Reggie Watts has long been known for pushing boundaries, combining creativity and comedy, and blending his ideas with technology that others in the business aren’t even testing yet. The results are always interesting, smart and hilarious. This Thursday, May 24th Reggie Watts is doing it again, broadcasting the world’s first live streamed, fully improvised thirty-minute sitcom episode.
Fans of Watts remember that in his last (brilliant!) hour special, Spatial, he interspersed short improvised segments of a pseudo sitcom called Crowe’s Nest with comedians Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant between solo musical and comedy performances. Now he’s taking that concept next level, with thirty minutes, three sets (with three walls this time instead of just one), three seperate film crews, over a dozen cameras, and zero script, and it will all stream 100% live. I talked with Watts about the creative and tech elements, as well as director Steven Calcote and EP Luis Reyes from Butcher Bird who filled me in on the mechanics of the first-of-its-kind event.
“This has been a dream of mine,” Reggie told me about doing a live stream improvised sitcom. “I’ve been wanting to do something like this.” He describes it as a demonstration of a production method — proof in the pudding that it’s possible for those who down the line might consider investing in this type of performance or picking it up as a show. It will serve as evidence that the live streaming concept works. “To look at and go, that’s really cool. We really like it.”
The 100% improvised show will be the first of its kind in the live streaming domain. No script, no dialogue is being planned, and even the question of whether there will be a loosely defined story arc is somewhat up for debate. The Butcher Bird production team is planning three sets, a mountain of potential props (everything from a feather duster to a space suit), and even a run through with a stand-in cast to make sure they’re ready technically, but that’s it. Everything else will be up to the cast of Reggie Watts, Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant to figure out on the fly.
“Yeah, we’re just going from zero. As long as there’s sets, costumes, and cameras, that’s really all we need,” Watts told me. “There’ll be commercial breaks. During the commercial breaks, that’ll give us time to get ready for the next scene. The actors will have just a quick powwow real quick about something to do for the next thing. Then we’ll just kind of go. We’ll just kind of do little scenes and then huddles and scenes and huddles type of a thing.”
Along with zero rehearsals and zero script, there are also zero executives involved to tarnish his vision allowing Watts and his team complete freedom. He wouldn’t be able to do something like this if he had sponsors or a studio involved to second guess decisions.
The structure, including the sets, an unforgettable theme song, and the characters are all old school traditional sitcom based. What happens inside those corners is anybody’s guess. There are no boundaries, and Watts says what makes it possible is that he trusts the team he’s working with creatively. He has given everyone involved from the director to the wardrobe person to the tech team his basic parameters, and the general spirit of what he’s looking to achieve. “Then, you just let people go for it. I don’t really have at this point, everything’s pretty much been said and everything’s happening.”
Spontaneity has always been a part of Reggie’s world, and streaming live definitely creates a high wire act environment . You also eliminate the “tyranny of post” the guys from Butcher Bird explained, where you’re deciding- is this the take we’re going to use? Or should we try this a little differently? “There is no next time. There is no try again. It doesn’t get more exciting than that as far as narrative is concerned. It’s like everything is in your one performance.”
Luis and Steven met Reggie through a VR project they were working on at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in LA. They all hit it off creatively, and it didn’t hurt that Reggie posting some of their work on his Instagram quintupled their social media presence. “And then out of the blue in February he texted and said, “Hey I want to do that live stream of Crow’s Nest.” So we ended up meeting at a coffee house and he just kind of laid out his plan and I’m like, this is crazy let’s do it.”
“You don’t get an opportunity to be first with something that often,” Steven added, “because frankly two years ago it would have been inconceivable to do this for less than a million dollars. And now here we are in 2018 and it’s this perfect inflection point where you have a creative genius in Reggie who’s brave enough to try it. You have the means of live streaming production now available for groups like ours. And you have all the camera technology. And you have a hunger and you have an audience. Because Facebook is only two years old on its live streaming technology.
