Inside ‘Crash Test’ with Paul Scheer

What happens when you take a comedy special out of the theater and into the streets of Los Angeles in a big glass bus crammed with comedians and fans? In their new Vimeo special Crash Test, Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel have the answer. For the special, Scheer and Huebel translated their popular UCB show into a live ride with stops from friends like Aziz Ansari, Rob Corddry, Aubrey Plaza, Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant, Jack McBrayer, and Natasha Leggero along the way, and ahead of Crash Test’s Vimeo release today, I spoke with Scheer about how he and Huebel developed the idea, why they released it on Vimeo, and how it feels to be a true digital comedy pioneer.

First off, how are you? How’s your summer been?

My summer has been good! I have a baby now, so I’ve been doing a lot of baby stuff.

Oh wow, congratulations!

Aw thank you. It’s awesome. I’m meeting a lot of dad friends and spending a lot of time around playgrounds. Besides that, it’s pretty badass. And we’re back on The League right now too, so that’s always fun.

You’re filming it right now?

Yeah, I’m literally in my trailer right now. It’s the last season, and it’s all in outer space. It’s gonna be a real departure for the show.

I don’t know if I should trust you after our last interview, when you told me you were about to interview Sylvester Stallone for your Wolfpop podcast.

Oh yeah yeah yeah! And I couldn’t tell you about it then, right? What did I do? Did I lie?

“Lie” might be a harsh word. You just said you had a Q&A scheduled with him later that day.

Well you know what? I lied to The Wall Street Journal. I lied to everybody. But here’s the craziest thing: He said he wanted to do it, and I said no. When the show got more popular at the end, his publicity team called and they were like “He wants to do it!” and I was like “No. I don’t want him to do it.” [laughs] He should’ve done it…but it feels better that he never did.

I agree. And the lie was for a good cause.

It was for a good cause. I mean, I wasn’t trying to pull one over on you.

Of course not! So let me ask you all about Crash Test. Where’d the idea for it come from?

So Rob [Huebel] and I do this show Crash Test – it actually started off with me, Rob, and Aziz [Ansari] hosting the show in New York and we came out here and Rob and I just continued to host it. It’s a late night Monday show and it’s always sold out, and we have this diehard crowd who come back week after week – we know their names. It’s unlike any show that I’ve ever done because we do so much interacting with the crowd, so a lot of times we just joke about things we wanna do with them, and we were talking about how we wanna do a sleepover at the theater, we wanna do this, we wanna do that, and one of the jokes we always would say is “You know what? You guys come here all the time. We wanna take you on a bus and bring you to the comedians.” So that was a joke that we’d always say, and Mike Rosenstein who works for Ben Stiller’s company was like “Let’s do that. Let’s get a bus and do that.” And then we couldn’t figure out the bus and then I remember that I saw this one bus in New York that does this tour of New York and I was like “We should get that bus!” and then it just kind of happened. We got this glass bus that’s built specifically for making the street like the stage, and we went out and we shot this thing. So it was like a dumb bit that became a reality.

How do you approach all the logistics for something like this?

It was crazy. The good thing was this bus literally existed, so we weren’t doing anything besides outfitting the bus with cameras, but it was tricky. The bus also had a microphone on it, so throughout the special we’re yelling crazy stuff at people on the street – not just at the actors, but regular people like valets and people walking down the street. We did it on a Sunday so I feel like we skirted a couple things, but there are definitely people who were pulling down their block and you can definitely tell they were like “What the fuck is this?” They were not prepared for a bus with a giant audience to be in front of their house. So yeah, it was complicated to figure out what we could do and what we couldn’t do, and then some of the stuff we just got really lucky with. Paramount allowed us access on their backlot, which is unheard of – just crazy. So a lot of stars aligned. I kind of think of it as an independent movie, because I don’t think anyone believed in us to do this aside from Mike Rosenstein and our director Lance Bangs. We just kind of pushed forward in every way and by sheer will, I think, got to make it happen.

Were there certain challenges that came up once you were on the bus? I’m guessing there might be certain inconveniences to a moving comedy show you might not be able to plan ahead for.

