Sketch Anatomy: Lucia Aniello Goes Behind the Scenes of Above Average’s “Ghost Tits”

ghost_titsWelcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke UCB performer and Broad City writer/director Lucia Aniello for a behind-the-scenes look at her sketch “Ghost Tits.” Starring Olivia Munn and Aniello’s sketch comedy partner Paul W. Downs, “Ghost Tits” premiered on Above Average back in 2012 and currently has over six million views on YouTube. I recently spoke with Aniello about how she got interested in making comedy videos, where the idea for “Ghost Tits” originated, and what she’s learned pulling double duty as both a writer and director for the internet and television.

What made you interested in making comedy, and how’d you and Paul W. Downs meet and decide to team up?

Like any little nerd growing up, I was always into comedy. I don’t think I ever saw my mom laugh as hard as she did at like “Schweddy Balls” type sketches on SNL or whatever, so I kind of was always like Oh this is pretty cool! [laughs] When I was in college I was a film studies major and I was studying film and writing a lot — I always wanted to be doing comedy, but nobody there was teaching that stuff. So when I graduated, I basically just googled “Amy Poehler is the best person” or something like that, and that led me to UCB. That was around 2005 so I took a level 101 improv class, and lo and behold I met Paul W. Downs in that improv class in New York. We also had the same class as George Basil, who is a really funny and brilliant comedian, so I had this group of friends I was taking a bunch of classes with, but then after a year or two of that stuff people were starting to make videos and put them online. Human Giant was already big then so that stuff was already happening, and I had made a few things in college that were weird silent films that were really bad and embarrassing, but because of that I had at least turned a camera on and I could say “Hey, I think we should make stuff — I have some general idea of how to do it.”

Let’s talk about your sketch “Ghost Tits.” You’ve made a lot of videos — why’d you choose this one?

Well it was written probably three or so years before it was online and I had included it in sketch packets for jobs for a long time, and I never got hired at any of those jobs… [laughs] …so I kind of always liked it on paper and thought it was something weird and different, and I refused to take it out of my packet. And then when it did finally go out it seemed to get a really big response, and for me personally I think of it as something where I was like Oh man, I always knew this was pretty good…even though no one believed me.

What was it like working with Above Average?

When we made our series [Paulilu Mixtape] with them, they were really really cool about letting us make whatever we wanted. Then and now, Paul and I still have so many sketch ideas that we want to make or we’re planning on making or maybe we’ll never make, so it was kind of like we’d taken all our notebooks of stuff and put our favorite ideas to the top of the list and made them.

How did Olivia Munn get involved?

Okay. When we first decided we were going to make this one at Above Average, they were very cool about reaching out to actresses. Our idea was that we really wanted an actress in it who would realistically be the lead in this movie, mostly because we’re always trying to make something that seems so real that you can’t tell whether it’s fake or not — I don’t know if that’s just because we like confusing our viewers generally or if having people ask that question is funny to us. So we really wanted a well-known actress who could also get the joke, and I cannot even tell you how many people they reached out to…I think the SNL talent department at one point was even getting on the job. We asked a ton of actresses — some Paul and I knew personally, some the SNL talent department knew — and everybody said no. And we had worked with Olivia Munn on a commercial maybe a year or two earlier, and she had given us her phone number and email. We didn’t initially ask her because we thought she was too big and busy to do it. I think around that time she had just started on The Newsroom and she was actually about to go to New York a week or two after we asked her, so we were like “Hey, do you wanna do this thing?” We didn’t even send her the script, we just sent her the idea, and she just responded like “I’m in!” And we were like “Do you need to see a script?” and she was just like “No I get it.” So she basically read the script, totally got it, nailed it, and even improvised stuff that we ended up using because it was awesome. There’s a part where she’s crying and she says something around the lines of “Why are you doing this to me?” and it just heightened the drama of it. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to do it. Olivia pulled it all together and made it beyond my wildest dreams.

Once you knew Olivia was attached, did you revisit the script at all and make any changes with her in mind?

