The first time I spoke with UCB Creative Director Todd Bieber was three and a half years ago and I had no idea what I was talking about. I was thinking of leaving my post-college job at Morgan Stanley and accepting a position at a small production company in New York. After completing UCB’s Sketch 101 program, I figured I knew enough about digital comedy to call Todd and ask if he’d be interested in doing some web series collaborations. He was polite and he didn’t want to. Flash forward to now. Years of working with UCB and its talent – including Todd – have passed and I get to speak to Mr. Bieber again about a fantastic series he created with the help of so many others I know and love. This time I felt like I knew what I was talking about, and a lot of that is due to the UCB community’s tutelage, their acute understanding of comedy not just as a craft but as a commitment that takes a lot more than a phone call.
How did Gary Saves the Graveyard come to be?
Todd Bieber: I had written a pilot for this on my own maybe 2-3 years ago, and it was an idea that had kind of always lived in my pile of ideas. I really liked the idea of this schlub who works in a graveyard and then the graveyard comes to life. At UCB we, Julie Gomez and I, wanted to showcase something beyond what the typical web series would be or what the typical web video would be. We felt like this one had a good hook and also had heart and was something that we could do. So I got 5 of my favorite UCB writers and the 5 of us just wrote this for months and figured out the plot and turned what had been my original pilot into something much more fully realized than when I had originally started it.
How long of a time was it between when you thought up this idea and when you finally went into production on Gary?
Todd Bieber: Production started sometime in April, I think April 6th was the first day of production, and we wrote from December until April, we wrote right up until the end of pre-production. We were even re-writing during production. So probably about 5 months. Everyone was also working on other projects so we would meet about once or twice a week and send scripts to one another but it wasn’t full time. We couldn’t afford a full time writing staff for five months.
It’s set up for a season two or a TV property potentially? What’s the plan and what’re your aspirations for it?
Todd Bieber: I think if we find an audience for it then we’ll write a second season. The first season is almost like a little mini series. If this were the end of it, that would be a bummer but it does have a conclusion on it and if we find out later there were people who were interested in it we could come back and write a second season. We would all really love to write a second season of it because it’s all really fun characters and really fun scenarios.
From a production point of view, this is one of the most impressive web series that I’ve seen. Could you talk to me a little bit about what your production budget was and where it came from?
Todd Bieber: We had a little bit of money that we had set aside from doing branded content and we were able to use that on the series, but I think people would be surprised how little was spent on it. We went to my hometown in Pennsylvania, which is how we got all of those locations. We had a forest, we had a huge amount of extras and background actors, and compared to trying to make something in NYC or Los Angeles it was much easier. The second season I’m not sure if we could do that again because we called in literally all of our favors for this one. CJ Dockery did all of the art for this and she was amazing. Everyone involved had a real sense of ownership over this where we all collaborated where we made something that was good that we could show off, but we also wanted to make something for all of us. We all kind of decided we were going to put aside some money from our paychecks and make something good.
The horse blew my mind.
Todd Bieber: The Horse we were able to use for free, actually. We just had to pay for that lady’s gas, but it was only like $10. That’s one of the big differences between shooting in New York and shooting in Pennsylvania.
In New York you couldn’t of even gotten that horse. In LA, it would’ve been $15-18,000 for the day.
Todd Bieber: Right, and you could have bought an economy car with our entire budget for this thing.
What other web series are you watching right now?
Todd Bieber: From UCB Comedy there’s a team called Brinkman and they do web series, they’re doing a web series called Pact that I think is just really, really funny and dark humor. Then from UCB Comedy there’s two short films that have come out of the system, one is called Presto, which I think is just so good. I love to see people pushing the expectations of what you get online. We shot Gary like a feature film but we wanted to present it like a mini feature film story. Other people who are doing that are people like Tom Levin, who did a short called Hello Norman. Outside of UCB I love High Maintenance. I think what they’re doing is fucking phenomenal and I’m just enthralled by them. Now they’ve got support, which is great.
I know UCB is breaking into the branded content game. Where is branded content going, where’s its future?
Todd Bieber: I hope that the future of branded content is creating original series that are funny and good on their own and are also brought to you by a brand that makes sense. I think as content creators there’s nothing wrong with having a brand attached as long as they’re not interfering with the content and the voice of the people who create it. I think that’s the future of it. I think that the age of creating commercials online is hopefully going to end soon. I think people will see soon that it’s not the way of doing branded content. People get up and go to the bathroom during commercials. People don’t share commercials on their Facebook wall. They share something that’s personal and that they’re connected to and I see the future of brands going more towards that. I think that when you work in that realm it’s like anything else, it’s all about finding the right collaborator. It’s about finding the right fit and finding people who know what you do and respect what you do and want you to do what you do to the best of your ability that also helps them.
For aspiring writers and comedians, do you think branded content is going to provide a new career outlet that wasn’t there 2, 3, 4 years ago?
Todd Bieber: Absolutely. Branded content isn’t going anywhere. I just read something that brands are switching 15-20% of their TV budget to online branded content. 15-20% isn’t a huge amount but it’s going to shift every year and 15-20% is still millions and maybe even billions of dollars. And that’s going to people creating niche, cool and innovative stuff. If you’re doing something cool online you’re already doing 2/3rds of the work for brands so they might as well pay you to do it for them.
What’s your advice for people who are looking to break into the digital comedy space but maybe don’t have a ton of experience, or any at all?
Todd Bieber: My advice is: do something that you love and are passionate about and keep doing that to the best of your abilities. I’ve gotten some pieces of advice that I think are really helpful. One of them is keep making stuff. I already have 2 or 3 other projects that I’m working on right now in addition to this and on each one I’m learning from the mistakes that I’ve made and making them better. And I think the biggest piece of advice would be: find a community. Find people who want to do something similar to what you’re doing and become great friends with them. With Gary Saves The Graveyard, we all still hang out together. This weekend some of the crew and cast members went to a cabin together and hung out together all weekend long and I think that sense of community and friendship is really something that shows up on the screen. We all want to do great work for each other and to know that we all have this common interest and common bond makes it fun but also makes everything turn out better.
And it plays tremendously real on screen. It’s something that looks bigger budget and even more high-fi than it already is because the emotion is so evident, which is something special.
Todd Bieber: Thanks so much.
Here’s why you should watch this series:
1. Production scope
I’ve never seen an independent digital series executed this well and for so little. UCB’s bootstrapping legacy continues, and continues to inspire.
Led by a very human Jim Santangeli you can’t help but root for, each member of the Gary cast has dimension that proves the true talent of UCB’ers as bonafide actors.
I’ve never watched a web series with an arc that I cared so much about. Especially not at 10 minutes per episode. Make a feature, Todd.
Luke is a writer for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.