This Week In Web Videos: 'Clench and Release'

It’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to an artist. You have a great idea for a project, you toil over its creation and then, you step back and realize “It’s really, really bad.” So bad that you can’t release it for public consumption. So bad that it feels like everything you’d worked so hard on — obsessed over during countless conversation lulls, subway rides, and sleepless nights — is a giant waste. Okay, maybe that’s not the worst thing that could happen (cancer is bad), but it’s a pretty terrifying prospect that either quells creative urges from the outset or forces spiteful artists to release every dud they make just because they took the time to make it.  In well over 100 editions of this column, Charla Lauriston is the first person I’ve spoken with who resisted the urge to release a product she wasn’t 100% satisfied with. She’s the first who scrapped months of work to go back to the drawing board and create something truly worth sharing. Clench and Release is certainly that.

Tell me about how you got your start in comedy. 

Charla: I’ve been doing comedy for 4 years. I used to work for a political office and then I started doing improv at the PIT and became obsessed. Then I did stuff at UCB and now I mostly do standup and writing.

Are you working full time in comedy now? 

Charla: Not yet. I have a part time job now.

What was your inspiration for this series? 

Charla: I really wanted to see my standup come to life. I think my standup is so relatable, it’s just about things that have happened to me, and so I wanted to do something showing that. Also I’ve never seen a woman doing standup on TV, like Louie or Seinfeld, and I sort of wanted to see if I could experiment with something like that on the web.

What was your biggest challenge in producing the series? 

Charla: I think budget is just such an obvious hurdle because I work part time and do comedy. There’s not a lot of dollars to be had. That said, I want it to look really good so I’m going to do whatever it takes to make it look really good. It’s also New York City so there’s a ton of really talented people who are willing to do stuff for really cheap. Beyond that, I think the biggest hurdle was my own writing. There was a lot of learning on my feet about what looks good. What goes from being written to being in video that looks good and plays across really well.

What’s your writing process like? 

Charla: I had done another web series at the beginning of last year and it was horrific, it was so bad. It was way too long and it came across really dramatic even though it was supposed to be funny. It was also really writing intensive so this time I just wrote outlines and then I went from outline to dialogue. Like really basic dialogue, just trying to get in as many jokes as possible, but keeping it very very simple and to the point. I cut a lot of fat in this one and it came across much, much funnier. Each one opens with the joke so that you immediately know what’s happening. It’s nothing like my first one, which is never going to see the light of day.

Oh, so you didn’t even release it? 

Charla: No, it’s so bad. I watched it and I was like, “This is unwatchable.” It was just not funny and I’m not gonna put out something that’s not funny.

What advice do you have for people looking to break into digital comedy? I usually hear people say “Just put stuff out there,” but it seems like you may have a different perspective. 

Charla: My advice is just that you should love it. If you love it, then you’re good. When I was watching Clench and Release and editing it, even though I hate seeing myself on camera and I hate hearing my voice, it made me laugh. The other one I hated watching. I think you just have to trust what is funny.

What other projects do you have going on? 

Charla: Well I’m working on continuing this series and trying to promote it as much as possible. I’m also working on a half hour of standup and I’ll see what I can do with that. I really want to get more episodes of Clench and Release out.

How many more are you looking to do? 

Charla: I’m really not sure. One thing I’m also looking to do is a pilot episode, but I think that would be too long and extremely hard for people to watch unless it was very engaging. So I’m going back and forth over whether I should write a pilot or four more little episodes.

I imagine shooting a pilot would be more of a show piece than something that’s gonna get a ton of views. 

Charla: Yeah I’m debating it. I do have ideas for continuing the series, I’m just trying to think of what move will be best for the series. It’s also super new; it’s only been out for 2 months. So it’s a total baby and it’s not like it has a huge audience.

What’s your promotion strategy? 

Charla: Well I’m trying to see who really likes it and then I’m just promoting it to those people who really like it. So far it seems like black women really like it. This political website called The Root posted it and that got it a lot of traction. I’m trying to start with people that like it and then hopefully I can reach out to other places that have a wider audience. I think Black women really like it in part because I am a Black woman, but I’m just responding to whose responding to it.