I don’t think we really rewrote it, because it is pretty much to a T a parody of The Forgotten trailer starring Julianne Moore, so I felt like the more we elaborated or strayed away from what the heart of the parody is, then it wouldn’t be as effective.

At the end when Olivia says “they’re listening” — that’s pretty much exactly from the Forgotten trailer right?

Yeah. I think in that movie it’s aliens or something that are sucking people out of the air, and so when [Julianne Moore] says they’re listening I think she’s referring to aliens. So in ours, when Olivia says they’re listening it’s like the tits are listening — the tits that aren’t there are listening. [laughs]

The William Daniels cameo is pretty amazing. It’s fitting that one of the top YouTube comments right now is “Mr. Feeny just said tits. My world view is forever changed.” How’d that come together?

Oh my God, he was so cool. He and his wife were just the sweetest people you could imagine. In our series we did with Above Average, we actually have three different cameos from Boy Meets World people. We thought for some reason that’d be really funny if we just kept having Boy Meets World cameos out of nowhere. We just reached out to his agent and asked if he would do it and he was more than happy to, and we actually do have more footage of him going far bluer than just saying “tit” and breaking in the middle of it and asking the camera person if this was a porno or something.

Oh man, that needs to be online.

I know, we should put it online. We’ve talked about it. I don’t know if that would make ’90s kids really happy or really disturbed.

Both! But in a good way. So what has making videos like this one taught you about directing?

I think the thing I always go back to with parody videos is really studying the original over and over and over and just ripping off every single thing I can see — the lighting, the camera movement, the editing, the wardrobe — just identify every single thing then rip it off completely, then find what’s funny in that and heighten it. I know that’s very Sketch 101 but it’s something I always go back to and it always leads to the best results. And I guess that’s something everybody knows, but it took a sketch writing class for me to figure it out. [laughs]

Do you look at your approach as a director similar to your approach as a writer?

Yeah, I think so, especially when it comes to sketch and parody or satire — the writing is really the thing that’s giving you the blueprint. For other things, you’re talking about what is the directing that holds up the comedy the best, which is a very different thing because Is it super realistic? or Is it supposed to be a little bit broad? or What is the tone? or Should this feel cool? or Should this feel not cool? or any number of things, and those are very bigger, broader questions. But I think when it comes to parody and satire, it’s really all about ripping something off the best as possible.

How does your job as a director change between a sketch video like “Ghost Tits” and an episodic format like Broad City?

Well, I don’t think I have the best point of view on it because I also write on Broad City, and I’ve only done episodic directing on one other show which is the new Paul Feig show [Other Space]. From my limited experience, the thing I’d say a director tends to do even if they aren’t on the writing staff is getting the scene as scripted, but then once you feel like you know that you have it, to spend a little bit of time in the scene. There’s no way that you could ever totally prepare yourself for the funniest reaction or different take on the scene in the writers’ room as you could if you’re on the set, because you have the actors there and everybody in costume, on the set, living this scene, figuring something out…I think you’re able to sometimes get to a place in the scene — whether it’s comedically or emotionally or whatever — that I think a director is obligated to explore and figure out and find if there is a slightly better version of the scene that’s not on paper. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t, but I do think that being able to just explore what the scene is about a little bit more and trying to reach for something else is something that I at least try to do. I don’t know if that’s what you’re supposed to do… [laughs] …but if the 1st AD lets me have time to do it, I do. Especially when you’re editing later, just to have the option to be like Oh yeah, this line is scripted but maybe this one works better. Also, in the middle of the scene sometimes you can feel like Oh, there’s are a few lines here that are a little repetitive or Maybe we could lose this or Maybe we can’t lose this or Maybe it’s not clear enough — let’s make it extra clear. When the scene is up on its feet, sometimes you can have a slightly better perspective of it than when you’re just reading it off a projector in the writers’ room. And I’m not knocking writers when I say that, because then I’d be knocking myself. [laughs]

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