I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

What It's Like to Be Funny: Modern Comedian

by Thomas Michalski
Jan. 31, 2013

Created and directed by Spokane, Washington native and New York City-based standup Scott Moran and presented by PBS Digital Studios, Modern Comedian is a web-series with a deceptively simple premise: one comic turning a documentarian’s lens on his fellow comedians, following them as they navigate the business of being funny. What arises though is altogether surprising, laying bare all the inspiration, pathos and endless hours of work that go into presenting a polished set that might not last more than a few fleeting minutes. To mark the series's arrival on Network Awesome, we caught up with Moran to find out more about the philosophy behind the show, the process of making it and its potential future.

The inspiration for the show seems obvious when you’re around such talented people, but how did you settle on these comics and these stories? Did you have a theme in mind for each, or did you just turn on the camera and let that come together organically?

At first I was asking friends for ideas we could shoot, you kind of have to rely on friends when you are experimenting like this. Sometimes the stories are suggested by me and other times by the subject, and we go with whatever seems like it would be the most interesting. I've only let the camera just roll twice. The first time was with Rory Scovel. I really wanted to make an episode with him but we weren’t sure what about. At first, we shot one full episode about his life on the road, which was interesting but we weren't convinced it was as good as it could be, so we just kept filming and filming over a few months with no real idea until something just clicked. As sad as it is, we ended up capturing something very real and tragic [Episode 05 – “Batman”].

The other time, Joe DeRosa pitched me about 3 ideas and we sat down and shot them all in an interview. The other angles we came up with were really good, but then we went out that night to shoot some live sets and that whole thing happened at the Broadway [Episode 12 – “Some Things Happened] and we knew we had our episode. I think going into a shoot with only a vague idea usually yields the best, most interesting results, but it is also the most difficult way because I end up with so much footage to edit, and you really never know if you'll actually get anything decent on film. I've been extremely lucky both times I took that approach.

Aside from the fact that they're all still on the scene, what puts the "modern" in Modern Comedian ? Did you want to say something about where the art form is right now and where it's going?

No, not really, I just thought the name sounded cool and it made enough sense. I was struggling for a while to come up with a title until I remembered reading something Eddie Vedder once said about calling his band Pearl Jam. He basically said he doesn't like the name but you have to just call it something, since the music is what’s more important. That helped me decide to just call it something and to worry about the content within instead.

What kind of crew were you working with and what was the actual shooting like? They feel so intimate and off-the-cuff, but also have a sense of careful composition.

I'm a one man crew. I run the camera and conduct the interview by myself. I do it this way because it’s very simple and easy on everyone. It's a compromise though. I know the sound on these episodes isn't always perfect, but I would rather they be a little rough than spend twice the amount of time editing them, that way I can get more of them made. Also, keeping it simple on set helps to lower any pressure the subject feels about the shoot. I want the comics to act natural, and not having a boom mic or crew of people around really helps get that result. It's just us sort of chilling out and talking. Then I edit myself out as much as possible. Sometimes it makes sense to keep my voice in, but I try not to.

The composition comes from me being a bit ADD. When DVDs first came out I became obsessed with movies like Chinatown, Boogie Nights, Dog Day Afternoon, Stardust Memories, Rushmore, etc. I was very attracted to great cinematography and I would re-watch films over and over again, sometimes leaving them on loop in my room while I slept. I believe by doing that I inadvertently programmed my brain to know how to frame a shot instinctively, without giving it much thought. Something just seeped in; I didn't go to film school or have it taught to me. I'm lucky, I guess.

How many more episodes do you have planned and when can we expect them? Seems like you could go on making these as long as there are funny people to be found, but who would you really like to do an episode on?

I have about 5 more episodes shot already, but some are incomplete and need more work, and I have a lot more planned with various comics. I plan to do the series for at least 2 more years, but don't hold me to that. I'm sure as I get busy with other projects, episodes will be released more sporadically rather than weekly. I would really like to get to the point where all the big name comics are interested in shooting an episode. It's already starting to happen a little. I would love to be able to get Louie CK, Marc Maron, or Jerry Sienfeld, people like that. Hopefully the series will make it to that point.

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/