Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with Jason Woliner, who has written and/or directed for Parks and Recreation, Nathan for You, Jon Benjamin Has a Van, Dinner with Friends with Brett Gelman and Friends, and Funny or Die and most recently served as executive producer, director, and writer on Adult Swim’s Eagleheart. Early in Woliner’s career he teamed with up-and-coming performers Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel, and Paul Scheer to produce a few videos that led into their own sketch show Human Giant, which ran for two seasons on MTV from 2007-2008. While all four members of Human Giant went on to bigger projects, it all started with a recurring sketch inspired by kids’ headshots called “Shutterbugs.” I recently asked Woliner to explain how “Shutterbugs” originated, how it evolved into the MTV show, and what it’s like to work with child actors versus the much less professional “true babies.”
I hear you worked on the the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog/Jack McBrayer Adult Swim show. How’s that coming together?
It’s great! I only worked on it a little bit. It’s being run by [Robert] Smigel and Michael Koman from Eagleheart. Me and Andrew Weinberg from Eagleheart just came out to New York for a little bit to work on it and help out with stories. We came right after they shot the pilot, and I think they start shooting episodes in October. But right now they’re just figuring out what the first chunk of episodes will be about.
At Comic-Con they mentioned there will also be Conan-style on-the-street segments with Triumph, is that right?
Yeah, Triumph remotes are going to be worked into the storylines, so I think it’s going to be great.
Let’s talk about your Human Giant days. Where did the idea for “Shutterbugs” originate?
Well I had dropped out of college and I was working upstate New York editing these educational videos and then at the same time making a bunch of shorts of my own. This was before YouTube – I was just going to regional film festivals and stuff. And I was going to a lot of comedy shows just kind of as a fan, and I’d go to UCB and this place Rififi where Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale had a great weekly show. I was just making stuff on my own and not really trying to meet people or hustle or anything, but through that I met my friend Frank Lesser, who became a writer on The Colbert Report and worked there for like the last seven years, so we made a couple of videos together. He knew this comedian Dan Cronin who worked at Conan, and Dan asked him to make a video and I helped out with it. Through that we started making videos together. I saw a video that Aziz made and I was helping produce this monthly comedy short show called First Sundays, and I wanted to put Aziz’s short in, so we met through that. People were just starting to kind of know him from standup but it was still early on, he was still coming up.
So then Aziz started hosting this weekly show Crash Test where he’d have a different cohost every week. One week he had Rob Huebel on, and Huebel had a stack of kids’ headshots that a casting director friend of his had shown him or given to him, which maybe… [laughs] …wasn’t totally legal…and so they came up with this bit where they were originally child headshot photographers. Then they wanted to film it for the monthly New York version of Channel 101 – it wasn’t run by the same people from Channel 101 in LA, but the Channel 101 people gave them permission to call it Channel 102. And so Aziz just called and asked if I would shoot this thing for them. So for the original thing we shot, Aziz had friends at CollegeHumor so we shot it in their office, and I think that was the whole crew on it – I mean it just looks like garbage. [laughs] The production value’s really really bad, but I just used stock music and stock helicopter shots and kind of packaged it in a way that tried to make it feel a little more dynamic or exciting or interesting, but really it’s just like the silliest, simplest sketch where they’re just showing headshots saying insane things about the kids in them.
So you edited all of them yourself?
Yeah I did everything – it was just me and a camera. I think on the first one I might’ve had some friends helping with the boom, which is crazy since it wound up airing on TV. All of those had basically no crew or anything, and you know, it shows. They don’t look good or anything. [laughs]
How exactly did it transition from Channel 102 to Human Giant on MTV?
I think it was 2005 when the Channel 102 people put it on their website, and it was really low quality – like early internet quality clips; YouTube didn’t exist or hadn’t really taken off yet – but they liked it so we did a few more of those, and then Aziz and Scheer had this magicians thing they wanted to do so we shot a little thing with those guys. Then at the same time for that live Crash Test show, Aziz did this bit on the street where he had lost this contest with his roommate and had to walk around with a boombox playing really shitty songs and embarrassing himself. So we had those three things, and Aziz was doing all right as a standup, and the other guys had agents and managers, and at the same time I think Aziz won the Aspen Comedy Festival, which was still going on at the time. So people were paying attention, and I think MTV just came to us and was like “We’d love to do a pilot with you.” That’s kind of how I remember it. It was probably more complicated than that, but we never thought to approach MTV or pitch a show. I just figured we would do it for a while then maybe it would lead to something else. But when we did the pilot we just assumed it wouldn’t get picked up, just from reading for many years how everyone I had admired had many failed pilots under their belt. So I was just like well, we’ll do this for MTV but it doesn’t feel like an MTV show. And crazily enough, they let us do it.
So it was less about getting your own show or experimenting with online videos and more about just making stuff and having fun?
It really was more about that. Watching internet videos at the time wasn’t really a thing yet – there were ways to watch videos on the internet, but it definitely wasn’t what we were focused on. It was also just more fun to watch things in a packed theater with people who were psyched about it than just to upload something. We did post things on the internet at some point, but it was never like “Let’s make web videos then get a show,” which is a model that emerged a couple years later.
How scripted versus improvised were the sketches?
I’m looking at this email right now from 2005 and I don’t know if there was more to the script than this, where it’s just a list of scenes like “Scene 1: Shot of Rob and Aziz saying very harsh things to a client” or “a shot of a kid listening and taking it like a pro.” I think that was pretty much all we had. When we did the MTV show it was all scripted out, but there were still parts that were improvised.
