comedy game?
Tristram: You’ve gotta have a concept that will work. We made a pilot before we made this show and it ended up really not working. But I think that was really valuable. I was thinking, “What is it about this that doesn’t work?” Part of it was the way we shot it, but there was also something fundamental in the script that wasn’t working. There was no drive making things difficult for the protagonist to make it dramatic. Making a pilot first is a really good idea, I think. I think you’ve got to keep it under 5 minutes, anything afterwards seems to really drag. You’ve got to work hard on the script and make it something you would want to watch on TV. It was also important to us to get in a lot of good rehearsal time. We knew it was going to be a really tight shoot so we had the actors come in 3 or 4 times before we filmed it to just rehearse everything. We wanted them to really know the material and ask any questions they had. Mostly though, you’ve got to just do it.
Why watch? Here are three reasons, bebs!
Episode #1, “Trial Day”
Creating a series concept that’s repeatable, low-cost, and interesting is like solving a complex math equation. Baumber Good Will Hunting’d the shit out of this web chalkboard.
Episode #6, “Political Animals”
Before watching The Cleanists, I would not have advocated an A and B story within a webisode and for most shows, I still wouldn’t. This one worked nicely.
Episode #10, “Last Day”
No one does dry humor better than people with funny accents. Borat Sagdiyev aside.