Magnet Spotlight: 20/400
Ever thought about starting your own web series? Or capturing your comedy in film? 20/400 (www.20-400.com) is a new web series brought to you from the Magnet's own Lauren Olson, Christian Paluck, and Jana Schmieding. These three have known and have performed with each other for a very long time. Credits they have been involved in (not necessarily all three) include, Chet Watkins, Good Morning Ladies, Les Encompentent, Company 29, Risky Bottom, Tonight's Performance, 4Some, Big Fat Liars, Jana and Lauren Presents, and The Armando Diaz Experience among various Director Series and many many other shows.
20/400, which releases new videos every Monday, is their latest on taking and based on their track record will not be their last. Recently I (Amanda Ariel Peggy Xeller!) got the awesome opportunity to sit down with 20/400's three creators to learn more about them, their comedy background, and "friends helping friends" - 20/400.
Where are you all from originally?
Jana Schmieding (JS): I'm originally from a small town in Oregon near Portland.
Lauren Olson (LO): I'm originally from Portland proper. North West Hills.
Christian Paluck (CP): Ooo city girl! I grew up in Springfield Massachusetts.
When and how did you all meet?
LO: Jana and I met in college at the University of Oregon doing theatre. She was a year ahead of me in the acting program. She was a theatre major, I was a theatre minor. But we didn't really get to become good friends until the end of our senior year when we both realized we were moving to New York. We were also in an improv group together.
JS: And then Christian and I met on Chet Watkins, well we were taking classes at the Magnet together.
CP: Prior to Chet Watkins.
JS: Yeah. We were put on Chet Watkins via our class.
LO: And then I met Christian through Jana and going to all the Chet Watkins shows. Christian and I were on Good Morning Ladies together.
What attracted you to the Magnet to begin with?
CP: For me, I had been studying at UCB and kind of was getting frustrated with improv. I went away and did stand up for a couple years. A friend of mine, I had been aware of Armando for a long time though I had never studied with him. So at a certain point, I had an inkling to do improv again and looked specifically for a class that he was teaching. I think it was called Instant Brilliance, which he doesn't do anymore. It was a great class and that's what introduced me to the Magnet and enticed me into getting back into the frame of mind where I was willing to take classes knowing I would have to get through levels to get on a team. That's how I came to be here.
LO: Jana and I came to the city in 2005 and we started studying at UCB. UCB at the time, I think it still is, but it was very hard to get into the classes. But Jana found the Magnet online and was like, "Check this out." We were interested and it was so new - only 6 months old. Armando started a class and it was 50 bucks off if you wanted to join it. And I was like ring-a-ding-ding.
JS: And I couldn't start classes until a year after that. It was my first year teaching. I was just too broke and stressed out to even think about doing comedy, which was the wrong thinking because comedy actually saved my life in the second year of teaching when I wanted to kill myself every day.
Who influences you and who had influenced you when you first got into the comedy game?
CP: For me, the first time I remember being aware of comedy as a specific thing was watching Airplane or the original Police Squad, the predecessor to Naked Gun, it was on TV, but watching that with my dad. And seeing him laugh at stuff was the first specific awareness I had to comedy. And later on in High School and stuff, finding friends who were into Monty Python and the current SNL, which was the Chris Farley era. At that point, I was interested enough to try to look at is as a potential life focus. I didn't get there until later, but knew it then.
JS: I don't think I considered it a life focus until college because I was interested in theater and performing and even though my friends and I used to make funny videos and stuff. when we were kids. I didn't really think of it as a career choice or a life choice until I studied in college under this man named John Schmor who was a great acting coach and he was very influential in shaping how I performed and the ability to not always strive to be a young ingénue or a young female lead, which I was quickly realizing in college was not an option for me. And I was okay with that once I realized ugly grotesque kind of ballsier characters are a skill. Once my eyes were open to that I jumped at it at every opportunity I could get. And I decided upon leaving college that instead of pursuing acting or Shakespearian Performance, I was going to try to pursue comedy when I moved to New York.