How do you feel the comedy landscape has changed for women, of all ethnicities, over the last five years or so? 

Charla: I straight up love the landscape right now. I think it’s a ripe time for women to really shine. I think it really started with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler putting an end to the stupid idea that women aren’t funny. I’m lucky to be in a circle of comedians where I consider a lot of the male comedians to be very smart and feminist. In my circle of guy comedians, I’ve never heard them say something stupid about women. They’re just people who are aware of what’s going on. For the most part I’m not introduced as, “The one lady on the show” or anything like that. It happens sometimes and it’s usually when I’m outside of my circle or out of town.

When you’re outside of New York or LA or Chicago do you find it completely terrifying? The audience changes so much. 

Charla: It is very different. I don’t find it terrifying as a woman of color; I find it terrifying as a comic. Just like I hope these people think I’m funny. I’m going to Nashville in two weeks and I’m a little nervous. I’ve never been to Nashville and a lot of my jokes are about chicken and dicks and slavery and I don’t know how that’s going to go over. I just try to think as a comic, “How can I be the kind of comic that does well anywhere?” I want to be the kind of stand-up that is just funny.


Here are your three reasons to watch, ya’lllllll:

1. Standup
2. Honesty
3. Charla

Episode 1, “The Code”: The interplay between Charla’s stand-up and each episode’s narrative adds a texture not often seen on the web.

Episode 3, “Roots”: The best comedy is rooted in truth — pain, idiosyncrasies, insecurities. Clench and Release is true.

 Episode 4, “No Arms”: For a new kid on the block, Charla’s writing and performance is more believable than many who are far more seasoned. As viewers, we instantly trust her. Maybe more importantly, we like her.


This Week In Web Videos: '101 Ways to Get Rejected'

Fire up your Internet and go on a web series hunt. What you’ll probably find are the creative outputs of twenty and thirty-somethings—folks clamoring to express sensibilities seasoned by the years of pain that drove them to become comedians. Much less common are web series created by teens. (I’m looking past the YouTube glut of make-up tutorials and weekly twerk sessions posted by 13-year-olds and met with unfailingly creepy fanfare.) Created by and starring Susie Yankou, 101 Ways to Get Rejected attracted me not because it’s flawless, but because it’s an anomaly and because this Freshman effort is as impressive as it is brave and pure.

How did you get your start in comedy? 

Susie: I got obsessed with the TV show Friends at a very young age, probably too young, and then from there I just fell in love with comedy and it all just sort of snowballed into me deciding to go to school for screenwriting. I was kind of an awkward kid in high school so I wrote a sort of exaggerated version of my high school experience and that turned into this web series.

Where did you go for screenwriting? 

Susie: I’m at USC right now; I’m still a student actually. I’m a junior.

Is this the first big project that you’ve done? 

Susie: 100%. I made a short freshman year and this was my first thing after that. The summer between Freshman and Sophomore year I decided to shoot this. I wanted a project under my belt that I could show to the world. READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: 'Ramsey Has a Time Machine'

Good comedy is made when creators mine their personal passions for a subject that other people will care about and find funny. Fantastic comedy comes when creators take those personal experiences and present them in creative ways that are as interesting as the narrative insights themselves. Created by Ramsey Ess and directed by Chris Donahue, Ramsey Has a Time Machine is fantastic.

Talk to me a little bit about your comedic background and how you got started.

Ramsey: I always had a big interest in comedy as far as I can remember. When I was in college I took an intensive class over the summer at Second City, before moving to NYC. Then I started taking classes at UCB. I made friends through that and I was on a couple of Maude teams for a couple of years and I just kind of powered through comedy from there.

What’s your day job?

Ramsey: I am a high school English teacher by day. It’s a lot of fun. I’m also writing as much as I can in my free time. I’m a submitter to Weekend Update and I do a podcast, just trying to create as much as I can.

What was the inspiration for this series?

