The Huffington Post has made it a habit, for good reason, of linking up Cracked.com articles this past year on their Comedy page. You can usually spot them by their list-y titles like "The 6 Most Statistically Full of Shit Professions," "The 5 Creepiest Defense Attorney Websites," and "The 7 Sex Tips from Cosmo That Will Put You (Or Your Lover) In the Hospital."
These articles are offensively snarky, surprisingly educational, and their consistency help make Cracked the funniest site on the innerwebz right now. Full disclosure: I have been published by Cracked.com once.
(McSweeney's Internet Tendency is clever and witty and literary and all, but not exactly a laugh-out-loud kinda deal. Funny Or Die brings in the celebrity cameos, which is cool, but their videos are often just a smidge more "Funny" than "Or Die." CollegeHumor is a little too preoccupied with boobies, and Fail Blog might make you cover your mouth at the sight of a skateboarder kissing a handrail with his nuts, but Bob Saget's been there, done that.)
Cracked is nudging its way higher and higher on many comedy lover's list due to these articles (have you read "8 Awesome Cases of Internet Vigilantism" yet?) HuffPost has been linking up, but it's also due in large part to their cache of original videos.
I recently had the chance to interview Michael Swaim, Head of Video over at Cracked.com, diligent checker of the 689th Edition to the Rules O' Comedy to make sure things are fucking funny.
Here, meet Michael Swaim:
Greg Boose: Thank you for meeting me on the Internet, Michael. Because of your almost-weekly videos, you've kind of become the face of Cracked.com, along with Assistant Editor Daniel O'Brien. It's like having a Web site for a mirror, right?
Michael Swaim: That's kind of you to say, but I think statistically, I'm like one of the least-viewed things on Cracked. DOB (Daniel O'Brien) is huge, and you see my face a lot because I'm one of the only guys doing video consistently, and I think that's led to the impression that I'm a bigwig at Cracked in some weird way. But the vast majority of the traffic to the site is thanks to the strong community of writers they've developed in the forums and, let's face it, that handy list format. People love that shit.
GB: People do love a good list. And while we're talking about Daniel O'Brien, you two just starred in Cracked's first ever web series "Agents of Cracked." When these were airing daily back in Nov., it would be one of the first things I watched in the morning, and I kept thinking to myself, "This shit is funnier than almost anything on television right now."
Wait, I want these list-loving people to see the first episode of "Agents of Cracked" before we go on.
GB: Okay. So tell me how the series came into fruition. And aside from the (mostly) glowing comments on the site, what has the reaction been?
MS: Abe Epperson, my creative partner, and I have both always wanted to tell some longer stories in addition to working on sketches. Sketch is fantastic, and a fulfilling discipline unto itself, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't dream of making a feature one day, as obvious and cliche as that dream must be to the world at large by now. "Agents of Cracked" was a foray into that world, and I think a fruitful one. We got to basically make an episodic, poorly structured film in five minute chunks, so there was a lot of room to play and learn about the differences between sketch and sitcom.
As I remember (probably incorrectly) we started pushing to do some kind of web series around the same time Cracked got interested in doing some kind of web series, so things just aligned. I also wanted a project I could bring Dan O'Brien into, because we really hit it off as far as writing collaboration goes and I wanted to explore that. Abe, Dan and I tossed around ideas for a while, then got word that our budget was going to be as low as possible (in exchange for the production of a higher budget web series pilot following the release of "AoC" ... which is the project we're currently working on, incidentally). So we took all our fancy ideas and started crossing off anything that seemed too expensive, until we were left with "Dan and Mike, as themselves, working in this office that we're sitting in."
It was the cheapest possible world for us to construct, and in the end I'm really glad we went that way, because stripping away all of our high concept ideas allowed us to focus on straight-up execution. Rather than making a thriller about a space detective and his self-loathing gay robot manservant, we got to work with an utterly bare-bones sitcom setup -- two guys in an office, one the straight man and the other the wacky guy -- and see how funny we could make it. Considering we wrote and shot all fourteen episodes over the course of a few weekends, I've been really pleased with the response. To their credit, our audience were much more willing than I thought they'd be to accept us working on something unlike what they'd seen before. We still got a lot of comments about how Dan should have been the wacky one and I the straight man, because that more closely matches our writing personae. But truth be told, and our acting styles what they are, I think we went the right way. In our heads, the real hidden joke of "Agents" is that Dan, this mild-mannered straight man, writes all his articles as a loud drunken oaf as a way to escape from the hell of working with a loud, drunken oaf. Which would be me.
GB: In your videos, particularly in "Agents of Cracked," you play being "aloof" very well. Almost... too well. As if you don't know you're being funny. At all. Where was I going with this? Right. You've got a little Stephen Colbert thing going where people are laughing at you, rather than with you, which seems to be the point of your characters. Where are you deriving a lot of your comedy from, or rather, who do you find frustratingly funny and hope to be on par with some day?