LO: My first influence is easily from my Dad. He used to bring in a lot of Charlie Chapman movies when I was a lot young and Bringing Up Baby, which is one of my favorite movies to date. I used to grew up on this stuff and Nick at Night. I would watch I Love Lucy and I Dream of Jeanie constantly. I used to watch a ton of SNL and tape it. My cousin used to write for it so we would watch for him and that continued out of habit just watching it and loving it. I was a Business major in college. I didn't even get into acting and really thinking I could do anything like that until one of my friends wanted to launch an improv troupe in college. I loved it and found out I was decent at it. When I moved here, I wanted to do straight acting. But then Jana pointed out this improv class. I had never taken a class, that was previously mentioned. I got really jazzed about it and studying it. I never really studied theater and was thinking about going to grad school for that, but the Magnet almost became my grad school in a way. It was an interest that I really immersed myself in. I remember taking Sketch with Ed my first year here and I remember all of a sudden getting it and watching my favorite shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and stuff and predicting it. You look at things in a different light and understand it. That was a big epiphany for me. That was probably my first year in the city and really immersing myself fully.
What is 20/400?
JS: 20/400 is a project that the three of us have been working on since September. August? August September. We really wanted to strategically to make a move from live character sketch to digital. So we started writing to have 3 minute episodes and slowly we developed a concept: having the three of us as ourselves talking about ourselves in the beginning and then a tangential character sketch would come of that conversation. I'm trying to frame it as a project because it's not the only thing the three of us have collaborated on and it won't be the only thing the three of us have collaborated on. But it's really fun to move into a different medium of entertainment. It's kind of the one one thing the three of us have yet to conquer, besides of course independent film, which is our third conquest.
CP: I have an independent film credit. It's called Sam & Amira. It's a Vanishing Angle Productions. Sean Mullin directed it. I play Officer O'Rourke.
I think the most important thing for me is the fact that these would live farther than just an improv show or a 3-4 week run of a live sketch show. You can start to build a body of work that has some pertinence to it. If someone asks to see an example of what you do, you wouldn't just have to say, "Hey come see me Wednesday night or Thursday night," or "I have a sketch show up in July (that you'll probably never come to)." There are things accessible to a broader audience in a readymade form. It's the same things we enjoy doing on stage, but again, existing longer in this format.
LO: We want to showcase to people what we do. I think the coolest thing that has come out of this, for me at least, you see us working together and you see the finished product and you get a sense for our general sensibility and aesthetic. It meshes well. There's a lot of similarities in what we find funny, and differences too, but there is a clear point of view which is fun to own. It's a more marketable thing to have it all in one place as an ongoing project.
Is Jana and Lauren Presents a playing ground for trying out characters to be used in 20/400?
LO: I don't look at it as trying out new characters for 20/400 but there definitely is an overlap. If I do something that could work I think, "This is fun. I could do this more. I bet I can find a way to put this person somewhere else."
JS: It certainly has been an opportunity to meet collaborators - people who are also interested in doing characters and that we can use in 20/400. We are really interested in moving forward with 20/400 and getting a lot of different friends and people in the episodes. We recognize that we are only as wealthy as our network of hilarious people. Also, there is just so much talent in this community that is a little bit untapped online, I find.
CP: I agree. Now that the theater has grown, your experience as an improviser and performer might be limited to one theater or another. Some people might overlap but I find that once an improviser goes through a structure of a particular theater and they find some level of success there, they only have time to do that one commitment. While UCB probably has x number of thousands of people producing videos, the Magnet doesn't have that as much yet and therefore the performers at the Magnet haven't done that much yet, as I've noticed. There certainly are so many good people that you can draw upon for their talents and their abilities. It's nice to know that it's out there and that when you have an idea to do something that there are places to go to get people to fill it out.
LO: Yeah, I think too, that it's nice to have someone else put a framework on it for you. With our show, I think it's great because there's this link for your talent. It's intimidating to write a whole solo show by yourself. But if I put this character out, and find success with it, soon I have enough for a 30 minute show or an hour show. It's the same thing with video, that we found, we don't know what we are doing, really, when we are starting to film stuff. But we try to figure it out. We coordinate to find people to do film and sound or help out because they want to be a part of the thing. It opens up an opportunity for people to get involved in a less intimidating way instead of saying, "I'm going to do this one web series by myself."
CP: The technical people involved, we've been really fortunate to have people willing to donate their time and their resources to get stuff done. At this level we have nothing to offer compensation wise. You are relying on people, not just cast to donate time, but people with cameras and sound equipment. We have been very very fortunate to have worked with all the people we have to get everything done. We wouldn't have without a lot of help from a lot of different arenas.
