Every morning, New York City’s streets are filled with millions of people, walking toward work and hoping beyond hope that their next step will somehow take them a little closer to realizing their dreams. That’s until about 9:30. At 1, the streets are filled with actors on their way to commercial auditions. You see, these folks are professionals at re-sculpting their dreams so that they feature roles in commercials for toothpaste or hot wings or wireless companies looking for a spokesperson who’s a “cross between Jonah Hill and Rachel McAdams.” They’re not just performers, they’re warriors; and their day-to-day travails are perfectly captured in The Residuals – a subtly brilliant insider’s series created by and starring husband and wife team, Gillian Pensavalle and Michael Paul Smith.
How did you guys get started in comedy?
Mike: I first did improv in high school and then, right out of high school, started working with the group that would eventually become Basement View Improv and our focus was on live shows. We ended up doing shows at Caroline’s and Gotham. The guy who plays my roommate in this series—Nick—was one of the original five members who founded the group. Eventually, everyone decided to go focus on their separate projects, which for me was doing more video stuff. Gillian and I met doing a web series for the now defunct website Black 20 Network.
Gillian: I didn’t really do a lot of improv until after college. In school I was doing plays and stuff like that, but I guess my first comedic experience was a lot of sketch comedy and the web series, things like that.
What was the inspiration for this series?
Mike: This series came out of real experiences, because Gillian and I have been on a ton of auditions for commercials and had a lot of uniquely bizarre, awkward encounters in the waiting room and the audition room. It’s been a few years doing that now and you really see the whole spectrum of the good and the bad and as a writer I thought there was room for that as a series, so we used that as a jumping off point. I originally wanted it to be treatments I would write and then we would film it Curb Your Enthusiasm-style, but then my co-producer and editor told me that would be a total editing nightmare and Curb Your Enthusiasm has the advantage of people dedicated to over dubbing the sound and I’m sure a whole team of editors working to make sure there’s continuity. So we went into a much more scripted process after that.
What’s your writing process like now that you’ve abandoned the retro-scripting dream?
Mike: Well, it’s important for me to still have it seem spontaneous. I didn’t want it to be like, “It’s my turn to speak, now it’s your turn to speak.” I scripted it out and had some of the principals come in and talk through it with me. I recorded that. We’ve been able to keep it loose by having a policy of doing a clean read first and then, if someone hit on something and it worked, we tried to have them replicate it as much as possible so we could have it from more than one angle. Somebody would improvise something in the moment and that just made us say, “Let’s do that again.”
What was the most challenging part of putting this whole thing together?
Gillian: Actually learning how to do all of this. This was our first web series and we had experience in this world, but, when we did this, we had to do everything. I remember when it would get stressful, we would take breaks and go watch a Breaking Bad marathon or something like that and I would look at the credits at the end and think, “Wow they have one person doing each of these jobs that we’re doing all by ourselves.” We had to learn how to be on set and have fun and also become a producer, making sure everyone had on the same clothes from shot to shot and stuff like that.
Mike: We scouted locations, we were in charge of costumes, and we did our own pseudo-craft services table. I was very cautious about wasting any of the actors’ time because these people were coming in on their own time to help. I didn’t want to seem like the amateur that I was. I wanted to make sure everyone was having fun on set and that it was a fun atmosphere.
What was your budget?
Gillian: We didn’t take money or anything like that so it was completely on us; we had to really learn how to stretch a dollar.
Mike: It was right around $4,000, all told. For about an hour and a half-ish of material that we shot over 5 days. Our biggest expense was our DP and we even got him at a discount because he liked the treatment and the script. We were very, very lucky to have him.
Gillian: A lot of people were so cool about coming in and hanging out. People really loved the treatment and the script and were so okay with giving up weekends and eating pizza and beer, so that was really, really helpful.
Mike: SAG was also really helpful because we wanted to be a SAG production and their standard for Web New Media is still pretty loose, so we were able to still be a SAG production and do it on our own dime.
What’s next for the series?
Mike: For the near term, we’re gonna make sure a lot of people see this and then the dream would be we come across some kind of platform that would allow us to do longer, 30 minute episodes. I hope the characters I’ve written are rich enough to sustain, so that people watch the episodes and like it. If that doesn’t work, we will go back and film a second season. Hopefully we wont have to spend as much money out of pocket next time either. But that’s sort of the fallback plan.
What else are you working on?
Gillian: I am an on camera host for a web site that does news. I usually do the funny stuff or any cute animal stuff. So I’ll stay doing that for as long as they’ll have me. I’m also still doing more commercial auditions and a lot of writing.
Mike: Yeah, I wrote a screenplay that I really like and hopefully The Residuals can be a kind of calling card for me. I consider myself an actor first, but I’m also always writing.
What’s the screenplay about?
It’s about a couple in NYC and one of them is a jazz musician and it’s sort of just a love letter to the jazz community of New York.
What advice do you have for people looking to break into the web comedy space?
Gillian: Keep doing, don’t just sit around talking about how great it would be IF you did something or made a show, make that show or make that video.
Mike: I absolutely agree. It’s amazing how solutions will find themselves if you just keep plowing through and stick with a collaborator whose on the same wavelength as you, and I’m really lucky because that person is also my wife.
Here are your three reasons to watch:
Episode #1, “The Same, Only Different”
Mike and Gillian made a fantastic series with nothing but the cost of one month’s rent in the West Village. Know how? Limited locations. Almost every scene happens in the same, sparsely furnished audition room. They played it smart because they kept it simple.
Episode #2, “Improv skills a MUST”
True to its Curb Your Enthusiasm inspiration, The Residuals is a love note to character comedy.
Episode #5, “Tell Me Your Name”
This series will be funny to many who watch it, but it will be visceral, and irresistibly sharable, for those who are in the habit of going on commercial auditions.
Luke is a writer for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.