Two young men are planning their band’s first show. After their first song, they’ll shout to the audience: “We haven’t even started yet! That stuff is bullshit! You guys are idiots for even liking that! I can’t believe you guys clapped for that, you’re idiots! Here’s the real song! Faggots!”
“Nirvana the Band” follows a band called Nirvana the Band (no relation), made of piano genius Jay McCarrol and musically untalented Matt Johnson. The band has never played a show, they’ve never really rehearsed, and when they get turned down by the first venue they call, they spend the rest of the ten-episode show trying to trick the place into letting them play. In between they fight, try to pick up girls, and commit arson. The wackiness of the plot is tempered by naturalistic performances and a unique production style that helps even the silliest parts feel real.
It’s not a very accessible web show. It’s not on YouTube. Episodes can run almost twenty minutes. The lighting’s bad. And the first episode starts with the joke above. Of course the joke is at the expense of the speaker, Matt. Jay gives him a blank, shocked look. And the look is the real punchline — because it’s unacted. It’s cut from some other moment. So are all the reaction shots, and it makes a surprising difference.
When I interviewed them, Jay, who mostly plays the straight man, explained: “We’d try to be real with each other, but then the cameras would keep rolling and the camera would be on my face while Matt’s explaining [an idea] to me. No acting, I’m completely out of my head just listening to Matt. But you get this visceral presence, a listening look. And you get that little piece, and you put it in the most unfamiliar area.” Matt says, “We just didn’t want to ever have bad acting. Any acting! So we would just change everything.”
This process is the defining feature of Nirvana the Band. Matt and Jay work out an episode’s story, then they act it out without a full script. Then they edit it, find what’s actually funny about their footage, and get pickup shots to fit the new story they’ve found. In the months during and after the show, Matt frequently took finished videos down from the site and uploaded a new edit. Matt says he’s put up multiple versions of every episode.
One episode, for example, ended with a fight about Jay’s past—Matt is mad that Jay hid a relationship from him. But Matt’s sensible behavior was actually unrealistically out of character. So they shot a whole new ending, making a new fight about Jay “cursing a hole” in Wii Golf right when Matt is going for a console high. This actually seemed less wacky, because it lined up with Matt and Jay’s a cavalier attitude toward real life and relatable seriousness toward video games (there’s a running gag about discovering a “triple jump” in a DS game, with low points in this sidequest coinciding with hard times for the band).
Matt sums up their process as “production is development.” He’s extremely committed to improvisation and reshoots, which is also how he built his film The Dirties, a fake-found-footage dramedy about two high schoolers making a gangster movie to get revenge on their bullies. (The film just got picked up by Kevin Smith’s Phase 4 for theatrical and VOD release.)
Matt is extremely critical of mainstream comedy. “I think the attitude of most people who do anything, especially if it’s funny, is: ‘I’ve got a good idea, I know what will be funny. If this happens, it will be funny.’ Or they have a plan. And we never thought that, because we’re not great writers. In fact, I don’t know that anybody’s a great comedy writer, like someone who can write something, and it translates perfectly to an amazing joke. That’s the style of comedy from the 60s. Old white men tell jokes like that.
“Our attitude was like, we will just go to this place and do whatever we can, and we’ll figure out what’s funny a month later, looking at the footage. Because then we’re dealing with real things. We’re dealing with actual footage. And if something was funny, then it just was. And we would just use that. We never thought ‘oh man, I really wanted that joke to work.’ Which I think fucks you.”
This type of development requires a looser approach to shooting. “I’ve been on other film sets before,” Jay says, “and the amount of lighting and crew and shit that they have to do in between scenes—the actual scene work, the meat, takes the lowest priority, and it blows my mind. I don’t care how good it looks, it’s gonna be a piece of shit. Even when we tried to do [an episode of] LOST flashbacks, we’re so lucky that we even got a percentage of usable stuff, because we got lighting and we reset everything, we were using a tripod… and we were making sure that you were standing here and you were standing there, we scripted the lines… it was terrible! It was one of the worst experiences we had. We need to work where the process is getting filmed. We have to be able to shop things on the spot, say ‘Oh you know what would be funny is if I say it like this. OK get me again, I’ll say it like this.’ We can just cut around everything.”
As one friend told me, Matt and Jay’s performances never register as acting. A DVD extra shows Jay doing a whole improv bit about a colostomy bag, one I had to watch three times before deciding it was definitely a joke. Matt says his improv ability grew out of his incessant childhood lying. “When I was a kid I used to lie to people. Because I really wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and I would lie to everybody I didn’t know, and say ‘you know what, I’m booked at the Rivoli.’ And after a few months I’d be like ‘oh I played my big show at the Rivoli, yeah it went pretty well.’ I thought it made me look cool, when I was 16 years old. So I thought I know, these guys will be as stupid as me.” Thus Nirvana the Band always wants to play at this one, not especially distinguished concert hall. Early on the band gets a chance to play elsewhere, but they scuttle it just to get a little closer to their dream venue.