Well we did a test drive the night before, so we got used to the bus and stuff like that, but no, it was pretty great. The only thing that we were nervous about was – and Rob and I were really committed to doing this idea – was that we’re doing a live show: There’s no retakes, there’s no do-overs, we’re getting it and that’s it. So when we pull up to Aubrey Plaza and she’s burying a dead body, we did it once. Aziz literally didn’t even show up to the base camp – he drove to the taco stand, we said “We’re gonna be at the taco stand at 9:15 – be there,” he drove to the taco stand, he did his bit, he got in his car, and he went home. That was the cool thing about the night; there was this element of you show up, we’re doing it, and that’s it. So a lot of the bits are improvised. We gave everybody a general idea of what they were doing, like “All right, this is the idea, let’s just improvise what’s in this and then we’ll interact with the world,” and so we improvised them fat and then we cut them down.

The one mistake that we did try to do was the night before we tried to do a pre-tape at the Odd Future Carnival, and we tried to pull the bus in there and they were gonna attack us with paintballs, but we just were not prepared for the coverage of the paintballs or anything, so they totally doused our entire bus in paintballs, and it’s pretty cool-looking, but it’s not in the special. It’s actually in the credits, like “Next time on Crash Test!” Because we just didn’t have any good coverage of it. So there’s a couple things that we lost and a couple performances that we couldn’t use just because we didn’t shoot it the right way. Oh, and the one other thing that we didn’t prepare for at all was we just set up a bunch of GoPros in the bus to catch everyone’s reaction, but we didn’t always move the GoPros around. A lot of the times you’ll see the same people laughing because we didn’t have a roving camera to catch everybody laughing, so the laugh shot is always on the same side of the bus and you see the same faces laughing a lot. I mean the whole thing was a test run. And then legally, the one thing we got away with that we didn’t think we were gonna get away with was two things actually: One, Tom Lennon and Ben Garant are playing characters that are similar to their Reno 911! characters, but legally they are not the Reno 911! characters, and that was something that was a very tricky legal situation to work out. So when you watch it, they just happen to be Paramount security that may have some similarities to their Reno 911! characters. And then the other thing was that Dan Harmon actually played a part in the whole show because we wanted to shoot on his soundstage and just literally open the door to his soundstage. I remember I emailed Dan because he had to give us permission to even have the door open, so without Dan Harmon we couldn’t have shot our Jack McBrayer bit, which allowed us to open the door to one of the big soundstages. So we worked with Dan Harmon behind the scenes a little, and that was really fun too.

When did Vimeo get involved, and why’d you and Rob choose to release Crash Test through them?

A couple different reasons. We made this special, and the one thing that we felt people weren’t getting a lot of the times came down to the fact that a lot of these networks are a little bit stuffier, and surprisingly so. We’d get people who would watch the special and say “I love it, but we can only buy standup specials that are a person with a microphone on a stage.” They didn’t necessarily understand what we were doing, and they wanted us to change it and make it different from the way we intended it. We shot it independently – it was all done and we packaged it and went out and tried to sell it to the networks. Vimeo was the only place that we dealt with where when they watched it they were like “We love this, we get this, we don’t want you to make any changes to it – make it the way you want to make it.” Everybody else wanted to do things like cut it up or make it serialized, and Rob and I really wanted to keep it pure. So Vimeo was very much our savior.

Vimeo also picked up High Maintenance after no one else would, which ultimately led to the series order at HBO. Do you think Vimeo will start to become a bigger outlet for comedy?

It’s interesting, because I’ve gotten to do a lot of work in this digital space, whether it’s the ArScheerio Paul stuff or Scheer-RL or Hotwives, and the cool thing about digital stuff always was “Oh, you have total creative freedom! You get to do whatever you want, the budgets are smaller, but you get to be pure and artistic.” And now there’s all this stuff with Hulu and Netflix and all these places saying “Well now we need a giant celebrity” or “now we need this” or “now we need that” and now the digital market, which used to be like “Just do whatever the fuck you want, we support you, it’ll find its audience,” is now becoming much like cable or network. I think Vimeo is more of the mindset of “No – this is about you doing your vision. If your vision is movies, or standup special, or whatever – we want to support that.” It was the coolest thing to meet with all these people that I felt had this desire to be in business with us. So they’re a supporter of us, but they’re also just sort of an outlet. There’s only one for now – hopefully we’ll do more Crash Test stuff, but they were the outlet that said “Yeah, we’ll get behind this.” And they really have.

