As mainstream media spills oceans of ink fretting and blathering about the "YouTube revolution" and the "democratization of entertainment," one question remains: What's it all mean?
Sure, watching tiny clips of "lonely girls," Star Wars dorks and lip-synching teens is a good way to kill cubicle hours, but man can't live on skateboarder face plants alone.
Content's king, and eventually you have to offer something of lasting value. Right? Well, three former Michiganders sure hope so. As part of VH1's experimental sketch show Acceptable TV, they've gotten a shot at immortality, or at least 15 minutes of fame.
Understanding that the medium is the message, the Acceptable TV folks have taken format of Web comedy and fused it with regular old television in a new show that aims to be interactive and funny.
Series writer-actor Ryan Ridley knows a thing or two about getting laughs; it's the family business. A Huntington Woods native and Detroit-area comedy vet, he's the son of Mark Ridley, owner of Royal Oak's legendary Comedy Castle.
Ryan began hitting local stages in the late '90s, honing his perspective with sharp jokes like one about an environmentally clean car that "runs on panda brains." Ridley favored conceptual material that toyed with the rules of stand up, but was never comfortable with the politics and unwritten limits of the joke trade. He did know that stand-up comedy was a valuable proving ground for other ambitions.
"Well, I suppose trying to find my comedic voice through stand-up comedy on the open-mic scene eventually evolved into trying to find my voice on video," Ridley says.
Ridley and fellow Detroit comedian (and his one-time girlfriend) Kelly Kubik set off for Chicago, and then in 2003, to Los Angeles, where their growing interest in short-form videos found its perfect outlet. The duo quickly fell in with the channel101.com crowd, maverick comedy minds and upstart filmmakers busy creating their own entertainment universe.
The brainchild of Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, Channel 101 is a fictional TV network where the audience gets to play the role of exec, deciding what shows live or die. Basically, teams of filmmakers submit short 5-10 minute "pilots" or mini episodes that compete for "primetime" slots through audience voting, first in monthly showings at an L.A. theater and then on a Web site. Fresh faces mixed with cameos from such big name comics as Jack Black and Sarah Silverman. After a few stumbles Ridley hit with "The Wastelander" an apocalyptic buddy comedy, full of strange and violent mutants. A true work of love, it was a ramshackle affair, shot in a hurry for no money, often filming on the street with no permits, in a run-and-gun style before the cops showed up. Kubik did makeup and made costumes out of cardboard and found parts; friends were recruited to lend a hand.
Other notable Channel 101 "series" included the animated "House of Cosby's" a spoof that drew unfriendly legal action from the Jell-O pitchman and the now-legendary "Yacht Rock," which features a young Michael McDonald's quest to create "the smoothest song of all time."
Created by University of Michigan alum J.D. Ryznar, "Yacht Rock" shone a new light on cheesy, margarita-swilling soft-rockers like Steely Dan, Hall and Oates and Christopher Cross. An instant dorm-room staple and music forum laugh-riot, "Yacht" more than any other 101 show demonstrated the potential of the overall concept.
A Channel 101 pilot was shopped to FX where individual teams created episodes, but it didn't fly. So creator Harmon sifted through the ashes and decided to pick the best of the best to operate as one big ensemble, which, for Acceptable TV, sees about a dozen cast members. Making the cut were mitten state standouts Ridley, Ryznar and Madison Heights' darling Kubik, who serves as associate producer and sometimes performer.
Acceptable TV has six slots per episode, one left open for user-generated content, in truly democratic Internet fashion, and viewers get to vote for favorites online or by phone.
As Ridley says, "This show on every level is a crossbreed or hybrid of the Internet and TV sensibility. It still feels like we're making these things for our friends." It's true, Acceptable TV is where guerrilla filmmaking meets up with the traditional production pipeline, and the value of Internet-style spontaneity and irreverence is balanced out by an old-school media paycheck.
The sketches are mini-parodies of film and TV clichés, such as the glitzy Deal Or No Deal-styled "Who Farted?" which reduces overblown game shows to their most base elements.
Another bit, "Homeless James Bond" sees Ryznar as a grubbier 007 using exotic weaponry like a rusty screwdriver to defeat a madman's scheme to hoard returnable cans and bottles in his cardboard fortress.
Some skits work better than others, but that's sort of the point. There's no telling what'll grab the viewers week to week. In fact, some Acceptable staffers are surprised by the unstoppable success of "Operation Kitten Calendar," a ludicrous soap operatic riff on The Apprentice loaded with silly wigs, costumes and epically bad overacting.
And some ideas get shot down before they air, including one featuring a rather unkind Tom Sizemore joke about urine. The gag got flagged for hitting a bit too close to home, considering the network's heavy dependence on "celebrality."
It's hard to avoid the irony of bleeding-edge comedy popping up on a network once known as MTV's boring Baby Boomer cousin. As Ryan notes: " If you look at Wikipedia, they've evolved from their Phil Collins roots to Pop Up Video to the current Flava Flav family tree of programs."
When the Acceptable season began, the crew "banked" a large number of pilots so that each week the only things that needed to be fresh were the second episode "winners" voted on by the audience. That still left lots of weekly work to be done, a challenge for a group of people not exactly used to the rigors of professional TV.
"There's lights and sets and crazy shit going on, but it still feels like an Internet video. It's weird. I think we've infected the pros with our spirit," Ridley says.
Kubik hopes that spirit will live on for another season, but she's still shocked it's gotten this far. "We are a bunch of nerds that love what we do and can't believe we are doing it for a living. It's really amazing, and I never thought I would be so lucky to be working with all my best friends on something I'm truly proud of."
Corey Hall is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]