Derrick Beckles and the Art of Weirdness
Derrick Beckles has made his career out of pursuing the subversive and strange. Growing up in Canada, Beckles was inspired by the absurdity of infomercials and paid programming, eventually creating TV Carnage, a compilation of bad clips from public access shows and infomercials. In addition to creating these compilations, Beckles has directed several music videos, helped shape the humor in VICE, and is currently working on a sitcom called The Hopes in which Courtney Love plays his wife. I spoke with Beckles about his eclectic jobs, being accessible to mainstream audiences, and his current stint as host of Hot Package. The second season of the show airs every Friday at 12:30 a.m. on Adult Swim.
It’s becoming more common to make comedy shows that are intentionally poor in quality, but you’ve been interested this type of programming for a while. What got you into this?
I was in my parent’s basement in Canada and Canadian TV is especially interesting, in many cases mind-blowingly shitty, in ways that are magnificent. So I would start taping stuff with friends, putting them together on tapes when I was a kid. It just kind of blew up. I was doing them on my own and then I was making them for friends and they started trading them. I was doing it anonymously for years and then I started developing this editing style. These Canadian TV shows and public access shows were really weird or wrong, but they were so differently weird or wrong that I really became attracted to a specific kind of wrong that people were achieving. There’s the standard shit on TV, that popular bad TV. I completely stayed away from that stuff and sought out really weird specific stuff. I used to do it with a good friend of mine in Toronto. We would constantly search for specifically bad TV. And the more earnest the performances were, the more we were attracted to it.
It seems like what you do is less of a parody and more of an emulation of these shows, do you remember any specific shows you had watched for this?
There was a show in Canada called Littlest Hobo. It was made pretty cheaply. It was a show where a dog would go from town to town and people would take the dog in. and then somehow, within a day or so, the dog would start communicating with someone and solve a crime. That blew my mind every time. Alan Thicke also had this talk show.
The Thicke of the Night?
For Hot Package, what made you choose the Access Hollywood/Entertainment Tonight format?
For me it’s always about trying to find a framework that will allow me to go anywhere. For Hot Package I was really excited about the idea of using the blueprint of an entertainment show because they’re bipolar as hell and schizophrenic and so insincere. That framework for the show is the best way to do it because you can go anywhere with it. But at the same time I don’t want to be like those entertainment shows. Anything on Hot Package lives out loud so if somebody fucks up we celebrate that. In every episode something goes wrong or there’s always something that falls apart. This year we have people like Fabio and Corey Feldman on. In the universe of Hot Package these are like the Tom Cruises and Liam Neesons.
Is the show mostly scripted?
It’s scripted in terms of me having to sort of get somewhere, but I let people in as little as possible on what the script is. So I would say it’s like 50/50. There’s so much stuff that we get out of the intent of the script. The intention of the script is that we know we’re going to leave a lot of it behind and when we get the people in there and we get them going in a certain direction we allow their magic to happen. It’s always a little bit nerve-racking because you’re not sure, but most of the time the people who we have on really pay off. We just let them be themselves as much as possible. If we need somebody to perform they’ll perform, but we’ll be like “do you mind singing this song at the exact same time as this other person?” And “can both of you sing two totally different songs at the same time?” and they’re just like “yeah sure I guess so.” It is scripted, but a lot of the magic happens outside of the script.
You’re hosting Hot Package now, but I saw Santa Clause 2 listed as one of your credits. You were an Assistant Visual Effects Supervisor. How did that come about?
[Laughs] I got that gig kind of randomly. I was like “OK, sure yeah I’ll do that.” I was just coming out of film school and I worked for this company where there was this guy that would come in everyday and he would be like “you motherfuckers, you pieces of shit!” He would scream at us all day long. It was fucking hell, but it was this super elaborate production and I just really got off on being able to hang out on the set, just helping the visual effects people and being like one of the supervisors gave me access to everything so I would just watch how everybody interacted. It was complete insanity. And my IMDB page is just horrible. I don’t update that fucking thing.
You worked for Vice initially?
Yeah, for years I’d write for Vice and help shape a lot of the humor that went into the magazine and TV stuff.
How did you go from Vice to visual effects to directing to hosting?
