Vooza: Improvisation, what makes something viral, and how to make money off a web series

This interview I did with Mike Hall about Vooza was just transcribed. Below are some excerpts:

So that kinda makes you wonder then, when you do those, “What is LinkedIn?” kind of bit. Are these people just kind of ad-libbing, but they don’t really–?

Yeah, those are episodes where I don’t even tell them what they’re gonna be talking about. We just turn the camera on, and we ask them to explain, you know, skeuomorphic design or something like that, and just hear what answers come out. So that’s the fun thing about working with standups. They’re good improvisers and able to think on their feet. Most of the episodes we do have scripts, but I’d say it’s similar to maybe how Larry David films “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in that we know where the scene’s gonna start and where it’s gonna end, and there might be a couple words or bullet points we wanna hit, but we also wanna give people room to improvise or just make something up on the spot. Because a lot of times, that’s the freshest or funniest part of the episode.


How do you come up with the scripts or at least the gist for an episode?

Sure, I just have a huge notes file or database. Actually, there’s an app called Scrivener that I keep everything in. So there’s a list of 100 different topics that I think might be funny for episodes, whether it’s an article that I read in The Next Web, or TechCrunch, or some publication like that, or if it’s interviews that I see with David Karp where he has funny quotes or something that I think is funny, or anywhere else.

I read an article recently about the toothbrush test, which apparently is something that Google uses when they decide whether to acquire a company or not. The idea of Larry Page talking about the toothbrush test, as soon as I see that, like, “Okay, well, that’s gonna be a Vooza episode. We have to do something on this.” So then I have to learn what that actually means, and then be like, “Okay, how can we make this funny?” And then it’s me generating most of the ideas of the scene, and then I work with other cast members and writers to actually write the scripts.

So sometimes it’ll be me explaining, like, “Hey, here’s this silly thing that happens. How can we incorporate that into the show?” and just throwing out ideas. And again, the cast also definitely has a lot of input into what they think is funny, or even when we’re actually shooting, being like, “Hey, why don’t we try it this way?” or just improvising stuff on the spot. So I think a lot of times it’s just creating that framework of, “Hey, here’s the subject and the topic. Now feel free to play around with it and see where it goes.”...So much of the stuff I see at Tech Blogs or the interviews that I hear or read, I’m like, “Uh, this is almost comedy already.” A lot of times it’s just taking an actual quote from some startup CEO and just making it maybe 10% more absurd, the basis of what’s ridiculous about it. People in the tech world are saying ridiculous things all the time that are almost hilarious, saying it with a straight face, whereas we put a little wink on it to where I think people get the joke.


...So it is pretty loose. It isn’t big, scripted, formulaic, two-camera, “Lucy enters stage left,” and it’s pretty…

I view the script as something to fall back on. The script is a framework where it’s like, hey, “If we’re rushed, or we run out of time, or no one else has any other ideas, then yeah, let’s get that, and bang it out, and move on.” But also, part of what I think is fun about the show is that we have low overhead, we have a small crew, but that, to me, is an advantage in a lot of ways. If you look at a lot of these other sitcoms on major networks, they’ve got crews of dozens of people, and this huge lighting setup, and every second that they’re filming is costing them thousands of dollars. And that puts a ton of pressure, and makes you wanna move really fast, and makes you just bang stuff out, and gives you no room to deviate from the script at all. And I think you can sense that in a lot of those shows. They just have that sort of formulaic feel, whereas I kinda like working cheap, and with a loose crew, and a loose script. I feel like the more you get that playful environment and vibe going on the set and with the cast and crew, that comes out in the final product, that you can feel that it’s people having fun, and there’s something loose about the whole thing.


I’ve watched a couple Vooza episodes where I recall, it wasn’t laugh out loud, it was more of an empathy, sympathetic, like, “Yeah, they got it. I’m not gonna laugh.” It’s kinda like “Dilbert” where maybe it’s not laugh, because you kinda wanna cry a little bit.

