There are two kinds of emails I receive that make my skin crawl. One is from a membership sales person at The Equinox gym in SoHo. I went in once with a friend and said I might join and now he emails me every day about special offers that “won’t ever be available again!” even though they’re available literally every day. His name’s Phil and he’s a real pain in the ass. The second kind of email that gives me the willies is the kind that pitches a sketch or web series idea about hipsters, zombies, or hipster zombies. It’s not that I have any deep-rooted aversion to these subjects, it’s just that I’m sick of hearing about them – they’re the web equivalent of people yelling “I’m Rick James, bitch!” on the street during SantaCon. It’s not inherently not funny, it’s just tired. But then, series like Roger, The Chicken come along and remind me that, no matter how banal the underlying idea of hipsterdom seems, there’s absolute magic to be mined in something I thought I was really sick of. Co-created by Matthew-Lee Erlbach and Mallory Portnoy, written by Erlback and Jeff Ashworth, and starring all three, Roger, The Chicken is a powerfully smart, original project about hipsters that made me realize there are no tired premises, only tired executions.
How did you get started in comedy?
Matt: I started doing stand up when I came to the city. I also started playwriting; I actually came to the city as an actor. I’ve always loved comedy, I did Second City when I was in Chicago, and I took a bunch of classes there. So I came to the city thinking I was going to be an actor/stand up comedian and go that whole route, but then I got really into writing so I began writing a lot of comedic plays. I have this play that I wrote called Happy Sunshine Kung-Fu Flower and it was the first comedy thing that I had done in the city. We started that in a nightclub called Lotus in the meatpacking district because we had nowhere else to go and my producing partner was a manager there. Then we moved to Comix and did a bunch of shows there. RIP. It was a political satire about a group of outsourced ninjas that focused on American pop culture and the American psyche. It was really highbrow and lowbrow coming together and it was really fun. And we got big fans of the show like Rachel Maddow and Mo Rocca because of the political aspects of it. That was really my first foray into the comedy scene and in hindsight, I wish I had done more ideas like that before I moved to the city, but after that I started doing more writing and comedy in theater. That’s the short version of it.
Why’d you choose to make a web series about a man in a chicken suit?
Matt: I guess our initial idea was to do a send up of hipster culture and take it apart and show what it really is. Not to get too heady about it, but our goal was to explore what means to be “other”? Is the world crazy and we’re staying inside of it, or are we crazy and the world is normal? So we thought about that a lot too. I mean this guy lives his life in a chicken suit so we were trying to make sense of what that meant. And then we had this “A-Ha” moment where we realized he’s just so post-post irony that this is just his life and he doesn’t even need to think about it. It’s funny because he has no problem with it but other people keep going back to it and asking him why he’s wearing it or why he is the way he is. When you’re an “other” people have a lot of questions but it just seems normal to you. What is normal? Can you be so inside your version of normal that you don’t even realize what other people see? Of course Ryan is really self-centered so that helps too.
It seems like an overwhelming amount of sketch or web series ideas people make these days center on hipsters or zombies—why do you think that is?
Matt: Well the boring answer, as far as the zombies are concerned, is that we’re living in a really apocalyptic time right now and I think because of the Internet we hear more about that destruction and devastation. Climate change, we lived through that last year and now we’re living through it right now with what’s happening in the Philippines. The crazy Tea Party and multiple wars going on in the Middle East. Everywhere you turn there seems to be more and more shit falling apart. I think it’s in the zeitgeist right now, we’re heading towards the unknown and everything is moving so fast that and I don’t think we know how to handle it. Everything seems so dire and zombies are a good metaphor for that. As far as hipsters are concerned, I don’t know why. I think about how when we were kids Grunge was really huge but Grunge culture didn’t have as big of a parody impact as hipsters do. There are guys walking around with soda jerk moustaches and there’s something so confusing about it. Like are you trying to prove something or are you comfortable?
I also think there’s a level of hypocrisy to it when you look at the trustafarians set who have now adopted this attitude where, “My apartment is only $600 a month in Bushwick” while meanwhile they’re worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars at 22. They’re sort of adopting this new identity that’s incredibly mockable.
Matt: That’s another part of it too, you have a lot of these kids who come from big money and they want to be different. It’s like they’re rebelling against what they grew up with. It’s very reactionary. And it’s also that idea that in America everyone is special and unique. It’s all about showing off your personality and “How can I show people me so people know that I’m different?” It’s a very similar thing to what happened in the 80s with credit cards and VHS tapes, it’s all about “How can I individualize and personalize my life to such an extent that I can show that I am different and self-realized?”
As a comedian and comedy writer, how does that sense of being special or striving to be special and different from everyone else affect your work?
Matt: I don’t know. I think that as comics, and especially stand ups, we’re commenting on everything. Louie CK does it, George Carlin did it. We’re truth tellers. I hope to be a truth teller of some kind, but that’s what comedy is. It’s saying “The emperor has no clothes” and that’s when it’s most effective. Jon Stewart and Colbert, that’s what they do, they’re calling shit out and I think that’s what comedy does best. I think those guys and just calling shit out has given comedy a whole new life. It’s the Wild West right now. Twitter, Vine, which I have not utilized yet, but once I do it will be really fun.
How much money did you spend shooting this thing?
Matt: We constantly needed more money even when we were working with budgeted sets. Shit just happens. We spent around $13,000 and that’s a lot of money, but in terms of production it’s not a lot of money. And we had such a passionate and creative crew that everyone’s heart was in it and we were really careful about the team we were assembling. A lot of our cast and crew called in a lot of favors and saved the day. We made almost enough on Kickstarter but it was getting really scary and then Carrie swooped in like an angel and said, “I’ll give you the rest” and that really saved our ass. We still had to pay out of pocket for a lot of things because we didn’t make completely what we needed to, but in the end it was really worth it. I’d say in total it was about $13,000. There were some post things that took extra money that we weren’t anticipating. We shot this in March and we wanted to put it up this summer but we got all super busy and I had to edit it while I had 2 plays going up, so it took longer and cost more than we anticipated. And we actually lost an episode. The 5th episode. It will be released in some form but that kind of sucked.
Why did you lose it?
Matt: We had some technical issues in post. But we do have enough footage to release it in a mini form. What’s nice about this world is that we’ve made it so huge that we feel like we have so many more stories that we can tell. There’s always going to be comedy when you have these characters and you take them to different places and have them react to different situations. You can just keep going and going.
What advice do you have for people who are looking to get into the web comedy space?
Matt: Just do it. It’s always about getting a community and finding your family so you can present your vision. We did this all together, so you have to find the right people that can stick with you and do whatever is necessary to get it made. And to be really thoughtful about it. There’s one thing about putting something out there and just seeing if it sticks, but if you’re passionate about something you should really commit to it and get it done.
And here are your three reasons to watch.
Good writing isn’t always in-your-face writing. To really enjoy this series, you’ve got to listen to every word. It’s intricate and full and, to me, that says quality.
It’s hard to believe that Roger, The Chicken was produced for just $13,000. Serious kudos to the whole production crew, including DP Corey Gegner who brings this world to life in a very filmic way.
Despite my prejudices, Roger, The Chicken is really original. Erlbach, Portnoy, and Ashworth took something ubiquitous and made it something extraordinary.