Butcher Bird might be the perfect creative partner for this project, because it seems to them that every experience they’ve had over the last five years seemed to lead up to their being ready for this moment. They’ve created pilots (pre-recorded ) including one for Brian Regan, and another for Nickelodeon that pushed the limit using new techniques. Then a web series, and several live stream events like a custom concert created by Quick Books. Steven said “It’s like Steve Jobs said, “You can only connect the dots in reverse.”
Luis filled me in on the production details for the big event. “We’re going to have nine cameras. We’re going to have about 20 to 30 crew. Super Deluxe is coming in and doing its own interactive stream of it as well. So we’re streaming a clean version to Reggie’s YouTube. They’re going to be here and lay on overlays of their social media interactions for their own audience and also doing a Q&A afterwards.” And then there’s the Digital Domain VR capture who has built their cameras into the set. “So now we have Super Deluxe, Digital Domain, and Butcher Bird all doing different creative interpretations of the same content.”
There will also be a 15 minute pre-show and a 15 minute post-show to make sure the live-ness of the show doesn’t get lost. “What we have found with these live events is just like the Macy’s day parade or the Super Bowl these big, giant global audience events you do a pre-show because you’re never spot on at 9 o’clock at 00 seconds we’re ready to go. That’s one reason to allow yourself a little sloth time you’re already on. Too we found that with live you want a little bit of time for everybody to jump on and share the stream and start commenting and settle down. And number three here’s the thing we’ve already learned having live streaming for the last year-and-a-half. You have to hang a lantern on the fact that it is truly, honestly 100 % live stream. So at our pre-show one of the things we will do is show you the behind the scenes, the control room, the interactive flurry. And you see this great example like I said in those big live events. But you also see it in Saturday Night Live. There’s a reason you’re seeing off-set before each use as skits begin. Because they want you to remember this is a shared, live, high wire act. It’s this hour-long journey if you will.”
The only thing that won’t be live is a studio audience. There simply wasn’t room. They have a 3,500 square foot main stage that will be completely filled with two mainstage sets- a living room and a bedroom with an adjoining door, and a green room space that has been outfitted with speed rail and frosted windows that will serve as a cafe set.
“Reggie is taking creative lead on all those decisions. But basically what he wanted was something that looked like a sitcom. And so the living room was a no-brainer. We sort of went back and forth on what the other sets might be. We were thinking about a bar that they’ll hang out with. A workplace of some kind. But then because of ease of set and because it could be exciting to have one scene move from one to the other we decided on a bedroom.”
Directing and producing a live improvised sitcom is a pretty non-traditional gig. Steven describes his role as director, and Luis’ role as EP is to “enable maximum creativity for Reggie.” He added, “our, our role is to provide a baseline, a foundation for Reggie and his creative cohorts so that they can achieve his creative vision.”
As you might expect, the production designer and extras and other members of the crew have asked “How shall we prepare? What should we expect? What’s the storyline here?” Steven said, “what we have said is, all we know is that there will be three sets. It will start and it will finish. Everything else is up for grabs.”
Luis agreed. “It’s going to be fun and our job as, as, as creative containers I guess is to make sure that we have a maximum flexibility to follow them and react to them. And that’s what Steven’s really been building a lot over the past couple of weeks. That’s why we have so many cameras. We’re bringing in a lot of camera operators that have volunteered for it. Just because they want so badly to be a part of this spectacle.” There will be a rehearsal, but only to test the idea of being ready for anything. “Their mission,” Luis said referring to the stand in improv players who are being brought in to rehearse, “will be to break our setup.”
“To me it’s not an unconventional idea,” Reggie said. “I guess to others it might be. They view it more as a gamble. When I speak of things like this, they don’t really get it. The only way, they can try a few times to get support. If people aren’t supportive about it, you just gotta do it yourself. That’s the whole point of being live. I’m not going to wait too long for people. I’ll do it myself. It’s good to find people to partner with that can actually help execute that. They can get it and execute it all like Butcher Birds. It’s awesome.”
You can check out the fully improvised promos that Reggie and Kate filmed for the event. They’re the closest you’ll get to knowing what will happen Thursday night.
Tune in at 9pm PT, 12 midnight ET (those of you in between can do the math) on Reggie Watt’s YouTube channel. Its a one of kind event, guaranteed to get weird. You won’t want to miss it.