Way back, a long long time ago (in the early 2000s), a little sketch group called Dutch West became one of the first collectives of writers and performers who were adept at pumping out consistently high-quality comedic content for next to nothing or, literally, nothing. Their undeniable talents soon landed many of them at CollegeHumor where they formed an Internet comedy super group that has helped propel that site into one of the most recognizable online brands in the entertainment space. (Full disclosure: I work there, but I thought all this even when I didn’t.) Year after year, video after video, the CollegeHumor Originals team has managed to turn out videos and series that are as viral as they are smart and filmic, leaving many to wonder — HOW DO THEY KEEP DOING IT? We asked President of CH Original Content Sam Reich — co-creator of this week’s featured series — and his co-creator writing partner (and wife) Elaine Carroll their secret to digital success. Sit down with Precious Plum for one minute and you’ll see why I say these OG Dutch Westers have a Midas touch, at least when it comes to Josh Ruben in a big-tittied fat suit.
Apart from the obvious Honey Boo-Boo connection, what was the inspiration for Precious Plum?
Sam: I think we, as a weird married couple/writing duo, like to do pop culture related things. We had done 75 or so episodes of Very Mary Kate and we wanted to do something kind of similar but different. Using something pop culture related as a springboard, but something completely different, tonally. And Very Mary Kate and Precious Plum are for completely different audiences. Originally we were going to try and have Elaine play both parts somehow. Our original idea for the series was basically just in the car. Mamma in the front seat and Plum in the back seat and Elaine would play both, but then as we dug into it we were like, “Wouldn’t it be fun if Josh played Mama?” And I think it really is great, we could go on and on about Josh’s performance of Mama.
It’s disturbingly good.
Sam: I remember on the first day of shooting Josh was in make-up for the first time and his voice just getting deeper and deeper, until we settled on a tone that’s almost his natural voice.
What’s it like to write this series as a team?
Elaine: It’s been pretty streamlined. We always start off with, “What is the worst parenting decision that Mama could make, and we always go with the very worst one.” And then they never get to their pageant. When we were writing this I put on my whiteboard the words, “The most horrible thing” and that’s what we strived for.
Sam: There’s this rhythm of Precious Plum where A happens and then B happens and then C happens. If we’re just painting a portrait and not telling a story, then the timeline of A happening and then B happening wouldn’t matter at all, but I think we try to challenge ourselves to try little stories and do something a little more difficult than just showing disgusting people walking around and being themselves. I think a good example of that is the episode where Plum gets a Mohawk and tattoos and is burned to a crisp as she tries to look like an African Princess. We worked backwards from that idea. We want each episode to go somewhere, not just float infinitely in space.
What’s the advantage, more broadly, of writing with a partner? Outside of Precious Plum, I mean.
Elaine: I think you get to know if your idea makes someone burst out laughing right away. When you’re writing by yourself, you don’t get that and just have to hope other people find it funny.
Sam: I think comedy is easier to write in pairs, because it is all about jokes and making people laugh. I think Elaine and I are hard on each other. We both make a lot of jokes that the other doesn’t approve of. Only the mutually approved jokes are the ones that pass through the script. They’re the good ones. It ensures the overall quality of the series.
I think that’s one of the reasons why every single joke in this series hits.
Sam: Well that’s very flattering. We’ve also been sending them out for notes to a trusted group of friends. We’ve been cutting out like 1 joke per episode. By the time it gets through Elaine’s filter and my filter, then hopefully there’s a lot fewer jokes that don’t hit. If there are some that don’t hit after all that, then it’s because we’re married and live in our own little world.
So you like writing together. What’s the disadvantage of having a writing partner?
Elaine: Dealing with their schedule, I‘d say. When you’re writing by yourself you can write whenever.
Sam: I think when you get into a positive spiral of writing it is awesome and you can’t stop, and I think the same is true for a negative spiral. If you’re writing by yourself and you get stuck, you can stop and go on a run or something. If you’re with another person, you’re just trapped in a room together and if you get writer’s block, it’s the worst. I remember 60 or 50 episodes into Very Mary Kate; we spent a week just looking at a blank screen. And then you take it home with you, to your married life. It’s what I imagine being impotent is like. Comedically impotent.
What advice do you have for people looking to break into digital comedy? So many people watch CH videos and there’s a gap there. They don’t know how to break in but they want to be a part of this community.
Sam: A lot has been said about how the internet is this great self publishing machine and how you can do your own thing, but there’s so much stuff out there right now, like you’re participating in this huge thing.
Elaine: So many people are shouting over each other on the Internet, trying to get attention, because it is this wonderful self-publishing mechanism. But I think quality stands out. You have to pay attention to quality in every way that you can. Making something that looks good and is also funny.
Sam: Like that Steve Martin quote, “Be so good that they can’t ignore you.” I’m paraphrasing of course. I think also you need to collaborate, find people whose comedic voice you trust and who you can bounce ideas off of. Collaborate with people on a project that is a combination of your comedic voices. Entrepreneurial collaboration is what has spawned everything great comedically at CollegeHumor.
So watch the show — the first 2 episodes of the all new season have been released, and another 8 are on the way!
I watch and write a lot of web videos and — at the risk of sounding like a real prick — not too much content shocks me to the point of saying “Wow, I can’t believe they actually did that.” Precious Plum does. It’s completely fresh and fearless in every way, and that’s what puts it on another level.
Reich and Carroll have a very clear sense of where they want each episode to go and they know exactly what beats they need to hit in order to make each piece authentically Precious Plum. They’ve got a definitive brand and voice for their web series, which is more common on TV than digital. But hey, they didn’t get to the top of the now vast web comedy realm by following everyone else’s lead.