JS: I think that that is how our other shows have played into 20/400. With Jana and Lauren Presents, for example, we've been able to network with people who are like, "hey this is an interesting idea. If you guys ever need to get something taped let me know." People have come out of the woodwork and have offered to help. Simply by just having a little bit of visibility and just spreading the net really wide - getting different kinds of people into the show or people from different theaters - opens us up to a great many kinds of people in the entertainment industry.
LO: I think it requires a liking to collaborate with each other. It takes a long time to find your people with a common unique sensibility and also who are on the same page. There's a level of commitment and taking it seriously as a job that you don't actually get paid for. It's important in order to get stuff done. The more you put yourself in a position to meet other people that are also doing the same thing you are and who are also serious improve your chances of producing something. That has worked to our benefit this past year, being around and taking it seriously, networking. Everything like that helps.
Let's talk a little bit about relationship in comedy. You all are very close. How would you describe your relationship and the importance of it in taking on a project like this?
CP: For me, it's important that you like the people that you are going to endeavor to do something with. It's important you like the people because you're going to do things that are kind of a pain in the ass for each other. It's easy for those things to take focus at a time when you are trying to be liked and do things that are fun. If the day that you are having around it is not that much fun, it's hard to flip the switch on camera and just doing something absurd and be really committed to it. It's not to say that everything goes perfectly all the time, but now you have a fighting chance with the people you signed up with to take it through all the daily grind issues. I think we all know each other well enough that we can exist in those environments for day here and there where we are not going to lay into each other about things that are not important. That's how I feel.
JS: We are old friends. Well, Lauren and I are older than Christian and I but the three of us have been collaborating for many years now. There came a point in the comedy journey where you step into a more professional mindset about the work. I think that the friendship was all ready to handle that. I think there are some friendships that when you take a professional tone in the friendship that it doesn't go well. Amy Poehler said you have to find your tribe. That is super true in comedy because the product is supposed to be funny and the process should also be really enjoyable otherwise what the hell's the point in doing it? I think we were ready. All three of us were on the same page at the same time with the same aesthetic ready to launch ourselves into something more serious or to take our ideas a little more seriously. We had a lot of time to fuck around and be funny with each other and we are all ready to take that next step into making comedy more of a career.
LO: Being on the same page is super important and the minutia of what that means. I completely trust them. They are not the type of people that or going to bail out or slack off. You know shit will get done. We hold each other accountable. We follow through.
JS: Yeah, reliability has become a huge friendship asset.
LO: Yeah. I mean if you get burned out or you're exhausted and if one person is doing more of the work than the other two people are doing and it's not equal you are going to get angry you are going to get frustrated. I mean, that's why a lot of improv groups split up, I mean because of a lot of reasons, but also because you don't feel like it's equal or that responsibility is shared. But I trust them on that level - that they are going to follow through - and also trust their comedic sensibility. If they say something is funny and I'm having a tired day and just don't understand or whatever, I trust them. I don't stress about it or over-think it. And if it sucks, there are 2 other people sharing the burden of it sucking.
JS: We have had a lot of those conversations where one of us has been like, "I don't think this is funny," and the other two have been, "Nope. Definitely funny." You just have to be honest and also pick each other up when one person isn't feeling their best about something. The other two have to either say "Yeah you're right. Let's scrap it," or "Absolutely not! This is some of the best work you've done!"
LO: I think we are old enough and also mature enough to understand what it is to get upset about. I don't think we've really gotten upset. We really like to have fun and get really excited for fun stuff. It is a treat day to shoot.
JS: Shoot days are really fun.
CP: We get a bouncy castle.
LO: We get really big on crafts services. Snacks happen.
Who are your production people?
JS: We have worked with Bill Scurry. He's really great in terms of camera work but he's really busy though. He has a lot of projects he is working on. We have also worked with Bryan Berlin. He was introduced to us through Matt Antonucci. Him and Matt have kind of paired up to do more production stuff and they have helped us a great deal in shooting our last few shoots. Matt is on sound, which is something he says he likes doing, which is awesome and he's really good at it. Bryan is really good at editing and camera work. He went to film school. They are also both at the same place that we are in terms of just wanting to put stuff online, not necessarily interested in getting paid for it yet because they are not at that level yet. It's a collaboration in an effort to get them known to the community as well.