MS: When someone like Zach Galifianakis or Louis C.K. is tearing up the stage, and at the same time doing very little and making it look like they're barely putting in any effort -- I envy that. I'm a decent actor, and can write jokes, but being comfortable and having a "persona," just radiating funny onstage, is something that definitely doesn't come naturally to me. I practice my facial expressions in the bathroom mirror, and even in an improv scene, my mind is racing to write out my "lines" ahead of time, which you're not supposed to do. Improv in general is the only thing that scares me as a performer, which is why I force myself to do it now and again.
I'm not sure I have enough perspective to trace the origins of my own style of humor, or even define it really. I'm sure The Simpsons is a big part of it, and I'd like to think there's some Vonnegut and even a little Shakespeare in there. Shakespeare for his appreciation of a good pun and his cavalier abuse of the language he so clearly loved, Vonnegut for his eye for truth and his brevity. I doubt anyone will see any of that in my writing, but I try, dammit.
I think Arrested Development is the most well-crafted farce of the last fifty years, but I'm not about to quantify how much, if any of that, has rubbed off on our stuff. Hmm. That's all writing-wise, anyway. Performance-wise, I never consciously went after the Stephen Colbert comparison, but I definitely see it. I've been lucky in that I've gotten to play a wide variety of roles (thanks to the whole "Zach Braffing" thing) -- even some I probably wasn't right for -- so I have the luxury of thinking of myself as a flexible actor. Although in reality, I'm probably just too egotistical to see whatever clear type I am, or who I'm ripping off. But hey, as long as that delusion holds, I plan to ride it for all it's worth.
GB: You're out in L.A., which means I have to ask if you're thinking about acting professionally out there: Are you thinking about acting professionally out there?
MS: I really want to, and I keep making token efforts at it: I got headshots and I signed up for a casting website. But the only real audition I've gone on was one for "Monk," and that one I was invited to because one of the series directors saw our stuff online and liked it. I love acting, and would love to do more of it, but people who know more than me about acting in LA. have been telling me that if I want to go that route, I need to be enrolled in acting courses and auditioning many times a week, and I'm just not ready to give up all the wonderful creative control I have on our projects to go sit in a room and wait for my name to be called.
For better or worse, I think I'm addicted to the DIY workflow we've developed. I really admire the folks who can persevere as purely actors, because it takes a thick skin and a lot of patience and dedication. These are all qualities I lack. My hope now is that by writing, co-directing, and casting myself in everything (again "Braffing it," as we say in the biz), I'll sort of get grandfathered in as an actor and get cast in stuff when we become huge-famous-comedian-guru-creator-type people. I can't cut it with the professionals toiling away in the mines, so I'm gambling on bursting in through the skylight. With any luck, I'll either end up being Batman or lying dead among scattered shards of skylight glass.
GB: Take me through the process of putting together an episode of Cracked T.V. And what are some of the shows -- filmed or never fully realized -- that never saw the glow of the monitor?
MS: Cracked T.V. is a very unique workflow, much more like a TV show than than you'd expect for such a fake fakey fake approximation of TV. Back in the day, I'd get an episode idea, jot it down in my little notebook, then spend hours searching YouTube and Google for clips and/or articles fitting within the category. More rarely, a perceived trend or particularly awesome article or bit of video will trigger an episode idea and then I see if there are more content units out in the ether like it. That's the longest, hardest part of the process... just spending hours churning through pure, relatively unfiltered Internet ... but it's the part of the show that makes it of the internet, and something that could only exist on the internet, so I like it for that reason. I like it even more now that, in true net fashion, I crowdsource a lot of those research duties to my Twitter followers and a few dedicated Cracked interns. These days, while I still do a healthy portion of the research, in a lot of ways I'm just a joke machine or a filter that feeds the audience back exactly what they gave me, but hopefully funnier now. It's all very organizational; it often feels more like taxonomy than narrative. But in any case, after I've got all the material harvested, you can guess the rest. Narrow it down, outline, rough draft, rewrite, etc.
Then I have a finished script, I run to some thrift stores and/or supermarkets and round up props and costumes, pack everything into my car, pick Abe up and we go shoot it on a green screen set up at the Cracked offices in Santa Monica. Which is actually kind of surreal, since we shoot in a part of the office (for lighting reasons) that has nothing to do with Cracked. It's all the Livestrong.com and ehow.com people (yes, all websites are headquartered in one big happy building called "the internet building"). We wait until they're all gone for the night then we shoot Cracked T.V. in their cubicles. It's all very ramshackle and suspect. Sometimes the (normal office building's) security people or janitorial staff will wander by and peek in, clearly wondering why there's a guy in a suit puking chicken into a bucket at 1 am while another guy films it. I should add that they are always very understanding.
