There has never been a better time for comedy production. From studio films and Netflix specials to bootstrapped web series and Facebook video ads, comedy video today comes in many different shapes and sizes. But that also means there isn’t a clear blueprint to follow if you want to create your own content — it feels a little bit like the wild west, where a quirky five-second video shot with a smartphone can get just as much attention as a scripted and professionally produced commercial. So where to begin?
We sat down with Joe Whelski, New York City-based director, writer, producer, actor and a Creative Director at the Magnet Video Lab (the sketch video collective for the Magnet Theater, an improv comedy theater and school located in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood), to talk about success in comedy video production. Joe has done it all in comedy — written, directed and produced films and national commercials, acted on TV, starred in stage productions and more — so he’s seen it all, too. It turns out that producing comedy video isn’t all that hard, as long as you have a few key components.
Find Yourself First
First and foremost, you need to understand yourself in order to build a great production crew. “Do some homework to find out what type of comedy you gravitate to,” Joe told me. “Do you like variety sketches like Saturday Night live? Traditional sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory? Whatever your preference, figure out what style or styles of comedy makes you feel at home.” This is important because different styles of comedy sometimes have different technical requirements and might call for specific crew members. For example, a mockumentary-style show like The Office might call for more nuanced camera angles and a more experienced DP whereas a variety-style show like Saturday Night Live might depend more on bigger than life character work and a cast that can deliver.
Next, ascertain your skill set. Are you better in front of the camera or behind it? Get comfortable with what you can do yourself and what you need help with, and be honest about it. “For example, if you’re a technical person and don’t have experience with comedy writing or performing, you may want to connect with people in that world to get an idea or maybe even a script,” explained Joe. “Don’t try to be everything all at once — it can be daunting. Instead, try to involve as many quality team members as you can. I would only keep my team small if I’m confident I can fill each role. Otherwise, get help…you can always find someone.”
So where to start when you’re ready to get a production crew together?
Find The Right Crew
Aside from being a Creative Director at the Magnet Video Lab, Joe also teaches a class at the Magnet Theater called “Video Creation Level 1” in which he trains students on the fundamentals of creating and producing a comedy sketch video. “The easiest way to get a good production crew is, well, to know people,” Joe told me. But if you’re not an industry veteran, where do you start? “We have people come to shows at the Magnet Theater who end up approaching performers they liked to ask them if they’d be willing to collaborate on a video.”
An improv theater or other comedy venue can be a great place to start. “If you’re in a city with comedy theaters like NYC, LA, or Chicago, it’s actually pretty easy,” Joe remarked. “Comedy actors often also write and work on video productions themselves and can be open to collaborating. If not, there are online resources such as Mandy.com where you can find crew members regardless of where you live.” If you have an audience on social media, YouTube, a blog or otherwise, try reaching out to them, too. If they follow you, they’re all the more willing to collaborate on a project or at least connect you to someone who’s interested. And of course there’s friends and family — you never know whose cousin is studying film or taking an improv class and is looking for some hands-on experience.
That doesn’t, however, mean you should hire just anyone. Being strategic about where you allocate your resources can be the difference between good and great. Joe very adamantly addressed this point. “When creating a comedy video, content is king, but your audience needs to be able to hear it. They will probably forgive a lower production value, especially if the content is funny, but they won’t forgive poor sound quality. Nail the script, the performance and the sound and you nail the comedy.” Make sure your crew reflects this. If you’re the writer, hire a quality sound person, and vice versa. Try to stick to one role — otherwise you could spread yourself too thin — and hire the rest.
Keep Your Crew Together
The hardest part of building a comedy production crew, especially in the beginning, is actually just keeping it together and finishing your project. Admittedly it’s tough to keep your crew intact for a longer shoot, especially if it’s low budget, since that often translates to low commitment. But while every shoot has its own set of challenges, Joe noted three best practices when it comes to keeping your crew together.
Offer value. “Money is the best way to compensate a crew member, but it’s not the only way,” remarked Joe. “For example, an IMDB credit can work. Or, if you’re experienced or well-connected, your willingness to share your knowledge or connections with your crew could be enough, especially for someone early in their career. There’s also revenue sharing, though as a fledgling producer that’s not too compelling since making money off comedy videos is not an easy task.” Ultimately, says Joe, even if you’re on a tight budget, “try to pay your crew something. A bit of cash and a great lunch can go a long way in terms of commitment and quality.”
Be Honest. Joe stressed that “being upfront about roles, responsibilities and expectations is crucial in avoiding confusion down the line.” Make sure your crew members feel good about their roles and are clear about the value they’re getting out of the project.
Finish what you start. According to Joe, “people who don’t finish their projects lose professional momentum. They lose trust and weaken their network, which makes it harder to get a good crew in the future.”
Joe’s most practical advice to his students is to keep their comedy videos short — two minutes max. “No one wants to be the 10-minute-comedy-video person, especially as they’re starting out,” Joe mused with a smirk. “It sounds silly, but keeping it short and sweet is the best way to get started.”
“And make sure to support your network,” Joe added. “Go to film festivals when your friends are debuting a short, share and donate to their Kickstarter campaigns or Patreon pages and otherwise give your time where you can. You’ll strengthen your audience and build good karma along the way.”