LO: There's also a guy named Matt Ott who shot a couple of ours as well. We've only done two sketches that he's shot because he's busy with other stuff. I think that's all the people.
JS: Jamaal did sound for one of them.
CP: HORRIBLY. Make sure you put horribly.
LO: And my little sister has shown up expecting to do stuff and then not.
CP: But she has been there! She did publicity stills.
LO: Oh yeah! She has taken pictures for us.
JS: Jeremy Munro did our poster. He's an old friend of Lauren's. They grew up together -
LO: Well in college. We were roommates for three years.
JS: He helped us create our image for 20/400. Just another example of friends helping out friends for free.
So you release 2 videos (now 3) right? Is there a video that has not been released that you are particularly excited about showing the community? Videos we should should we look out for?
CP: There's a couple. That one that we showed last night (Homeless Mary), I was crying.
JS: The first one that we should probably plug to look out for is called "Hyah!" It won't come for another few weeks.
CP: Jana did a character, Canning Lady.
LO: We just saw the rough cut last night.
CP: It's a mockumentary style piece but, it just moves really well.
JS: The editing is pretty spectacular.
CP: Along those lines, some of the stuff has been, to me, some of the best stuff I've seen any of us do. I wouldn't say it's been a pleasant surprise but it's nice to have confirmation that the efforts are panning out the way you expected they would. That makes it worth doing, to me.
JS: And you are not only not disappointed but faith is consistently renewed and the bar is only set higher with every release we do or every finished project we see. It's like, "SHIT! Good job guys! We nailed it"
LO: We always get excited with every rough cut of what it could possibly look like. It could do with just a little green screen action or a short 20 second clip and it really just is ridiculous of how it gets us pumped up. It's really fun! We're like the little engine that could with, "If we put a little time and effort into something, look at what we can put together!"
CP: You can get close enough to execute the idea that is in your mind without almost no resources. No need to pay for a location or camera rental or anything. We are doing all of this on almost $0, not to say that that is not a pleasant surprise, but you can execute with the help of others to a level that fulfills your ideas from paper to finished sketch.
JS: Just a little bit of production value and your good performing goes a long way.
LO: Initially we set out with the format of our videos to be less than 3 minutes, which we are not going to totally adhere to but not going to be these long epic things. It's fun because we'll do stuff that we've put a lot of effort into and then there's other ideas that are like "Here's this one funny vision I had that I want to see," and those are really fun too. I always thought that SNL was really cool because you'll have an idea and assuming you had backing for it you've got thousands of dollars to put up your idea exactly how you saw it in your mind. It's the coolest thing in the world to me. This is our low budget version of it. But it's a bonus because very few people have veto power.
CP and JS: No censorship.
LO: And quite a wide range of ideas.
JS: Very weird.
If people want to help or get involved how should they go about it?
JS: We have an e-mail address now and a website and a facebook page and a twitter account. I mean we're going balls to the wall with this and we love when people are interested and want to be a part of it.
LO: It's www.20-400.com and you can find everything else through there. You can help us! If you like the video, share it, so you can help on the low level of supporting it and sharing it with other people or contacting us with an idea or if you want to help us film or if you have an idea that you want to get made can you help me. Also, I will put this as a pitch in general, the Magnet has a lot of talented people and people should reach out if they are interested. People should be doing this video stuff. It's not that hard. If we can do it you can do it.
CP: There's help out there. There's no reason not to do it if you have an inkling to do it because there's enough people to get everything done, to a surprising degree, for me. The amount of immediate yeses we got when we are really asking for peoples time, sacrificing a day or more, doing something that is not necessarily their passion project.
LO: You can also help, you know...if you know anyone who works for Adult Swim or something and tell them that they should have us in for a meeting. You can help us doing something like that. Passing this on to a higher level. Promote us and allow us to have a budget to let us do this more.
CP: Or buy the show.
LO: We would love that. ALSO! If you have access to a crazy location like a weird hospital, or your apartment is crazy, holler at us. We'll put together the sweetest crafts services spread and maybe give you a line in one of the videos.
JS: If you are funny!
LO: Probably the number one thing.
CP: And most consistent challenge - navigating around locations.
LO: And also the connection to Adult Swim. I just feel like that's the perfect place for us.