No, it’s an interesting point, because I think that also speaks to, what’s your goal when you’re creating online video? I think it’s a little bit different. We still wanna be funny and have it be good, but I think there is, when you talk about that empathy factor, I think that’s also really an important part of why people share stuff. I remember being at 37signals (now Basecamp), and engineers were always sharing “Dilbert” cartoons with each other in our Campfire group chatroom, and I'd be like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” This isn’t always the funniest stuff, but people will be like, “Hey, you’re gonna get this.” I think there’s that, “I wanna share this, because they get this thing, and I get it, and I wanna share it with you, because you’ll get it,” and why people share stuff online I think is an interesting psychological factor.

But yeah, there’s definitely episodes where we’ll sometimes be like, “Okay, this one’s hilarious, and we’ll hit a broad audience.” And then there’s other ones where we’re like, “All right, this one might not be as laugh-out-loud funny, but I think engineers or marketing people are gonna be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that person, or, “I’ve heard that phrase, and God, I’m so glad someone’s making fun of this.”

Yeah, the “Hackathon” one, that was good.

I think that episode is an interesting one, because that was generated by a tweet, basically. So we have our @VoozaHQ is our Twitter feed where a couple of times a day we’re posting jokes about the tech world, and then it’s always that sometimes one of those will take off and get retweeted dozens, or hundreds of times, or something like that. And then I’ll be like, “Okay, well that’s clearly hitting some sort of nerve. How can we turn that into an episode?” So I think that’s been an interesting thing too, is sometimes the ideas being fed to us from the response on social media to one-liners that we throw out there.


It’s an interesting advertising model, and I’m just curious about how you came up with it, and how is it working?

Sure, so far so good. I like to tell people we’re just like a real startup, except we actually make money.

I’m like, “Vooza” the show actually makes money.

So from the outset, that was the goal, was to make money off it and to make this sustainable, and I think one inspiration was The Deck, which is an ad network that 37signals and Coudal Partners actually started years ago, which was sort of ads dedicated to what they called creative professionals, you know, designers, or filmmakers, or people who worked on the web in different ways, and then partnering with advertisers like Adobe, or people who make fonts, or things like that, to kind of make ads. “Hey, you can assemble this audience with this network of sites and have ads that are actually appealing to them and have it not be an obstacle, or an intrusion,” or like, “Hey, this is something from Toyota, or Snickers,” or something you don’t care about. Instead have it be like, “Hey, we’re the guys running this ad network. We’re picking all the sites and people who are making this content, and then we’re also finding advertisers who we actually like, and use their product, and think it’s a good fit.” And you can kind of create a whole ecosystem of people who are actually liking what they’re seeing, and it’s advertising, but it doesn’t feel like it’s bugging you. So I think that was interesting to me back when we did that years ago, and then I think you also had just the rise of native advertising and branded content, and that’s sort of taking over content media. Words, and articles, and things like that, you start seeing that more and more and wondering, “Hey, is there a way to do this in video?” And I think also, people sometimes are like, “Oh, this is a very innovative, futuristic way to do advertising,” which to me is kind of funny, because it’s also exactly the way advertising started on TV back in the 50s, or on radio where you’d have… Howard Stern, I’m a huge Howard Stern fan. I always used to stop his show, and do plugs, and I think it works in a couple ways. You got the actors or the people on the show talking about the products. That makes it feel much different than a typical commercial. It happens within an episode...A lot of the branded episodes we do, the product is mentioned within the episode. But we try to do it in a subtle enough way that’s not really annoying. Usually those episodes get to be longer. They’re three minutes instead of a minute-and-a-half. I think there’s a way to look at it, like, “Hey, this advertiser’s helping you get more content than you would otherwise.” And also, we’re working with people who, it’s right for our audience. It’s not just some random brand. It’s people like New Relic, Ustream, or MailChimp, or Insightly, people who, they’re making products that are for the people in our audience, and it’s kind of this mutual and beneficial thing. So the goal is to have it be advertising, but that’s not really obnoxious, and annoying, and in your face...So I think it’s just a new way of doing stuff. It’s interesting because the fact that we’re small and doing it on our own, it’s in some ways a weakness, but it’s also helped us find the right audience who we wanna work with and the right advertisers who wanna reach that audience.

More on Vooza: Watch the videos, follow @VoozaHQ on Twitter, or join the email list. You can also support Vooza via Patreon – pledge and you'll get exclusive access to bonus footage, behind the scenes photos, scripts, etc. At higher levels, you can even get a producer credit or a cameo.

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