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‘Improv helped me learn to reduce an idea to its essentialness.’
Filmmaker Andrew DeYoung was just chilling on the Internet one day, when Kate Berlant’s “Lampshade Susan” video popped up on his Facebook feed. After being stunned by her brilliance and hilarity, he decided that he had to seek out more of her. So he did what any 21st-century millennial would: He jumped on Twitter and liked a bunch of her tweets.
The two ended up connecting a few months later, and together with fellow comedian John Early they shot the “Santa Monica” video. It would be the first of many collaborations with Berlant and Early—who both star in the new Netflix show The Characters—but he also recently directed and edited Sarah Silverman’s Bernie Sanders video, was behind the viral “Breasts” video with actress Amanda Lund, and has done a variety of videos with comedian/actress Maria Blasucci. The filmmaker began his creative pursuits by doing improv, learning how to let the funny happen naturally.
“I took classes at iO West,” DeYoung explained. “I was on three Harold teams there. I was at the theater for six or seven years, but I just stopped because it does take up a lot of time.” Through classes at iO, he ended up meeting a lot of great people who he describes as “completely underused,” and so he began working with them together on projects.
Anyone who has taken improv classes knows how consuming it truly is. Learning the art of improv can be boiled down to a few major tenets: be in the now, react emotionally, say yes, make your partner look good, and don’t think. Unlike in our regular lives, when we have to be strategic about when to respond emotionally, and to whom, in improv we are encouraged to always respond from a place of emotional vulnerability and honesty. No one laughs when a player is thinking hard about their response, or when it’s clear that someone is playwriting a scene rather than letting it unfold on stage. DeYoung’s improv skills followed him into his career as a filmmaker, working with actors and comedians who similarly have a firm grasp on the art of improv.
While taking classes, DeYoung was also working an editing job for a television company that aired Marie Osmond’s talk show and Bristol Palin’s reality show—a place where, as he explains, “everything airs in 1989.” He worked from midnight to 7am, so after work he’d come home, sleep, and then get to work on his own comedy videos.
“It would just be me chipping away at my own stuff,” DeYoung said. “I had no support or representation or anything like that. I would just work with people who were in the same boat, making things we liked.”
That spirit drives DeYoung’s attitude toward creativity, comedy, and play. His work first got visibility in the comedy world with the 2010 video “Breasts,” which was picked up by Funny Or Die. In the clip, Dr. Amanda Lund spoofs feminist videos about “unlocking your potential,” not through a specific type of self-empowerment or “female energy,” but by checking in with your breasts and really “connecting” with them. Pushed along by a new age, lo-fi vibe that echoes public access TV, Dr. Lund reveals that this method of breast-checking is “more scientific and more better,” a line that stands clearly on its own and must have been improvised in the moment. These were the sorts of projects DeYoung worked on in the early days.
“It was a nice, experimental time where I had no real pressures,” he said. “I had money coming in and I got to make things at my own pace and explore.”
A 2014 video, “Ohio,” charts the epic tale of a girl named Barbara (Maria Blasucci) who comes to visit Los Angeles from Ohio and realizes that she wants to stay and “work behind the camera,” even though she has a “look” that could put her in front of the camera. The video is mostly shots of her wandering into public spaces filled with people, and striking up conversations in an attempt to either connect or feel less alone, or both. The comedic moments happen when she’s honestly trying to talk with someone in the most painfully awkward ways. The video takes an unexpected yet refreshing turn when she meets a certain gentleman.
DeYoung’s interest in film and video began through his experience as a teenager in the straight-edge, hardcore music scene in Fresno, California, where he grew up.
“It was important at the time to draw a line in the sand during those early years,” he said. “To say: ‘I’m not this person, and I’m not going to expose myself to this, quote, poison.’ It opened my experience to like-minded, socially conscious, very kind people even though the music was extreme.”
He came up in that scene, and moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to do the film program at California State University, Northridge. While there, he started doing music videos for hardcore bands, some of which aired on MTV2. He did that for a few years before leaving the scene completely to shift his focus toward comedy.
DeYoung started working with Berlant and Early two years ago. Their first project was the comedic video “Santa Monica,” which begins with Berlant and Early at the Santa Monica farmer’s market, slowly noticing that they are the only people there with large, tribal face tattoos—clearly they are of the same “tribe.” It’s love at first tattoo-sighting, and the video continues through the beginning and end of their relationship, which is increasingly complicated by their outsider tribal status.
DeYoung, Early, and Berlant have since worked on other videos such as “Dinner Party,” a spoof on the nature of the dinner party and the confessions people make when hosting and thanking their friends. In the video, tension builds as certain understandings about the dinner party’s social etiquette are called into question.
Similarly, in “Shopping,” the viewer gets that there’s something going on with the woman (Berlant) who is constantly wandering the aisles at Costco and other grocery stories, chatting up the manager, employees, and customers. She’s just obsessed with the store, a place not unlike the mall, which offers a false sense of community through consumerism. The video is so covertly shot that it almost feels like the viewer is meant to be a voyeur of this consumer reality.
“Everything is technically illegal, but I just put a camera on top of various goods and pretended like I was shopping and found the frame,” DeYoung said, “and Kate has a wireless mic on, and I told her to go in that general direction, and then I cut it together. We work on outlines, have beats that we want to hit. Sometimes we have exact lines that we want to get out there.”
DeYoung has a lot on his plate these days, including shooting the Vimeo series Trilogy (which includes Berlant) and writing a feature script for SuperDeluxe. In May, he’ll shoot a TV show for the reality/comedy network truTV. None of this could’ve happened without his improv training.
“Improv helped me learn to reduce an idea to its essentialness,” he said. “It’s so important for me to have those skills—the mechanics of why something is funny.”
Alicia Eler is the author of 'The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture.' She is the visual art critic at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Magazine, CNN, LA Weekly, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times.