Very few people are born funny. Like any craft, comedy requires years of focused practice, honing a voice and sharpening one’s skills, all the while under the looming threats of atrophy and failure. But from even the humblest humor-seed grows the mighty funny-oak. That’s the lesson we learn from Funny or Die‘s new webseries, “Before You Were Funny”.
Based on the podcast of the same title, the show invites some of the best comedic minds of our day to read and perform sketches they would much rather forget having ever written. It’s a show as encouraging as it is funny, and funny despite all the bad jokes. Watch the first episode below, featuring Andy Daly, Kristen Schaal, and Paul Scheer. Then, read our interview with the duo behind the series and podcast, Jacob Reed and Justin Michael, after the jump!
Nerdist: Where did the idea for “Before You Were Funny” come from?
Jacob Reed: Five or six years ago, I had a weird, weekly show with some friends at The Improv Space. Nobody came, so we tried a bunch of random show formats. One of those was an idea I had called “Before We Were Funny,” where we read all these bad, old sketches and make fun of them. I asked Justin to host it with me, and he had the idea of changing the name and to make it a regular thing.
Justin Michael: Yeah, my most important contribution was to change “We” to “You.” Originally, Jacob imagined it as a one-off showcase of bad material, but I thought it’d be fun to interrupt along the way and call things out. That way, people had a chance to potentially defend their bad material or just revel in it with the rest of us as it was read aloud.
JR: We recorded a few of those shows, but it was before podcasts really took off and we had no idea how to get the audio onto the internet. We did maybe 3-4 of them, and then just kind of stopped.
JM: It wasn’t until we had to come up with some pitches for a meeting with an animation studio a few years later that we revisited the idea. We both love animation and I thought it would be really fun to do it as a live-action/animated hybrid, and so we pitched it that way. The studio didn’t end up buying the idea, but we were still excited about BYWF, and decided to reboot it as a podcast with regular live shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles.
N: How long have you been doing this, and how did FOD get involved?
JM: We’ve been doing the podcast since 2012 with monthly live shows and new podcast episodes every other Monday. I think there are almost 50 episodes now.
JR: We always wanted to do a more visual version of it, and when it came time to pitch the show, Funny or Die felt like a natural fit.
JM: Yeah, we worked with Funny or Die on a bunch of stuff in the past so it was very easy to take it over there to people we trusted and who understood our sensibility.
N: How has making this series affected your current writing?
JM: It mostly hasn’t. I still write bad stuff! You have to. Even if you’re the funniest person alive, you still have to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. This show has made me realize that writing bad stuff is just part of making comedy, or anything creative for that matter. You have to take risks before something good happens. That said, I’ve definitely become hyper-aware of certain types of jokes. A lot of my early material, that I’ve revisited, was just shocking for the sake of shock value. Like, the taboo stuff wasn’t unearned. Some of it is accidentally racist. I wrote a sketch called “Detective Jemima” and it’s essentially a minstrel show and I didn’t even know it.
JR: It’s too bad, because the central premise of “Detective Jemima” is really funny, it just needed to be less accidentally racist. In fact, that’s one thing I’ve learned from the show: a lot of old ideas are funny at their core, but are muddled by some of the things Justin just mentioned. We consistently have material brought into the show that is only bad because it suffers from the writer being a lot newer to writing when they wrote it. So, it might be really long, or have too many premises, or have a wacky character inserted for no reason, but the basic idea is funny. A few guests have read writing from yesteryear on the show, remembered an idea they forgot about, that they still think is inherently funny, and then dust it off using their comedy brain of today.
N: What’s the most memorable guest or moment you’ve had on the podcast?
JM: Man, there have been so many great guests and so much terrible material. One of my all-time favorites is a sketch Casey Wilson read, that her father pitched to her while she was on SNL, that essentially played out as an awkward heart to heart. I also really liked Dan Harmon’s old Batman parody. I love Lauren Lapkus’s stories she wrote as a kid; I’m pretty sure they featured dead cats!
JR: I think my favorite thing that happened is a scene heading from one of the sketches that got Colton Dunn staffed on MADtv. It started with “EXT. SPACE – NIGHT.”
N: The papercraft animation is very charming and fits the mood of the series. Who’d you work with and what was that process like?
JM: We worked with so many amazing and talented people to bring it to life. For the Funny or Die series, we wanted to make sure there was a reason it existed as a video/animated version, so we put an emphasis on making the set interesting and filling out these bad sketches with as many additional sight gags as possible. The first step was bringing on our animation director, Harry Chaskin (Robot Chicken). He’s one of my best buds since 6th grade and works consistently in the stop-motion and comedy animation world these days, so he was the perfect man to oversee that end of things. Tom Smith (Robot Chicken) storyboarded the whole show, based on us scripting out the audio from our live action shoot. He really added a lot of visual jokes to the mix. From there, we worked with Lindsey Gilbert who makes these amazing cut-paper art pieces and comes from the world of Robot Chicken. We felt like her style would fit the tone of the show perfectly, there’s something tactile and rough around the edges in a good way about it. Her stuff is awesome and nerdy if you ever want to buy standalone art pieces! Anyway, she created puppets which were scanned, hinged and digitally animated by Katie Aldworth and Jason Oshman. They emulated stop-mo even though they were doing it digitally and did a knockout job with the character acting.
JR: Yeah, making this web series was a very involved process, with a couple dozen very talented friends helping out. From the animation department, to the crew that helped us shoot the live action segments, and our executive producer Andrew Porter who kept everything on the rails. We’re very lucky to have so many talented friends and we couldn’t have done this without them.
JM: I’m going to shoehorn some plugs in this section. If you live in Los Angeles, you can see the show live on the first Monday of every month, at UCB Sunset, 7pm! You can also listen to the podcast on iTunes. There’s so much good, bad stuff.
JR: And our latest episode of the webseries just premiered. Check it out to see Erinn Hayes and Lucas Neff perform one of Eugene Cordero’s old sketches. Head’s up: it includes unicorn magic.