For my money, there are few things on this big, blue marble we call Earth more awe-inspiring and superlative than the amalgamation of comedy and animation. Screw off, peanut butter and chocolate. Hit the bricks, mortar and bricks! Take a breather, unstable sociopaths and boxes of abandoned puppies. The good folks from Jash and VPN obviously agree, which is where ANiMASHUPS, their series of animated podcasts, comes in.
ANiMASHUPS, which first appeared on Jash’s sister network the Video Podcast Network back in mid-February of 2013, has released over 58 videos to date and features material taken from over eight different partnered podcasts. We were lucky enough to speak with the series creator along with some of the animators and podcasters involved with the series as they gear up for fundraising and pre-production on season two.
Although podcasts are wildly popular today – Apple claims that its customers have subscribed to more than a billion podcasts since iTunes debuted less than a decade ago – there’s no denying their primitive nature as far as forms of expression are concerned. They lack in visuals and have more in common with the radio serials of the 1930’s than the high-tech entertainment we bombard ourselves with today. Thus the mashup of the podcast and animation – the animashup if you will – was an idea waiting to happen.
No DJ Required: ANiMASHUPS’ Producer Envisions a Funnier Kind of Mashup
Magnanimously enter MJ Offen, who saw an opportunity ripe for exploit where others did not. Take even the most cursory glance at Offen’s animation- and comedy-centric resume and it comes as no surprise that ANiMASHUPS is wholly her brainchild. In 2012, Offen left her position at Maker Studios when fellow employee Mickey Meyer co-founded Jash alongside Daniel Kellison. In addition to having created and released the first episode of ANiMASHUPS within five weeks of her employment, Offen oversees all animated content in her role as Head of Animation at Jash, including their series Very Animated People.
Utilizing her more than a decade worth of experience and industry contacts, Offen saw a possibility for ANiMASHUPS right away; she felt that there was an opportunity to animate podcasts already under VPN’s live-stream banner and believed she could do a better job than others had before, including HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show, which she feels could have better adapted the source material. One of Offen’s primary goals in creating ANiMASHUPS was to let the animators express themselves and have a say in creating a stronger, funnier narrative – one that would enhance the source material in a completely original way. Two other shows worth mentioning that also animate audio content are Supergo and Nerdist’s collaborative animated short series as well as Todd Bieber’s UCB show, Animated Stories.
Bring out the Animators!
Just as a hunter stalks his prey, so too does Offen find herself lurking at many of the recording sessions of VPN’s partnered podcasts, hoping to find a comedy gem she might utilize in ANiMASHUPS. Offen is singlehandedly responsible for selecting what source material to animate and selects the animator based on what she believes will most fit the style and tone of the source material. Striking a balance between the comedy and the artistic expression and style of each animator has always been something Offen strives for. You don’t work in one specific field of an industry for over a decade and not make some solid, meaningful connections. This fact that is clearly not wasted on Offen, who has made good on said connections and brought on board numerous accomplished animators each with their own disparate backgrounds and styles, including Jaxamoto, Loogaroo, and Tinman Creative.
One example of this process at work is how Offen reached out to Travis Betz to animate a Brian Posehn clip featured on Earwolf’s Sklarbro Country, knowing that that not only is the movie referenced in the bit one of Betz’s favorites, but he is a friend of Posehn’s.
Betz, whose distinct work utilizes the labor-intensive paper cutout animation style, described the control he had over artistic choices in animating Posehn’s work as “oodles and oodles.” Betz explains that previous to this experience, he and Posehn would ofen chat about their mutual love of horror movies. When Betz came across a bit in the Sklar Brothers podcast about Posehn hitting puberty, he says he “instantly knew I wanted to do a werewolf thing.” Betz says Offen gave him “complete freedom to create it how I saw fit” so he “mapped Brian’s story over one of my all time favorite flicks, An American Werewolf in London.” The result is an ANiMASHUPS classic that perfectly utilizes Betz’s unique style without bastardizing the source material.
Offen understands the nature of her position is neither to be seen nor heard. She says that the better job she does in utilizing the source material and striking a balance between comedian and animator, the less evident it is that she was ever there.
