This Week In Web Videos: ‘Don’t Walk ‘
I’m not going to say Don’t Walk is the Boyhood of web series, because that would be pretty pretentious. What I will say, in the interest of coming across as a bit less of a shithead, is Don’t Walk’s meandering narrative, inspired by one consummately relatable experience — waiting for a walk signal at a crosswalk — stems from a core thought just as shapeless as “boyhood” with a little b. But creator Kemp Baldwin and producers Baldwin, Gates Bradley, and Mike Laskasky were tenacious enough to follow the murky lead of inspiration, turning a thought unremarkable into a project memorable. It also helps that Max Silvestri was down. I sound like a fucking shithead.
How’d you get your start in digital comedy?
Kemp: I just was writing a lot, writing long form stuff like screenplays and pilots, and was just tired of not seeing anything made, so decided to make Don’t Walk. I’ve done like UCB and all that stuff around the city.
Where’d you go to school?
Kemp: I went to UNC, Chapel Hill.
And did you do this kind of stuff there?
Kemp: I was a creative writing minor and majored in their communications and film writing program. They didn’t have a [strict] film program so I took whatever was closest and, from that, got to take a lot of different screenwriting classes. Then I stuck around after graduating and wrote for a morning show on the Hallmark Network, as I wrote my first screenplay. It was bizarre.
What was the morning show?
Kemp: It was called New Morning. It was sort of a spiritual talk show, which was especially weird because I’m an Agnostic Atheist guy. The demo was probably like 40-70 year old women and I was a 23-year-old dude still living in Chapel Hill. It was really strange.
What your day job these days?
Kemp: I’ve been working in reality TV and doing development for a while, so I’ve been bouncing around a little bit. That’s usually where I make my bread and butter, but I wanted to get out of there so I quit a gig doing development to go work at a children’s media program. [I left] after making a few videos for them and the last couple months have been focusing on getting my own stuff out there while also doing some freelance on the side.
How did Don’t Walk come about?
Kemp: I was working at a show with Mike Laskasky, who is the other writer and producer on this project, and we were working on this pop up video show for AMC and started wanting to make something. We wanted to figure out how to make a show that had a simple and tight format but was also memorable. It went through a number of iterations and it sounds stupid, but I was just standing in a crosswalk and thought, “Oh you could fit a show into this, somehow!” Just like standing at the crosswalk and seeing ridiculous things going on.
It’s really smart.
Kemp: When I first thought of it, I thought “Well you can kind of do anything here. The only restriction was keeping it short. It’s a New York street corner so you can do whatever you want, nothing seems too outlandish. It was just going to be a series of sketches with different characters, but I felt like it needed a through line to keep people watching. That sort of snowballed into having a season arc. It went from being really simple one shots to all the different crazy things we felt we could do with it visually and story wise.
What was your biggest challenge?
Kemp: I think the biggest challenge really came from pulling everything together. We got Max on board and he’s like the nicest dude in the world, he’s super nice and super helpful, but he’s kind of blowing up right now, which is awesome, but it kind of made it a little hard for scheduling. I was actually also going to move to LA right around when he got back but I wanted to finish this first. We only had him for three days before he had to go and shoot something else, so we had to shoot 9 episodes with a cast of about 20 people over three days. And they were 3 of the coldest days of the year, like 15 degrees outside. We had four days but we had to cancel the last day because of snow. And we didn’t have that big of a budget, we were pulling it together out of our own pockets, I think in total we spent about $3,000 on it. Then we’ve gone on and gotten distribution but it was definitely a bootstrap operation. Calling in a lot of favors. But that’s also the fun of it. Everyone on the crew and cast was super game to do what needed to be done. No complaints, everyone was willing to work in the cold. It was 10 degrees and we were doing the superhero episode and we told the cast that they could wear jackets if they wanted, but they were like “No-no-no, we’re going on this full on.” They wore $50 Halloween costumes in the blistering cold just because they wanted it to look good. We were like “Thank you!” but we also didn’t want them to die on our watch.
Who are your comedic influences?
Kemp: So we ended up on ThunderShorts for distribution of this web series. And Michael Showalter is also on that network, with his show American Viral and I think all of us, Mike, Gates, and I all came from that generation when The State first came out and felt like the first sketch show that spoke to my generation. It was cool to be included in the company of someone who you’ve watched since you were 12-years- old and then be on the same slate as them at ThunderShorts. Also Richard Linklater and Louis C.K. Not that these are two incredibly unique influences, but I was thinking a lot about that stuff when developing Don’t Walk. “Louie” does such an incredible job of mixing the surreal into these very natural moments. And then Linklater, in my opinion, is the master of finding humor and profound meaning in these small, perfectly paced, loosely-plotted movies. I’m not saying we did this. But I was certainly thinking about these things. That and Steve Martin. Always Steve Martin.
How did you secure ThunderShorts as a distribution partner?
Kemp: It came about pretty amazingly. We had been casting for that main role and Mike and I work on our buddy’s live monthly late night talk show in Brooklyn and Max was doing stand up on the night of the show and I saw him and knew he was perfect for the role. So I just emailed him out of the blue and sent him the scripts and asked him if he wanted to do it and he instantly said “Yes.” So we shot it in 3 days and then once we had finished, his manager had already set him up with a meeting with ThunderShorts to pitch his [own] show, and then while he was in there he also mentioned he had just shot our series and thought it was really great. So we sent our stuff over to them and the crew over there is super nice, really game to try new stuff, and just clicked with us instantly.
I’m sure it also helped to have a finished project to show.
Kemp: Yeah I think they had a couple different things going on, like Max and Gabe, which was going to shoot very quickly and then another show that had some episodes shot but needed more and American Viral, but with us we had it all in the can and had 3 episodes to show them right away.
What other web series are you watching right now?
Kemp: I think Gabe and Max’s show is pretty amazing. I’m pretty amazed by it, everyone should be watching. It’s called Gabe and Max Need Help. I’ve also got a buddy whose web series just came out, called Man with a Van, by Ryan Decker, it’s kind of like High Maintenance where you follow one guy who’s a mover and you go into a different apartment each week. It looks amazing too.
What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
Kemp: It’s hard to give advice when you’re also looking for advice, but what I’ve found most successful is: if you have an idea just go out and make it. For too long we write stuff and just sit around. Figure out something you can do and actually make it. No one can see a good idea if it’s not there. I talked about Don’t Walk for two years before even doing anything with it. Just go out and make it.
And now, your three reasons to watch:
Episode 3, “Pedestrian Powers”
Don’t Walk’s premise is perfectly light, easily repeatable, and very explainable—that’s a plus when you’re pitching an idea and a must when you’re trying to watch a finished work.
Episode 6, “Bag Man”
Part of the series’ appeal is a gritty, unmanicured narrative and joke structure. It feels natural and real and transient. This may be the definitive guide to cross walk humor.
Episode 7, “Which Hood?”
Far from being formulaic, Don’t Walk’s episodes are a grab bag, and watching feels a lot like standing on a crowded New York street corner: unpredictable and, for many, irresistible.
Luke is a writer for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne