In a small Mexican restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Drew Luster waits on his tacos. Things have settled at the Bat Haus, a small event space two doors over, and Luster takes advantage of the calm to grab dinner. In a half hour, his sketch team, the Otter Boys, will kick off Red Hot Video Fun Time, a quasi-bimonthly video showcase featuring never-before-seen sketches by members of New York’s comedy community.
“If I’m here, we’re good to go,” Luster says. There are some minor complications. Two sketch groups drop out of the showcase, forcing a rearrangement the night’s lineup. Their beer sponsor also withdraws at the last moment, but the team manages to sign on the Bronx Brewery as a ringer. Free beer has been a hallmark of Red Hot Video Fun Time since its first iteration, and tonight will be no exception. It’s also pouring rain out, but there isn’t much to be done about that.
The Otter Boys, composed of Luster, Micah Philips and Jared Weil, came together in late 2013. The trio, all improv students out of the Upright Citizens Brigade, met doing shows on the indie improv circuit. Eventually, Philips and Weil decided to start making web content, and approached Luster about helping them with an improvised video sketch. “We just needed someone to hold the camera,” quips Weil.
The group’s freshman effort, though rough, inspired them to produce a new video every week. As they continued, however, they noticed similar efforts by other comedians and found that the grind was not necessarily conducive to more exposure. “We realized we weren’t the only people doing this,” Luster tells me. Then, an idea came to the group: rather than cast videos into the void and pray for views, why not build an audience for your material before it goes online?
The first Red Hot Video Fun Time took place in Luster’s apartment with fifteen videos and an audience of around sixty, a respectable debut for a freshman comedy effort, especially for one out of the notorious McKibbin Lofts. The success of the first screening and word of mouth drew an even larger crowd in May, along with nineteen video entries. Emboldened by the turnout, the Otter Boys upgraded to an event space, implemented a door cover, and developed rules on submissions. “We started with a video time limit of seven minutes,” Luster says woefully. They’re down to three. In addition, all videos must be unpublished, standalone (i.e. no webseries), and the producing group must be present for the screening.
Attendance tonight is strong, despite the rain. About ninety people, almost exclusively UCB students and performers, pack into the Bat Haus. The seats are rearranged to accommodate a brand new projector screen, unceremoniously replacing the bed sheet that’s served their previous events. Working the door is Mike Muntner, a New York improviser and perennial Red Hot contributor. Munter giddily describes his sketch, a short about a potluck dinner that takes a disturbing turn. “I’m excited to see how people react,” he grins “because they just have to sit there and take it.”
Expectations are high. Past groups have had their Red Hot Video Fun Time works featured on Jezebel, Funny or Die, and The Huffington Post. The Otter Boys themselves were a “Viewer Video of the Week” on Tosh.0 this past September, and one of their more recent efforts received financial backing from CH2. Tonight draws both greenhorn comedians and veteran members of the New York sketch scene, including visceral heavyweight Murderfist. The lights dim and the Otter Boys begin with a choreographed dance number, but quickly get to the main event. The fifteen videos displayed tonight are broken up into three blocks with short introductory bits in between.
Although it’s a friendly house, standards aren’t lost on the Red Hot participants. “The groups we let in are very serious about their craft,” Weil says, “They are aware that they are showing this to a live audience.” Videos with complex tracking shots, realistic blood and prosthetics, and extensive special effects reflect the ongoing production arms race in sketch comedy. With the increasing availability of top-of-the-line equipment, a massive talent pool, and heightened viewer expectations, the line between hobbyist and master blurs. As the New Yorker noted in a recent article about the intersection of the old Hollywood corporate structure with new digital media platforms: “YouTube was adults with camcorders shooting kids being adorably themselves. It was amateur hour. Nowadays, YouTube is almost alarmingly professional. … The most popular videos are filmed by teen-agers and twentysomethings who use Red Epic cameras and three-point lighting to shoot themselves.” That principle is on display for us now, minus the teen-agers.
The videos are a mishmash of comedic tastes and styles. Some are single jokes told effectively, while others follow more traditional heightening. Invisible man-eating tigers, Russian mail-order bride applications, an off-kilter wedding hype video: there’s something for everyone. Almost all of them receive a warm reception, including Muntner’s dinner party/Faces of Death mashup. A few sketches don’t go over as well, but are still met with loud applause during the credits. The show ends with an Otter Boys video that brings down the house: detectives at a crime scene find and sample a victim’s cocaine stash, giving way to a sequence that one could easily imagine in a national beer commercial. Once it’s over, the lights come up, and Luster asks the audience to join them for a dance party (after the rented chairs are stacked, of course). The music plays until the beer runs out, at which point the crowd moves to a bar two blocks away.
The rain, however, seems to have deterred the most sought after audience members: those outside the comedy community. Philips considers this the next stage in the show’s evolution. “My biggest hope is that this becomes a Brooklyn show, not just a comedy show for comedy people,” he writes me later. “We have people come in off the streets sometimes and that makes me so excited. I want this to be an entertainment option for some couple in Bushwick who have nothing to do with the New York City comedy scene.” In the past, the event has managed to draw some passersby, though whether they’re enticed by the comedy or the free beer is unclear. Whether or not Red Hot Video Fun Time catches on with the world at large, it will doubtlessly remain a go-to for newcomers and veterans of the sketch scene hoping to watch or show the next big thing in internet comedy. The Otter Boys put it best in a YouTube post-mortem about their May show:
“Come see the hits before your mom does.”
Photo credits: Otter Boys Productions, David Bluvband
Alex Estrada is a comedy writer at UCB and the PIT. You can read his passive-aggressive tweets here. He’s also licensed to practice law in three states, but he doesn’t like to talk about that.