This Week In Web Videos: ‘Yellow Brick Hell’

I love UCB. Oh man, do I love it. Training there has created so many opportunities for me and introduced me to so many wonderful people. Nothing will ever take that away. But really talented writer/performers do come from other places. In this era when being a UCB’er seems to be synonymous with holding a golden comedy ticket (or at least having one on layaway), it’s easy to forget that many folks not in the core group of 200 or so Brigade talents are still really fucking good. Rob Asaro, though he trained at UCB for a time, is by all accounts an outlier and his Yellow Brick Hell (co-written by Matt Cohen and directed by Justyn T. Davis) proves once and for all that talent comes from anywhere and everywhere…as long as it’s New York, Chicago, or LA. Kidding! The suburbs of all those cities often breed very funny people.

How did you got your start in comedy?

I have a bit of a cliché story, but this is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little kid, maybe 1st grade. Well actually I really got into comedy in 8th grade and then in high school because I thought it would take me to the city. Back in the 90s you’d see standup comedy clubs and they’d have signs that would say stuff like, “Want to be like Jerry Seinfeld?” and then I’d come in and see that all you had to do to get on stage was take their classes. So for about two years from 14-16 I just assumed the only way to get on stage was through classes. That’s how it all started. I was in a comedy troupe in college at Emerson and they gained viral success only after I had left. Then after college I went to LA and took classes at Second City and then came back to NYC and took classes at UCB and stuff like that. I did stage stuff for years, sketch comedy-based stuff, before any of the web comedy stuff blew up. I did another web series and then I did this web series.

Where did the idea for this web series come from and what other things were you mulling before deciding on it?

My friend Matt, who plays Steven in the web series, was on me, trying to get me to do it for about two years. Do comedy stories of stories that have happened to you and I was thinking, “Well, would that be cheating in a way?” Then after a while these stories started to accumulate but we really didn’t know what we were going to do with it right away. The first episode is kind of like a slice of life, trying to catch the bus story. But as we went along we started to realize that it was more about showing different sides of Jack’s life, how the choices you make can impact all the different parts of your life.

You’re a huge Larry David fan, correct?

Oh yeah, definitely.

What was your budget?

We funded it because we shot it over a two-year period, which was not our intent, but it is how it ended up just because of directors traveling and stalling with post production people and things like that. I’d say we put in about $1,000 an episode. We would have not have been able to do that if it was just over 4 months or something like that. Because it was over 2-2 and half years, we were able to scrape it together and do it that way.

Very cool. So besides Larry David, who are some of your comedic influences?

Comedic influences? Oh man, there’s so many. I always like Steve Martin; I was really into The Office and Arrested Development. I even love older stuff like Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. I try to watch all of it. You don’t have to understand it all, but you need to appreciate it all.

What is your writing process like?

It actually changed over time, some of the episodes just came fully formed and we knew exactly what it was going to be and others we just did countless, countless drafts. We did one episode early on where afterwards I decided I never wanted to do another episode like that every again in the series because it wasn’t based on truth. After that we decided it would be better to make sure all of them were based around something true because after the first one I decided I wanted to make this for comedians, make something I felt like comedians would enjoy and I didn’t want it to seem fake in any way. At the same time,  I didn’t want  the standard “This happens to the comedian” episode. I wanted it to be something that was universal but also wasn’t something that could just happen to anyone.

Did you write all of these yourself or did you have a partner?

I wrote these with my partner Matt, who plays Steve in the series.

How do you write with Matt – what’s that process?

One of us will write a draft and then we’ll get together and talk about it or improvise it out a little bit. We’ll go back to the script and some of them we agree on what should happen really easily, others we fight a lot over. There were some episodes where I was like, “You have to trust me, this will be good!” And we end up doing it, but you only get so many of those. For the most part we’re on common ground. We know we wanted to make this series about a guy whose reach exceeds his grasp, who is willingly deluding himself, which you do kind of have to do in this profession.

True. Sadly.

Right now we’ve compiled together the episodes into a screenplay and the odds of this screenplay being made are very stacked against us but for some reason that’s what we wanna do and that’s what we’re gonna do.

What’s next for the project and what’s next for you?

We have three different things that we’re trying to do at once. The first is, when we put out more videos they have to be shorter. We put out the story in 10 episodes and I knew that they wouldn’t go viral because they’re too long to go viral so for the second season I thought “Lets do something a little bit shorter, a little more current and maybe that will cause people to go to the longer stuff and take a look back at our first season.” Because we’ve gained their trust in some way. I’ve already written a screenplay of this, I will need to do a few more drafts and that will take me a couple of months but we need to look into how we can produce that. Finally, we’ve been encouraged to get what we have, wrap it up as one thing and put it into film festivals. I’m not too sure about that one because I don’t know if any of this is film quality. When we were making this we didn’t think of any of this as being used later in a short film. But right now I want to make the shorts and figure out how to produce the screenplay.

What’s your strategy for the feature? Has the current series drummed up any further interest besides this interview within the industry or are you planning on just pitching it cold?

The biggest thing for us right now is we’re still trying to get the series out there and seen by more people. We’re still trying to figure out how to get an audience for this. I put a lot of stock, maybe too much stock, into the trailer that we made. I thought the trailer would convince people to watch it, make them more inclined to invest their time into the series. I knew we weren’t going to go viral because people only have about two minutes to pay attention to any comedy video. That’s when they can watch during lunch or when they have a free moment.

What advice do you have for people looking to break into the digital comedy space?

First I would say, put the effort into the writing. That should go without saying. It should take months just to get your scripts in the right place. Pick a director who correctly fits your project. I’ve done two web series now and with each of them I felt like we got a director that really fit well with the project. This was more of an actor-y piece so we needed a director who was willing to let us go. Some projects require something a little bit more technical, especially if it’s a faster paced comedy, you’d need a more technical director but for this we needed someone who would just let us play and for us that was our director on this. Make sure you have good people on post-production. People say you can just grab a friend and put these together: “Just have them hold up the boom.” But if they’re holding the boom wrong and they get shadows on the set, then your whole weekend is wasted so I say try to put it together like a legitimate production would. We didn’t review dailies either, and we should have done more of that. My big thing was “Let’s keep shooting, let’s keep the momentum up,” but we also needed someone who was like “Let’s take a look at this, maybe we should be trying to make this a little shorter.” Logistically it’s not an easy thing to do, people go out of town, co-producers leave, no one is ever on the same page because no one is getting paid to do this. It’s not gonna be a perfect process, but you just need to find a way to make it work.

And with that inspiring tid bit, here are your three reasons to watch. All start with the letter “p,” as you’ll soon find out.

1. Pessimism

2. Passion

3. Patience

Episode 2: “The Party”

Asaro is relentlessly misanthropic, but we like him anyway. There are moments where his lovable prick shtick holds as much water as a young Woody Allen or–I imagine–Larry David. Sure, these men have absolutely colored his sense of what’s funny but he does the hyper-neurotic form proud where many other newcomers have hacked it up something fierce. The accent definitely helps.

Episode 4: 42nd Street

Rob went in to making this series knowing it wouldn’t go viral and he’s got a great showpiece because of it. Every creator should take the time to make the thing they want to make, preferably early in their career. Going viral is great, but there’s no substitute for finding your creative identity.

Episode 6: Special Agents

This series took 2 years to make–a reminder that most good things don’t happen fast. It’s an unfortunate reality for the impetuous in our industry, the pop-culture-disecting reactives. For people like Rob Asaro, it seems to be nothing more than sweet motivation.

Luke is a writer for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.

This Week In Web Videos: ‘Yellow Brick Hell’