When it comes to web series, relying too heavily on improv is a very dangerous thing. It’s so tempting to birth a series idea, gather some funny people together in front of a 5D, and yell “Action!” just to… ”see what happens.” But most times, the people you thought were really funny when the camera was off, turn out to be sort of stiff or long winded or they deviate too far from the heart of the highly complex narrative you’ve developed and expected them to “make funnier.” Unless you’ve got Jeff Garlin and Larry David at your disposal or Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara, there’s usually no substitute for writing down what you’d like your series to be so it actually becomes that. One of the only lower profile exceptions to the rule that I’ve seen takes the form of Dave Zwolenski and Matt Saraceni’s series Written It Down.
How did you get your start in comedy?
Matt Saraceni: I started back in Perth, which is very remote Australia; I was in an improv group there called Big Hoo Ha. I started there originally to try and make uni more interesting because I was studying law at the time. Then a bunch of the members moved to Melbourne and started an off-shoot of the Perth improv night, and from that me and the co-creator hand picked a bunch of performers we wanted to be in the show and then just went from there really.
So the series just came out of that?
Matt Saraceni: Yeah. It came through that. I don’t know how it is in the U.S., but here, improv on TV is a bit shit. It’s really on rails. They’ll do improv shows but as an improviser, it’s terrible technique. They’ll bring a celebrity in and they’ll go, “Here’s a question, what’s your funny answer?” and then not include that at all in the rest of the show. So we really wanted to make a show where we let improvisers be improvisers. Not give them too many rules or restrictions and just trust them to find a beginning, middle, and end to a scene as well as being hilarious all the way through. I think no show I’ve seen on TV has trusted improvisers to do that and that was the whole ethos behind the show.
Basically I was performing with the group and my mate, Dave Z, he’s the co-creator, and he watched the show and thought there were some really amazing stories that had been created. Coming from a film background, he was really sad because he felt like these stories were better than any screenplay that he could think of, and then they were just gone forever once the show was over. He couldn’t fathom it being that transient. So it was his idea to take improvisation, set up the camera so that it’s captured, and then just film it. Because of his background as a filmmaker, he had a tendency to keep it on rails and keep it really restricted and rule based. I was working with him as an improviser saying you have to keep it loose, just give them one thing and let them run with it. That’s how you’re going to get the best stories. It was eventually his girlfriend who came up with Written It Down. And that’s how the show started.
I love that. How much lead did you give your actors, situationally?
Matt Saraceni: So we did a test shoot first. It was mainly for light and sound but we also started to work out what kind of suggestions work and what didn’t. Sometimes you could be so specific that all the joy of the scene would be taken out of it. Or sometimes you could be so broad that the improvisers are spending too much time thinking and then they stop being in the moment so much. We found this magic point in between—specific enough so they know where to go, but broad enough so that they don’t have to worry. That was the workshop day, and then we assembled the cast and actually started shooting. An actual shoot is very much like you see in the final episodes. They have a few seconds to noodle around with the setting, then the player enters, sits down and says, “I have to break up with you”, the other person says, “Why?” And then the first person says, “It’s hard for me to say so I’ve written it down.” And then when that person sees that piece of paper that is literally the first time the actor has seen that piece of paper and it goes from there.
Did you have to wade through an unbelievable amount of footage?
Matt Saraceni: So we had a crew of about 15 improvisers. We knew we wanted to leave the audience wanting more. We didn’t want anyone to get tired of the idea before we played it out. So we decided that 5 was the magic number, so if you do the math, that’s only 10 improvisers per season. We also didn’t want any repeat cast in any one series. We filmed about 20 scenes over the day and then from that we picked out 5 favorites. The cast took turns doing different variations, improvising with one person and then improvising with another. From there we looked at it to make sure there weren’t any repeats and that the styles of the scenes were different and the improvisers dynamics were different. So it really gives a lot of variety.
Holy shit. You shot all of these in one day?
Matt Saraceni: That’s right. Each season was a day, yeah.
That’s unbelievable. What was your budget?
Matt Saraceni: We are doing this on zero budget. The improvisers are doing this for the love of the game and the fact that Dave Z and I work in radio means that we secretly have access to a lot of good recording equipment that we borrowed. Makes no money and it is done for no money. We have pitched it to The ABC over here, the Australia Broadcasting Channel, they did a big open call called Fresh Blood and they’re basically gonna give 22 different web shows 10 grand. So we pitched to them, and Funny or Die contacted us as well, and we had the most American chat with them ever. “We love the show, we reckon it’s going to be a hit with our audiences, and we want to invest in it, and work with you guys in 2014!” And all that is great, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
And you’re still waiting to hear back from them?
Matt Saraceni: They stayed in very close contact with us when we released season 2, they put it on their front page, so they’ve been great for us publicity wise, but we’re still waiting for the check.
Welcome to American entertainment. I think there’s huge potential to this, what are the other outlets you’re pitching besides The ABC and Funny or Die?
Matt Saraceni: Because Written It Down can work as a very cheap web series, we’re trying to make that as successful as we can but keeping it on the Internet only. We’re going to do a live version of the show for a Melbourne festival coming up in September. We’re using this to show that we’re funny as a springboard to pitch other sitcom ideas that we have. Pitching a sitcom in Australia is hard, because it’s such a small population. You have a sitcom over in America that rates in the low millions like Louie or Girls. Obviously those shows are also very downloaded, but in Australia if you even cross a million, it’s a big deal. Our biggest rated show here was something stupid like The Voice finale rates 2 million. Which such a small market, when you pitch a sitcom you’re really pitching a co-production, like how Chris Lilley’s shows co produce with HBO and BBC. Basically we feel so far away from that, we’re in our infancy as a production company and as content creators. We have strong comedy and radio backgrounds, but to get to that point in Australia is hard. We’re just thankful people are watching the show and liking it. That’s the most we can hope for right now.
Any thoughts about ever coming to the states and doing it here?
Matt Saraceni: I would love to when we’ve built up the skills a bit more and have done a bit more, to go to the states and just try my luck with pitching. I’m approaching 30 so you’ve got to roll the dice eventually. With Written It Down we’d love to do a celebrity season as well. Australia is on the publicity train for when movies start doing that.
What advice would you give to people looking to break into the web series space?
Matt Saraceni: I think so many people are afraid of making content or they just talk about it for too long. The only way to get better is to set up a camera and put something up online and invite criticism of it. You wont nail it the first time. If you’re doing web series specifically, invest in sound. In this day and age, anyone can make anything that looks good enough to be on the web with an iPhone camera, but what makes it seem professional is having good quality sound. For us, our key was Reddit as well. We put the first episode on Reddit and overnight it had a conversation around it. We went from 4,000 to 40,000 views in less than 24 hours. Don’t be afraid. Because it’s comedy and it’s subjective, some people won’t like it and will say it’s not funny, but just getting it out there is a good first step.
And here are your three reasons to watch Written It Down:
Everyone has a web series. (Literally every human on Earth.) Some have two or three. That makes it tough to come up with a highly original concept that’s also enjoyable. Zwolenski and Saraceni have done it!
5 episodes in one day. And they’re really good. SIMPLE as that. (Embedding is currently disabled for this episode for some reason – click through to see it.)
Rarely do I see improv that’s better than something a funny person could write. The riffs in Written It Down surpass most finely tuned comedic scripts I’ve read or written. That pisses me off a little but should make the creators feel good.