You came to “Shutterbugs” with some unique qualifications, considering you were a child actor yourself.
That’s true. They didn’t know that, and I would never tell people about that… [laughs] …and still don’t. So they didn’t know that until a while later. It was definitely not intentional that I had my own horrible headshot from when I was like six years old.
Do you have a favorite “Shutterbugs” episode or particular scene?
What was nice about it is it was the first thing we did together, and it evolved as we did. I was rewatching it online, and it kind of petered out at the end and became all about the story and a little less fun, but one of my favorite moments was when we met that kid Bobb’e J. Thompson, who we were a fan of from his work on America’s Most Talented Kid where he was a judge. So we thought this kid was really funny, and we didn’t realize how brilliant he was until – I mean, he really did improvise almost all of his lines in that.
But looking back at those, I didn’t know anything about making a TV show. I look at Human Giant now and to me it it just feels like home videos or what you would do in film school. I didn’t ever really go to much film school, so I feel like I learned a lot from it. But now I would never in a million years operate a camera on something now that I work with people who are much better than me at doing those things. But back then I would hold the camera or one of the cameras for all of it, and during the Bobb’e J. thing there’s some stuff that he’s saying where the camera’s just shaking because I was laughing so hard, and we just left it in. That was pretty amazing to watch that kid work – you felt like you were seeing something really incredible.
And then there was the “L’il 9/11” storyline, which aired in 2007.
Yeah, which seems pretty far removed from 9/11, but there wasn’t really a lot of 9/11 referencing in comedy I guess, it was still pretty raw. Then The New York Times wrote a nice thing about it, and no one seemed to be offended. I mean, it is kind of insane though. [laughs] But at that point I think we were just trying to see what we could get away with.
Around the same time Funny or Die released “The Landlord,” and Wonder Showzen also started in 2005. They both proved you can get away with a lot as long as innocent children are involved.
I mean with “Li’l 9/11” there were kid air traffic controllers and a kid Osama bin Laden, but it was all pretty tame. There’s no real bummer 9/11 imagery in there that would be really crossing the line or anything.
What was it like filming with the kids? Did you film scenes with them, then without them?
Yeah, anytime there was swearing or anything questionable we’d take the kids out of the room. All the kids were pretty good as far as I remember. There was a toddler during the second episode who was our friend Michael Delaney’s son who was a not an actor but a “true baby”…
Not a professional baby? This is the baby the guys bribe with ice cream, right?
Yeah, so we were just kind of following him around. That was really fun. Little kids – they’re fine, they’re good. It’s weird being a kid actor. I probably have some sympathy for child actors but I can be pretty hard on them too, I guess? I don’t know. [laughs]
You guys had some great guest stars in “Shutterbugs” too. Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Matt Walsh…
Yeah, Andy and Bill were already on SNL at the time so people knew them, but we just loved being able to bring in people we thought were really funny. For me the fun of Human Giant was working with all these Mr. Show people I grew up admiring and also writing with people like Brian Posehn and Jay Johnston. It was like going to comedy school in a lot of ways.
What were some influences that helped shape the kind of comedy you like to create? The Mr. Show influence on Human Giant is definitely there.
Yeah, for Human Giant it’s definitely Mr. Show, and also Robert Smigel, who is one of the most brilliant comedy minds around. Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick were a big influence on me too, but I don’t know how much of that you see in Human Giant. It was just the four of us and Tom Gianas, the writer-director, who worked on Tenacious D’s show and a bunch of other stuff. We were kind of the core writing staff, and then people would come in and out a lot like Jon Glazer and H. Jon Benjamin and Brian Posehn, and we kind of had this revolving group of writers – Andy Blitz from Conan wrote on it a lot – and it was just really fun. I don’t know exactly how defined a voice our group had because we had done so little before doing the show, so I don’t know what exactly the point is to say “That’s got a Human Giant vibe” except that a lot of us involved violence or horrific things. [laughs]
What did Human Giant teach you about working behind the camera?
It was like boot camp in a lot of ways, where we just had to be really scrappy and shoot a lot in a little time and figure out how to be really economical. And even in Eagleheart too, we always tried to make that show much bigger than the budget would allow, and tricks like stock footage and stuff were among the earlier ways of trying to make something feel bigger than it really is. I think that it was just so hard to shoot that everything else feels achievable, because everything was impossible on that show, and we just tried to do it the best we could.
Since web videos have become such a big thing, do you have any advice for those who are just starting out, knowing what you know now?
We were really lucky to start doing it at the right time before there was so much more noise and people trying to do the same thing. I’m kind of happy that my really early stuff is not available, because I think it’s important to make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of shitty stuff and then figure out what you’re good at and be really hard on it. I mean it’s really typical advice, but just do a ton of stuff and put everything you got into it for a long long time, then be really hard on it and try to figure out what’s not working or what could be better, then eventually you’ll find your own voice or get in tune with a more honest assessment of your work.
It does seem to help to find a community of likeminded people or people with similar tastes – that seems to be a common thing. I was doing stuff on my own for a while, but I don’t know that it really would’ve caught a lot of attention or gotten me anywhere until I started collaborating with other people. So I think it’s good to have a supportive community, but also one that’s not so supportive that they tell you that shitty stuff is good. It just seems like you see communities that are so supportive and are like “Everything’s great!” which is nice – it’s fun and nice to feel accepted – but I think it’s also important to be at some point putting your work out there for scrutiny and being able to honestly assess whether the thing you’re doing is as good as it can be or is working.