Full disclosure: I do host a show over on Geek & Sundry called #parent — but I liked this show long before I became part of the G&S family. In fact, I know Josh and Will from my days as a writer on Attack of the Show! — they were two of our favorite actors to have in sketches; they’re both super talented, very versatile, and incredibly funny. If you haven’t checked out the show yet, you really should click take a look. If you have kids, or spend time with them, you are familiar with the twists and turns their stories can take, and I think this show is doing a genius job of capturing the feel of surrendering yourself, and going on an oratorical journey with a child.
The show up for several awards including TV.com’s Best of 2012, under the category Best New Fiction Web Series. They’re also up for an IAWTV Award for Best Visual Effects.
So here we go: My interview with Josh & Will:
Kristen Rutherford: Hi. You don’t have to be nervous or anything.
Josh Flaum: Can I pretend to be nervous? [Will], how are you feeling? I’m very nervous.
Will Bowles: Yeah?
JF: Yeah, I got the jitters. The stomachs.
KR: It’s me. I’m very imposing.
JF: You are! I’m nervous that you’re going to be overly harsh!
KR: Well, I’m here to get the real answers. Let’s talk about Written By A Kid! We at GeekMom & GeekDad love you guys. Geek Dad has been doing recaps of all your shows.
WB: And we love that.
KR: So, we thought for GeekMom, we’d do an interview! Let’s kick things off by asking: How long have you guys known each other?
JF: Since 1995 so I guess that’s…
WB: 17 years.
JF: 17 years!
KR: And you guys have written other stuff together right?
JF: Yeah. We’ve written screenplays, a lot of sketch. We started out doing improv, founded a sketch troupe, and wrote for a couple of years there, then ultimately wrote for a sketch show with Damon Wayans – so lots and lots of sketch.
WB: And we’re finishing our second screenplay now. It’s a post-apocalyptic comedy, which has been a lot of fun.
KR: Is that depressing? Do you have to send yourself to a dark place first and then find the funny in it?
WB: No, only because we watched so many bad B-movies of that genre – and they’re so ridiculous that we’re kind of going in that direction.
JF: Yeah, we decided to go with over the top humor rather than find the humor …
JF: It’s like a Coen’s brother version of The Road!
KR: So, how did Written By A Kid come about? This is where we get into the legal ramifications of whose idea was this!
WB: I just need to get my lawyer on speakerphone! No – we had an idea that we were kicking around a long time ago that was a sketch idea. It was like one among many ideas that we were brainstorming. Initially the idea was to take a kid on the street, use the interview, and turn it into a short sketch. And when it came time to pitch, we retooled this idea. Though, initially, we pitched it as a writer’s room full of kids.
JF: Like, 12 kids in a writer’s room with a writer’s assistant and everything
WB: We realized that was going to be madness. So we hit on using one kid at a time – and also Kim [Evey] helped us to fashion that as well.
[Kim Evey is one of the producers over at Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry channel. She’s also the producer of The Guild among other things…]
KR: Kim’s a genius.
JF: Kim’s a genius, and she truly knows the medium. So she knew how to get it down to bare bones, and do it quickly, and get the results that we wanted.
KR: Tell me a little about the development process — how do you develop an idea like this?
JF: Well, we decided to do a test run with four kids only, and we used those 4 kids for the entire day. Generally, it went for about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. We just wanted to see how it worked, what questions we could ask a kid ages 4-9 that would make sense to them – that also wouldn’t make it seem like we were making fun of them. Most importantly we learned to avoid yes or no questions. That evolved into a sort of what-happens-next approach, which works the best by far.
WB: Dan Strange, our supervising producer, was there that day, and watching to see if he wanted to go further with the idea. And I think after we got a couple of stories, he was like, “Oh! I see what we’re trying to do here!” We all were like, okay, this will work! But it took us sitting there and talking to the children for a while to see if we were going to get an actual story that was coherent enough.
KR: I watch Written By A Kid, and I think of my daughter, who tells these amazing stories. She’s three, and I’ve gotten her on tape – on tape? I’m old. But it’s like giving birth to Michigan J. Frog – if I bring her into a room and say, “Tell that story!” She just stands there and stares. And I’m like, “No, really, she just was telling this story, and it was… you know what… I’m just gonna go.”
JF: This is why we have the kids make up the stories on the spot – because we found that if they come in with the story, it’s a little stilting, and also we didn’t get the results we wanted. Whereas, if they make up a story on the spot, it’s volcanic – kids are volcanic, the stuff just pops out of them.