Nirvana the Band is rich with nostalgia and in-jokes. Not the easy nostalgia of Star Wars parodies or the referentiality of slick greenscreen rap battles between PBS hosts and Game of Thrones characters, but a thick soup of videogames and old movies. For instance, a scene based on singing the titles of video games on the Wii Shopping Channel:
I know plenty of YouTube channels where this song, with slick instrumentals and a rap part, would fit in perfectly and get a million views. But Matt and Jay use it to reveal character. Matt talks like of course everyone loves Wii Update Day the way he does. He doesn’t try to hide his excitement, but he doesn’t overplay it.
You don’t have to “get” the in-joke, or even know much about the Wii, to appreciate Matt and Jay’s nostalgia and excitement. “Jay and I are so obsessed with the idea of the inside joke, which I think is a myth,” Matt says. “I think if you view people laughing or participating in inside jokes, and that’s presented in the right way, you can get audiences involved in that, even if they have no idea what the inside joke is. It’s not like I’m turning to you [the audience] and saying ‘You know in Chronotrigger? That really funny thing that Frog does?’ And you don’t know it, so you can’t participate. But if I’m saying, ‘It’s like when Frog pulls out that sword—’”
Jay: “And I reciprocate it—”
Matt: ”And then all of a sudden you, because you literally are the camera, because this is a documentary, you can participate as an audience. It’s not alienating to you.”
The show is full of these moments. In one episode, Matt goes temporarily blind, which inspires him to pull a stunt from Disney’s animated Robin Hood. Jay goes along with it, even though he points out that Robin Hood wasn’t actually blind. This detail proves crucial, and the adventure ends with Matt in the hospital. Another time, Matt tries to emphasize a point by quoting the “DIC” TV bumper—confusing it with the “More You Know” shooting star. Though the show includes many of these digressions, by keeping the banter on-theme and on-character, they avoid the common web show trap of simply wasting time without advancing the story.
The show also creates its own in-jokes. Matt and Jay have a Coen Brothers-like way of coming up with dense quotable phrases that rely on tone of voice. For instance, after a long and frustrating day looking for the Rivoli’s “booking book” (the list of bands booked to play, a MacGuffin the real Matt and Jay built several episodes around just because they loved the phrase), Jay forces Matt to have a good time.
(Again, this wasn’t really acting; they’d shot all day and Matt wasn’t cooperating, so Jay was truly frustrated. “Now. We’re having fun” was real Jay talking to real Matt.)
Later, after the band has broken up and Matt has teamed up with the Born Ruffians, and he explicitly tries to fake an in-joke. “The perfect sign of a band that gets along well is an insidious laugh that moves from the guitar player, to me, to him… a knowing laugh.” He gets Luke Lalonde to say “We’re having fun here! Not like the Delta Chelsea.” As soon as the band descends into actual laughter, Matt finds a way to ruin it. It’s a David Brent moment, watching an inept self-styled entertainer who can suck the joy out of any moment. This episode inspired a new series, “In the Studio w/Jared,” where Matt gets to further harrass the Born Ruffians:
Matt and Jay both audition new bands, but they alienate everyone else they try to work with. Of course both come away thinking that no one else is good enough for them, and they reunite in time to finally book a show at the Rivoli.
While they’re familiar with “yes and” improv—Jay was the music director of Second City Toronto for years—shooting with the expectation of heavy editing lets them get a lot less traditionally cooperative. “We always said no,” Matt says. “And instead, nothing. So Jay or I say something, and the response has always got to be ‘No! No, that’s stupid’ or ‘Matt, no way.’ And you force that person to convince you that their improv idea means something. And if you watch the show through that lens, everything is that trick. Everything is one person pitching, and the other person saying no… And when [Jay] decides to believe me, those are all real turning points in the show. When I say something that’s just so good that Jay gets on board with the line, that’s when we’re getting somewhere. That’s when the show begins, when Matt tells the right lie.”
The show starts extremely small—two guys in an apartment—but slowly expands to more locations, culminating in an actual live show (which, naturally, was built out of clever references to the web show). The producer Jared Raab (Matt’s friend from film school) brought in cinematographers. “Jared [was] training everybody to shoot this show like it was a documentary, but like a real documentary. Like a BBC documentary. And as soon as we started shooting everything like that, things really started to change. In the editing room, I’d have all these amazing moments that were created by camera moves in the real world. I think that’s another thing that web shows—that any show doesn’t do. They’re afraid, or they don’t know how to deal with real world stuff, and characters interacting with the real world.” Matt got so good at this that in 2011, he did a fake-reporter bit at Occupy Toronto that felt funnier than a Daily Show segment:
In The Dirties (directed by Matt and produced by Jared), Matt plays a similar character with a very dark side. But its fictional world is much closer to the real one, making Matt more of a psychopath, and forcing more satisfying drama. It also reveals the flexibility of this style between different genres, in fact showing how much Nirvana the Band wasn’t really shot like a comedy.
Matt plans to keep working in this style—even with more traditionally scripted and shot films, he can’t imagine not leaving the cameras on between takes, exploiting the extra footage, and rewriting the story in the edit room. “This process is gonna catch on,” he says. “The grammar of filmmaking is going to change.”
Nirvana the Band is available at NirvanaTheBandTheShow.com.
The Dirties is showing at Rooftop Films in New York City on June 1; follow the film’s Facebook page for other screenings. It will come out in theaters and on VOD later this year.
Nick Douglas edits Slacktory, a blog of original comedy and videos.