It’s a busy week for female-centered comedy news between the announcement of Whitney Cummings’ new show Love You, Mean It with Whitney Cummings, Bridesmaids’ probably-never-gonna-happen sequel, and the renewal of HBO’s Girls and Veep, but during the last two months, a new female-led sketch comedy show on VH1 slipped past the radar undetected. Thanks to a lack of promotion and news coverage, Stevie TV has stealthily crept past mainstream criticism since its debut in March and has already been picked up for a second season. Don’t let its fellow VH1 shows (gems like Mob Wives, Celebrity Rehab, and Flavor of Love starring Flavor Flav) fool you – Stevie TV might rely too much on tired reality show mockery, but Stevie Ryan is a new kind of comedy chameleon who can pack a punch whether or not you know who Andy Cohen is.
The first thing that sparked my interest in Stevie TV was how much of an outsider Ryan is in the comedy world, and yet she’s a 26-year-old television newcomer who is also the show’s creator, writer, and producer. These days it’s next to impossible to land a comedic TV role without years of standup or improv credentials from UCB, Second City, or The Groundlings, but Ryan’s made her way by being a completely self-taught YouTube star. After moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career at age 19, Ryan began making videos on Windows Movie Maker between going to commercial auditions and working at a Levi’s store. Her videos started as brief, moody, and sometimes burlesque silent films inspired by her love of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. She uploaded them to YouTube in 2006 and, after experiencing her first wave of negative comments, decided to retaliate via the budding video blogger scene, only instead of posting a complaint video as herself, Ryan did something a little different at the time – she debuted the sassy 18-year-old East LA chola Little Loca, a character she had been developing since her teens, and it was an instant hit.
At first, Ryan’s growing roster of fake vloggers were toned down enough to blend in with the “real” ones, like Jamie Lynn the hillbilly and the shit-talking 15-year-old brat Katrina. But it was her 12-part series “Scene Kid LOVE” that garnered the most attention as Ryan played MySpace superstar Sceney Sceneable caught up in a constant love drama with fellow MySpace celeb and self-proclaimed “king of Stickam” Hilton Suicide (played by her friend Adam Scott Franklin). That social media fad-dependent thread runs through Ryan’s entire early evolution, and from her silent shorts to her celebrity impersonations to her multi-episode series, she was both learning and creating content at the same time:
I’ve taken acting classes here and there but nothing I was seriously committed to. I have severe social anxiety so I find classes terrifying. Plus, I’m just a poor chick from Victorville and couldn’t afford to pay $400 a month for one class. I taught myself Final Cut and how to use cameras. I also watched editors I knew closely when they would work and tried to soak up as much information as I could. If you can afford classes and aren’t socially awkward then I think it’s a great way to polish your skills, but creating my own content taught me more than I would have ever learned in any class.
And why not? It’s not exactly wimpy to post videos of yourself working out impressions of Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber, Megan Fox, and Kim Kardashian for all the world to anonymously tear apart via the comments section, and most of Ryan’s over 100 videos have an average of six-digit view counts – her most popular video “Amy Winehouse in bloody brawl” currently clocks up past six million. No dark corner of pop culture is too trashy for Ryan to lampoon, and that’s ultimately what got her discovered for TV – it was her video parody of E! reality show Pretty Wild that caught the attention of the show’s production company New Wave Entertainment, and they approached Ryan with the idea of creating her own half-hour sketch comedy series.
Stevie TV premiered on March 4, 2012 on VH1 with an eight-episode season, and even though its writers come from shows like The Soup, Best Week Ever, and Crank Yankers, the episodes are mostly hit-or-miss unless you’re a fan of reality shows like Jerseylicious or Ice Loves Coco. But there are also plenty of standout segments like Katrina, Little Loca, “A Moment with Ryan Gosling,” and painfully spot-on parodies of the biggest hot messes from the Real Housewives series, from Atlanta’s “Don’t Be Tardy for the Party” Kim Zolciak to the spaced-out alcoholic Kim Richards from Beverly Hills. Top that off with impersonations of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and parodies of The Millionaire Matchmaker, True Life, Toddlers and Tiaras, and Dance Moms, and it’s safe to say that Ryan currently holds the monopoly on reality show mockery.
Despite how talented Ryan is, most of us don’t want to watch personalities like Kim Kardashian any more than we’re already forced to, and that might explain why there’s not much Stevie TV blogosphere buzz. Ryan feels the same way: “It’s hard for me to go to a shallow place and so Kim Kardashian is the one character that I walk away from that I’m not in love with,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “The Kardashians are probably the only ones that I’m like, yeah, don’t like them after playing them, I still don’t really care for them. But I love to do them, because we’ve got to do them.” Why? Ryan has shown through Loca, Katrina, and Sceney that she’s more than capable of creating strong original characters, so why not go that route rather than cover shows and celebrities who already get enough late night jokes and SNL parodies?
From my viewing of Stevie TV and Ryan’s earlier YouTube videos, this dependence on the reality show canon seems to be the root of both her biggest problem and success. That’s not to say fleeting pop culture references don’t have their place in comedy – see Family Guy, South Park, and SNL – and Ryan’s impressions of Justin Bieber as a creepy flirt or even The Kim Herself are, at points, pretty hilarious. “I tend to go to very dark places,” she told Culture Brats this year. “You have to go to dark places in comedy; it’s just a natural thing. I can get pretty dark with things and I can go pretty far with things. I usually do it when we’re in the room having our table reads. I’ll add things to go on this dark downward spiral.” Even though Ryan claims that VH1 has given her “the most creative freedom,” could the network be to blame for her content limitations? Or maybe all she needs to bring out that darkness is a second season?
Perhaps Stevie’s outsider status is her own secret weapon. Shows sometimes get canceled when their premiere episode fails to live up to the projected numbers predicted by their staggering advertising budget and huge PR campaigns, and by staying largely off the mainstream saturation grid and keeping her overhead low (it’s a one-woman show, for the most part), Ryan doesn’t have as big of a fight for season renewal as something like the poor and unjustly canceled Best Friends Forever. But unless you’re going to whip out the “powerful, pretty, sexy, in-control women can’t be funny and lead a successful TV show” card, you can’t dis any woman who went from 19-year-old with a laptop and Windows Movie Maker to fresh-faced VH1 star while bravely sidestepping the bro-centric comedy system altogether.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.