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.

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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.

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...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.

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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.



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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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Capitalism is our true religion

Capitalism is our true religion. The Dow Jones is God. NASDAQ is Jesus. The mall is church. The Wall Street Journal is the Bible. “Open your holy book to Marketplace B16 and we’ll read the verse of Monsanto vs. the FDA.” And thus the evil becomes holy. And we all bow down and worship the golden calf/Charging Bull. The old miracle: turning water into wine. The new miracle: turning subprime mortgages into executive bonuses. Hallelujah.

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On vaping

Vaping is making pot smokers weirder. Weed used to be a communal thing. Fire was involved. We'd gather in a circle and have a shared experience. Now everyone's got their little glowing LED thingies and they're sneaking off into corners and doing it solo and it takes away the whole "we're in this together" vibe and that's a bummer. Look, if you wanna do drugs and be selfish and sneaky about it, there's already a perfect solution out there for you: Cocaine.

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Catcalling vs. Kardashian

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Support Vooza

Just launched: We're asking fans of Vooza to help make the show sustainable by supporting Vooza via Patreon. (I know, sounds like something we'd joke about. But this is legit!)

Creating these videos isn't cheap (each shoot costs thousands of dollars to produce). By pledging, you'll be helping us pay the actors, writers, director, sound man, cinematographer, makeup artist, and editors. And you'll also help us rent cameras, lenses, and lights so the videos look great. With your help, we'll be able to produce even better content (including extended episodes) and keep the Vooza train a-rollin'.

For rewards, we're offering a bunch of exclusive content, special access to Vooza's team, a producer credit, and even the chance to appear in a video. There are pledge amounts for individuals (anything you can give is appreciated) and for companies. Click here for details. And thanks for your support!

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Interview discussing the origins of Vooza

Ugtastic: "Interview with Vooza founder Matt Ruby"

In the interview we discuss the origins of Vooza, how the show was conceived then how they go about the creative process for the show. Ever wonder whether the cast is a bunch of developers and techies? Is Vooza a real startup (hint: kinda, yeah but not that kind)? Do the characters have names? How does Vooza generate revenue to keep the show going? Watch the interview and all those questions will at least be mentioned if not answered.


A recent episode on "Busy Bragging":

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An open letter to bloggers who are offended

Bloggers, we live in a world that has words, and sometimes those words have to be spoken aloud by people with microphones. Who's gonna do it? You, Huffington Post? You, Salon? Comedians have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for those who are offended, and you condemn those of us who tell jokes. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what we know. That people getting offended, while mildly unfortunate, is a byproduct of truth, experimentation, and laughter. And the words we say, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, make other people laugh. We have neither the time nor the inclination to explain ourselves to a person who rises and sleeps under the blanket of clickbait headlines, gotcha "journalism," and copy-and-paste-content and then questions the manner in which we put original thoughts out into the world. We would rather you just watched Two and A Half Men and went on your way. Otherwise, we suggest you pick up a microphone, and stand up on a stage and try to make a roomful of strangers come together and erupt in laughter. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think is offensive.

(From my new show: "A Few Good Comedians")

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Chris Rock's advice on what to do when a set is going poorly: "Slow it down"

The New Yorker has a piece on Chris Rock: Can Chris Rock make the leap from standup eminence to leading man?. Along the way, it mentions a Q&A he did with Eric Bogosian back in 1997 in the NY Times. Here's that: Chris Rock Has No Time for Your Ignorance.

Eric Bogosian: What's the difference between a black audience and a white audience?

Chris Rock: I'll give it to you in musical terms. When a musical act performs, the black audience goes crazy for all the stuff, the album cuts, everything. White audiences, they're nice and all, but they're not going to lose it until they get the hits. Comedy is the same thing.

Bogosian: How do you know when it is funny? When is the joke finished?

Rock: It's never locked. I mess with it every night. But I really don't improvise that much. I mean, 10 percent of the show is improvised.

Bogosian: What do you do when the audience doesn't get the good stuff?

Rock: I slow down my delivery. The natural thing to do when the show's not going well is to speed it up. Worst thing in the world. Slow it down. Make sure they understand everything you're saying. I'll think, Maybe the abortion bit won't play. But I don't drop that much stuff now.


One other interesting line is when Rock explains why he would listen to MLK, Malcolm X, and JFK: "I just looked at it as kind of the same thing as I was trying to do, but without punch lines. I think anybody in front of a crowd is a comedian."

FYI, I've posted lots of stuff about Rock over the years here. Take a look.

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GO-digger

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Lena, Ray Rice, Airbnb, Vooza, shows, and the rest of what I'm up to right now

Just sent this to my Matt Ruby email list. If you wanna sign up for it, go here.

I like you for signing up for this list. I'm sorry I haven't been more attentive to this list. Now you know what it is like to date me.

Things to read
Here are some funny or ranty things I've written lately:
This is how I feel pretty
Team Lena
"This fall after Modern Family...it's IS-ish!"
Why we should let Ray Rice keep playing football
Wellsplaining to sick people
People who use Airbnb love to smile. You like smiles!
Upworthy is piousbragging
The college scam

Shows to see
Got a big week of comedy shows coming up. NY Comedy Festival is in town and I'm hosting a couple of shows as part of it:

Wed: Schtick or Treat (7th annual!)
Sun: We're All Friends Here (listen to the podcast)

And on Tuesday, I'll be at HOT SOUP, our weekly standup show in midtown, that's had some great guests lately (Aziz, Hannibal, Gaffigan, Silverman, etc.). FYI, we mail out the lineup every week to our HOT SOUP email list. Also doing a couple other spots at Triple Crown and Karma this week too. You can find all my gigs listed at MattRubyComedy.com.

Videos to watch
And Vooza, our show mocking startups, is still going strong (nearing episode 100!). Solidsmack wrote this about the show: "Silicon Valley is definitely worth a watch…If HBO isn’t your thing however and you still want to have some laughs at the expense of startup culture, the collection of shorts over at Vooza intelligently pokes fun at everything from crowdfunding concepts to product pitches and business card exchanges to product launch videos."

Join the Vooza email list to get a weekly update with our new videos. Some recent episodes I was in: I help the design team, our logo is worse than Airbnb's, there's a spaghetti western-ish duel over smartphones, a hackathon bait and switch, and I presented at a big conference in Amsterdam.

If you've got Apple TV (or similar service), you can now watch Vooza videos on your "real" TV via AOL On. Details here.

Onward!

-Matt

P.S. Sign up for the Club Scale email list if you wanna see my latest thing when it's out. It'll be really good.

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Bill Burr explains how he was inspired by Dave Attell

Burr talks about writing, staying out of "robot mode," and how he spices up bits by adding tags and improvising.

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