I think Hotwives is a great example of a show that might seem too specific when you hear it as a pitch, but it’s gone on to have so many fans. Which seems impossible to get away with on major networks or even cable sometimes. I’m surprised how huge of a hit it’s been, especially on Hulu before a lot of people started to see it as somewhere to watch original shows.

Well here’s the crazy thing about Hotwives: Danielle Schneider and Dannah Phirman are amazing. They are so great and they write the whole thing themselves, and it’s their brainchild in every way. The cool thing about that show is that when it came out last year on Hulu we did the same thing: We made a sizzle reel, we made it independently, and then we sold it to Hulu. And it was the most watched English language original program on Hulu – I think the only thing we were beaten out by was this show called East Los High. So it was huge, and when we got to come back it was amazing, but still, that show has these major TV stars and these amazingly funny people across the board, and Hulu still gives us no money to make it. It’s crazy. It’s always fighting an uphill battle with these networks to get the right support and stuff, but Hulu has been really great at marketing the show. I’m so excited for it. And I shared your concerns at first – we were like “Oh, we’re gonna be on Hulu? Does anybody watch Hulu?” And we found out that yeah, tons of people watched it and it was the most watched original programming on their network that’s English-speaking.

Hulu seems to be gaining a lot of traction now, at least comedy-wise. Hotwives is a hit, and I really love Difficult People.

Difficult People is amazing, yeah. And they have The Mindy Project now, so Hulu’s coming into their own now. I think we were sort of the test, and they have been great. I’m a big fan of it, and this season is really fun. Keegan [Michael Key] is one of the husbands, I’m one of the husbands, this guy LaMonica Garrett is amazing, and we brought in Erinn Hayes from Childrens Hospital, who is so funny. Just across the board, everyone’s great.

So when Hulu gets huge, you’ll be able to brag about how you were a Hulu pioneer.

Look, you know, I’m trying to get in on the ground floor of all these digital spaces. I’m gonna do an Oculus Rift show – let’s get into VR now!

Are there other ideas you have as far as weird directions you could take Crash Test if you make more?

Rob and I have talked about it. Ideally, what I’d love to do with Crash Test is do it in a few different places – Austin being one of them, San Diego Comic-Con being another. I’d love to take that bus around in these big events and make it like this big scene. Obviously New York would be an amazing location to do it too. But we talked about maybe doing one on a duck boat – they’re part Jeep and part boat – so we’d do a little bit on the water and a little bit on the shore. And we talked about maybe doing it on a plane…so maybe we’d switch up vehicles too. But I think in two weeks at Crash Test in LA we’re gonna experiment with doing something with VR, because why not? We find our show to be so interactive and fun, so we want to find ways to continue to play off that. If we did Crash Test again I would definitely bring one of those VR cameras on the bus – 100%.

Did you learn anything about comedy audiences from making Crash Test that you might not learn in a more traditional venue?

It was really fun because we’re all in this giant glass tube and we were in it for a handful of hours, and it was a long day, and the audience was awesome. We were interacting with them throughout…a lot of the stuff that we wound up cutting out was a lot of interaction with the crowd to make the show move a little bit quicker. But it was a great experience. Surprisingly, it was super fun. I think a lot of comedy fans – especially, for lack of a better term, “alternative” comedy fans or UCB comedy fans, and it’s the same idea with Meltdown too – these fans want to be there, and I think they enjoyed watching the inner workings of the show, and I love our audience – without them there’s no shows, and they’re all really cool. We’ve had marriage proposals onstage, we’ve broken up couples, we’ve gotten couples together, we’ve solved people’s problems, we’ve done all this kind of stuff with this communal attitude, so it really was like being on a bus full of friends. I wish I had a funnier story for what happened, but they didn’t even complain about having to pee for a couple hours. And Tom Lennon literally had his balls in someone’s face and they were like “Yes!” [laughs] They were just so game for it. It was really fun.

Crash Test is available now on Vimeo for $3.99.

Inside ‘Crash Test’ with Paul Scheer