Ramsey: Well I knew I wanted to do a web series; I had been thinking about doing one for a while and then decided to combine two things that I love, history, and a really stupid character doing dumb things. I squashed those two things together and created Ramsey Has a Time Machine. READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: 'Uninspired'

News of Harold Ramis’s death this week rocked the comedy community, and a bunch of folks posted uncharacteristically heartwarming things about the effect Ramis had on their careers and lives. The one that stuck with me most was by Jon Perry, who excerpted this Ramis quote from comedy writer manual Here’s The Kicker:

The only thing totally unique is you. There's no one like you. No one else has had your experience. No one has been in your body or had your parents. Yes, we've all had the same cultural influences. We've all lived at the same time, watched the same shows, gone to the same movies, listened to the same music. But it's all filtered through our unique personalities. And I honor the things that have influenced me. I'm grateful for whatever it is that became the particular lens that's allowed me to put out what I have.

I interviewed Becky Yamamoto about her series Uninspired last week, before Ramis passed away but, in retrospect, it’s a perfect example of the kind of relatable, yet uniquely personal comedy product that resonates because it rings so true. As comedy writers, we’re often afraid that our audience won’t “get it” if we allow our unfiltered thoughts to spill out on the page. In reality, that’s probably the best way to be remembered and Mr. Ramis is shining proof of that.

How did you get started in comedy? 

I started comedy in LA. I took improv classes at the Groundlings and UCB and then wanted to do stand up so I started doing that and then I did theater for a little bit but then decided that I like comedy the best and I moved to New York to pursue that out here.

Ah, the old reverse move. 

I think I read some actory book when I was just starting out that said in New York you can go out and try stuff and in LA it kind of feels like you have to have your game on. I don’t know if that’s the truth or if people still feel that way.

I feel like New York is a testing ground where a lot of comedians build up their credentials and then make the move back out. 

Because there’s just so many opportunities out here, there’s like a billion little shows, so many ways to just try out something and see who you are.

What was the inspiration for Uninspired?  Haaa. 

It’s a couple things, like about being a lady and growing up and getting your shit together. Buying homes and getting married and having kids, you start to remember, “Oh didn’t I want to try this career thing?” and then it feels like maybe you’re too old for that. READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: Bill Stiteler's Vines

Six months ago, I didn’t know what Vine was. I mean, I knew in the way that I know what brain surgery is. I knew it existed, but I didn’t know the first thing about making or even critiquing one. So being the man I am — a sniveling victim of fear and cowardice — I steered clear of reviewing them in this column. Then, this past December, while home for the holidays, I was inspired to watch some Vines. And by “inspired,” I mean I got sucked in by YouTube click bait, the legion of ass and boob screenshots that serve as cover art for what seems like hundreds of “Best of 2013” Vine compilations. Lots were terrible, but a few were really brilliant. No-frills, original, and instantly funny. So when my pal Matt Visconage recommended I take a look at Bill Stiteler’s work, I was primed. It may be the first time in the history of the Internet that looking at digital boobs has (albeit indirectly) led to something so wonderful. READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: 'Movie Title Breakup'

Going viral. Everyone wants to do it, but few people deserve to. I’m not saying that there’s not a lot of funny stuff floating around the Internet, because there is. But busting through that elusive barrier that separates the very funny metropolitan-centric cringe humor video sure to get 10,000 views and the “Why didn’t I think of that?” universally relatable, instantly understandable, blow up your Facebook feed video that’s sure to get in the hundreds of thousands or millions? That’s like catching lightning in a bottle. This week, sketch group POYKPAC Comedy has done it with one of the most brilliantly obvious concepts. In their Movie Title Breakup, two people break up while out to dinner, using only movie titles to communicate. It’s a near 4-minute-long marvel of share bait that anyone who has ever seen a movie (or knows what a movie is) is guaranteed to love. Most importantly, sharing it makes you feel like you’re breaking some fantastic piece of news, some cutting edge cultural phenomenon. It’s so different and cool that it makes you want to take a little bit of undeserved credit for discovering it when passing it on to your mom, girlfriend, boss, whoever. Ladies and gentlemen, THIS. IS. VIRAL. And I’m JEEEAAAAAALLLLLOUS.