KR: What about the kids that are shy? Have you ever gotten a kid that just shuts down? What do you do in that situation?
WB: I was just thinking about this today, actually. I think part of what we realized we were doing over time was creating a platform for them to be able to relax. So we definitely had kids that came in, and were shy. And what we had to do initially was say, “Hey, don’t worry about all these cameras and all these people. We’re here to listen to you. This is your story, so you just relax and tell us whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong.” So there was some time spent initially doing that. And then once the kid got into the story and saw our reactions, I think that was a big part of it, that we were really responding and like go! Go! Go! Go! Then they opened up more. We definitely had kids that started out a little shy but then they would see our reactions and then be like, “Yeah… he had a… banana boat!”
KR: Then they feel like, “Okay! You’re okay with all these things!”
JF: Yeah! I think I can tell this without giving anything away, but there was one really adorable, slightly shy child. He just wasn’t sure. He wanted to tell a story about a pirate. We listened to him, and he started telling a story about Jack Sparrow. And we said, “We don’t have that character, it’s not licensed through us, but we’d love to hear a story about your pirate. What does your pirate look like?” He looked at us like he was bored, then he looked around the room and said, “He’s made of chairs.” And we said, “That’s awesome!” And he couldn’t believe it – he looked at us like, “I can say this?” And we were like, “Yeah! Yeah! What else?” And he says, “He’s made of chairs, he’s got a doorknob on his ankle, he’s got a button on his temple that when he presses it activates his spy-vision…” and that led to an assembly of horrors on his pirate ship with all of his shipmates being made of stuff. By the end of it, you’ve got something completely original that’s never been seen before, and it’s all because we allowed him to be free. That’s the good stuff.
KR: I imagine that you can’t be thinking of the production side of it, you just have to let go. It’s somebody else’s job to figure out how they’re going to make a chair pirate with a doorknob ankle.
WB: Exactly, and also we have Dan on the outside too. So he’s sitting on the other side of the camera, and we can check in with him and say, “What else do we need? Do we need anything else to fill in details.” And we don’t try to insert that or force things – we just say to the kid, “can you tell us a little more about this or that.” So we don’t have to worry – we’ve got someone on the outside who can tell us go here, go there.
JF: And for me at least, the goal is not a truly coherent story. There aren’t those kinds of holes to fill, structural holes. It’s just whatever people might find interesting.
WB: Although, we did ask for endings.
JF: Yeah, yeah.
WB: So there were things we were looking for…
KR: …you just have to guide them a little bit.
JF: No you did that wrong!
WB: What do you mean “made of chairs” — how could a pirate be “made of chairs!?”
KR: Ridiculous! That’s so stupid.
WB: It’s so dumb.
JF: Okay. He’s a pirate. No, go on.
KR: So, now you have the story. And, well, everyone was blown away by the first episode with Joss Whedon and Kate Micucci.
WB: And Dave Foley.
KR: Oh! That’s right! So, how did that first episode come about? How did you choose, or how are you reaching out to people? Or do you have people coming to you? Let’s talk a little about the production side.
JF: Well, that was our first episode, and we thought it was best to go to our supervising producer, who was generating the overall look of the show. We all thought it would be best – he came out of the gate with his episode. Because it’s his baby too. And we knew that we were going to be premiering at [San Diego] Comic-Con, so we wanted to come out of the gate strong. And I’m assuming that Felicia Day pulled in favors.
KR: So, you’re saying that Felicia Day manipulates media for her own advantages. That she’s nefarious.
JF: Very nefarious.
WB: She’s a transmedia manipulator, I think
JF: She’s a web puppeteer.
KR: A wily web puppeteer!
WB: We were trying to get different people for that episode. When we were initially talking about “Scary Smash” I always picture this now – we talked briefly about Chuck Norris, and we were like, we’re not going to be able to get Chuck Norris in there. And of course, he didn’t return our inquiry, but I still picture him. But that wouldn’t have had the bang that Joss did. Especially for Comic-Con.
JF: And for the first episode.
WB: I think it was great that he was on there, and that he embraced it. He really did embrace the fun of it.
JF: He did an amazing job. He knew what the show was, so it was great to see him play along.
KR: Well, it’s such a great idea. I mean, you don’t have to have kids to enjoy it. I remember when Felicia announced it on Attack of the Show!, thinking what a great idea it was, and frankly, being a little angry that I hadn’t thought of it first. After this episode, did the calls come in? Did you have people saying, “I really want to do this,” or are you still reaching out?