The ANiMASHUPS experience and the freedom it allows for animators is a happy, fruitful one. Betz says “being able to turn Brian into a werewolf was all the reward I needed.” He adds, “It’s also fun to play with someone else’s words and re-interpret them. You’re basically adding someone else’s joke by layering visual humor over it. So that’s fun!”
Podcasts and Beyond
UCB founder and Improv4Humans host Matt Besser would agree. Besser is a favorite of ANiMASHUPS and his podcast has been featured in the second most amount of episodes, behind Adam Carolla. In addition to Improv4Humans and Sklarboro Country, ANiMASHUPS features two other podcasts from Earwolf along with the Todd Glass Show, Getting Doug with High, The Adam Carolla Show, and The Big Three Live.
Besser points out that the series fills a gap: podcasts, like long-form improv, seem to call out for an enhanced experience. Besser says, “One of my goals has always been to have long-form improv on television and one of the knocks against long form-improv has always been, ‘Well, you guys don’t have props, or a costume, or a set.’ People are used to seeing that visual element in a sketch show, and something like ANiMASHUPS, which is animated, addresses that.”
Besser confirmed that he had minimal contact with the animators during the production, but was shown episodes for approval before they aired. He says he always eagerly views the end product because sometimes the sum of ANiMASHUPS is greater than the parts: “It’s like if you saw your own piece of art in someone else’s collage. It’s not only about your piece of art, it’s about theirs also.”
Besser points out that the animated podcasts “can be compared to how we normally think of mashups, musically.” The animation process allows the animator to keep what he or she considers the best of the original and throw out the rest: “Do you really like the full song or do you only like the woman singing in the chorus?”
And, according to Besser, the resulting ANiMASHUPS can take on an unexpected form because animation, like improv, is such a flexible medium: “The thing that improv has always had over sketch or other mediums is that like animation, you can go anywhere with it.”
The Editing Process
The typical ANiMASHUPS video is only one or two minutes long. MJ Offen points out that, by necessity, the ANiMASHUPS have been heavily edited down from the original source material, a fact she prides herself on most viewers not noticing or feeling the editing was overbearing on the material. During my talk with Offen, she pointed out that this position was her first time directly overseeing the editing process of a production. While this may seem daunting to some, Offen pointed out the similarity in both skill set and nature of editing and writing. Because the post-production process is obviously the most important and labor intensive aspect of producing the show, Offen mentioned that sifting through all of the source material in the hopes of putting together a coherent episode is similar to playing with magnetic poetry in motion pieces on your fridge.
Being self-aware enough not to edit source material in a way that alters the voice of the comedian is one of Offen’s strongest concerns. On the other hand, it is important to find out which comedians resonate with the animators Offen is working with.
Matt Besser points out one complication in the editing process: the loss of callbacks and scene work laid earlier in the episode. He says, “Sometimes they have made what was a six-minute scene down into a minute and a half. Because of this approach, some of the ANiMASHUPS can come off as a little absurdist because you don’t understand the logic behind the absurdity.” Besser says that his style of comedy and the UCB style is to be soundly grounded in logic. He says, “I don’t like pure absurdity in my comedy, I like for the absurdity to have some logic behind it. So I think there are some things lost… I would certainly love to see a full 22-minute Improv4Humans animated.”
The Future of the Future is the Past
Will Besser’s wish come true? Offen believes that each ANiMASHUPS episode could potentially be an incubator project and she is definitively open to expanding a particularly successful episode of ANiMASHUPS into its own show.
Offen also points out how strong of a promotional tool the ANiMASHUPS series can be for the partnered podcasts that are being live-streamed on VPN, whose material is given new life and the audience that accompanies that fact. Offen is currently in the midst of fundraising and gearing up for production on season two, but several episodes, including an episode with Norm Macdonald and another with Russell Brand, in which Brand explains the process for selecting a Dalai Lama, are already in the can. Although Offen couldn’t say for sure how far down the line we will have to wait until we get to see some more episodes, she was able to hint at the fact that there will be some brand-new partnered podcasts in addition to the menagerie you saw in season one.
In a medium that wholly incorporates and embraces both the archaic and the groundbreaking, it is hard to say for sure what is to come, but hopefully there will be more ANiMASHUPS and shows of its kind. As animator Travis Betz was quick to point out, “I think things like ANiMASHUPS are a great way for animators, comedians and storytellers to play around and experiment. And I think those things are vital to any art form.”