This Week In Web Videos: 'Written It Down'

When it comes to web series, relying too heavily on improv is a very dangerous thing. It’s so tempting to birth a series idea, gather some funny people together in front of a 5D, and yell “Action!” just to… ”see what happens.” But most times, the people you thought were really funny when the camera was off, turn out to be sort of stiff or long winded or they deviate too far from the heart of the highly complex narrative you’ve developed and expected them to “make funnier.” Unless you’ve got Jeff Garlin and Larry David at your disposal or Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara, there’s usually no substitute for writing down what you’d like your series to be so it actually becomes that. One of the only lower profile exceptions to the rule that I’ve seen takes the form of Dave Zwolenski and Matt Saraceni’s series Written It Down. READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: 'The Cleanists'

Tristram Baumber takes his time.

A big part of comedy is throwing caution to the wind and just producing content, getting out there and “doing it” even if your idea isn’t completely baked. That’s all true, great stuff, and readers of this column know we spend a lot of time talking about the need to pursue passions without self-defeating at the early stages of idea development. That said, the line between cultivating unfettered rawness and creating product that people will actually sit through and enjoy…is OH so very thin. The best creators are able to open the creative flood gates without regard for norms or structure, whittle down their Post-It note ramblings into an interesting, authentic story, and then — and this is the hard part — tinker with that tale until it’s right. The best creators don’t think it terms of time or resume line items or IMDB profiles. They think in terms of quality.

Australian writer Tristram Baumber, the mind behind The Cleanists is a true creator because Tristram Baumber takes his time. READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: 'Are You a DILDO?'

It’s another year and that means another batch of “This Week In Web Videos” installments. And this thing you’re reading now is the first of those. Except we’re starting off the year on a bit of an unusual note because I’m doing something I told myself I would never do: post something that’s already been on BuzzFeed.

This week’s selection, written and directed by the very talented Lauren Cook (who also made PHIL—covered here) and starring the under-hyped Kurt Braunohler, appeared on the ubiquitous purveyor of sort of funny GIFs a couple of months ago. Somehow, despite the constant flood of BuzzFeed articles clogging my newsfeed’s arteries, I didn’t see it. So when Lauren reached out to me, with a new, extended version a couple of weeks ago, I took a look. And the thing is, I really, really liked it. Still do. So, the bind became: Do I not post this thing because it was on a site that I don’t particularly consider to be the pinnacle of comedic sensibility (though I am fucking blown away by their lifehack stuff), or do I post it because it’s really funny and use the fact that this version has extra footage as a snobby justification for bucking my subconscious New Year’s Resolution? And…here’s where I came out. Enjoy the video. Are You a DILDO? is perfectly crafted in that meanderingly oblivious Christopher Guest way and it has three or four real belly laugh moments. Also, I’m a weak person.

Next week: something that has not already been on BuzzFeed. Maybe…


This Week In Web Videos: 'Bill Weiner: High School Guidance Counselor'

There’s no substitute for hard work. That’s true in anything, whether you’re cooking a grilled cheese, creating a sitcom, or underwriting an insurance policy. Bill Weiner: High School Guidance Counselor creator Patrick Michalak knows that all too well –better than most in fact — because he works at an insurance underwriting company and creates comedy. Working a day job while writing and producing the kind of series he’s managed here is a pretty huge accomplishment. It’s also surprising given the fact that the insurance business probably isn’t a hotbed of comedic talent. (I’m guessing about that and I may be wrong, but I doubt it.) Michalak’s tenacity and passion are inspiring on their own. The fact that he’s talented is icing, and boy is it tasty! I was lucky enough to speak with Patrick and celebrated indie director Jack Newell about just how tasty both Patrick and Bill Weiner truly are! READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: 'The Usual Tornado'

