Thank You, YouTube

DIY video is making merely professional television seem stodgy, slow, and hopelessly last century

When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were bringing I Love Lucy to the airwaves in 1951, videotape didn’t exist yet. The only way to create a permanent record of a televised moment was to use a technique called kinescoping, in which a movie camera recorded off a television monitor. Since the country had yet to be linked for live broadcast, viewers in the western half of the country generally had to make do with kinescoped copies of the live productions coming out of New York. Lucy and Desi wanted to make their show in Los Angeles, where they lived, but corporate sponsors insisted that New York audiences—then the country’s largest advertising market—see higher-quality productions than kinescoping offered. The solution: have three movie cameras simultaneously record the performance on a stage in front of a studio audience, with a director stitching together the feeds into a cohesive whole. So was born the three-camera sitcom, television’s most dominant and enduring format.

You don’t have to be a futurehead to see that the sitcom era, and traditional television with it, is today being bookended. Video is now startlingly easy to produce, edit, and distribute. If you’ve watched the Web-based video-sharing site YouTube grow over the past six to eight months from Web backwater to the world’s largest video outlet, you’ve seen Americans embrace the idea of becoming television producers and even building their own mini-networks.

The effect of this rabbity digital proliferation has not just been economic; it’s also been aesthetic. Corporate television’s recent concern about digital media has been whether choice would swamp quality. But digital video is doing more than just providing infinite alternatives; it’s making network product seem visually slow and outdated. The quality of video produced for the Web (most of it less than a thousandth the cost of, say, an episode of Two and a Half Men, the most popular three-camera sitcom still on television) is remarkably good, if you factor out suddenly superannuated television values like proper microphones, lighting, and steady camera work. The BC, a recent five-episode parody of Fox’s The OC done for mere hundreds of dollars per episode, was built in and around the Boston College campus and featured hilarious cameos by a BC chaplain and other local celebrities. It’s filled with deft jump cuts, sharp writing, and genuinely funny moments—and its creators now have the inevitable HBO development deal.

This summer, lonelygirl15 grew into the biggest phenomenon of the early YouTube era by offering … very little, actually. It was, simply (or apparently simply, because its huge audience invested it with a variety of talismanic meanings), a fifteen-year-old staring intently into the camera, delivering comic riffs on various subjects: her overbearing parents, who won’t let her leave her room; a would-be boyfriend; and, gratifyingly, on Jared Diamond and Heisenberg. The clips, all two minutes or less, generated their own cottage industry of responses and parodies, as well as increasingly far-fetched efforts to tie her videos to the occultist Aleister Crowley or to an Alternate Reality Game; or, less far-fetched, to a brilliantly evil viral marketing campaign. In the end the conspiracy theorists proved right: Bree was a twenty-year-old acting a role in what two filmmakers hope will eventually become a full-length conventional movie. In retrospect, it was a thrilling hoax that was perfectly attuned to the cultural moment, playing in the interstices between authenticity and artifice, amateurism and professionalism. The tantalizing notion that she might in fact have actually been a “lonely girl” hung in the air: a digital-age Rapunzel waiting to be rescued by … who, exactly?

Watch an episode of lonelygirl15
My Difficut Decision
(Aired September 25, 2006)

The lonelygirl15 series, shot on a $150 Web camera, shows that digital video can be made by anyone, go anywhere, and pose as anything. And, clearly, audiences have made a new compact with creators: traditional notions of quality, they are signaling, no longer matter (the out-of-focus, off-kilter MySpace cell-phone snap being the portrait painting of the mid-aughts). In fact, this grittiness, lack of polish, and occasionally shocking intimacy constitute a new aesthetic of realness, much as the scratchiness, feedback, and ostentatious amateurishness of the Sex Pistols made everything else seem like mere affectation. Fear not, revanchists: Do-It- Yourself video will ultimately not mean the end of classic filmic values, just as the Pistols—and Public Enemy and N.W.A and Nirvana after them—did not kill off bad heavy metal, overproduced bling-crazed hip-hop, and unctuous, keening pop rock. Drama, both on television and in film, appears better suited to survive the onslaught than comedy, mostly because narrative seems to be an eternal value. And it’s even been argued that current dramas like 24, Lost, and Prison Break (and pretty much everything on HBO) are so good because of the challenge from digital media: they are faster, more complex, and smarter than the shows we grew up on.

DIY video is, in fact, not an overnight phenomenon. One could draw a line from lonelygirl15 as far back as Grey Gardens, the brutally deadpan 1975 Maysles brothers documentary about the batty housebound “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter, the unwittingly fabulous “Little Edie” (aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jackie O). But it’s indisputable that the advent of low-cost digital video, and its almost-no-cost distribution, make this more than a passing moment. The breakthrough expression of punk video was most likely The Blair Witch Project, a pseudo-documentary horror movie that became the hipster smash of 1999. The conceit was that three student filmmakers disappear somewhere in the Maryland woods while making a documentary, never to be seen again. All we have left is the very tape you’re watching, a coup-de-théâtre that at the time had some of the frisson of a snuff film: the tape just runs out. Once seen all the way through, the story is a bit of a nothingburger, but the whipsaw camera movements, lack of conventional dramatic beats, and off-kilter angles hit emotional notes that mainstream moviemaking couldn’t touch. (Sharing this production approach—but little else—MTV’s Jackass became the DIY- television breakthrough of 2000.)

Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, the short-lived 2005 reality series on UPN, was similarly genre bending. Fashioned from home video taken by the pop star and her famously good-for-nothing backup-dancer husband, the series was near pornographic in its voyeuristic intimacy (emotional, not sexual) and plu-porno in its banality. What do two impossibly rich, young, and famous people do in their spare time? Answer: Have sex and talk about having sex. Chaotic was all about unexpected pleasures. As a viewer, there was the consciousness of what Britney Spears wanted to show you (simply, two kids madly in love; i.e., “Britney is all grown up”) and the metaconsciousness of the career anxiety that led to her agreeing to this project (“Oh no, Britney is all grown up”); a sense that Kevin, who in the manner of an accomplished concubine withholds his affection to maintain Britney’s, was very much just along for the ride; plus a deep existential sadness—or was I just imagining that part? (Qu’est que c’est Kevin Federline?)

The two most inventive comics of the current moment, Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, work different riffs on DIY. Gervais was the progenitor and star of the British show The Office, a pseudo-documentary like Blair Witch, this one about a paper company in Slough, England. The comedy comes almost entirely from the Brit-and-Kev-ian divide between self-image and reality: Gervais’s character frantically beseeches the camera for approval as his charges snicker behind his back. The comedy is all about dead air, the awkward moments when Gervais’s errant attempts at humor meet either stone faces or the toadying laughter of his one supplicant. Similarly brilliant is his Ricky Gervais Show, a regular radio show turned into an audio lark for Britain’s Guardian newspaper last November that has become the most successful podcast of all time and began its third season this past August. The vibe is not dissimilar to Howard Stern’s, though less coarse, but the brilliance comes from Gervais’s and longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant’s back-and-forth with a former producer and appealing dummkopf, Karl Pilkington. Gervais and Merchant deny that Pilkington is a fictional character (alleged pictures of him do exist, and he appears to have had a career as a radio producer before his appearances here), while stoking the suspicion that Pilkington is either a gifted deadpan comedian or someone else entirely. On the Web, you can make up pretty much anything.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie Borat may be the funniest comedy in a decade (its full title will give you a whiff of its comic mayhem: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). Cohen is best known for Da Ali G Show, which ran for two seasons on HBO and featured Borat as one of three recurring characters played by Cohen. (Like The Office, Ali G is a British import.) Borat is a hybrid comedy- documentary, mostly documentary, in which Borat, a fake Kazakh newsman, travels across America on a quest to forcibly take Pamela Anderson as his wife, all while producing a television show for Kazakhstan about the real America. Real America does not escape unscathed—not the USC fratboy who bemoans the end of slavery, nor the Pentecostals fooled by Borat’s preposterous religious conversion, nor the gun-shop owner who all-too-blithely recommends a .357 Magnum when Borat comes in asking for the best gun for shooting a Jew.

Watch a trailer for Borat

What Cohen shares with Gervais (and with much of the best original video on YouTube) is an impatience with the hackneyed routines of traditional American comedy, the predictable double takes, fools needing comeuppance, and so forth. (Wikipedia helpfully distills the sitcom format down to ten basic plots, with eight other lesser-used routines thrown in for variety.) Indeed, one of the funniest moments in Borat is his visit to a hapless comedy coach, who attempts to teach him how to successfully pull off a “Not!” joke. Needless to say, he succeeds by not succeeding.

It’s telling that no truly successful television sitcom has been launched since Will and Grace, in 1998; though Two and a Half Men, now in its fourth season, has maintained its lonely perch as the only sitcom in the top twenty shows, it’s uninspired stuff, comedy moving to the rhythms of a long-ago moment. Network television, after launching and then canceling scores of sitcoms in the past two years, does seem to finally be moving toward something of a Gervais/Cohen gestalt. The best hour of comedy on network television is the U.S. version of The Office, with Steve Carell in the Gervais role, followed by My Name Is Earl, a Coen brothers–inspired romp that stays fresh by means of offbeat comic routines, out-of-left-field visual gags, and a commitment to weirdness that simply would not have made it through the network filters a decade ago. Both shows, which air on NBC, are shot “single camera” style: out of the studio and without a laugh track. Cohen, meanwhile, broke through to mainstream audiences playing a surpassingly strange gay French race-car driver in the summer’s biggest movie comedy, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.

No need to go to the movie, of course. You can watch the best bits on YouTube.