At the drop of a hat, I could name the entire staff of Hogwarts, give you full biographies of every Captain of the Enterprise, and tell you which bounty hunters Darth Vader called to track down the Millennium Falcon and why. I’d easily call myself a nerd. There’s a certain exhaustive joy to nerdom that’s not unlike my love for comedy. I like to keep a tidy house, though, so I rarely talk about nerd-nerd stuff to comedy-nerds. But in late 2009, when a 70-minute review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace made the rounds on YouTube, I found myself torn between worlds. My brain was telling me this was for my nerdy side, but my heart knew the truth. This was a comedy.
That review, and dozens of other short films like it, is the work of Milwaukee-based filmmakers Red Letter Media. The group consists of Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans, who have been making films together for about ten years. Currently, they produce a web series called Half in the Bag, a movie review show hosted by Mike and Jay set in the home of Harry S. Plinket, an elderly murderer with a taste for prostitutes, merkins, and pizza rolls. The premise offers Mike and Jay plenty of time to dissect and examine movies, but gives them ample opportunity for ridiculous off-beat humor.
“I’ve never had any interest in being a film critic,” says Mike. “When I made the Star Trek: Generations review (the very first featuring Plinket) I had no idea people did movie reviews on the internet, so it’s not like I set out with the intention of doing any of this. It just sort of happened that way.” Even from the get-go, their movies have had the feel of a group of enthusiastic people getting together and doing what they love, which includes making themselves and their fans laugh.
“Humor is way up there. Possibly higher than the reviews themselves,” Mike continues. With their precise timing, smart writing, and an easy improvisational rapport, it’s clear that they’re coming at their work from a comedic perspective. And while Mike and Jay consistently provide thoughtful criticism, they never let an opportunity pass for a ridiculous joke. “My humor is usually very dry, dumb, and bizarre.” You don’t expect to see a sketch reminiscent of early Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the middle of a discussion of Drive, but in the context of Red Letter Media, it makes perfect sense.
Like all great comedies, though, the films of Red Letter Media have a lot of heart. A 90-minute review of Revenge of the Sith, even with a great sense of humor, must sound daunting to someone not familiar with Star Wars. Yet despite being immersive reviews scrutinizing nerdy movies, they’re about something much more universal. “I’ve nitpicked Trek and Star Wars stuff, but for me when something doesn’t work is when it doesn’t stay true to some kind of emotional core,” says Mike. “It’s fun to complain about technical stuff, but regardless of genre, stories are always about people and how you can relate to them.”
That philosophy of story over minutia prevents Red Letter Media from making movies for nerds talking about movies for nerds. They’re instead creating a body of work drawing from their enthusiasm, their intelligence, and their sense of humor. You don’t need to know the name of Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot to appreciate their insight and their wit. And while it is immensely gratifying to watch as Jay, Mike, and Rich take George Lucas to task, it has been much more rewarding to get to know them as filmmakers, critics, and comedians.
Stephen Winchell is a writer and performer in Chicago’s The Telethon, and also nerds out about Frasier on his twitter, Frasier2011.