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College Humor's Jeff Rubin and Streeter Seidell: An Interview

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Over the past few years, CollegeHumor.com has gone from a repository of "Cat Gets it in the Jewels" videos to one of the internet's top sources for original comedy. Now, the College Humor team have created a television series for MTV, which premiers Sunday night at 9:30. MaxFun scribe Casey O'Brien talked with Jeff Rubin and Streeter Seidell, two of the minds behind the show, about making a career in comedy, and making the transition from the desk to the family room.

What do you think sets College Humor apart from the millions of other sites posting funny videos and articles?

Jeff: The biggest difference is our original content, which very few people are doing at the professional level we are and even fewer are doing well. So there's that.

Streeter: When I started at CH we did not do any original video. A year or so later we started to introduce it slowly so it was kind of like, "if you came to watch wacky cat videos, you can still do that. And, hey, if you have an extra few minutes, maybe you'll like this sketch we made, too." We built a following for our original stuff within the audience we already had for our submitted video and I think the two worlds - the viral video world and the original video world - found a nice balance on the site.

Jeff: But even for the less glitzy parts of the site, like the links and the random Internet videos, we try to give it a personality. Instead of just saying, "Here's a video of a Japanese Goblin Shark," we'll say, "Japanese Goblin Shark - the three scariest words known to man." We're not just an automated "best of the Internet" thing. Our collection is manually curated by the same people that write and star in the videos and I think that comes through. We're not just faceless administrators, so hopefully it's a lot more personal.

Streeter: At the end of the day, I think CollegeHumor is different because it evolved slowly and intelligently from a much simpler humor site. It built an original humor brand on a solid viral video foundation and I don't think we'd be successful today without either one of those things.

What inspired you guys to get into comedy?

Jeff: I'm tempted to say it's because people made fun of me in middle school, but the truth is I was into comedy before that. I think when you're five-years-old you find a movie you love and you just watch it three times a weekend, and for me that movie was Spaceballs. In about fifth grade, I used to write a silly newspaper called The Daily Smell that I gave away to my classmates. I listened to Weird Al albums like they were actual music until approximately high school. Hard to believe I wasn't more popular!

Streeter: I think I knew I wanted to do comedy after the first time I did standup. I was terrified the night before. I actually had a panic attack and forced my friend to take me to a hospital in the Bronx (not a place you want to go to the hospital with anything less than a gunshot). But the next night I was sitting in Standup NY and heard the MC call my name. I went up and did the garbage five minutes I had written a week before. And I did great. I think the MC had said something like "this is this guy's first time" before I went up so the audience was a little more forgiving but by the end of my set I was getting genuine laughs. After the show I was sitting in the bar and all these older people were coming up to me and saying how much they enjoyed my set. It was a great feeling and I knew then and there I wanted to do some form of comedy for a career. If I had bombed I don't think I would have continued with comedy.

What is this College Humor TV show thing that people keep jabbering on about? What is it exactly and how is it going to be different from the website content?

Jeff: "The CollegeHumor Show" is going to be a natural extension of the stuff you see on the website. Imagine a half-hour long Hardly Working with a three-act plot, guest stars, cut-aways to other skits, and higher production values.

Streeter: We wrote the show, play fictionalized versions of ourselves and shot it in our office, much to the annoyance of all the other people who work at CH but aren't on the show. With the show we had 20-something minutes so we got to play with the story aspect and got to explore the characters a bit more. Hopefully we were able to preserve the tone of the stuff on the site and, if we did that, people who like Hardly Working will probably enjoy the show.

What's the hardest part about writing comedy and being consistently funny?

Jeff: I'm well aware how spoiled I am, but working with 10 of the funniest people I've ever met has in many ways made me jaded. Sometimes it takes something really over the top and bizarre to get a hearty LOL out of me, and it can be tricky to sort out what's funny to us and what's going to be funny to the rest of the country.

Streeter: I think the hardest part about being consistently funny is dealing with the fact that you will never be consistently funny. We're lucky to work at a place that doesn't put an unreasonable pressure on us to produce at all costs, so if you just don't have any amazing ideas for a month or two you're not going to get fired. However, because Ricky understands that creative people cannot be creative at gunpoint, the pressure to be funny comes from within. If he were breathing down my neck to write something funny and I couldn't do it, I could blame his pressure for stifling my creativity. But when I can't think of something funny I only have myself to blame, which is a much worse feeling. Dealing with that failure to produce, or to produce quality material, is the hardest part of writing comedy.