Purely out of needing to eat [laughs]. I was doing a lot of stuff, but there was no money in it at all. I was making things the way I wanted to make them, doing things the way I wanted to do them, but there was nobody that was getting it, especially in the world that I was living in, in Canada. [The jobs] came out of friends and people who would tell me they need somebody on different shows. I was like “sure I’ll say I can do that.”
Did you find it was a lot of “I’ll say yes to anything?”
Yeah, when you’re starving you’ll say yes to anything. It was survival. I mean it was still interesting. I wasn’t mowing lawns at least, you know. It wasn’t like that job where you’re punishing yourself every day, like physically punishing yourself. This was just psychologically punishing yourself every day.
You directed some music videos, including one by Islands that included Michael Cera. Some of that video has comedic elements, but it seems to be mostly serious. What was your approach to this?
I love directing. With music videos I try to make videos that look kind of pompous [laughs]. With the Islands video it was supposed to be this kind of weird surreal experience, but also just a little bit pompous. For me the humor was in it seeming serious and being dealt with seriously. I didn’t want to have anybody looking into the camera making a kooky face or something. I just thought it’d be funnier if it looked like something that was seriously happening but you’re like “I have no idea what the fuck is going on here.” I like things that just feel like when you wake up and you’re like “I had this really weird dream.” When you dream you’re never joking around. I like approaching things that way. In order for it to land for me I have to feel like everybody is taking it seriously.
Shows like Tim and Eric and Hot Package can be divisive. People either love it or are really turned off by it. How much do you factor in “will the audience like this?”
I don’t really give a shit. For me and for a lot of people that make live action stuff on Adult Swim, a lot of it is math. I think even with humor there’s a certain type of math that you can get into that to me is really funny, but it may be beyond the math that a lot of people are willing to do or can understand. You have to sometimes keep in mind “maybe I shouldn’t make this part of the show. Maybe I should make it more addition and subtraction and less trigonometry.” You can still come across and be funny. I try to make things that I would want to watch and I’d be challenged by. When [a joke] lands you don’t really care if anyone else is laughing. That’s when you find an audience that actually does get it and is laughing and they want to see more because there’s nothing like people discovering things. I think Tim and Eric do things brilliantly and on the Eric Andre Show, I’ve been on Eric’s show and when the room of us get together people don’t really give a shit about who’s going to laugh, but people end up laughing because there’s so many ridiculous things going on. When people first experience it they’re going to be weirded out or they’re not going to get it, but once they get into it they see where it’s coming from. To me, that’s essential to things I make. It doesn’t make life easy [laughs]. It makes things interesting.
I’ve heard different approaches. Some writers promote accessibility and others push writers to follow their passion even if nobody is laughing. Especially for aspiring writers this is a conflict. Do they follow their passion or try to make it accessible?
There are people you write with who know what you’re doing and you end up being in a bubble of people who get it. So when you’re writing a show, from writing to editing, you can come out of the gate at 400 miles per hour with the people around you. But you have to keep in mind that the audience is not necessarily being initiated. So you have to come out of the gate a bit slower. It’s not because the audience is stupid, it’s just because anybody who sees something new, it challenges them a bit. You have to allow for time for people to be immersed enough to start going: “I fucking get this. This isn’t just isn’t just purely gibberish. It actually has thought behind it.”
The new stuff is always unknown. People won’t be ready to like it as much. Tim and Eric in 2008, people were could be very turned off by them. But that same humor went mainstream a few years later with the Terry Crews Old Spice commercials they directed.
Yeah and then you have people try to emulate it and you realize how special it is when certain people do it and not special it is went other people do it.
You start to see the humor enter into SNL and other more mainstream programs.
And there’s a lot of people who don’t know the history of weirdoes that have been making stuff. I think the internet is the worst with that because somebody will see something on SNL first even though people have been doing that for years. But it’s all worth it. It’s fucking great. I love doing it. I started doing this stuff in my parent’s basement. And I have people who I know who I respect that say they saw my shit and it inspired them and I see their stuff and it inspires me. But it feels great to know that. I didn’t have an audience in mind. I just knew I had to get this out of me. I had to barf this out of me. I couldn’t hold it back. It got a cult following that kept growing and growing. It’s humbling and amazing. It’s great.