WB: We’re still reaching out – but I think that initially it was hard to get people to understand right off the bat that we were taking the kids story without changing it. Like even on the episode of Fire City, Aaron [Douglas] at a certain point was like, “ohhhhhh I get it!” He thought the whole time it was just this weird script. He was like, “I didn’t want to say anything, but the script was a little…out there.” And I think it was like that for a lot of people we talked to, initially. We were trying to explain the show, and it took us a while to get to a place where we could really do it justice. I think now we’re getting more interest, but early on, I don’t think people got it.
KR: That seems really strange to me, because I think of it as “Written. By. A kid.” I can’t distill this information any further for you.
JF: I think it’s because people automatically assume a kid couldn’t possibly do it.
JF: We put the trailer out months and months before the show actually came out. And we did get a lot of comments saying, “Kids can’t do this stuff!” We had one that was a teacher! They said, “I’m a teacher, and I know for a fact that this show is going to be a disaster.”
WB: Kids have tiny brains.
KR: They’re like hamsters.
JF: Yes, knowledge actually inflates their brains over time to the point where they can work. So I really do think that that’s a factor.
KR: It makes sense.
JF: I worked at Disneyland for a long time, and you get to see how kids work. Exposure to so many children in one spot, it was easy for me to see, well, half the time their parents aren’t listening to them. If you listen to them, they’re just little people that have not yet learned the ability, number one, to put everything together completely cogently, and, number two, to edit themselves. That’s the beauty of their storytelling.
KR: When my daughter was a baby, I used to say that everything she’s getting is raw feed. She has no inner monologue to distract her. And I learned very quickly, a: not to underestimate her, and b: she’s always right. If she says there’s a flag, I don’t ever say, “no there isn’t.” Because there’s a flag somewhere, I just haven’t seen it.
WB: Because of the noise.
KR: Yes. I’m thinking about my grocery list. Will there be episodes in the new year?
WB: We have a Valentines Day episode, which is really exciting.
JF: It’s one of my favorites. That one is a very exciting bit of work.
KR: I didn’t ask you the most obvious question! Where do you get the kids from?
JF: (points at Will)
KR: You just pointed at Will like they’re all his.
WB: I get them.
KR: Like the guy in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
JF: He’s like the pied piper, with a tiny golden piccolo.
WB: I go down to Long Beach and just kind of skip and play. Initially, the kids were kids of friends, and then we had auditions, so it was a mix. It ended up being half and half. So many great kids! We got a lot of kids in the auditions that were quite polished and it wasn’t quite right. It was a strange audition because we were just looking for kids that could go with us and play. Because it’s really just an improv game.
KR: It’s, “Yes, and?”
WB: Exactly. So some of these kids wanted to do things “correctly.” They were concerned with getting things right.
JF: We ended up looking for kids that were really engaging, playing the game, essentially. It helped that we reinforced their stories by enjoying them – not trying to guide them in ways that would alter what they were saying. We just let them go, and those were the kids that responded best I think.
JF: That’s what I love about the spectrum of shows that we have, everybody’s got a favorite and the favorite always surprises me. My favorite is Emily’s “La Munkya.” You can see it in the interview, I’m laughing until I’m crying. Tears are flowing down my face.
WB: I think my favorite is “Kendall the Knight” because it’s so crazy and it captures that little boy energy so perfectly. It just makes me laugh so hard every time I watch it.
KR: One of my favorite moments in the Louis CK series is when he describes the joke his daughter told him “Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?” And he says something like “I already love this joke” – the point being that he has no idea where it’s going to go, and that’s one of the things that’s so delightful about having kids – they just say things, and you have no idea where it came from or where it’s going.
WB: That’s exactly it, this is why we got excited about the show in the first place. We were like, if you could somehow transfer that onto film so people could see it and feel it in their brains! Ultimately, that was the goal, and I feel like we were able to achieve it to a certain extent, we were able to create a space for the kids to do that and capture it. It’s those times when you listen to a kid and you say, “What are you saying?! What are you talking about?!”
KR: In parenting, I feel like there’s a lot of, “Where did that come from?” moments.
JF: Kids are amazing. Kids are the least predictable humans in the world.
KR: Delightfully so.
KR: Thanks for taking the time to chat, you guys.
Here’s Episode One: “Scary Smash”