A Kickstarter campaign and a twisted mind. That’s all it took to take this week’s selection from idea germ to offbeat comedy reality. That, and a ton of free labor from people who believe in a web series that’s dark and sick and gets out quick.
Tragic Relief isn’t the kind of show you’re going to watch with a bunch of friends as you pregame on a Friday night (people still do that, right?). It’s the thing you’ll watch at 4am, as you lie in bed alone, digesting the chicken parm grinder you ordered off Seamless. And you’ll laugh nervously to yourself because creator Ryan Mazer knows about the thoughts that swim in the dark, dingy pools of your subconscious and he’s not afraid to make you face them.
Created and EP’d by Mazer, produced by Michael Goldburg, Amalia Bradstreet, Nick Mohammed, and Josh Elmets, shot by T.J. Misny, and directed by a who’s who of UCBNY folks, including Matt Klinman, Matt Mayer, and Adam Sacks, Tragic Relief is a web series for the 21st Century, a steady ship in the choppy comedic waters of biting social commentary and cynicism.
Tell me about your comedy background before this series.
Ryan Mazer: I’ve been obsessed with comedy from a young age and had my comedy heroes throughout life; the biggest one was Woody Allen. Before I got to New York I was writing humor prose like in lists for different online places that were in his style. And then I got to NY and I had a writing internship with The Onion. That was huge for me. I’ve also taken a couple of sketch writing classes at UCB.
What was the inspiration for Tragic Relief?
I wasn’t really doing anything for myself and I guess it sort of reflects in the tone a bit that I was a little bummed, but I’ve always sort of liked sad comedy. When I was at the Onion and contributing I never even noticed that my medium was sad comedy until it kept being mentioned when I submitted there. Everything I’d write would be very sad and personal so I was able to focus in on that when I wasn’t there anymore.
What’s next for the series? What are your hopes for it?
It amounting to anything would be really nice.
How’s the reception been so far?
I guess the people I know wouldn’t be telling me super critical things about it, but I’ve only heard positive responses. I’m surprised and excited by the response. We released 3 and there are 9 total. We shot 8 and there’s one animated one. We’re still editing that. We’re not sure yet if we’re going to do 3 a week every month or so or just release 9 all together.
So what advice would you give to people looking to break into the web comedy space? Is there a secret sauce?
The way that I get into things is I get tunnel vision and it sort of becomes an all-consuming sort of thing and obsession with what I’m working on. It’s either that or I can’t care about it at all. So I guess just be willing to devote more energy to it than you can imagine. Be prepared to be excited about it in a pretty singular way. There’s a certain charm to being kind of hap-hazard I guess, but I just don’t really relate to the idea of, “Oh you know, I’ll just get a camera and just do 2 guys in an apartment. We’re funny.” For me it’s got to be more ambitious.
So what’s next for you outside of Tragic Relief? Do you have other things on the burner?
No, I have vague other ideas about other web series and have talked to other people about working on web series with them but it’s way too vague for me to not feel embarrassed if it doesn’t happen.
Where do you think the future of web entertainment is headed? Will it supplant TV?
Well I really have no idea what I’m talking about, but that whole thing about people’s attention spans getting shorter and shorter is accurate, I think. And the short form web series is pretty conducive to that and maybe sort of worsens the problem, but oh well. I don’t know if I see it replacing TV anytime in the near future. That said, all the people I know watch TV on their computers. I just don’t know if that’s the case for the general population.
What was the biggest challenge in the series? What was the thing that you were most surprised by?
Well I realized that production and being on set is fun, but I didn’t have a ton of a background doing it, and when we were running it I enjoyed that slightly less than pre-production and editing. The conclusion that I’ve come to is based on the fact that I hate reality and when you’re shooting, you’re sort of beholden to it. Where with pre-production and editing you’re shaping the world. Also I completely underestimated the budget that we would need for it. There were a lot of people generously working for free and I didn’t feel comfortable pressing them to work more consistently on so we had it scattered out.
Can I ask you what your total budget was?
On Kickstarter it was like $5,200 raised and I’m not exactly sure how much we ended up spending but I would say $8,000 at the most maybe?
And you shot 12 episodes with that?
We shot 11 and one of them is the animated one, but yeah.
Well a friend of mine is animating it for free. But I’m surprised at how nice everyone has been and how hard they’ve worked.
Whether they admit it or not, every comedian wants to be edgy but getting to that point is tricky because it requires a deft employment of negativity. Enough to entice people, but so much that it really bums them out. Tragic Relief certainly walks the line, but — at least in my eyes — is successful in achieving balance.
I’ve not seen another web series like this. With so much derivative material flying around the Internet, this sort of originality is a big accomplishment.
Short and sick is the recipe for success here. If episodes were much longer, they’d be too gratingly pessimistic. The brilliance of Tragic Relief lies in its punchy brevity.