A Look Back at ‘Human Giant’s 24-Hour MTV Takeover, 10 Years Later
Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the Human Giant MTV 24-hour takeover. Starting at 12:00pm on May 18th, 2007 and ending at 12:00pm on May 19th, 2007, the cast of Human Giant (Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer) were allowed to show music videos, air episodes from season 1, and bring on guest comedians and performers. The 24-hour takeover had been previously utilized on MTV to showcase Courtney Love sleeping and The Foo Fighters playing acoustic guitars, but this marathon was different. It was the moment alt-comedy crossed over into the mainstream.
Human Giant has its origins at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York under the name Crash Test. The show began as a late night Monday show with Aziz Ansari doing standup and bringing a different guest co-host each week. According to Paul Scheer, the first week Aziz enlisted Rob Huebel, “they did a bit that eventually became ‘Shutterbugs.’ Week two I [Scheer] hosted with Aziz and shortly thereafter we came up with the idea for Illusionators, a 30-minute short that we screened around town. An MTV executive, Sam Grossman, saw those and he brought us in to MTV.” From there Ansari, Huebel, Scheer, and director Jason Woliner would write and produce short videos, hold test-screenings every Monday at Crash Test, and soon strike a deal with MTV to create a series.
The show Crash Test was an ongoing weekly show, so they needed to find a name devoted solely to the developing TV project. The origin of the name Human Giant comes from them watching their videos and searching for something that would stick out in people’s minds. “‘Human Giant’ was something Ali Farahnakian improvised in one of the original ‘Shutterbugs’ when he was trying to tempt a child to sign with the Sugarplums, the competing talent agency of the Shutterbugs,” Sheer explains. “He told the kid he could ride on the back of Michael Clarke Duncan, the Human Giant.”
Human Giant, with help from Tom Gianas, established a tone of absurd comedy mixed with darker, more transgressive tones. It was one of the first sketch shows that didn’t involve a live studio audience aspect, and it rode the emerging wave of internet videos on sites like CollegeHumor and YouTube. The short video sketches would revel in the sinister side of humanity, often ending in tragedy and destruction. Blood, death, and dismemberment were common in season 1 sketches, and this meant Human Giant was not immediately accessible for the average viewer. The show enjoyed a niche audience of people, like myself, who found it to be the 2000s version of another MTV sketch show, The State.
This comparison wasn’t lost on MTV, because while the season may not have earned large numbers of viewers, the MTV executives seemed to believe in the material. “We were really lucky because when we were at MTV,” Scheer says, “Tony DiSanto was running the network and he was the type of guy who really wanted to create the type of MTV we grew up with, which was music and pop culture but also weird and fun and willing to take chances.” In an attempt to both expand Human Giant viewership and take more risks, MTV devised a plan to give them a center-stage on their network. “Brian Graden [MTV President], who was also in that same mindset as Tony, was like ‘Fuck it, let’s give these guys a shot to make something fun.’” Their plan was to have Human Giant host a 24-hour live takeover of the channel, with the goal of guiding 1,000,000 hits to the MTV website.
They had two weeks to prepare for the show. The core crew was the main cast (Ansari, Huebel, Scheer) and Human Giant season 1 writers Leo Allen and Eric Slovin. Scheer says Allen and Slovin were enlisted not only because they were friends of the show, but because they “also came from a live comedy background…we didn’t have time to fully write sketches, we essentially just needed to come up with a shitload of bits.” The show was closely in line with their origins at UCB. Between showing curated MTV programs and commercials, the cast performed loosely written bits (which they turned in around 150 pages of to MTV) and brought on a cavalcade of comedians and musical acts to perform.
The guests were a who’s-who of alternative comedy: The Lonely Island, Kristen Schaal, Bob Odenkirk, Rob Riggle, Todd Barry, Zach Galifanakis, Jon Glaser, Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Brett Gelman, Tim & Eric et al. as well as musicians Mastodon, The National, Tapes ‘n Tapes, Tegan & Sara, and Ted Leo. Scheer recalls that their booking process was essentially asking: “‘Hey, we have MTV for 24 hours. Wanna come down and do anything you want?’ and everyone was like, ‘FUCK yeah!’”
Getting together this amount and variety of guests wasn’t as much of a logistical nightmare as you’d initially think, and a lot of guests volunteered their time on a moment’s notice. As Scheer remembers:
Mastodon happened to be doing a show in Philly so they came down and wound up partying in the green room for hours, which was a whole situation — not just with them but the fact that everyone was staying, hanging out and getting drunk … Bob Odenkirk was on a JetBlue flight, and he was watching and essentially said, “I want to come down as soon as I land.”
The same thing with Michael Cera and [John] Krasinski, they just happened to be in NYC in hotels and they saw the show. A bunch of our friends from SNL came over late at night after their rehearsals, and since people were just coming to set, we didn’t have anything planned, so either they’d walk on with a bit they came up with, like we did with Fred Armisen and Samberg, and we’d play along, or we’d talk about it in between commercial breaks.