“Don’t go to crazy town!” It’s one of the first things every sketch comedy student is taught — or should be. Crazy Town isn’t an actual place, of course; it’s a metaphor for a type of off-the-wall, ungrounded comedy comprised of so many weird elements that the audience isn’t sure what to laugh at and, as a result, doesn’t really laugh at all. Because sketch comedians are so afraid of traveling to Crazy Town, we often write things that stay within the lines of a parody or a character sketch or some celebrity impression. We’re tempted to stay safe within the haven of jokes that are instantly recognizable, in the warm waters of broader comedy. The thing is, when trained comedians crawl out of those waters and onto the less crawled-upon shores of offbeat absurdity, things can get really friggin’ genius. The boys at Boat Comedy (Amos Vernon, Mike Lane, Nunzio Randazzo) step outside the box time and time again, showing us all that while Crazy Town is a place to avoid, trips to Weird Town are the goddamn shit. The Usual Tornado is the latest example of that pioneer spirit.


This Week In Web Videos: '#YouUp'

“Even though I'll assume from your two last names that you are a bro, I hope you'll still enjoy our POV on this matter.” That was the last line of the email I got from #YouUp producer/writer/star Teresa Lee, turning me on to the series she created with writing partner Melanie Owens (DP’d by Alissa Crist and Alex Tepper). Despite my two last names, I made the transition from “bro” to self-loathing quasi-hipster during my Freshman year of college when a member of the lacrosse team yelled “Get a room, faggots” at me and my best friend, Sam, from the open window of his hunter green Rav 4. All this is to say that Teresa’s concern about my not appreciating her series was for naught — first because I’m not a bro and second because her collection of vignettes is so infinitely relatable for any twenty something living in New York, that I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying — or at least having a strong opinion on — her “POV” on matters of metropolitan womanhood. READ MORE


This Week In Web Videos: 'The Truth About the Tooth (Fairy)'

While Thanksgiving is just hours away, we gather here on this Eve of Forced Familial Interactions to discuss a holiday much more solitary: The Night The Tooth Fairy Visits. It’s an event that comes at different times of year for every child (or adult with severe dental decay) who believes in the majestic molar monger (does the tooth fairy even take molars?). That said, tooth fairy interactions rarely happen the way writer/stars Matt Dennie and Josh Sharp depict in their The Truth About the Tooth (Fairy). For one, the winged wonder doesn’t wake you up. Because you’re asleep it’s hard to say if she looks like a transvestite hooker, is a thief, or talks to you with the sassy, seen-it-all know-how of a Puerto Rican elementary school nurse, but I’m pretty sure Dennie and Sharp took some license here. Inaccurate as it may be, this sketch is a brilliantly executed, rich character piece brought to the next level by joke specificity. In a pitch meeting, this concept probably would’ve sounded stale, met with cold stares and passive aggressive responses like “Is there anything more Thanksgivingy we can do?” but thanks to Dennie and Sharp’s commitment to making this idea so textured, it beats the STUFFING out of most of the GOBBLE-DAMN T-Day sketches I’ve seen thus far!!! Ugh, sorry about that. Have a nice holiday.


This Week In Web Videos: 'Roger, The Chicken'

There are two kinds of emails I receive that make my skin crawl. One is from a membership sales person at The Equinox gym in SoHo. I went in once with a friend and said I might join and now he emails me every day about special offers that “won’t ever be available again!” even though they’re available literally every day. His name’s Phil and he’s a real pain in the ass. The second kind of email that gives me the willies is the kind that pitches a sketch or web series idea about hipsters, zombies, or hipster zombies. It’s not that I have any deep-rooted aversion to these subjects, it’s just that I’m sick of hearing about them — they’re the web equivalent of people yelling “I’m Rick James, bitch!” on the street during SantaCon. It’s not inherently not funny, it’s just tired. But then, series like Roger, The Chicken come along and remind me that, no matter how banal the underlying idea of hipsterdom seems, there’s absolute magic to be mined in something I thought I was really sick of. Co-created by Matthew-Lee Erlbach and Mallory Portnoy, written by Erlback and Jeff Ashworth, and starring all three, Roger, The Chicken is a powerfully smart, original project about hipsters that made me realize there are no tired premises, only tired executions. READ MORE