Then editing, which believe it or not takes the longest by far (although research used to be a close second). An average episode of Cracked T.V. has something like a hundred cuts, a lot of text layers and photo animation, compositing, video encoding etc. All of that stuff takes quite a bit of time, which is why the show is twice weekly and also why ...BUM BUM BUM... I will be changing the format somewhat after episode 30 (and hopefully putting it out once a week instead). That's right, you just got a genuine scoop, Greg Boose. Tear this email out of the printer and run to your editors' office with the steaming ink still smudging your naive, bright-eyed fingers.
GB: Just got back. Out of breath. Hold on. Okay. My editor told me to wash my hands and comb my hair, but seemed mildly constipated with the news. We're all looking forward to the new format. Hopefully "Clippy," your off-camera assistant who sets up a lot of the clips for the show, will be joining the new format. By the way, I've been picturing Clippy as an iguana creature wearing Corey Worthington-like sunglasses who guzzles Monster energy drinks between coughing fits.
MS: See, in my mind, Clippy is the onboard computer in S.W.A.I.M.'s underground lair. Sort of a HAL-like character, but with much humbler life goals. I don't think I'll ever get over my fantasy/sci-fi bent, which basically means I obsessively create unnecessarily complex back stories and sub-plots for whatever I'm working on. I know exactly what S.W.A.I.M. is, the details of the government project that created him, where his base is located, and how many of his orifices can shoot lasers (one). But as is so often the case with that kind of thing, no one but me cares. And they're absolutely right not to. The fact that I do is sort of a secret shame.
GB: Writing for the Internets seems like it's finally paying off for certain writers. When you took your first stab at writing comedy, where were you getting published and what was the material?
MS: I actually started out writing science fiction and fantasy primarily. I got a few stories published in some sci-fi mags and was all set for that journey to happen. Then I became involved with "The MQ", and that was really where I learned to love comedy. "The MQ" (basically our version of "The Onion") at University of California, San Diego, treated comedy very much like a fuzzy science ... we analyzed comedy that worked, tried to synthesize rules, and threw around a lot of hypotheses about what makes the perfect joke, or the funniest possible way to phrase a headline. It was a great experience, and really convinced me that writing comedy was intricate and deep enough to get into seriously.
I was a Theatre major at UCSD, so that lead naturally to writing and staging some sketch/improv revues as well as a couple of full plays (also comedic). The yearly sketch revue we started is still going, I'm happy to say, as is The MQ of course. I slid pretty naturally into video because I've always been interested in it and I met Abe Epperson, my creative partner, who I honestly think is one of the most gifted filmmakers our age. Although I do still hope to do more stuff for the stage, and I've got a half-written fantasy novel I'd like to finish.
GB: It seems you rely heavily on YouTube for your shows and I'm figuring you watch ten times as many clips as you actually use. So, how many YouTube clips do you think you watch in, say a week?
MS: Yeah, Cracked T.V. in particular should probably say "fueled by YouTube" somewhere on the logo. The Internet is such a bizarre mix of open discussion, incoherent vitriol and alienating in-jokes that it can be hard to find common ground to cover. I think I gravitate to YouTube because it's like a giant warehouse of all those things bundled together in an easy-to-search fashion. It's like the Costco of human weirdness, or an America's Funniest Home Videos marathon viewed through a haze of guzzled Nyquil. When working on an episode of Cracked T.V., I'll watch maybe 40 or 50 videos before narrowing it down to however many I'm actually going to use. It sounds like a lot, but so far the only effects it's had on my life are that I always have plenty of links to send around and I'm bitterly cynical about the collective intelligence of the human race. Any negative effects remain to be seen.
GB: That's a lot of clips. I couldn't handle that many clips. Is there one clip you've come across that you just can't get enough of?
MS: There have been so many. I'm not big on re-watching "guy pulls tree over with his truck"-type videos, but I'll often become obsessed with an effective sketch or astoundingly strange music video or something. I remember watching the video for "Shine On Me" by Chris Dane Owens about a million times. I went through a phase where I just watched Louis C.K. stand-up clips all day, and another where I just watched Reggie Watts and Candyrat music videos. I'll cop out and say that video of the parkour/juggler guy who's billed as "the most talented man in the world." Hyperbole aside, he certainly can run up a wall something fierce.
GB: And then, I must know, but I don't want to know, what's the most disturbing clip you've come across on the Internet while working on Internet comedy. (And don't say "Two Girls and a Cup." Which, I can proudly say, I've never seen.)
MS: Somehow, I've also avoided seeing Two Girls One Cup, Pain Olympics, and a few other big "gross out" clips. The halcyon days of setting my friends' homepages to lemon party and forwarding tubgirl to grandparents (not mine) are behind me. But of the x-rated vids I have seen, I'd have to give "Kids In The Sandbox" my seal of OHDEARGODNO. In a less nasty vein, I don't think I've ever been more angry at my computer than when I watched that video of the soldier dangling a bottle of water out of reach of begging Iraqi children. F' that guy.