We literally had something called “The Borat Army” where everyone dressed as Borat and marched around, saying, “MY WIIFE” then murdered someone and rolled them up in a carpet and walked off stage.
The 24-hour takeover relied on controlled chaos, callbacks, and a warped view of American society. The “1,000,000 website hits” acted as a narrative backbone to the marathon, and reaching the goal became a ticking-clock plot device that was introduced as a life-or-death situation for the show.
A few highlights of the takeover’s story:
- Rob Riggle plays MTV security guard Cliff Carver, who causes more harm than good as the cast attempts to kick him off the show throughout the marathon. Joining him as a foil to the cast is Nick Kroll as Fabrice Fabrice, the craft services coordinator who loves Rob but noticeably hates Paul.
- Ted Leo performs his song “Me and Mia.” His amp accidentally gets unplugged, but Ted powers through it. (Paul Scheer fixes it quickly)
- Tim & Eric call in from Los Angeles to let Human Giant know they can’t make it because they are busy promoting “Shrek The Third.” This compels Human Giant to ask the audience watching at home to send pictures of themselves dressed as Shrek in exchange for 1,000 hits to the website.
- MTV allows Human Giant to use the Times Square jumbotron to play select music videos, so a collegiate debate team is brought on to argue whether an Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” or a Pearl Jam video deserves to be played. Aphex Twin wins.
- Nick Kroll and John Mulaney make the first-ever television appearance of their characters Gil Faizon & George St. Geegland, who, at the time, were introduced as “Paul’s Uncles.”
- Fred Armisen and Bill Hader stop by. Bill Hader does a spot-on impersonation of each member of the Human Cast cast.
- Adam McKay calls in as “Alan Harkin,” a Gainesville, Florida man complaining that what he’s seeing is too much like his real life, and he demands more rap music or skating videos.
- Jon Daly & Brett Gelman’s rap group, Cracked Out, deliver rhymes about numbers and Fleetwood Mac.
- Aziz, Rob, and Paul invite on Gbenga Akinnagbe to talk about his role on The Wire. They field a phone call from “Douglas” (Patton Oswalt), who seems unsure about what The Wire is about.
- Billy Crystal (who looks an awful lot like Brett Gelman in a wig) is responsible for tallying the hits as reports came in each hour. Over the course of the takeover, Crystal grows tired, angry, and resentful of his position and frequently lashes out at the Human Giant cast.
- Andy Blitz appears as “Osama Bin Diesel,” who lets us know that he was the actor, Vin Diesel, after being bitten by a radioactive Osama Bin Laden.
- Osama Bin Diesel then bites Billy Crystal, which, of course, briefly turns Crystal into “Billy Bin Diesel.”
- In the final moments of the takeover, Crystal morphs into perhaps a more toxic character, Billy’s Sammy Davis Jr. impression, as he announces that the show reached its goal of getting 1,000,000 hits to the website.
The million hits to the MTV website didn’t exactly equate to huge ratings, however. “It was the second-lowest rated day in MTV history,” Jason Woliner remembers. “Coming in at number one was September 11th, 2002, which was I guess a special program called 9/11: One Year Later: Carson Daly Remembers or something. We were just a tiny bit more popular than Carson Daly’s 9/11 memories.”
Nevertheless, MTV greenlit a season 2 of Human Giant, which promoted even darker and more absurd comedy, used more swear words, and tackled more taboo subjects than season 1. The underlying moral of the takeover was that the viewers needed to pitch in to help get a season 2. It wasn’t just Human Giant’s responsibility, it was everyone’s responsibility. It felt less like a television program and more like a community organizing effort.
This effectively knit the audience into the fabric of the show, which illuminates something that comedy is able to do that drama cannot: make the audience part of the joke. Aziz, Rob, and Paul sit on a couch in MTV’s studios, drinking Red Bull and joking around, dressed in ‘07-era plaid and striped polo shirts, while the viewer sits on a couch at home, likely doing the same. Live audience members sit on the floor surrounding the cast, well in view of cameras, watching the day and night unfold as both guests and outsiders. This imagery creates a bonding feeling, where we can imagine this happening in our own living rooms, like they were our own friends. The feeling of friendship was inherent behind the scenes as well. Woliner adds: “Almost everyone there were friends of ours from the New York comedy world back then.”
In this aspect, the show meant a lot to me, personally. Just a day before the 24-hour takeover, my grandmother passed away. It was the first familial loss I’d experienced in my life and I didn’t know exactly how to handle it. After getting home from school that Friday, I turned on MTV to find this broadcast, with its welcoming intimacy and underdog story, inviting me to engage with it. It was an outlet to share in an experience without the physical unease that accompanies grief. I remember avoiding the school dance that night and instead staying up late to see what was going to happen with the takeover. Would they fall asleep, would they reach the goal, who would they bring on next? Given how much Human Giant sketches tackle themes of death and destruction, it made me subconsciously treat humor as the antidote to tragedy.