You guys have actually made money from being funny. What advice do you have for people that are trying to get into the world of comedy writing?

Jeff: Going into comedy to make money is crazy. If that thought doesn't discourage you, you will be fine.

Streeter: The way that almost everyone at College Humor wound up there was by writing tirelessly and being generous with their talents. A lot of people I meet will say things like "You're so lucky you got a job there." And to a degree they're right. Certain things just happened to get me there, but I also worked ceaselessly, and for free, for almost two years to get myself into a position to be hired. "You're so lucky," yes. But I also spent most of my senior year in college sitting at my desk writing articles instead of going out and partying. Most people there have similar stories, though most started as very talented, dedicated interns. And the common thread we all share was a willingness to put ourselves and our writing out into the world. It's great to be the funniest guy in the frat but nobody in a position to pay you is going to come knocking on your door if you never put your talents out into the ether. There's certainly no recipe for success and, yes, there is certainly an element of luck involved, but if you're talented you cannot harm your chances of doing this professionally by putting yourself and your work out there as much as you can.

BBTV preview "How's Your News"

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I'm really excited that Arthur, the director of How's Your News, and Jeremy, one of the reporters, are coming in tomorrow for an Sound of Young America interview.

If you're not familiar with How's Your News, they're do video news pieces with a team of mostly developmentally handicapped reporters. If you haven't heard the This American Life show that follows them, it's very much worth your time. There's also a feature documentary about them.

Anyway, the show is really a hoot -- something special for MTV.

Podcast Coyle & Sharpe Episode 53: Interprotoplasm Flow

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Welcome to season two of Coyle & Sharpe: The Imposters! In the early 1960s, James P. Coyle and Mal Sharpe roamed the streets of San Francisco, microphone in hand, roping strangers into bizarre schemes and surreal stunts. These original recordings are from the Sharpe family archive, which is tended by Mal's daughter, Jennifer Sharpe. You can learn more about Coyle & Sharpe on their website or on MySpace. Their recent box set is These 2 Men Are Imposters.

On this episode: Coyle and Sharpe attempt to convince a man to exchange his innards with complete strangers.

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Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick on "Coraline", an interview on The Sound of Young America

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Show: 
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Neil Gaiman is an award-winning writer in a number of forms. He broke ground in the world of comics with his 1980s series Sandman, which followed the god of sleep through a series of beautiful and sometimes terrifying adventures in the world of dreams. His books of prose include the acclaimed adult novel American Gods and the recent Newbury Medal-winning young adult book The Graveyard Book.

Gaiman's 2002 novel Coraline is the basis of Henry Selick's film of the same name. Selick is the master of stop motion animation behind the films The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, as well as the animated sequences in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He filmed Coraline in 3D, and talks about creating the movie's immersively beautiful visuals, and about adapting the book for the screen.

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If you enjoyed this show, try these:
John Hodgman
George Saunders
Scott McCloud

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Bookworm"

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Certain Max Funsters unfamiliar with the program under discussion may remember it from an evocative verbal picture painted by Jordan on one episode of JJGO!. The Boy Detective described driving around L.A. on production assistant assignments, listening to KCRW, when, all of a sudden, a midcentury TV children's song about books would start up. An aggressively earnest voice would then break through the tinkly strains, announcing that the day's book "revolves around themes of sexual molestation in 19th-century Asia." Jokes about 19th-century molestation promptly followed.

The program's theme song is "You Are a Human Animal", originally from the Mickey Mouse Club. (That itself counts as an achievement, considering the hellish usage issues surrounding anything remotely Disney-connected.) The earnest voice belongs to host and well-known acute reader Michael Silverblatt. The show is Bookworm [iTunes link], a weekly one-on-one literary discussion that's just about the finest novel-centric forum on all of public radio. And like all smart public radio shows, it's a podcast too.

