This Week in Web Videos: ‘Womyn Inc.’
As a straight White male, I don’t have any idea about a lot of things. Especially not discrimination. Over the years, I’ve realized none of my counterparts do either. Some are respectful of that ignorance (“I am incredibly privileged and understand nothing beyond my world, and may not ever truly understand anything beyond my world.”) Others ignore it (“How bad could it really be?”). Then shows like WOMYN INC come along and transform discrimination — specifically sexism — in to a knowledge snack that’s palatable to everyone, from the blissfully unaware to the actively small minded. Created by, written by, and starring Lauren Besser, Tessa Claire Hersh, Katie Sicking, and Phebe Szatmari (Director), this series goes a long way toward setting the record straight and showing off the truly empowering nature of social commentary comedy.
Tell me a little bit about how you got your start in comedy.
Phebe: I got my start at UCB in 2008 when I started taking classes. I had worked as a publisher and spent a lot of time helping others get their ideas published. I started at the very bottom as an editorial assistant, getting coffee and stuff like that and, by the time I got out, I was the chair of the training committee for editors. I basically knew how to put a book together from start to finish and how to take someone’s idea and turn it into the best thing it could possibly be. All of this led to video production, I had a lot of interest in cinematography. I started taking classes at UCB around the same time I went back to get my MFA in writing. I worked my way through the UCB program very slowly because I had a lot of fear about getting on stage. A lot of people jump right into it but I was doing two things at once, working on my MFA and taking classes. Then I started helping out friends on sets and realized it was just so much fun even if it was long. I started to realize that all of my skills worked together really well in production and that this might be the thing that I was born to do.
How did Womyn Inc come about?
Phebe: Lauren Besser, one of the four co-creators/writers of the show, said to us one day, “I’ve got a free day, do you guys want to get together and make something? I’m a cinematographer in addition to being a writer so I have a camera and a light kit, all of that good stuff. They were “Like let’s get together, think of something, and make it, all in one day.” So we started on that, and then ended up realizing that we had a huge idea that we could not make in one day and that we wanted to devote multiple days to developing and fleshing out that idea. It took on a life of its own, we started to realize that this idea was really cool and we wanted to make it look as good as it could possibly be. I think all four of us got together for the first time in February and then worked on everything in February and March and then shot it over one weekend in April, except for the cold open which we shot later. We did it in such a short amount of time because we didn’t know when everything else would be available again. Locations are hard to secure so we had to just rely on people who were willing to give us a favor.
What was the writing process? Did you all take an episode or did you write them all together?
Phebe: We started to narrow in on ideas that sounded like they could be an episode and the overall series arc and kept drilling down from there. “Who are each of these characters and how would they really react in each of these scenarios?” sort of thing. [With that background], we would pitch jokes which were specific to each character. Everyone could pitch any jokes for any character. We would pitch them and perform them for each other and, if they made us loose our shit then we decided those were the ones to do. Once we had the meat of the episode, then we’d write around them and cut out anything that didn’t make us laugh.
Writing joke first is really smart, especially for the Internet. I think a lot of people get hung up on story.
Phebe: I was the most experienced content creator out of the bunch so I told them we need these to be pretty short and it had to be funny. There’s no room for any other content. Trust that they will just jump right into the world with you. That’s where my ability to direct really came into use. It was hard for all of the actors, myself included, to behave in a way that is different than normal. There were a lot of moments that were like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m doing this!” It was a challenge, but if you meet that challenge then people will trust that world.
How did you guys get over those weird feelings and moments?
Phebe: Before each take I would feed into each character. I would pump them up by rattling off a bunch of things at them, then we would all breathe together and then I would call action. For instance, in the HR episode when we were about to shoot that one, I told everyone to close their eyes and for the men to imagine a world where they constantly have to be looking over their shoulders and don’t know if they might be attacked. Then I told the women to think about a world where when you walk into a room you immediately are the authority because of your gender. You are considered smarter and more talented than your male counterparts. Then we would shoot the scene and you could see it really made a huge difference. Everyone’s reactions were perfect, from the extras to the main actors.
What’s next for the series?
We’re submitting WOMYN INC to festivals and once we’ve gotten the word out for Season One, we’ll start planning Season Two!
What advice do you have for people looking to do what you do?
My advice to people hoping to create original series is to create with supportive, nurturing people and get comfortable in shorter formats first, [like] one-off sketches. Hone your voice and get out those first iterations that can often fall short in one way or another (self-indulgence, biting off more than you can chew, learning to work within a limited budget, learning when and what to sacrifice). But if you can do you, you will win! So develop that voice. Your specific experiences will teach you how to deal with these challenges. GO GET WHAT’S YOURS.
Here are your three reasons to watch.
2. Episode intros
Episode #1: Equal Pay Lawsuit
The Lehman Sisters establish a fun, instantly recognizable game that forces us to examine how male-dominated most offices still are.
Episode #2: The Right Side of History
Shannon O’Neill absolutely kills it as shock jock, The Bush.
Episode #3: Equal Opportunity Interviews
Most men are dumb idiots, right? Probably not. Many are, though. Good thing the ones in this series are part of the good camp, serving as spot-on foils for our brilliantly demeaning main troupe.
Luke is a writer/director for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.