Plot’s easy. Specificity’s hard. What the hell am I talking about, right? Okay, easy does it. Let me explain.
Consider writing a pitch or jotting down an idea brainstorm on the back of a napkin. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? If you’re like most of us, it’s plot — all the stuff that happens in the course of your sketch or episode. It’s linear and orderly and makes sense. Unfortunately, plot’s not the most important element of an idea, characters are. Strong comedy relies most on characters and how they move and breathe and talk because it’s from these living qualities that we derive a project voice and joke style. Character specificity spawns relatability which is, I contend, the single most important element in all popular entertainment.
When trolling for a series to profile a couple of weeks ago, I came across the first episode of Lizzie and Ali, A (Mostly) True Story and was taken by the razor-sharp joke specifics. Created, written by, and starring Lizzie Prestel and Alison Quinn, the project knew exactly what it wanted to say and which stereotypes it wanted to parody. It was (and is) targeted and confident. As a result, it’s a promising example of the industry’s newest installment of smart, gender-neutral comedy.
Want to know more about the genesis of Lizzie and Ali, A (Mostly) True Story and the talented people behind it? Of course you do. That’s why I talked to ‘em!
What do you guys do when you’re not shooting Lizzie and Ali and what did you do before you started the series?
Lizzie: Before this I was just an actor in LA and I met Ali in an acting class, actually. I studied theater and have done theater out here [in LA] and a little bit of TV and film. And then the last couple of years is when I’ve started writing and doing some improv, becoming more interested in comedy.
Ali: I moved to LA and I started doing a lot of improv and then I was on a sitcom on ABC called Sons and Daughters and it was funny, I think, and then I met Lizzie in class and we did this series. I think it sort of became that thing where 1. You feel like you’re gonna get kicked out of Los Angeles if you don’t do a web series, and 2. We just wanted to generate our own work.
Where did you take improv classes?
Lizzie: I started last year taking UCB classes and I took a Groundlings class, probably like one million years ago.
Talk a little bit about this series. What was the inspiration, beyond not wanting to be the only two people in LA without a web series? What made you pick this idea and this kind of tone?
Lizzie: We had never worked together on anything and I think we were just friends and both were interested in working on something, but nothing had come up, and Ali and I were just meeting for lunch one day…
Ali: I think you started by texting me that you were late and I said, don’t worry I’m late too. And then we started warning each other because we hadn’t seen each other in a while. And both of us felt like we had gone downhill, even if that wasn’t true. I think it has to do with your appearance, because I see Lizzie every Sunday and always feel like I’m gonna look terrible and it’s just a given at this point. We were just going on and on about all the terrible things that had happened to us before we met each other that day. That’s where episode #1 came from.
Where did episode 2 come from? Is there a kind of overarching theme for the series or is it just what you think is situationally funny at any given time?
Lizzie: I think we were trying to work off of what we found on the first episode, which is: We like finding something that was based in reality and based on something that people actually say to each other and that we actually say to each other. And then just take it as far as we could go. I went to a couple of weddings this year and though there weren’t really all the bitchy bridesmaids comments, they happen a lot. You hear people complaining about weddings a lot.
Ali: I think that we wanted to take things that are typically considered female and funny, like the bridesmaid thing at the beginning. And then it’s like the funny part is that we’re actually the two meanest people on the planet, and that’s what I like about it. You think you know what the joke’s going to be and then twisting it back one more time.
Lizzie: It also making fun of judgy women and horrible, horrible people. Which is us.
We’ve seen a real surge in female-focused comedy. Do you think the industry is moving towards female-centric comedy more in the past two years? Will it stay that way? How do you guys plan to tap into that?
Lizzie: I have no idea how I would tap into that and I feel like the industry is great mystery to me and is kind of hostile to women sometimes and not other times. I will continued to be baffled by it, forever and ever.
Ali: I think it’s just hot right now because Bridesmaids did so well, but it just remains to be seen, if it keeps making money it’ll keep doing better. I think that the other thing that makes me a little crazy about it is that whenever you talk about female comedy it’s always talking about female comedy but if I’m talking about Louis C.K., I’m just talking about something that’s really funny.
One of the reasons it seems like Bridesmaids was so successful was because it tapped into what you’re advocating. It was The Hangover for women, but only because they were women. It was really a very gender-neutral movie in terms of humor. Would you agree with that, do you think that’s a step in the right direction?
Ali: Absolutely, I think that things are going in the right direction, I just think that it’s gonna take a while.
Lizzie: I did appreciate when I saw Bridesmaids that they were making a movie about a feminine thing, being a bridesmaid at a wedding, and they did manage to make the jokes funny and not feel like just lady comedy. Like they were forcing all of this female specific comedy onto these women. But I think Ali’s right that it’s interesting to see what comes after that.
Ali: Do you know about the Bechtel test?
Lizzie: No, what is it?
Ali: Her name might be Allison Bechtel, it’s this women who goes through movies to try and find scenes where two women are talking to each other and they’re not talking about men. There are very few.
What should people look to do to separate themselves in a pretty saturated web market?
Lizzie: I really shouldn’t ever be giving anyone any advice. In the last year or two I’ve started working with people that I’ve always liked or respected. I feel the one thing I’ve learned recently is it’s really rewarding to value relationships and make things with the people that you like. Even if it can be challenging to get things off the ground, it’s really rewarding and so much more fun.
Ali: There’s so much web stuff out there so the most important thing is make sure that your production values are good. Even if you have to save money to pay for a sound person or a DP. So much is barely watchable and it might be funny, but if you’re production values stink nobody’s gonna spend more than 30 seconds watching it. Also, if you’re going to do a series and you have a through-line, write all six at once and shoot them all at once. You will save so much money and time.
Lizzie: I think our plans for Lizzie and Ali are to continue making this web series based on whatever funny idea we can come up with and, at the same time, we’re working on another series that we want to develop based on similar characters, a series that we can plan from the beginning and has more of a through-line and feels more like a series. So that we can pitch something and shoot something that has sort of a series arc.
And that’s for the web too?
Ali: What we want to do is work for something that could still be for the web but could also translate more easily to a television show. We made a website, which for us is really fancy, and, I think, shooting a web series or doing whatever you’re doing is good because you’re practicing what your passionate about artistically, it’s like going to the gym. Larry Moss is this great acting teacher and he says, “No effort is ever wasted” and so I feel like I don’t know if anything directly will come out of this but I’ve already gotten a commercial audition off of it, with someone who I didn’t know who saw it off a friend’s facebook page. So I think it’s just being busy which keeps us happy and it’s fun. I even like on Funny or Die when people write really mean comments because then I know I’ve irritated someone.
Still need three reasons to watch, eh? After all that? Fine, but know that I think you’re difficult to please.
Broad comedy is the worst, mostly because it’s not funny. And it’s not funny because it feels trite—rushed and uninspired. If you’re going to take the time to create and release a project, you owe it to yourself and your audience to make sure the jokes are textured, unique, and well thought out. A brainstorming tip: let yourself get really weird and then pull back a little if you have to.
At the risk of sounding like the world’s most broken record: the more your audience can relate to your characters (whether because they’re like them or they know people like them), the more successful your project will be.
Lizzie and Ali are funny females helping to obliterate the “female comedy” tag. That’s a great thing.