We all had a good laugh at Jordan's impression of the program, but to associate Bookworm only with 19th-century molestation would be a shame indeed. It's about all kinds of things, within the context of contemporary fiction; Silverblatt always makes sure to widen the discussion well beyond the scope of the text alone. His way of thinking about books is unusual, but it's delightfully conducive to mentally stimulating radio conversation. As with some of the works he discusses, it may be better to quote directly than to attempt summary or paraphrase. Thus, to choose one of Silverblatt's questions at random, here's his opening salvo in dialogue with Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles [MP3]:

The book came as a complete surprise to me because I read that it was about a teacher in a middle school and I thought, yes, I do like novels about teachers. The inevitable names come up: Ms. Jean Brodie or Mr. Chips or the woman in the short story by Charles Baxter, a story called "Gryphon", or all kinds of teachers, but this is completely different. What you forget when you're in high school, reading about Ms. Jean Brodie or Mr. Chips, is that they seem ancient, tottering. But an actual teacher in a middle school is a young woman who identifies more with her students, perhaps, than with the other teachers — certainly than with the other, older, seasoned teachers — and it feels absolutely mysterious and terrifying to her to find herself at what feels like the rest of her life teaching in a school and identifying with the children more than with the colleagues and wondering what life is like. So what Ms. Hempel is is in a period of transition, and that's what teaching is seen to be in this book. How did you come to write a novel about a teacher?

As a bigtime enthusiast of the interview form and a broadcaster of interviews himself, your Podthinker bows down before that question. Bear in mind that, even though reading a transcription such as the above might give a feeling of scriptedness, that's not at all the case in the actual show. Silverblatt's clearly formulating his questions as he speaks them, not just rattling them off from a sheet. (Or at least, if he is reading off a sheet, one can only conclude that he's a Patrick Stewart-tier actor as well.) Just to drive this point into the ground, here's another randomly-selected first question, this time from his conversation with the impulsively adventurous (or adventurously impulsive) William T. Vollmann about his Riding Toward Everywhere [stream]:

This is a book about train-hopping, and it kind of amazes me: I've been reading reviews of this book and the reviewers seem not to notice that the very senteces of the book are like a train-hopping experience. They speed up, they slow down, they go unpredictable places, they take you places where you hadn't expected to go; tracks meet and shift and so sentences go off in the opposite direction from the one in which they started and I wanted to talk to you about that style, because it is very different than the more naturalistic style of your recent work.

So, yes, Silverblatt is god, literary-interviewily speaking. This sort of question aesthetic could, given time, easily start coming off as simply more-in-depth-than-thou, but what stops things from reaching that unsavory point is the man's raw enthusiasm. In every interview, Silverblatt's unbridled love for literature and the reading of it, his unquenchable thirst for the sweet juices to be wrung from a novel's pages, shines through. Books are his passion, authors his friends. Were it any other way, could he have hosted the show for two decades straight?

It is thus with a heavy heart that your Podthinker announces that this interview style doesn't feel fully compatible with the stubby thirty-minute length. If ever a host was born for the long form, it's Silverblatt — and certainly the uncommonly intimate atmosphere of his show could sustain any runtime — but alas, to so many watch-tapping program directors out there, a mere half an hour is long form. Free Bookworm from its temporal chains; free it now.

Vital stats:
Format: literary interviews
Running since: 1989
Duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: ten weeks only, but all streamable

[Podthinker Colin Marshall receives e-mails at colinjmarshall at gmail, but opens only earnest ones. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

JJGo. Ep 87: The Desert Bluff

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Jesse and Jordan discuss the Darkish Teal Ribbon for Maximum Fun Awareness, the Townie, and much more.

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Scott McCloud on Understanding Comics at TED

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Recent TSOYA guest Scott McCloud tells the folks at TED about how to understand comics.

Purple Paisley

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Amazing rehearsal footage of the little guy from Minneapolis whose favorite color is purple and favorite profession is lawyer. More here.

Wyatt Cenac + Dolores Park = I'm there.

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MaxFunPal (and now Daily Show correspondent) Wyatt Cenac stars in this film, "Medicine for Melancholy," about which I'm really excited. IFC Films is giving it a small theatrical run, and running it on demand. You can check out more information here at the production company's website.

Overheard on MUNI

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The head of the theater department at my high school, School of the Arts in San Francisco, asked me to come visit the department the afternoon of the live show we taped in San Francisco this week. Someone who was at the live show just emailed me this conversation she overheard on the bus the next week between two stoney-looking teenage boys.

Guy 1: Hey you remember that guy that came into our theater class last week? The one with the radio show?
Guy 2: Oh yeah...
[I pause ipod to hear better]
Guy 1: I went up to him afterwards and his eyes were hella bloodshot!
[laughter]
Gau 1: He must smoke so much and then just keep talking forever!
Guy 2: Dude, he interviewed Patton Oswalt.. that guy smokes a lot...

Nah, I was just tired. Live shows are hard.

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