A tenant of alt-comedy is this notion that everything is an inside joke. In live improv shows and standup, the performers sharing the same space as the audience requires that they be aware of the audience’s mood or temperature. So how can this translate over the television screen, when the viewers are not in the same room?
This is the question that the 24-hour takeover seems most interested in exploring. How can the audience feel that they are in on the joke while still making it funny? Scheer relates that the show “felt like late night at the Del Close Marathon, where you are just doing bits and shows to make each other laugh.” The audience was made to feel like they were as integral to the jokes as the performers themselves, something we are seeing more of within online communities. With the advent of live-streaming services like Twitch and Periscope, more performers are using these to engage in real-time with their audience, answering questions and generally sharing their experience through virtual media.
MTV and other networks have evolved the channel takeovers concept to mean “social takeovers,” where comedians are given access to the MTV account on various social media platforms. In 2007, the social media du temp was MySpace.com, and MTV and Human Giant utilized that during the broadcast to garner more online presence of the show. The “hits” that MTV wanted would today be considered “engagements,” and we understand how companies are trying to still earn these through sponsored live-tweetings, Q&As, and AMAs. With any network-backed project, the end-goal is more. More views, more revenue, more buzz, more product, and the end-goal for the creators is mostly the same.
It should be noted that all three members of Human Giant have embraced social media for this purpose. All were early adopters of Twitter as a way to tell jokes and interact with fans. All have done Reddit AMAs, and Aziz even began a subreddit looking for stories for his book, Modern Romance. If we wanted to track the rise of alt-comedy from the ‘00s to the ‘10s, we’d need to focus on the rise of social media and how comedians like Human Giant chose to use it.
2007 also saw the launch of Funny or Die and Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Death-Ray radio show (now known as Comedy Bang! Bang!). Ansari, Scheer, and Huebel have contributed to Funny or Die and Comedy Bang! Bang!, both as themselves and as characters. (Huebel, in fact, was on the first episode of Comedy Death-Ray along with The State’s Thomas Lennon.) Both Funny or Die and Comedy Bang! Bang! were the tentpoles of alt-comedy, with schools of comedians rising in the industry together, collaborating, and helping one another. This is the mentality that was at the forefront of the 24-hour takeover and is perhaps the reason why Ansari, Huebel, Scheer, and Woliner have been able to work so well within the comedy community.
The belief that comedy requires collaboration was ultimately and ironically what denied a season 3 of Human Giant from going forward. Aziz had been cast in Parks and Recreation, and while he could’ve acted in both Human Giant and Parks and Rec, they felt that they needed to write everything together, with 100% approval. Scheer says he was nervous that without Aziz in on the writing process, they “might even get resentful if he showed up and didn’t like something we worked hard on.” According to Scheer, they decided “it would be better if we walked away as friends instead of burn out on each other and the show.”
The lack of a season 3 encouraged the Human Giant cast and crew to explore new areas of comedy, with projects often overlapping with fellow Human Giant 24-hour takeover alumni. The web of projects that links all of the participants ensures that they’re all individually candidates for an updated “Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
The secret to the amount of post-Human Giant success they have shared is evident within the 24-hour takeover. Pushing for inclusivity, openness to new ideas, and willingness to listen to the audience assures that new generations will be inspired to progress comedy beyond the status quo. One comedian who is currently showcasing this mentality is Chris Gethard. From his DIY-spirited The Chris Gethard Show to his current HBO special Career Suicide, “he’s captured something that seemingly is uncapturable,” Paul Scheer says. “That ‘guess what’s in my dumpster’ bit is the most like the way I felt on the marathon, where you didn’t know exactly what was going to happen next.”
Whether there will be a reunion for the Human Giant cast is still up in the air. Scheer and Huebel continued Crash Test, the show that precursed Human Giant, up until it went on hiatus last year. Aziz’s Master Of None sees him working with Human Giant 24-hour takeover contributor, Eric Wareheim, as well as series guest star H. Jon Benjamin. Considering the working relationships and friendships within Human Giant’s immeasurable grasp, it seems likely that their paths will cross again in one form or another.
Their goal of reaching hits to guarantee a Human Giant season 2 was, in retrospect, intentionally arbitrary. Just as there may not be an end-goal in comedy, the goal of the marathon wasn’t getting 1,000,000 hits to a website, it was the opportunity for up-and-coming comedians to perform and to seize the chance to be in the moment and be funny. Maybe it was that lack of pretension that made the takeover so inviting. As Paul Scheer puts it, “it was just people doing weird bits to make each other laugh,” which also serves as the best definition of alt-comedy one can imagine.
Michael Robenalt is a freelance videographer based in Columbus, Ohio. Formerly a member of Black Sheep Improv and writer/actor in The History Of Football: An Odyssey. If you want to read his bad writing and jokes, follow @MichaelRobnalt on Twitter.